You can hear Simone Felice’s heart beating on Strangers. It’s a subtle ticking, a metronome slightly off beat. And you can only hear it in the quietest, sparsest ballads on Felice’s second solo LP.
Hearing the elusive click-click is like finding an internet Easter egg in your favorite song. It’s that moment when a song gifts you with something you’ve never heard before, even if you’ve listened to it over and over again. And it elicits a giggly excitement like hearing Paul McCartney’s f-bomb in “Hey Jude” for the first time.
That is, until you remember that Simone Felice’s heart is beating somewhat artificially.
The mechanical device, inserted during emergency open-heart surgery almost four years ago, keeps Felice’s blood flowing through the irreversible calcification of his aortic valve. It keeps him alive for his wife and for his daughter, who was born just days after the procedure. It keeps him remembering and writing, self-reflecting and self-assessing.
Nothing Felice did during the recording process for Strangers got rid of the sound. No amount of sweaters (three, for the record), nor a bulletproof vest could mute it.
“I’m like the [crocodile] that swallowed the pocket watch,” he chides. As his timbre changes, he acknowledges in all seriousness, “It’s a reminder that I’m alive.”
Felice, a founding member of the Americana-reviving Felice Brothers and The Duke & The King, takes this somber, pensive tone throughout much of Strangers. And in discussing its inspirations, he instinctively converses with poetic language, delivering vivid descriptions with sensitive intonation. His pauses carry pensive deliberation; his sighs and exhales are like purring.
“Strangers was recorded in a really raw and beautiful place at the end of a dead-end road at the top of a mountain in Boiceville, N.Y., right outside of Woodstock,” Felice begins. “We’d sort of approach production from a sort of old-school fisherman’s schedule. I was waking up before the sun and walking through the woods and watching the sun come up.
“There’s an old house down the road where Jimi Hendrix used to live when he lived in Woodstock. I would walk past his old house and talk to myself and commune with the ghosts.”
Channeling the natural tranquility of the Catskill Mountains in autumn and the spirits swirling within it, Felice crafted 10 sparsely textured songs for Strangers that, as he says in his upstate New York lilt, “tell the story of the strange, beautiful, painful parade of being a human being on earth.”
He ruminates on the relationships we form along the way in this parade, starting, “We can feel so painfully and deeply in love with someone and then in the blink of an eye, or as time passes in the sped-up, distracting vortex of time in our modern world, we can just become complete strangers to people we were really connected to.”
He continues, “On the opposite side of that coin, as time goes by, you can pass yourself in the mirror and stop and look and that person can be a stranger.”
These are huge narrative themes that Felice scatters throughout Strangers. You can find them in the Crosby, Stills & Nash-sounding “If You Go to L.A.” and the piano-driven “Bye Bye Palenville,” both tracks invoking travel, transience and transparency (the latter serving as a nod to his hometown). They seem obvious in contrast to the subtle scarcity of the album’s musicality.
But searching for Felice’s heartbeat makes you listen that much closer to Strangers. You notice the other intricacies of the record, like how entire songs can pass before you realize there’s no percussion. Or how the harmonies on the hymn-like “Bastille Day” quietly echo. Or how the electronic-sounding blips singe sections of the overtly religious-themed “Our Lady of the Gun.” It’s these details that show just how much of his heart Felice placed in these songs.
Although it’s categorically a solo record, Felice emphasizes that he didn’t do it alone. Strangers features Felice’s core touring bandmates, cellist Gabriel Dresdale and guitarist Matty Green, The Lumineers’ Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, vocalist Leah Siegel and “the bros,” as he refers to his old bandmates bound together by blood. Additionally, co-producer and arranger David Baron contributed his technical skills, organ and piano playing, and his studio for the production of Strangers.
“I can kind of have the best of both worlds, where I can bring my visions to life but then also surround myself with people that I really admire and really love to help me manifest the songs,” Felice says. “And that’s always been the thing that we’ve always strived for, is really just to serve the song—to let go of your own preconceptions and egos. The song is our god and we will bow to the song! This is what we serve!”
With books of poems, short stories and a novel published under his nom-de-plume, four records as a member of The Felice Brothers, two as The Duke & The King and now two as a solo artist, Felice shows no signs of malaise or respite. He plans to tour with Dresdale and Green throughout the summer and fall, as well as perform a few dates with his brothers.
So maybe Simone Felice is more like Peter Pan’s crocodile than he thought—insatiably hungry for the next project, and reminded of which by the incessant clock forever ticking inside him.