My Page: Simone Felice’s Tower of Song
The Felice Brothers co-founder rounds up Conor Oberst, Phoebe Bridgers, The Lumineers’ Wesley Schultz and his former family band for a new set of Amazon originals.
When Amazon Music Produced By series, where I would work with four different artists on four tracks, I had a basic idea who I wanted to collaborate with. But each one of these songs required a unique creative approach.
I had worked with The Lumineers on their last album, so working with Wesley Schultz again felt like a natural fit. We were both looking forward to the session. It had been a few years since we made Cleopatra and the fever to get back in the studio together had been building for all of us. Throughout August, we spitballed and threw around four or five different ideas for which song we should do. Should we try an original? An old, well-loved cover? A weird, obscure cover? We decided that instead of making a hard and fast plan, we should throw some paint at the wall and see what stuck.
The night before we were planning to record, we took a long ride through the mountains to see a friend’s band. We both DJed a bit in my car on the way and landed on “Bell Bottom Blues,” a song that had been haunting me all year. I remembered hearing it when I was a kid, some late- ‘70s flashback riding in my dad’s van with an ice cream cone and a contact high. But this past winter, deep in the inevitable Catskills cabin- fever, low-vitamin-D blues, I rediscovered it by accident while binging on Martin Scorsese and coming across his brilliant film George Harrison: Living in the Material World. I was shaken and moved by the story behind the scenes, how George’s close friend Eric Clapton fell in love with his wife Pattie Boyd, and all the drama, pain, music and emotion that followed. I was glad to learn this song was new to Wes and loved how much hearing it for the first time moved him. We pulled over and listened to it again, both of us spellbound.
When we got to the studio the next morning, I was surprised and moved when Wes said, “Let’s do ‘Bell Bottom Blues.’ I can’t get it out of my head.” I wholeheartedly agreed, without a second thought, and we dove right in with my man David Baron, scrambling to set up mics, find the right key and learn the piano chords. It was the kind of studio moment you hear people talk about and, hopefully, experience yourself a few times on the rocky journey of making records—pure spontaneity, inspiration, danger and teamwork. Needless to say, we forgot about all the other songs we had planned to try.
The approach with The Felice Brothers was very different. My brother Ian wrote this beautiful song a few years back about our mother—her strength, struggles and sacrifice. For one reason or another, it never ended up on an album, so this project presented a welcome opportunity to give this special cut, which had become a staple of the Brothers’ live shows, a proper life in the recorded realm. As luck would have it, Conor Oberst and Wes were in the Catskills the same week we planned to record “Patti”— everyone’s become friends over the years and we all revere Ian’s writing—so it felt like the natural thing to do was to ask them both to guest on the track. Growing up, we loved bands with several different unique lead singers: The Beatles, The Band, Beastie Boys, Traveling Wilburys (the first tape I ever owned), Wu- Tang Clan (a few ill cats spittin’ fire). This was a cool chance to try our own dirtbag homage to that tradition and praise the eternal mother.
Phoebe Bridgers had the idea to do “Powerful Man” by Alex G. I can’t take credit for that—I’m lucky that she turned me on to the song for the first time. I had never heard it before so I was coming to it without any baggage and, when I sat down to listen, I was immediately struck by the poetry and the hypnotic flow on the vocal phrasing. It reminded me, in a completely non-derivative way, of some of the best works by one of my all-time favorite artists, Elliott Smith, so I was all in. Then when we got into the studio together, I was absolutely blown away by Phoebe’s interpretation of the song. When we began recording, she performed the rare magic trick that many covers fail to achieve: She made it her own, as if she had recently written it in a moment of genuine inspiration, while still maintaining the essence of the original melody and meaning. It was a very special sleight of hand.
When Conor and I first began talking about what song we’d do together, he directed me toward a few obscure YouTube videos of him singing some unrecorded material live in various random countries and venues. These were rough fan videos, posted online in the heat of devotion, and I had a private little laugh to myself sitting in my workshop listening and watching my old friend singing because I know that, like most prolific geniuses, he had written these incredibly powerful songs, probably in a flash of inspiration, on the road or in some hotel and, without much pomp and circumstance, taught them quickly to his players (in this case my brother James on piano) and played them at a gig or three before moving on to new ideas. That’s Conor’s brilliance—always hunting for the Holy Grail, the key to the Tower of Song—that’s why he’s one of the best ever. I’m very proud that our recording of “LAX” will be the definitive studio version, haunted and inspired like the original YouTube video, but with Phoebe’s ghostly vocals and a bit of macabre orchestration.
Simone Felice’s installment in the Produced By series is now available only on Amazon Music.
This article originally appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.