Friday, February 22, 2019

L.A. Peeps: Re-meet Mike Simmons, Singer-Songwriter

by M.J. Hamada (writer), Santa Monica, November 29, 2008


The Iowan "kid with a guitar" catches his breath in L.A. before an upcoming London tour.

In our previous interview, Mike spoke about his early performances and about his experiences on the road. He discussed the differences between the East Coast and West Coast music scenes, and he offered some words of wisdom to aspiring musicians. Mike had just signed on with Stanley Talent Management Inc., and he planned on recording an EP in Nashville.

I met up with Mike again to see how things have progressed. It turns out, his path took a different direction than he'd hoped. Mike ran into a few obstacles, and his struggles not only put a detour in his path, but also in the type of music he's been making. Through it all, he's created new songs that are more honest, more vulnerable and more "miserable" (but in a good way).

In January, Mike will be taking his current collection of songs—Love Might Have Been the Thing That Could Have Saved Me—on tour in London. 

Favorite recent movie: I'm Not There.
Often-played CDs: Ryan Adams' Demolition and Love Is Hell.
Number of U.S. states you've performed in: The contiguous 48.
Your most captivated audience: At The Living Room in New York.
Number-one thing on your mind these days: The next six months.
New metaphor for L.A.: An island lost in time.


MJ: What have you been up to since our last interview? You've got a bunch of new songs, so I guess things have been pretty hectic, huh.

MIKE: Yeah, it's been kind of crazy. After our last interview, my main focus was on doing a record. You know, that was the next step, and it was tough because all these different people had records in mind that they wanted me to make. It went back and forth, from people in New York, L.A., Nashville—everyone had his idea of what the record should sound like and what it should be. And for a while, I had my ears open for that, but eventually I closed them and made what I wanted to make. And that's been the focus for the last six or seven months.

MJ: A focus on more personal songs. 

MIKE: Exactly. The record I just did, it's definitely...miserable, know what I mean? The music wouldn't necessarily pick you up. I don't want to stay there forever, but it's important to me to have that stuff out there because...those songs and what they're about, that's what's gotten me here. So, if I make another 10 records, with none of them sounding anything like that or like each other, at the end of the day, somebody can pick up this collection and say, "Okay, here's where it started."

MJ: Yeah, and track your progress. So, the songs I heard last time were never put into a CD form?

MIKE: Right. This is where things got really complicated and why it upset me for a while. With everything I do, there are people who want to jump in. I'd do two or three songs, then send them out. People would catch wind of those songs, set up plans, say, "We're gonna bring you to the city, put you with this studio, this band, blah-blah-blah." And at the end of the day, whether it was BS or turned out to be something I didn't want, or I turned out to be something that they didn't want, it never went full-throttle. Finally, I just knew: "I gotta do this myself."


MJ: You say these groups of people had different ideas on where to take you, where you fit in. What did they have in mind, exactly?

MIKE: Out here, they pretty much wanted to strip me completely of music and rely on my youth and the look I have. It was like, "We've got three or four major labels ready to sign you on, but they haven't heard the music, nor do they care to. We're gonna put you in with this guy who writes for American Idol; then we're gonna get you on a tour with that guy who was on American Idol." And I'm just like, "That's not me." That was L.A., and Nashville was a bit of the same. The Nashville scene is a lot like the L.A. scene; it's mainly just a different genre of music. People in Nashville listened just long enough to the songs to know that they were miserable, then said, "Oh, you can do country music. How about we put you in a Keith Urban kinda thing?"

MJ: Oh, no. And how about the New York people?

MIKE: Overall, I think they have the best approach—that is, theirs is the closest approach to what I do. As I've said before, New York has more of a tolerance for less-commercial tunes, stuff that isn't the most upbeat. I met a group of people who'd made their money in film and who had a real passion for music. They were starting up a record label, and we thought it'd be a great fit because we appeared to have the same integrity and goals. Unfortunately, it was a small company that was going to invest a lot of money, and when major labels showed interest, these guys didn't want to move forward unless we moved with one of the labels. In the end, it turned into the same thing as with everywhere else.

MJ: That's too bad. What about Stanley Talent Management Inc.? Has it worked out with them? 

MIKE: Yeah, Matt Stanley, I'm still with him. At the time, he was new to entertainment, so he had a different outlook than others I'd talked to, and that attracted me. I've made some selfish and bad decisions, but Matt's been there to support me along the way.

MJ: What are examples of those decisions?

MIKE: Well, making these songs was selfish because they're for me and not so radio-friendly. And Matt's put me on some shows and interviews where I've really voiced my opinion.

MJ: So, you were saying something they didn't want you to say. What was that?

