One could forgive Keaton Simons if he chose to be a cynic. Like so many others in the music industry, Simons’ career has been marked by a series of starts and stops that makes many throw up their arms, pawn their guitars and look for a more reliable gig. But Simons has persevered, through a record label dissolution, working as a musical director, and even playing in movies.
In 2008, the singer/songwriter/guitarist finally got his chance, signing on with CBS Records, and releasing his long-overdue, full-length album Can You Hear Me Now, a record of surprising optimism and one that grooves from start to finish. I recently spoke with Simons about musical influences, Can You Hear Me, touring and much more.
I’ve been reading up about your background and know you had some formal music training in school, but I’m wondering if there were any specific artists or albums that really made you want to write songs in the first place.
There are tons. I’m a huge Beatles nut, and that’s a big part of it for me. But as far as giving me inspiration to write songs, definitely The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell. Ya know, writers and artists like that. But I’ve listened and studied music from all over the world. And I’m also a huge blues fan. So, ya know, early blues like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf , and Ray Charles and all those guys and stuff. As far as writing, I’m such a Beatles, Joni guy.
What particularly about Joni do you like? What appeals to you about her?
Well, my favorite Joni Mitchell album is called Blue. And it’s just kind of the honesty of those songs, the words are so brilliant. And it has a kind of deceptive complexity and that’s one thing that really really intrigues me. That I love – things that kind of seem simpler than they are.
Great writer for sure.
Oh my God, unbelievable.
Good guitar player and no rules with the songs and construction and anything like that.
And piano, guitar, and honestly her musical…her technical musical abilities and just her ear and her sophistication of it has always been a cut above everybody.
Are you familiar with the album…I think it was right after Blue, called For The Roses? That’s my favorite of hers.
Yeah, of course. That and Court And Spark. Yeah I love For The Roses, too. I love it. But, Blue’s got “All I Want” on it, and “River” and all that stuff….and “Carey”…..”California.”
Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned early blues and I guess one of the things that strikes me about your singing is your phrasing – to me it has an R & B quality. I’m wondering how that developed.
You know, it’s really just from listening to stuff. I think even when I was growing up and listening to The Beatles and loving them so much. Cause my parents turned me on to all this stuff, ya know, it was in the house and in the car. We were always singin’ it and stuff. But even that stuff, they were hugely influenced by blues music and early R&B and stuff. I’ve always loved Ray Charles, and Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke; I’ve always loved Sam Cooke. So, honestly I think it’s kind of an innate thing that’s happened just from growing up and listening to the music that I’ve listened to. I never went through a… like a big Whitesnake or G’NR phase when I was growing up. For me, when most of my friends were into that stuff I was listening to hip hop. Not that I don’t love that stuff now. But at the time, I was totally not into it. It was always about the kind of funky soulful stuff for me. And phrasing was always so important. With hip hop that’s huge, ya know, because there’s a lot of forgoing of melody for rhythm.
K: And so, phrasing was so important. And then I remember early in my career I did mostly like hip hop and R & B and funk and stuff. And I ended up…I was musical director and played guitar with Tre Hardson from Pharcyde and members Black Eyed Peas and eventually Snoop Dogg and stuff like that. I was working on this track with this legendary hip hop artist named Brother J from X Clan. And you might remember… “To the east my brother, to the east my brother, to the east.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that one. But, Brother J and I were doing this thing together and his subtlety of feel and his phrasing was so advanced and sophisticated and I was like “wow.” Because at that time I had been studying world music and studying like West African music. And understanding and learning and more just observing how incredibly subtle and minute the little subtleties are of feel. Ya know, you place one beat a tiny fraction of a beat off and they’re like “ no no no, that’s wrong.” It’s like…”OK.” Most people it’s indistinguishable but to them it makes all the difference in the world. And Brother J, just through the experience of doing his whole life, he had that ability for his art, and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is something.”
So, for you it’s not enough just to have a chord progression and the lyrics and the melody, you actually have to sort of work internally within that to get the phrasing correct.
Yeah, but ya know, it’s funny because I don’t force any of it really. That for me… is one of the reasons I do that is because I really don’t like to pigeon hole myself because of genre. I like to be kind of be free in the songs I write, the type of songs and the content and all that kind of stuff. And then allow it to just all be me. Ya know, so just let my natural melodic sensibilities and my natural phrasing sensibilities to come out.
And then you also have to have the technical skills on the guitar to bring out those ideas and one of the things that struck me is that you seem pretty versatile as a guitarist. You have a wide range of moods and styles on this record. How you would describe your guitar playing?
