With the roar of an electric guitar, “Half My Kingdom” begins Alina Simone’s Everyone Is Crying Out To Me, Beware . A skronky trumpet soon enters, playing off the guitar to create a swing over shuffling drums and a casually strummed, junky acoustic.
Its American sensibilities belie the origins of the song—an acoustic, lyrical piece written and performed by tragic Russian singer Yanka Dyagileva—and the message as well. With a refrain that roughly translates to “I surrender the other half of my kingdom,” Dyagileva, who is believed to have committed suicide in 1991, sang nonchalantly of giving up. With half-whispered verses and haunting background vocals, Simone’s version certainly feels harrowing as well, but “Half My Kingdom,” one of the nine songs that make up the Ukraine-born Simone’s covers album of Dyagileva’s work, is perhaps the one that undergoes the greatest transformation.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You first discovered Yanka’s music about seven years ago. At what point did you first get the idea for this project?
ALINA SIMONE: I don’t know. I was always listening to the albums, and I really, really love the albums, but I was always aware that none of my friends here had ever heard of her. You know how you like to get with your friends and tell them, “Oh my God! I found this awesome musician! You’re going to love this!”? I felt like I couldn’t really do that with her music because most of my friends are American. Even my Russian friends aren’t really into her music. They’re actually more into American indie rock. I felt like I had no one to share her music with, except for some close friends that I shared it with and really liked it.
But I think over time, listening to her albums over and over again, I’d just be singing along in the car and coming up with alternative arrangements and harmonies. It didn’t happen at a specific time. It just kind of grew on me to the point where I felt like I could rethink these songs in a cool way and make an album. I applied for this grant from the Durham Arts Council, and that’s what really did it. I think if I hadn’t have gotten that grant, I wouldn’t have done it. Not right now at least.
Since she was such an inspiration to you, how did you approach covering her music? Did you feel a lot of pressure?
I did feel a lot of pressure. I think Americans can’t really relate to it because she’s not an American figure they’re familiar with, but if you imagine covering Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, maybe even Phil Ochs … someone who died tragically and was really passionate and revered in their small circle, it’s like that. She’s like a cult figure in Russia, sort of a sacred figure. A lot of people feel like her music shouldn’t be touched at all.
So I was very conscious of her legacy, and I went about things pretty carefully. I consulted with a lot of Russians, and I kept a lot of critics in the loop and tried to inform people as much as I could about what I was doing, why I was doing it and how I was doing it, so that everything was totally on the table and there was no misinterpretation of my motives or anything.
How do you feel about the fact that most people that listen to Everyone Is Crying Out To Me, Beware will be hearing Yanka’s music for the first time? Did that affect your approach any?
Yeah, I knew that would probably be the case. I hope that it will draw them in enough that they will be really curious to hear her originals because I think that her originals are much more abrasive than mine. My versions definitely have a lot higher production values because she didn’t have access to that kind of studio and instruments in the Soviet Union back then that I did when recording them.
I’ve tried to walk that line between maintaining her rawness and spontaneity and still creating lusher and more complicated arrangements. I’m hoping it’s kind of in between so that then people will get really curious and want to get online and find her music and maybe find music of some other great Russian indie or underground rock bands.
“Half My Kingdom” talks a lot about surrender and a release of burden, but almost in a hopelessly desperate way, kind of like giving up. It seems like you carried that emotion through in the treatment that you gave the song, more so than in Yanka’s original version, which is more lyrical with just the voice and acoustic guitar. Did you put a lot of effort into making these arrangements with that in mind, trying to convey the meaning of these songs to non-Russian speakers, or did it just happen?
Yeah, that’s how I describe it. But you thought of it a lot more than I did. To be honest, I think I was getting more into this underlying swing and the rhythm that’s not as pronounced in her version. When I did my own acoustic version, I just felt like there was this sort of jazzy swing in there that really changed the song, and I just decided to go wild with the instrumental aspect at that point and really dress it up.
In terms of the connection to the lyrics, I would say that I probably made it less of a song that conveyed her point musically because I think that when she’s saying those things, she’s saying it lightly and somewhat ironically, and I feel like the way she’s saying it captured exactly that feeling of just lighthearted hopelessness. I feel like mine is more glam, more showy, and I don’t think she meant for that to be a showy song.
I’m definitely conscious of that one as being really against the grain. I think she was intentionally going for an understatement there, and I went for an overstatement. But that’s what was fun about doing it. I think that song has radically changed beyond recognition, and that’s the challenge in doing a cover album, to see how far you can bend it before it breaks.
Lyrically, “Half My Kingdom” captures the tormented life that Yanka lived in a nutshell. Her lyrics, at times, are pretty dark. Did you have a hard time tapping into that while you were recording these songs and connecting to her and her emotions when she recorded these songs?
