With the release of “Can You Hear Me,” Los Angeles native Keaton Simons shows that perseverance has its rewards.
Simons possesses an impressive resume. He’s shared a stage with major players from across the musical spectrum, including Coldplay, Gnarls Barkley, Snoop Dogg, and frequent writing partner Josh Kelley. His unique brand of bluesy, soulful rock has been featured in film and television multiple times. Yet Simons has struggled to make a name for himself on a national scale, and had to endure the collapse of his former label, Maverick Records. After the frustration of recording an album for Maverick that was never released, Simons is now enjoying a new beginning with CBS Records.
Currently, he’s on tour in support of “Can You Hear Me,” with a set that features songs like the irresistible, upbeat “Good Things Get Better” and the ballad “Without Your Skin,” a versatile track that’s remarkably affecting either plugged in or acoustic.
TWRY caught up with Simons before a recent show to talk about this new chapter in his career.
Interviewed by: Heather Kobrin | September 2008
You’ve been described as a “triple threat” because of your singing, songwriting, and guitar skills. Is there one element of your abilities as a musician that you most closely identify with?
You know, it’s always different. Ask me any day, and I’ll probably give you a different answer. The times when it all locks into place, that’s what I like the most.
In college, you studied Ethnomusicology. Looking back, how do you feel your education has impacted your sound today?
It’s had a massive impact on my sound. Studying music from around the world taught me to open my ears and to hear music that was so unfamiliar and so different from what I was used to. There’s music in the world that some people will hear and laugh, or say “Ah, that’s terrible.” But to be able to study it and understand it and love it is a really powerful experience. I also learned that music is an ingrained part of human nature, and that everywhere there are people, there’s music. Even the most isolated, remote areas have people who play music. And they do it because they love it. They don’t do it because they make a lot of money or because they get on the covers of magazines. So it helps to really remind me why I do it — the core of why I do this.
Over the years, you’ve worked with a pretty interesting range of artists. I mean, consider the musicians you’ve appeared with on “The Tonight Show” — Snoop Dogg and Josh Kelley. Do you think there’s a common denominating factor amongst the people you find yourself teaming up with?
Not really (laughs). It’s hard to say. I mean, they all love music. Even Snoop. You wouldn’t necessarily think it from his persona, but that guy knows music. He knows what feels right and what sounds right, and he knows when something is even slightly off. He gets into it and he feels it. And for me, I’ve been fortunate that the people who I’ve played with and who have played with me all love music, and they know why they’re in it. I guess that could be a common denominator, but it’s not intentional. I just hope that my love of music attracts other people who feel similarly.
In talking about the collaborative process, you’ve been quoted as saying, “When you co-write a song, you’re able to create something that neither person would have been able to create on their own.” Who would you like to write with that you haven’t yet, whose style you feel would complement your own?
Joni Mitchell or Paul McCartney. That would be amazing. I would’ve loved to have written with Jimi Hendrix, if he were still alive, because I love his guitar playing. I’ve been really influenced by him.
Ok, let’s talk about the album. What’s the significance of the title, “Can You Hear Me?”
Well, it’s meant to be humorous and also just appropriate. I’ve been doing this for a while, and it’s amazing how much a person can do and still not reach everywhere. I’ve done so many tv shows and movies and radio, and played shows all over the place, and opened for this person and that person. And there are still a lot of people who don’t know who I am. So it’s kind of my way of saying, “All right, well here’s my debut record.” I made a record four years ago that never came out. Now finally, I’m able to put this record together and put it out properly, and it’s like, “All right, can you hear me now? Here I am.” (laughs) So that’s what it’s all about.
Do you feel like the record has an overarching theme lyrically? The complexity of relationships is an element that seems to be present in many of the songs.
Definitely. But the lyrics explore all different types of relationships. I’m fascinated by the way one thing relates to another. We’re all connected, but how are we connected? How is one thing connected to the next?
Can you take me through a few of your favorite tracks from the record and share something about the inspiration behind each?
“Without Your Skin” is one of my favorites, for sure. It’s definitely inspired by that idea about the way things relate to each other — the duality of people being unique and independent and autonomous, and then also being completely interconnected. The idea of where one ends and another begins. That was really inspiring to me when I started writing that song. And “Misfits,” I love the way it came out, I love the way it feels. That was inspired by my sister and our experiences growing up. “Unstoppable” is one of my favorites too. With that one, I was kind of forlorn. I think I started writing it at 3:00 in the morning on February 14th. I was alone in Maryland on tour, and it was snowing. My girlfriend at the time was back in Los Angeles, and they had just had this weird freakish snowstorm in Malibu. And so that song was about finding ways that we could feel connected. The inspiration was love and yearning. As much as my songs may sound like it, that’s not usually the inspiration. Usually it’s something a bit more cynical. But in that case, I was just really missing my girlfriend. It was late (laughs).
