Sometimes, it takes a brush with mortality to sharpen one’s focus. For Simone Felice, that came in the form of emergency heart surgery in 2010 to correct a life-threating congenital defect. The experience was enough to compel the musician to (amicably) part ways with his siblings in the acclaimed Hudson Valley folk-rock act, the Felice Brothers, and strike out on his own. Four years later, he’s crafted a minor masterpiece with Strangers (Dualtone), his second solo CD, which features guest appearances from members of the Lumineers as well as his former band. Just back from chopping wood to heat the home at the base of the Catskills that he shares with wife Jessie Lee and their three-year-old daughter, Pearl, Felice, 37, offers a transparent account of the events that transpired to alter his perspective on life.
So where’s home?
I live about a mile away from where I was born, up in Catskill Park in a little hamlet called Palenville; my brother, Ian, and I grew up there. The house I was born in was left over from a colony set up by Asher Brown Durand of the Hudson River School of painters. It was my godfather’s house; he was an itinerant Filipino truck driver from Brooklyn. My family’s been here since the 1850s.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel all around the world with my music, and I’m gone a lot of the time. Every night I’m in a different city, sometimes magical cities; sometimes dark, weird cities. But once I’m home, and I hit the New Paltz area and the mountains start to rise, it always fills my heart with happiness.
Did you have a pretty idyllic childhood?
“Idyllic” in the sense that we got to run around in the forest and jump in the creek in the summertime. It was quite hard because we were pretty poor, and we didn’t have much in the way of physical possessions. But we had a lot of love. My dad was a carpenter, and my mom was a survivor and a really magical lady. She raised three of seven kids on her own after my dad left. My dad’s an awesome guy, too. He just had to split, like dads often do.
Are you close to your parents?
One-hundred percent. They’re my good friends; I feel fortunate to have both of them. Love has a will of its own. There’s no rule book for how things turn out. It’s been a lifetime of learning.
While your last album (2012’s Simone Felice) feels more like a collection of sketches, Strangers is far more focused. Did you sense that as you were making it?
As writers and producers, we’re slaves to the song. A lot of times, musicians get their masturbation out in the studio; I’ve always tried to shy away from that. There shouldn’t be one thing wasted.
I was really lucky to have the support of a few great collaborators. My friend, David Baron, is a great keyboardist, string arranger, producer, and engineer. His father was actually an engineer who worked with the Band and other great acts of the ’70s. A lot of the music comes from him and me putting our heads together; he really encouraged me to play drums on this album. We brought in another Woodstock treasure, Zack Alford (David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen), to play drums on a few tracks, including “Molly-O!”
“Molly-O!” is easily the catchiest thing you’ve done so far. Talk about a great way to start an album!
I’ve always been drawn to losers. I grew up with a lot of them, and I’m proud to say that I’ve been one of them. There’s this character called Molly-O in The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren. He was pre-Beat; he inspired guys like Jack Kerouac. The book is about these heroin addicts in Chicago — these “no-accounts,” as people would say back then. Molly-O was this tragic angel. A very sad, very beautiful character, she’s been in my heart for a long time, and I finally found the melody and inspiration to breathe life into her.
You also take a significant leap with your singing on this album.
Developing my voice has been a lifelong ordeal for me. It’s something I’ve always had to toil over, whereas the poetry always came pretty naturally to me.
There’s been the Jim Croce comparison, and my wife thinks you sound a little like Neil Diamond at times.
[Laughs] Awesome! As for Jim Croce, what a special singer.
How’s your health these days?
Thanks for asking. I feel better than I have in many, many years. After I get off the phone with you, I’m going for my annual heart checkup in Albany. My doctor’s a sweet dude; he saved my life. I feel blessed to be here on planet Earth.
Was the surgery always an inevitability?
I was on tour in Italy, and I fainted going up a flight of stairs. I flew home the next day, and they rushed me to Albany Medical Center, where they said, “There’s no medical explanation why you’re still alive; you need emergency heart surgery tomorrow.” So I asked them to give me two days to say goodbye to my family and friends in case I didn’t make it out. It was a complete surprise, and I think it’s better that way. I’m glad I didn’t know all those years that my heart was failing, because it would’ve bummed me out.
What did they do to correct it?
It was a calcification of an aortic valve. It had gotten to the point where I was only getting about 10 percent of my blood flow. They had to put a mechanical valve in there. On the new album’s quieter songs — like “The Best That Money Can Buy” — you can hear my valve tick on and off. We couldn’t dampen the sound.
It must have been a real wake-up call.
Not a day goes by when I don’t wake up sort of kissing the ground, and also with the knowledge that flesh is frail. We could be at the top of our game, and we could disappear. That realization helps me with my work, definitely.
Through These Rein and Gone, 2006
The Felice Brothers, 2008
Yonder is the Clock, 2009
The Duke and The King
Nothing Gold Can Stay, 2009
Long Live the Duke and the King, 2010
Simone Felice, 2012