I’m very much a guitar player, and that’s kind of what I did professionally before I started writing songs. I was young, too. Ya know, I started writing songs when I was like 19 or 20. But I started playing professionally before that. And before I even put my own project together I was a guitar player, and a bass player, and a musical director for a lot of different people. And guitar…I feel like it’s kind of an extension of my body, ya know?
I found a real comfort in that instrument. I play a lot of instruments and always have since I was a little kid, but there’s never been anything like the guitar for me. It really is another voice for me, ya know?
Sure. One of the things I like is your solo on “Currently,” it’s got a real jazzy feel. Do you go into that thinking like…Wes Montgomery or George Benson?
Sure. Honestly, the way that I use all of my study and influence is kind of just to study and observe and intensely immerse myself in all of it, and when it comes time to kind of create or perform then I just let it all come out however it comes out. So, certainly in the context of a song like that just because of the chord structure and the vibe it will end up sounding a bit more Wes Montgomery, Link Chamberlain type thing, ya know? But, I’m not thinking that specifically, ya know? I’m just thinking specifically, “what do I want to say over this”? Then the thing is…it’s just like having a conversation, ya know, a conversation about one thing and you’ll go in a certain direction. You know you wouldn’t necessarily scream a conversation to someone in a library.
Not for long.
Not for long, they’ll kick you out.
Yeah. You’ve got a really nice guitar sound on “Burch Mog.”
The guitar solo kind of reminds me of some stuff that Stephen Stills used to do. There’s some surprising lines in there, I don’t know if you’re playing some double stops or whatever, but it’s a really cool piece, yeah a really cool good solo.
Dude, thank you so much for noticing that one because that’s my favorite solo on that record for sure.
Well, that song. People always ask me, “What does it mean? Burch Mog?” Yeah, it’s just a nickname I’ve always had for my sister, her name’s Morgan. And so I called her Burch Mog. She was like the inspiration for when I wrote that song. I wrote that a long time ago. That to me was a perfect example of what I wanted for this record. Just for it to be like completely… at least have those moments of purely organic….like that song, to me, sounds so full, but it’s literally just one acoustic guitar, one drummer, one baser, and one vocal, that’s it. And then the solo’s…it’s happening…I’m playing it live, so there’s no chordal accompaniment at all happening over that solo or anything. It’s just like, me playing a solo on a acoustic guitar, with an acoustic trio, ya know?
Yeah. I’m assuming you’re playing with a pick?
Yeah, you can hear it.
Yeah, at the end it was kind of like a raking almost.
Are you playing the Gibson 200 on that?
That solo is actually on…I usually play a 200, but I didn’t play it really on this record because the producer I worked with, David Bianco, had some guitars that were just unbelievable. He had an old like ’40s Epiphone, and that one was just like, “Whoa.” For certain tunes…tunes that are like real percussion, acoustic sounding, it was just unbelievable. And then on every guitar that I used for like a lot of other like more full acoustic sounds, like on “Without Your Skin” is on a Fylde. It’s a British Company, hand made guitar, so amazing.
Yeah, sounds like it. We talked about Joni earlier…do you do anything in open tunings or are you pretty much in standard just capoing to different keys?
Well, I really rarely use a capo. I’m usually in standard and I really rarely use a capo. There’s only one song that I’ve ever written where I use a capo consistently and that’s “Without Your Skin.” On the record I didn’t even use a capo for it – I just tuned the guitar up a whole step.
But I’ve been starting to mess with open tunings a little bit. I’ve never written a full song in open tunings, but if I tune a guitar open I can sit there and just play and like mess around like all day. And I’ve started a few songs in open tuning and I just absolutely love them. It’s all a matter of whether or not it serves a purpose. That’s the thing about Joni’s stuff. All that stuff is just…she had a sound in her mind and the guitar had to be tuned that way in order to make it sound like that. You try to play it any other way and you can’t.
I know a lot of people who kind of…they tune their guitars all weird because they think it’s cool and then they will try to teach me and they’re like “oh, it’s in this really weird tune, blah, blah, blah.” And I’m like “OK, I’ll check it out.” And then nine times out of 10 I’m like “ya know, that would be much easier to play and be that much better if you just didn’t tune it to that weird tune. Ya know, if you just left it standard and kept it like it is.” They basically take this really weird shape and all that they’re really doing is like recreating an open G-chord.
Where you have to stretch across seven frets or something to play it.
