In Conversation: Jerry David DeCicca and Sylvie Simmons

The songwriters chat about how place influences songwriting.

Jerry David DeCicca and Sylvie Simmons both have brand new albums out: his is The Unlikely Optimist and His Domestic Adventures, hers is Blue On Blue. Here, the two songwriters have a lively discussion about geography as it relates to songs — something they both know quite a bit about.
—Josh Modell

Jerry David DeCicca: Sylvie! The first time we met, I think, was back in 2015 when we played together in Oakland. I had just moved to Texas the year before, and it was the first time I left the state since moving there. I remember thinking that you seemed so English and yet so very much a Californian. But in that romantic California way we see in movies, not in the gritty Merle Haggard or Grapes of Wrath kind-of-way. 

Sylvie Simmons: That’s right, in the lovely little Octopus Salon, which is sadly no longer with us. A great night. Was that your cowboy hat I borrowed? If I remember rightly, I was there with my friend, Colin Son-Of-Jimmie-Dale Gilmore, right?  So, a real-live Texan and a Texan-formerly-known-as-Ohioan. We’ve both wandered a long way from home, haven’t we? So who-when-what made you leave home? (And I’m curious what those romantic California movies you watched that made me seem Californian!)

Jerry: I mean, you’re very English, too, but it might just be your general charm that feels like West Coast sunshine. And, yes, Colin, was there that night. He’s so great, but — and I don’t want to bust him out — I remember him sharing that he wasn’t born in Texas, either, but clearly his claim here is far greater than mine ever will be. Though when I get roasted at song-swaps for being a Midwesterner, I like to remind people that their Godfather, Jerry Jeff Walker, is from New York. Not that my old band is Circus Maximus and now I’m walking around in a cowboy hat singing about sangrias, but Texas is a place where musicians reinvent themselves, and the state, if we were to count, probably has the best born-and-bred musicians in the country. Did you have some idealized vision of California in your head as reason to move there, like I did Texas?

Sylvie: The US is without a doubt the place where a lot of Brits go to reinvent themselves. Me, I wanted to be a rock chick. I’d originally wanted to be a singer-songwriter, but after my one and only UK performance in a pub, where eight men grasping pints of beer stared at me and I froze like a deer in headlights, I decided I wanted to write about rock instead. The only work I could get back home was writing about pop in a teenage girls’ magazine. So I swiftly made my escape. In 1977 I got a one-way ticket to Los Angeles — you could do that back then  — with my head full of American songs. And yes, I knew it had to be California. The Beach Boys had already sold me on the sun, sea, and big blue skies. And Joni Mitchell had instructed me on another kind of Blue; it was actually a song from that album of hers that I’d been too scared to sing in the pub. I’d been raised on the Beatles, who I adored with a passion as a kid,  along with the never-ending parade of brilliant British music that came up in the ’60s and ’70s — Stones, Who, Kinks, Nick Drake, T. Rex, Cream, you name it, it was the Brits’ turn to rule for a while! But then came all the great American music. And L.A., to the young, wide-eyed me, was like another planet: sun; streets lined with long skinny palm trees; and cheap rents (much cheaper than London — and with swimming pools too!). As well as great clubs like the Whisky A GoGo, Roxy, Starwood, and Troubadour where I spent so many nights. But I was writing about music while you were playing it.  As an American musician, are there really only certain cities where you can flourish? Or is that separation from one’s hometown an important rite in the process?

Jerry: Hmmm, flourish, in an artistic way, I think can happen anywhere. Being an Ohioan, it is easy for me to see the connection between Devo and Albert Ayler and Pere Ubu and Phil Ochs. And those are just a few northerners that drank the water. I can hear Ohio in Scott Walker’s voice and sensibilities, even though I don’t think he lived there very long. They all feel like very Ohio artists to me even though some of them left to be known. And the songs I wrote there are very different than the ones I’ve written since living in Texas. Maybe living most of my life in one place, despite traveling, I didn’t notice what was beautiful about Ohio, so I defaulted to existential dread and those long nights of the soul as my preferred subject matter, code for gray skies and strip malls. Here, everything and everyone is a peacock, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I’m still under the state’s spell and don’t know when it will wear off. It’s where I always wanted to be, I think. The first time I visited, when I was 21, I walked into a bar at 4pm and Butch Hancock was playing to seven people and singing “Racing in the Street” —  magical. And as I got older and became obsessed with Kristofferson, Joe Tex, Doug Sahm, I could go on and on, it just felt like the place I needed to be. Not to “make it,” though in that regard I do think geography is destiny, but because I wanted to soak up this spiritual plain. And it’s pretty easy not to parody my heroes and still be myself, but I do get made fun of for wearing bolo ties at gigs. 