I chose the songs pretty carefully and definitely made some of them sound happier than they were, or more fun in some way. I think “Half My Kingdom” and “My Sadness Is Luminous” are definitely more fun. We just recorded an exclusive track for vinyl that is just a jam with all these horns. It’s a toe-tapper.
I think part of it is that I couldn’t really go there, where she went. I couldn’t. I mean, she killed herself. I feel like the song that I sing all by myself, “Flocks Are Flying,” is probably the darkest and the saddest, the most haunted song on the album. That’s the only song that I do by myself, so that’s kind of the Yanka moment.
I was careful to pick songs that I could do. There were some songs I couldn’t do because of that [emotion]. There’s one song she wrote a couple months before she died called “The Water Will Come.” Yanka drowned herself. Well, she drowned, and no one knows if she committed suicide, but it’s pretty likely. But she wrote this song, and the chorus is “The water will come, and I will sleep,” and it just sounds like a suicide note. I love that song, and I think the melodies are gorgeous. I had so many ideas of stuff I could do with it, but I just couldn’t put those words in my mouth. It was just too harrowing to sing the suicide note of this girl who I really respect and love and admire.
You worked again with Steve Revitte, who produced your last album, on Everyone Is Crying Out To Me, Beware. How did his approach differ from the last album?
The production was pretty different because, first of all, I switched guitars. I mostly play electric guitar, but I switched to this classical nylon-string guitar because I wanted to get that fuzzy, bad acoustic guitar sound that she gets when she strums. I tried a bunch of things, and the only thing I could find that worked was this crappy $100 classical guitar I had in the closet.
I worked on the album a lot with my lead guitar player, Chris Barrey, who helped a lot with the arrangements, too. I was kind of approaching it like my own songs, saying “Let’s have a drummer with a full kit, let’s have a bass player, let’s have this, let’s have that …” and he would say “No, no. Don’t have any of that stuff.” He really was trying to keep it very organic.
Chris is friends with the trumpet player that you hear on “Half My Kingdom.” They kind of worked out this interweaving conversation between the electric guitar and the horn. I just let them go for it because they’re both great musicians, and they knew what they wanted to do with the song. It gave it that jazz element of a conversation. I’m just doing a little three chord acoustic thing underneath it, very simple.
There was a conscientious effort to keep the album live and spontaneous, to make decisions in the studio and kind of follow your heart. I know that sounds really cheesy, but we made the record in two days. All my tracks are live, one take, vocals and guitar recorded together. We wanted that raw, live feeling and [to] leave room for mistakes with no polish on the edges.
The album’s had some pretty good reviews so far from American press. How have fans received the songs on tour? Has it been kind of awkward for them at first, or do people come into the shows knowing what to expect?
It’s been really interesting. I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I’m on my way to Omaha to sing a bunch of Russian songs. … So far, people have been really quiet and reverent. It’s weird to me because it’s not church music; it’s punk rock. That’s who she was, and that’s what I’m trying to do. So it’s kind of weird to have everyone sit there quietly and not move. I think it’s just so different that they just don’t know how to respond.
I’ve had a lot of really heartfelt, sweet comments from the least likely people. You know, the corn-fed, Midwestern guy who was there for the comedy show afterwards, that kind of thing … people that were there for some other thing and just happened to hear it, so that’s been really cool and gratifying.
Have you had any response yet from Russian press or fans?
Well, the album’s not released in Russia, and I have no plans to release it there. I paid for the rights to release it in the US, but I didn’t have to pay that much because I think that label realized that it was a very arty, niche project to release a Russian language album in the U.S. It’s obviously not a very big commercial thing. But in Russia, it’s different. The label I talked to there would charge a lot of money for the use of the songs, and I just don’t want to deal with it. It’s not that important to me that it be released in Russia. Especially because all those people know how to download the album, so if they want it, they can get it.
I’ve had a fair amount of attention from Russian rock critics. I did a little tour there in December. I had pretty major rock critics at all of those shows, and I sent out the album to the ones who asked for it beforehand. A lot of them told me they were expecting the worst, but the reviews were really positive. There were some misgivings, but it was much more on the positive side. It was mostly “I wouldn’t have done this song this way.” Actually, “Half My Kingdom” was one of the big ones because I changed it so radically. They can’t get over it and can’t get used to it, and they think I shouldn’t have done it that way.
Overall, it’s been positive, but there are definitely some haters out there. I’ve read on some Russian music message boards, especially the ones for Yanka fans, where there’s some controversy and people who think it’s a bad idea. But it’s the minority, and, honestly, if you’re doing an art project and you don’t piss anyone off and everyone loves it, then it’s probably not really art.