Interviewing Sylvie Simmons

21:16, May 19 2013

Tomorrow I'll be chatting with Sylvie Simmons live on stage in Carterton. I've previewed the event here and here - Simmons is in New Zealand to celebrate her Leonard Cohen biography. The event in Carterton will feature some of Cohen's songs performed by Simmons and by some local artists. Sylvie will also read from her book, talk about the three years spent writing and researching the book - and she and I will talk about her life in music.

I met Sylvie Simmons in San Francisco last year. She invited me over for a cup of tea. I was on holiday - she was finishing off the Cohen book.

Since then - almost a year to the day when I met her - Simmons has worked her way around America plugging the book, performing shows that feature songs (she's a ukulele player, singer, songwriter - and has been performing Cohen songs as part of the celebration of the book and Leonard's life and career) as well as talking about the book, reading from the book, signing copies, doing what an author needs to do.

She's now in New Zealand, having participated in weekend events in Auckland as part of the Writers and Readers Festival and will soon travel to Britain, her first time "home" in a while.

Simmons told me over the phone recently that the shows came about simply as a way to celebrate Leonard's life and work - and of course to plug the book. Her American publisher was less than helpful in organising speaking events and so Sylvie started calling people up, organising gigs, meeting up with old friends, making new friends, bonding over the music.

It's been easy to travel with a ukulele - to meet musicians and share the stage.


She's taken a little bit of the rock'n'roll gig and little bit of the literary event and made her own version; a chance to chat and sing, to sign and play.

And her book is worth celebrating. It's the best book I've read about Leonard Cohen. It's one of the best music books I've ever read; one of the best biographies I've read. It's one of my favourite books. She writes like a dream, the research is there - she's managed to get people to go on the record who have not, previously, spoken about Cohen. And there's a weight, a gravitas to Leonard's life and work. Simmons addresses this with full respect, allows it to shine.

Sylvie has met and interviewed Leonard; she was given his blessing for the biography. But given his philosophy, his following of Buddhist teachings, Simmons doesn't believe he's read the book. "I haven't asked him - but I know he's seen it. I know the band members have it, the crew have all seen it. I spoke with him recently at one of his shows, since the book was released, but I was too English to ask Leonard if he's read it and he was too Canadian to say. But I honestly believe he hasn't read the book. I think he's at peace with his past and he prefers to leave it there - in the past. He's very disciplined and very focused - his work is out there now in front of him - on the stage. He's very focused in his work and very much living in the present rather than wanting to revisit his past; to dwell on it."

Sylvie Simmons has written one of the great rock biographies. It's also one of the great literary biographies - being that Cohen is a man of both literature and music. It makes sense then to celebrate the words and world of Cohen through reading and speaking - as well as through interpretations of his songs.

Before the Cohen book, Simmons profiled Neil Young and Serge Gainsbourg in books; she wrote a short-story collection, Too Weird for Ziggy. There might be more short stories in the future. There might be other biographies. But there's still so much life in her work about Cohen; so many reasons to celebrate.

Tomorrow it will be my great honour to share the stage with Sylvie Simmons; to talk with her about her career interviewing so many of music's great heroes and legends.

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