When you are the daughter of one of the most iconic singers of all time and you have inherited their musical genes, you can either go and do something else – or you can step up to the microphone and try your best to make your name in your own right. Lisa Simone chose the latter, although it took her half a lifetime to escape from Nina Simone’s shadow and finally face up to the fact that music was her destiny.
“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t be starting my music career in my 50s,” Simone explains, “but I didn’t realise that this is what I wanted to do for a living until I was in my late 20s. Although I had decided to make music before my mother passed away, it’s almost like I could feel a storm coming, and after she died, my life completely changed. I ended up going into the US Air Force and becoming a civil engineer, but it wasn’t really me. I don’t remember how that became an option. I was trying to find my own way, but I suppose I was running away from what is in my bloodline.”
Lisa Simone may have just released the best album of her career and is performing to packed houses all over Europe, yet from the moment we meet backstage at Boisdale before the first of three sell-out shows, there is absolutely no escaping the elephant in the room, which is the subject of her mother. It has been a circuitous route to stardom for
Simone, who spent years working as a backing singer and starring in Broadway musicals such as The Lion King, Aida and Rent before finally deciding to step into the spotlight under her own name.
“When I told my mother I was going to be a singer, there was silence. She was just like – Oh, no. She was definitely conflicted about me going into music, but when she came to see me on Broadway, she was riveted and she was very proud.”
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. Her mother, Mary Kate, was a Methodist minister and housemaid, and her father, John, was a handyman and part-time preacher. Eunice started playing the piano before her feet could reach the pedals and was soon performing at her mother’s Sunday church services.
Mary Kate dreamed of Eunice becoming the first prominent African- American classical pianist, although the backwater of Tryon was hardly the ideal birthplace for a black classical prodigy during the Great Depression. With eight children to support, the Waymons never had much money, so her mother’s employers agreed to pay for piano lessons in return for recitals given in her local library.
During one of her first performances, her parents were forced to move to the back to make way for a white couple. Eleven-year-old Eunice stood up and announced that she would not play until her parents were allowed to return to the front-row. It was incidents such as this that planted a seed of resentment that would remain with her for the rest of her life. “It was my first feeling of being discriminated against, and I recoil in horror at it,” she once said. “I never got over that jolt of racism.”
A local fund was set up to help with her education, enabling her to attend Allen High School, an exclusive private boarding school for the musically gifted: “My mother would be practicing at 4am before doing her chores and going to school. She wasn’t really asked to play games with the other children, because they just wanted her to play bebop or boogie-woogie on the piano. She couldn’t just do normal things that other girls do, because her life was purely geared towards the piano.”
She received a grant to study at New York’s prestigious Julliard School of Music, but by the time she was in her early 20s, she had discovered just how hard it was for a black performer to make headway in the classical world. She started working as a singer-pianist at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City to earn money for further tuition. In an attempt to hide the fact that she was playing in a bar for money from her devout parents, she adopted a stage name, Nina Simone (Nina from a pet name her boyfriend called her, which is Spanish for ‘little girl’, and Simone from the French lm star Simone Signoret, who she greatly admired).
With her beguiling blend of blues, jazz, soul and gospel and a unique, visceral voice which she said ranged between “gravel” and “coffee and cream,” Nina Simone soon signed her first record deal, although she immediately found herself butting heads with label bosses after she insisted on choosing her own material. She won the fight, and in 1958, she enjoyed her first hit with her interpretation of George and Ira Gershwin’s I Loves You Porgy. She regarded the music industry as “the dirtiest and most immoral business in the world,” and although fans flocked to her concerts, she enjoyed only a handful of hit records in her 45-year career.
Both on and offstage, Nina Simone was often combative and moody, a mercurial talent who was both feared and revered in equal measure, but nobody who heard her music could ever forget her. Despite her imperious public persona, Simone’s success seemed to amplify rather than alleviate a deep-rooted self-doubt and emotional instability that she was unable to rid herself of.
After a short-lived rst marriage, in 1961 she wed Lisa’s father, former New York City police sergeant turned musician, Andrew Stroud, who also became her manager. In one particularly disturbing interview excerpt, she recalled: “I was always tired. I worked like a dog. Andrew protected me from everyone except himself. He wrapped himself around me like a snake. I was scared of him.” Once at a nightclub, Stroud saw her put a fan’s note in her pocket. “When I got out on the street, he started beating me, reigning bloody blows. He beat me all the way home, up the stairs, in the elevator, in my room. He placed a gun to my head, tied me up and raped me. He actually thinks I want to be hit. He told me so.”
“Her biggest regret was not feeling like she had provided me with the stability that she really wanted me to have in my life. I had 13 governesses in seven years. There were a lot of goodbyes. My mother was a prodigy and she was a public figure, and although she was also bi-polar and a manic-depressive, she was still my mom. It’s the rest of the world who have a hard time imagining Nina Simone as a mother.” As she puts it in the recent documentary lm, What Happened, Miss Simone?: “My mother was Nina Simone 24/7, and that’s where it became a problem.”
Was she cruel to her as a child? “There were times when she was very cruel,” Simone replies, wiping a tear from her eye. “I certainly thought seriously about committing suicide when I was a teenager. I always felt like I was persecuted for growing up. God forbid if I had an opinion. She used to sometimes say to me – ‘What do you know about anything, child?’ I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. You have to ask how was she raised and what kind of love was she given? It’s all connected. It’s not like she work up in the morning and said – I want to fuck up my daughter today. That wasn’t the plan.
“Music was like eating and breathing for me when I was growing up,” she continues. “Mom was always immersed in music in one form or another, whether she was writing, rehearsing or singing it around the house, so I just started playing music instinctively. I wish she had pushed me harder, but she was pushed so hard, she didn’t want music to become a chore for me.”
With her career taking off in Europe, Lisa Simone now divides her time between her family home in Pennsylvania (where her husband and children live) and her mother’s house in Carry-le-Rouet, a small seaside resort just outside Marseille.
“I’ve waited so long to get to this point, but oftentimes we don’t think of the sacrifices we have to make to follow our dreams. When I get back home, there’s nobody there but me. I sleep in the very spot where she passed away, so I had to face my own demons, but I find that a lot of creativity comes from that place. It’s magical. Her piano is still there, but there were squatters in the house, so a lot of her stuff had been stolen or broken when we moved in.
“The first time I ever sat in her house was when I came over for her funeral, and strangely, the place that represented so much pain is now the place from which I can y. My mother was heavy and troubled, but she was the product of her own life. Because of the contributions and sacrifices she made, I stand upon her shoulders, but I have found my own path. I can be lighter and I can carry this legacy on from a place of my own choosing, as opposed to drowning in the quagmire that she left.”
Is it important to confound people’s expectations of the kind of music that Nina Simone’s daughter should be making? “It’s not really important, because I make music for nobody else but me. It’s taken a long time to get people to listen to me in my own right, but the prospect of following in my mother’s footsteps was never intimidating for me, because it’s who I am, and it’s in my blood. I’ve got the music in me,” she sings. “The legacy continues, so I’m the second chapter of the same book.”
My World by Lisa Simone is out now.