You’ve said that your writing process is different depending on the song. Can you take two tracks from the album that came together in different ways and tell us a bit about how each was composed?
Well, for “Without Your Skin,” when I started off, I had those lyrics. I had written the first verse as a poem, and I was experimenting with putting it to a song and figuring out what kind of melody I wanted. Then the idea of “Without your skin, I’m naked” kind of came, and then the song just came together that way. Another song, “Nobody Knows,” I co-wrote with The Matrix. I had written the verses a few years before, and I had the song set up a very specific way with all of these chord changes. I played the song for them, and they said they wanted to finish it and really shape it. So we got together and threw lyrical and melodic ideas back and forth. The way it came together with them — the fact that the actual production of the song was a part of the writing process — that was something I hadn’t really done before. Usually, I would write a song, and then if I had the chance to record it, great. But with this, we were in the studio, reshaping the song around the production, which was really cool.
You’ve noted that with this record, you wanted to focus on “the strength of the songs and not the added embellishment of the arrangements.” Do you feel like that’s a problem inherent in a lot of the music we see on the charts today?
Oh yeah, absolutely. The issue is that a lot of people need that stuff. But the better the artist, the less crap around them I want to hear. I used to overproduce stuff all the time, because I’m used to myself. For me, there was no novelty in just hearing myself sing. I hear that all the time (laughs). So I wanted to get into the production aspect of it. But the more I did, the more I realized that what I really want to hear when I listen to great artists, is just them. That’s all I want to hear. I’m one of those annoying guys who says to my friends, “I like it better when it’s just you and a guitar.” I never thought I’d be that guy. And I realize I’m starting to want that from myself. I want my real self to shine through, and the more you layer on top of that, the harder that is to achieve.
Keaton Live in Boston – Photo by: John Bellavance
Clearly, you’ve faced a lot of challenges getting to this place in your career. Given this, what does it mean to you to have created this record, to have label support for it, and to be able to share it with such a wide audience?
It feels amazing. It’s wonderful. And I also have the perspective of having gone through it all. I get it. There are a lot of people who get opportunities very quickly, and either take them for granted or they don’t understand things. And they fizzle away. For me, I know the angles. So I’m really excited and wiser for all my experience, and that really increases my confidence. Because I get it now. I know what to do with it.
What’s the most satisfying part about playing live? How do you know when you’ve genuinely connected with a crowd?
You know, it’s when I connect with myself that I connect with the crowd. Because it helps build the same type of energy. If I’m up on stage, and I’m thinking, “Oh, there’s not enough people here,” or “I had a bad day,” or “My voice doesn’t feel so good,” then that’s not a show. Even if I sound great. But when I’m up there, and I’m thinking about how much I love music, and how much I love performing, and how thankful and grateful I am for every single person out there, whether its ten people or a thousand people, that’s when it starts to connect. When audiences are great and attentive, I shower them with compliments, because it feels so good, and I know how it feels the other way. It is so much better when people are listening. I say to people, if you want to see the best show you can, listen. If you want to get what you paid for, you can contribute to that. You can make the show better by being in it, and by being involved as an audience member. When Josh Kelley and I toured together, we used to say to the crowd all the time, “Aren’t you guys glad you didn’t stay home and watch tv tonight?” They might have had that moment of thinking they didn’t want to go out, but once you’re there, no one’s standing there saying, “I wish I’d stayed home and watched tv.” They think, “Yeah, I am happy. I’m glad to be here, and I’m here for a reason.”
You’ve said you don’t want to turn into “just another guy to pick up a guitar.” Where do you seek inspiration in order to continually set yourself apart?
Here’s the thing – When I said that, it was before I had this epiphany, this moment of realization, when I realized that it’s not about trying to be something else. It’s about trying to be myself as much as possible. The one thing we all have that nobody else has is our true self, and that’s it. I might be another guy holding a guitar and singing songs. I might be one of hundreds of billions of people who have done that over the course of time. But it’s the only time I’ve ever done it. And if I can really bring my whole self, that’s what I have to offer that’s unique. Of course, I always try to bring uniqueness to my music. But I don’t sit around saying, “Oh, this sounds too derivative, or too clichéd, or too blues.” I lighten up on myself a lot more, because I’m just going to be me and let it come out the way it comes out. I’m just doing the best job of showing myself and letting that shine through, and allowing that to be what sets me apart.