MIKE: It seems there's this kind of honor code or something, where everyone just talks around certain subjects. It's like the answer's already written. They ask the same questions; you give the same answers. And a couple of times, I didn't. Some people like that; others hate it. This one time, I was supposed to do 15 minutes for a radio show, and I ended up staying on for three hours. It became this angry rant about American Idol, major labels, everything, and the guys in the studio loved it. But afterwards, Matt called and said, "You've got principles, kid, but I dunno where that's gonna take us."

MJ: I'm sure this audience would be very interested in your opinion of American Idol.

MIKE: Uh, I just prefer... I just don't get into it, personally. That's not to say that some of the people on it aren't talented. It's just that, you sign everything away. If you audition for AI and then release anything, they have the rights to it. And there's a control thing. Kelly Clarkson is a good example. After winning, she put out a few pop records with however many number ones; she did what everyone wanted; and then about a year ago she tried putting out a record that she wrote. It was a bit gloomier, with more of an honest tone—and what did her label do? They held it for nine months. And when they finally released it, the press she got was "Kelly Clarkson's label won't put out her record because of blah-blah-blah." And it tanked. That's my biggest problem with American Idol: it doesn't create; it takes creation away. That's...not something I'm interested in.

MJ: A diplomatic way of putting it. [Laughter.]


MJ: So, these new songs, you recorded them in Nashville?

MIKE: Yep, with my buddy John Gilbertson and some others. I called up a bunch of friends scattered all across the country, and I brought everybody to Nashville. They all learned the songs, and then we played each one three times live; and the best take of the three is the one we used. We did the 13 songs in 14 days.

MJ: How would you say this collection of songs differs from the first collection I heard?

MIKE: It's definitely a lot more honest, and with that comes... I don't want to use the word dark. I don't think it's dark, but it's not very happy. The stuff I introduced you to first had more pop songs, which I don't mind writing. It's just that I felt these songs needed to be heard. These songs are the quickest way someone could get to know me. And actually, some of my friends and family heard them and said, "I had no idea..."

MJ: Love Might Have Been the Thing That Could Have Saved Me—that's an intriguing title. It can be thought of as regretful, melancholic. How does the title encapsulate these songs?

MIKE: I chose the title because of its two meanings, one negative, one positive. For one thing, I do all this crazy stuff, running here and there, and at the end of the day, I spend most of my time alone. I'm alone while traveling; I'm alone when I get where I'm going. I'm okay with that, but I do know the toll love can take on people. So, in that regard, the title is like me saying that I'm kind of screwing myself. There have been opportunities for love that I've just discarded. On the other hand, from a musical standpoint, I use love to mean the way I feel about music: my appreciation for music saved me from making somebody else's music. It gave me the good sense to make my own.

MJ: Who are the backup singers on some of the songs?

MIKE: That's one singer, Katie Leonard. After we had recorded the songs, we wanted to add backgrounds. I'd talked to lots of people, and no one really worked out. John knew Katie, who was living in Indiana at the time, and he called her up. Katie just so happened to be in Nashville on that very day, so she came over and banged out the songs in 45 minutes. Katie did the three-part harmonies, and she's amazing.

MJ: What's the progress on your CD?

MIKE: It's all being designed right now. I'll definitely have it ready to go by January, by the time I go to London.


MJ: Do you have any desire to do a straight rock album?

MIKE: See, I'm going to jinx myself, but I have high hopes that London will bring out the rock. I'm going to be there for a handful of months, and to be quite honest, right now I'm not sure why I'd come back. [Laughter.] A rock album is what I want to do. I've got a decent touring schedule set up while I'm over there, and I'm hoping England or Europe in general brings out more of an electric-rock feel.

MJ: I'd like to hear those songs. As for this tour, how did you set it up?

MIKE: To be honest, I'd been working with a booking agent out of the East Coast. I mentioned to him that at some point I wanted to go to Europe. And after I said that, it hit me. I canceled everything with that guy, and then it was just Matt and me. I located some people over there who have a similar sound as I do, found out where they were playing, what promoters they were using. And then I just lucked out with responses from booking agents, clubs, promoters. Got some nice venues and people I've never met who are willing to help. I feel that it's one of the best spots I can be to play this record.

MJ: Okay, I need to preface this next question. I'm a big Springsteen fan, and one thing he does—from way back, Born to Run and on—is to create personas. His songs are stories, narratives about everyday people. Your stuff isn't doing that yet—that is, creating personas—and I'm wondering if you've thought about singing songs in which you do create them, telling stories from different points of view.

MIKE: Absolutely. You bring up a great point. When you're traveling around, you meet all sorts of people, and some of them stay with you forever. To be able to tell their stories... Ryan Adams does that a lot. He sings about grandchildren or being old, and he's 30-something. That's one of the greatest things to do: to take somebody's story and share it with others. It's a beautiful thing to do and something I'd like to focus on eventually.

MJ: I'd like to hear those songs, too. Thanks for sharing, Mike, and keep us posted on the Europe experience.

MIKE: Thank you, and I will.

About the Writer

M.J. Hamada is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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