On your new record, I love that song “Sweet California” about being away from home and you mentioned Joni’s Blue. She’s got a song called “California” but sings it from Paris. Where were you when you wrote that?

Sylvie: I was on the back patio of a friend’s house in Fairfax, a small town  an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. I ought to add that after moving to L.A in the late ’70s, I kept on moving — first back to London, then France, then London again. I left California in 1984 and didn’t return until 2004, this time to San Francisco. But that song came along while I was house-sitting for a friend who had Mount Tamalpais (made famous by a David Crosby song) almost in her backyard. I was still recovering from a horrible accident I’d had on the night of my first day of recording the album. It had taken more than a year to be able to play again. And when I could finally use my left hand again, there were still songs I’d written for the new album that I couldn’t play. So sitting there amid all this beauty and silence, watching the birds circling overhead, I started trying to write some new ones. “Sweet California” was a song about leaving something that wasn’t working and coming home. In retrospect I think it was as much about coming home to the pre-accident me and being able to play again. 

What would you say is your most “Texas” song? And what do you think it says about your adopted home?

Jerry: One song on this new record, “West Texas Trilogy,” is a 12 minute road song that bounces around from the border in Del Rio to Leon Springs, a speck of a town that’s down the road from me where all the Kerrville songwriters used to play in the 70s and 80s, and then over to Big Bend and Terlingua. It’s from the point of view of a visitor looking for something, a song about destinations, literal and figurative. The ghosts of Doug Sahm and Steve Fromholz, a bar where Hank Williams carved his name, pop up. Augie Meyers, from Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornadoes, plays on most of the record, but it’s not Tex-Mex rock-n-roll, closer to what he did on Time Out of Mind. Ralph White, one of my favorite Austin musicians plays kalimba and fiddle. Frank “the Wild Jalapeno” Rodarte, a San Antonio tenor sax player and who played in the Dell-Kings is all over it. So I don’t know if any song is Texas in the way Texas music is thought of as a genre, but the whole record is my imagined, emotional, interior version of the state. I produced three records the last couple years by Texas musicians — Will Beeley, Garrett T. Capps, and Ralph White —the latter two right before the pandemic. Great reminders of real-deal Texas musicians. You can hear the cedar pollen in their throat and the outlier swagger of all my old favorites. I could live here the rest of my life and never sound like them.

So what’s the one song that made you think of California that you loved before you ever lived there?

Sylvie: Oh I can answer that one immediately. “Surfer Girl.” That dreamy, alone on the beach after everyone’s gone home and the sun sinks below the horizon sound. In fact those were the exact words I used when I asked Brian Lopez to play the guitar solo on my song “The Man Who Painted The Sea Blue.” And he did. There just seemed so much space in that song “Surfer Girl,” and space is something I definitely felt a lack of and need for growing up in London (12 million people). Plus I also had a thing for hearing or reading unfamiliar American words. I mean, what was this “woody” that the guy says he has? I didn’t think of the sexual connotation — I was a little kid when that record came out. I assumed it must have been what Americans call surfboards. Years later when living in the US I found out that it was what the Brits call an estate car. Nothing like as magical as a “woody.” I had a similar kind of obsession with American songs with city names. So much more romantic-sounding than British names. Have you ever written a city-name song? I guess the closest I got was a state-name song with “Sweet California”!

Jerry: On the final Black Swans album, my old band, I wrote a very long, journalistic song called “Portsmouth, Ohio” about the day my band member/friend drowned in a public swimming pool in the middle of the day with dozens of people around. I don’t think it’s exactly driving tourism for the town. I have another old song that mentions Kansas City in the title that was more of an homage to the artist, Chris Burden, than the city. I love the song “Surfer Girl” and I can hear the Beach Boys influence on your record. I love hearing their thumbprint in a way that isn’t specific to Brian Wilson production styles and more about yearning and loneliness. Do you think it’s possible anymore for someone to write a song or make music drenched in a specific city again and have people get excited about it as a place to visit? I’ve always loved visiting music cities that survive by celebrating a mythology, like Asbury Park or Muscle Shoals or, maybe even, Woodstock. I still like making those kind of trips versus looking at Instagram and calling it been-there, but I also visit musician and producer grave sites, so I’m probably not a great gauge for public opinion.