“Without Your Skin” I think is one of the strongest songs on here. Any story behind that one? How did it develop? When did you start writing it? Ya know, all that good stuff…
Well, originally…well, I wrote it all in one afternoon. Ya know, just alone at my house. I’ve been tripping out a lot, for years now, on just this amazing duality that we see in our world of this simultaneous like just complete distinction, individuality, ya know, autonomy. And also, this inseparable completely interwoven connection between all people and all things. And it’s so funny, because both of those things seem to exist at the same time. But, you have to reconcile which one….applies to which situation, ya know? You’re talking about like…you can feel as connected as you possibly can to somebody but that doesn’t mean that you are inside of their body or that they are inside of yours or whatever. So, it’s that kind of that idea, where does one’s person end and another begin?
And so, ya know, it’s that way, from like a romantic perspective but it’s also that way from like, ya know the perspective from like…ya know there’s a line in there where I kind of talk about being caught in a unique place that a lot of performers can understand. From being on stage between the crowd and the curtain, ya know?
K: And it’s that thing of being completely connected to all of those things at the same time but also being, ya know, alone.
“Nobody Knows” – your Beatle influences are coming through to me in that song for sure.
Oh cool. Thanks.
I think they’d call that power-pop if you wrote it in 1975.
Totally. Yeah. Nice.
I like that kind of real chunky guitar ripping in there, too.
And actually I guess it’s just more of the sequencing in this album. Did you have to sort of ponder over the way you were going to arrange these tracks from 1 to 11?
Absolutely. There was a lot of stuff that went into that.
What’s your process for that?
Honestly, it all comes down to just visceral feel. And I really try to get other people’s input on it too. And so there’s a lot of input from my management, from the label, and stuff like that. Just because I want to know how it feels to other people. Sometimes I’m so close to it, it’s very hard for me to have perspective. But, honestly, it feels like an instance where something will make sense chronologically before or after something else then I’ll definitely see if I can make that work. But most of the time it’s just about the feeling that takes you from one to the next.
Most musicians say that when the sequence is final – ya know, when they land on it – they couldn’t imagine it any other way. Do you feel that way?
Yeah, absolutely. And I know that it’s true with the records that I’ve listened to a lot more than I’ve listened to my own. Ya know, like if I’m listening to Abbey Road, I know exactly what comes next. And I know exactly what key it’s in and I know exactly…ya know what I mean? I remember that from my whole life of records that I grew up on, even ones that I haven’t heard…the thing of like the one song ends…the beginning of the next song is the part of the end of the previous song. That’s the thing. You know it’s funny. I think people would get used to it no matter what. I think it’s very important and once you’ve decided on it that’s straight. Until you’ve gotten used to it then you are totally like…that’s the time to be making the decision. I’d be very surprised to hear somebody go, “God, I wish this song came next.”
You use four drummers on this record. Why so many?
Well, it really had a lot to do with availability. And also, I know a lot of musicians and I really wanted to make use of that. I’ve got some unbelievably talented friends and I wanted to get them all involved. Whoever was available I would say, “come on down and do something.” I’ve got some amazingly talented friends of mine like singing some backgrounds and stuff on this record too. Um, Tony Lucca, Ernie Halter, Jim Bianco, to name a few. It was pretty cool. I don’t know. I had my friend Deantoni Parks play most of the drums on the record. And Michael Jerome, who is kind of the main drummer I use, is just so brilliant and did an amazing job on those tunes. And then I was kind of in a tough stop, I needed to get a drummer in for that day, and the head A&R at CBS Records, a guy named Tom Polce, and he’s an unbelievable producer and musician. Just like a ridiculous musician. Which is very rare for A&R, ya know? Usually those guys are kind of frustrated musicians and wished they had made it. But they can pick up a guitar and kind of hack through something. Tom is one of the best musicians I’ve ever known in my life. Technically, and just kind of vibe and feel, sensibility wise. And his main act is drums. And so he went in there and nailed it. He played drums on “Burch Mog” and on “Nobody Knows.” And “Good Things Get Better” – he also produced with me and played bass on that, too.
Yeah. And I wanted…I play a lot of different instruments but I really really wanted to focus on just playing guitar and singing. And I didn’t even really want to do backgrounds. I wanted other people to sing background vocals on this record too because I wanted it to really have that alive, big, colorful sound. I also wanted…ya know, I didn’t want to make a live album but I wanted to follow the model of early records that I love where you didn’t have like a million over webs. You just had one great sounding guitar. Ya know? You didn’t have ten guitar tracks layered to make it sound like something.
