For his second solo album, Simone Felice adopted Strangers not only as a title, but as a point of reference for the 10 songs it contains.
There is a certain irony in that practice, because one of the many sub-themes that fall under the title banner is identity. For Felice, that's an important and personal issue. After introducing himself as one of the Catskill Mountain-bred Felice Brothers, he parted amicably to begin a more folk-directed solo project called The Duke and the King. Now, he is two albums into a career that places his music under his own name.
The new album is called Strangers and its songs contain concise, roots-infused sagas filled with characters that, in varying degrees, reflect that title. But this year, Felice — the inaugural artist in WUKY-91.3 FM's free Phoenix Friday summer concert series — is becoming less and less a stranger himself.
"I started to think about that word 'strangers' and the idea that we can fall madly in love, we can be intertwined with people and then time can just fly by," Felice said. "You turn your head around and look in the rear-view mirror and you wonder where those people have gone. They become strangers, you know? As you look in the mirror, you might even be a stranger to yourself. I really wanted to talk about that.
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"Musically, we were lucky because we got to kind of stretch out over the course of a couple months last fall. It was the perfect autumn time up in the Catskill Mountains, where we're from. All the leaves were changing, friends were around, my brothers came in to sing, as did a lot of my friends," including members of the Lumineers.
"Some of the songs have a lonely feeling to them," he said. "I've always been a fan of those lonely kinds of songs — you know, songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell. But I also enjoy having a posy and making rock 'n' roll, too. So we got to do a bit of both and work on the arrangements and the instrumentation as we went along without having to really rush it or do it in a way that wasn't fitting or serving the song. That was really my mantra for the whole record: to serve the song. If you listen to it closely, the music just leads you in the right direction."
A novelist and poet as well as songwriter, Felice began making music in his teens as part of punk and noise bands with his friends and later with his own songs in the clubs and streets of New York. But it was with the Felice Brothers, which sounded initially like a Cajunesque variant of The Band, that he was introduced to a performance life outside of the Catskills and New York.
"I would never have learned how to be a musician or how to sing if I didn't begin this journey with my brothers. We all learned how to play together. None of us had any musical training. I learned how to play the drums just because we needed a drummer. So I bought a snare drum and a high hat. We would busk in New York City subways and the streets. That's how I learned to play music and sing.
"Then going further as a solo artist, I was really able to find my own voice as a singer and producer just by going out there touring and singing in old churches, on the streets, in a theater or a venue, wherever. To me, it's been like on the job training. Every night, I'm learning something new about the mystery of what it means to be a singer and a player."