Sylvie: Portsmouth is a well-known English naval port city. I wonder who the British sailor was that decided to take a very long boat ride across the Atlantic, then make it across the country as far as Ohio and name an unnamed plot of land “Portsmouth”? Portsmouth is one of those unromantic, unmusical British city names I was talking about earlier! Whereas just the sound of the city names in American songs like “Wichita Lineman,” “Do You Know The Way To San Jose,” and “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” — the list goes on and on — has lured me to go visit them many a time. And yes, to answer your question, I can’t see that romance of place ever really disappearing.

But we can definitely agree on loving to visit musicians’ gravesites. I go whenever I get the chance. Some years ago, when I still lived in London, another UK journalist and I, both of us big Americana fans, flew to Virginia to cover the 75th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions — essentially the Big Bang of Country Music—for our different publications. After the ceremonies we hung around for a few days and, for the sheer delight of it, went on a road trip, armed with as many Hank Williams biographies we could find, to try and recreate the route that Hank took on his last ride in the back of Cadillac driven by a 17-year-old kid who was unaware that his legendary passenger had passed on. It’s not ghoulishness so much as it is the myth that draws me. I have to tell you my strangest story of visiting an American musician’s grave. In 2004, I flew to Nashville to interview Jimmy Martin for The Guardian, and Jimmy insisted that I go with him to visit his grave! He was 77 years old and decided he’d better build his tombstone while he was still alive. There it was, opposite the plot where Roy Acuff was buried, this big marble structure with a giant Stetson on top. Jimmy had written the flattering eulogy carved into the stone himself. “All that’s missing,” he told me, “is the date of my death.” Which turned out to be the following year.

Jerry: That’s a great story. Sunny Side of the Mountain is a favorite of mine. The saddest musical grave I visited was the producer, Tom Wilson, who worked with Dylan, Dion, Velvet Underground, Zappa. The groundskeeper said to me, “Some guy like you comes looking for this grave every two or three years.” I was like, two or three years!!! He gets a visitor every few years and there’s a line to get in the Dr. Pepper museum down the road. The most fun I had at a musician’s grave was at Graceland when, after paying my respects, I hopped the wrought iron fence next to the gravestone and cannonballed in the swimming pool. I was immediately thrown out and verbally banned for life. I was 18, but make no apology due to my age. Perhaps it was disrespectful to the King, but I might also put grave in quotes.

When it’s safe to travel again and bum around, we should get in a car, play some gigs, and do some gravesite visits. Who would be the first musician we should pay our respects to?

Sylvie: I am definitely going to keep you to that! Maybe we should start the road trip in your adopted state. I’d love to pay my respects to the late great Townes Van Zandt in Dido, Texas. And if we set up some UK dates to play – you know much the Brits like indie Americana artists – let’s swing by Highgate Cemetery in London to sit a while with my old friend Bert Jansch, then head out to Warwickshire and the countryside so I can light a candle to Nick Drake, whose ashes live in the graveyard of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Tanworth-in-Arden. Those British folk guitar players of my early teens — along with the pop bands of my childhood, the Beatles, the Kinks, the Stones – have become part of my DNA. However far from home I wander, or whatever songs I write. they’re always still there . I guess it’s the same for all of us who’ve lived a life submerged (and sometimes drowned)  in music. 

Jerry: One of the nice things about loving so much music is that we’ll have a lot of road to choose from. If we go over to the UK, though, I’m gonna make you drive. Bye Sylvie, hope to see you soon!

Sylvie Simmons is an award-winning rock journalist and author of books on Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Serge Gainsbourg and Debbie Harry, she released her self-title debut album in 2014 to great acclaim. Her new album, Blue on Blueis available on Compass Records.

(Photo Credit: left, Gabriel McCurdy)

Jerry David DeCicca’s most recent album is The Unlikely Optimist and His Domestic Adventures, featuring Augie Meyers from Sir Douglas Quintet. DeCicca is also the producer of albums by singer-songwriters, Larry Jon Wilson, Ed Askew, Will Beeley, Chris Gantry and others. He works in social services in San Antonio, Texas.