That seems to sort of be a trend again.
Oh yeah. And rightfully so. I think it makes perfect sense. It gets old, all that over the top stuff. It’s fun for a minute, but then it gets old. You know what doesn’t get old? The real thing.
That never gets old.
That’s true. One other song I was going to ask you about is “To Me” which might be my favorite on the whole record. What can you tell me about that one?
Well, that was about a really bad relationship that I had with someone. We just had like absolutely no trust. We completely…neither one of us trusted the other one at all so the whole thing was bad. Unhealthy dependency – for years and years and years she and I were completely like together without being together. And we never committed because we both knew each other so well that we were like, “well, I would never.” We just couldn’t stay away from each other but we were not about to suspend our disbelief like that, ya know? But then at a certain point we just decided, we gotta see…we gotta do this or….we can’t just keep on the rest of our lives like this…we gotta just either see what it is or nothing, ya know? Thankfully, we both made it out alive.
Yeah. Well, it’s a great song.
Thank you so much.
How does the musical world look for you in 2009? It’s a tough field out there for sure.
It is, but ya know…I’m in a great place right now. Things are really moving and kind of on the up and up. And a big part of it is because I’m signed to a great label that’s very supportive that kind of works for me and because I’m on the road all the time. And that’s what I want, ya know? Of all the big stuff that I’ve done throughout my career, still the one thing that consistently does the job and feels the best is consistent touring.
And you’re pretty much going right across the country.
Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. I’m so excited because I’m about to embark on a great long tour with some really great artists who are good friends of mine too. And last night was like the third show of the tour…they’ve all been local for me. I live in Los Angeles and that’s where I was born and raised. The first one was in San Diego, the second on was in Santa Barbara, and the third one, last night was in Anaheim. And it was just like…it was almost sold out.
It was unbelievable. It was so much fun. If that’s any mark…all the shows have been amazing, so I’m really excited.
Will you have a band with you for all the gigs?
No, actually, I’m solo acoustic for most of it. But, a couple of the shows, I got a friend of mine in radio who is a beat boxer. And he toured with Michael Franti and Spearhead for a long time. And that’s how I first met him actually. And he was with me last night, and it was so cool, it’s just me on the acoustic guitar and singing and him beat boxing. It’s really really cool. We’ve only played a few times and it’s just like, every time we do it, it just gets better and better and better. Cause we never like, practiced it or anything so it’s really spontaneous and we get to learn what we want to do on stage and it’s very cool.
Yeah. What’s your traveling situation like? Are you driving?
Yeah, I’m in my car. I’ve got a hybrid SUV and so that makes things so great as far as helping save money on gas and also the environment. It’s a harder world than it once was. It’s a lot harder to afford to take a bus or whatever, especially when it’s not necessary. And there’s so many people I know who would otherwise be touring that way aren’t.
Do you ever wish you could have been around back in the ’70s when music was such a bigger part of everybody’s lives?
Oh, God yeah. I try my best not to dwell on anything like that. I try to keep a foothold in reality, but oh yeah. Especially for me, don’t you think? If I was around doing what I do in what feels like for me in like the late ’60s. It would just be ridiculous. Especially with the guitar playing and stuff, I think about that stuff all the time, the way the guitar players were revered. And that’s totally my style. That’s my vibe, that’s my shit.
Well, obviously you can’t go back in time. Where you would like to go with your music in the future?
Just wherever it takes me. I kind of use music as my guide a little bit. I will always leave my eyes and my ears and my mind open and let the world kind of filter through me and come out through my music. And I’m very comfortable with that, ya know? I love…I do lots of different stuff with music and in certain ways with some of the more kind of cerebral stuff that I work on from time to time then I’ll really like put a focus on kind of doing something new and trying to change the face of music and stuff like that, but with just my kind of honest expression of music, I’m really not trying to reinvent the wheel. The uniqueness comes from just me being as unique as I can be.
And I think that a lot of people kind of kid themselves in thinking that they’re doing something completely different by picking up a guitar and singing a song. The thing is it’s not…the problem that people have is that they are thinking they are doing something different, but they’re not allowing their own voice to speak out. And actually, that is the true unique thing that we all have to offer. It’s just our true, unique self. So, if you don’t have your own voice, musically, then it doesn’t matter what kind of signature you play in or what chord changes or harmonic structures you choose. That doesn’t matter. All that stuff has already been done, you just might not have found it yet.