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Sid Simons

1883 Magazine's Kelsey Barnes chats with Sid Simons about the release of his debut album Beneath the Brightest Smiles, the creation of the record, and more.

The creation of Beneath the Brightest Smiles has been years in the making for Sid Simons. The NYC-based singer and songwriter has just released his debut album after years of playing in bands and gigging across the city, but Beneath the Brightest Smiles serves as both an introduction and reintroduction to who he is. His origin story — born in Portland, raised in Sydney, a stint in New York in his early teens, and a high school experience in Shanghai — has been recounted already, but every part of his journey can be heard throughout the stories & songs told on Beneath the Brightest Smiles.

The record was written throughout the pandemic, crafted in collaboration with Gordon Raphael and recorded with his talented band, The Darlings, across New York City. Equal parts poetic and poignant, the songs seamlessly come together yet are completely juxtaposed at times; tracks like the hushed “The Stanley Song” see Simons at his most honest (“So I broke your thumb/Who cares?”) whereas songs like “Wendy” and “If I Said A Word” are larger-than-life soundscapes.

It’s clear that Simons’ sound is heavily inspired and influenced by the people and places who have made him the person he is today, whether it be the cities he’s lived in, the family he has, or the friends he surrounds himself with. What’s most apparent, though, is just how much Simons has dedicated himself to playing live. In a world where artists are desperate to translate followers into ticket sales, Simons has easily been selling out rooms throughout the city with ease — with many attendees screaming his lyrics back to him. It’s the same time of fervour and excitement that is reminiscint of the early aughts. And that’s all thanks to Sid Simons.

1883 Magazine’s Kelsey Barnes chats with Sid Simons about the release of Beneath the Brightest Smiles, the creation of the album, and more.

I remember getting pitched “Wendy” when it first came out just over a year ago, and it’s been cool to see the album rollout. How are you feeling with the release of your debut album? 

I’m so happy and also very relieved. There are multiple feelings at once. I mean, you said it was a year you got “Wendy” which feels like so long ago.

Yeah, it’s been over a year. Does it feel like a chapter is closing or opening for you? 

Oh, totally closing. It’s funny because I recorded that album two years and a half years ago now. I’m so ready to explore new areas, and it was almost frustrating to hold back because all of these songs were coming out. I’m just so happy it’s finally out and people are going to hear it. 

It’s so good, too. It’s sonically diverse but it still feels like it’s a cohesive and well-rounded album.

Yeah, there are two sides to the album — an upbeat, fun side and then an introspective, melancholic side. I wanted the first and last song to sound completely different yet still tell a story. In between those two songs, everything comes together.

Are you meticulous about tracklisting certain songs and where they sit?

Oh, yeah. [Laughs] So important. It all has to flow. 

Is there a throughline that ties the album together that you can recognize?

I think so. I wrote the songs during COVID and it was the first time I was able to go back into the past, whereas I usually write from present time — what’s happening in my life right now. It was this moment where everything stopped and I went back to certain experiences or feelings. A lot of it has to do with my family and where I grew up. It’s cool, it’s like a little time stamp. 

“Please Stop Smoking Mum” was a song that resonated with me — so many songs are written about love and heartbreak, but songs about parents open up another layer. I read this was inspired by seeing a friend’s mum struggling with addiction. Was that one of the experiences you were referencing?

Yeah, that period I was unpacking all of that [growing up] which I hadn’t really done. The new songs I’m writing are exactly what’s happening in my life right now, but that song is interesting because it’s written from a kid’s perspective. I had to put myself in my 12-year-old’s shoes, or my friend’s 12-year-old shoes.

You’ve played in bands before but this is the first big release under your own name. At what point did you realize that you wanted to kinda step out and make an artist project yourself?

I’ve been in bands for so lon and there was a point where I just wanted to take it on all on my own. I’ve liked every band I’ve been in, but there was always some frustrating element to it. I’m a control freak, if you can’t tell [laughs] so I wanted to start taking full accountability for everything. I had been in bands where there were heroin addicts and we had written and recorded all of these songs and someone else can go fuck up the whole thing, you know? 

I also was writing differently and it didn’t feel like anything else I was working on. It was an entirely new thing that I wanted to experience and explore. It’s a scary thing to go under your name and I was pretty apathetic about it at first, but it just feels right. It makes sense. I’m just able to explore different sounds on my own. With a band, you can be heading in one direction and someone else might want to go another way. It can be frustrating because you have a vision of something you want to pursue. 

You don’t want to be that person who has a mindset of ‘my way or the highway’ but if you feel strongly about something and you aren’t able to do it because of other people, you’re going to feel unfulfilled as an artist.

Totally. The band I’m in right now, every single person is such a good musician. They all have amazing ideas. Whenever I bring a song into the studio and they contribute an idea they have, it’s really cool. 

Between those bands and now, how would you describe your growth? 

I think I’m just a lot more open-minded now. My music tastes have changed a lot. I used to only think like, “I can only have these four instruments on this album.” Now I’m really open to other stuff. I’m into Frank Ocean who I never would have cared to listen to two or three years ago. I’m just curious about new things in terms of music, which is the biggest difference.

You have ties to Brooklyn, Portland, Shanghai, and beyond. How do you think all of these places have shaped your work as an artist?

Overall the people and the cities are all so different and I’ve adapted to each. When you’re in a new city, you adapt to the way people move and talk, I’ve taken that and melded it into my own. In terms of music, I started playing music for the first time when I was in Shanghai. I was the only alternative artist out of everyone because metal and EDM are both huge genres there.

That must’ve been exciting though, I bet there was a taste for something new over there.

Yeah, I think it was probably the first time people heard indie music live which is insane to think of. That’s all there is in New York. You fit in easier in America, but in Shanghai I was the odd one out. I was really into skateboarding at the time which is totally different there compared to New York; you get kicked out everywhere for skating in the city but people in Shanghai clap when you perform tricks. I was going to clubs and bars at 16 because there’s no drinking age which means I was over drinking and partying by 18 [laughs].

I bet! Was it freeing to be playing shows and music in a place where you didn’t know anyone? Did it help with your confidence? 

I think I’ve always had to have the mentality of “I can do anything.” I really wanted to play a show so I learned how to play guitar five months before we played that first show. I was obsessed; I played guitar every single day for hours, just learning on YouTube. I remember the first show and I didn’t actually have any words to songs, I just made it up on the spot.

That would give me way too much anxiety!

I’m the same now. It’s crazy to think about now, there’s some footage of that first show and I was singing random stuff.

Beneath The Brightest Smiles, what is the inspiration behind the album title?

It comes from the lyric, “The saddest souls have the brightest smiles.” I feel like it’s one of those songs that take on a different meaning every time I sing it. When I first wrote it, it was so specific. It’s been two years and it has an entirely different meant to me now. I think a good song can redefine itself over time. 

It’s growing up with you which is really beautiful. 

Absolutely. “The saddest souls have the brightest smiles” was probably the first lyric for the album. I lost someone in my life, it was a four-year relationship. It was a darker time but I was still very optimistic about everything. It was also seeing my friend who was so happy and, from the outside, looked like they had a perfect life. But inside of them was a whole different ballgame  The inspiration for the album title encompasses all of that.

One of the songs I instantly gravitated towards is “The Stanley Song,” which is a personal track about your relationship as an older brother to your younger brother. My little sister and I can fight like cats and dogs and be best friends 5 minutes later. I loved the lyric “So I broke your thumb/who cares?” Can you tell me a bit about the writing process behind that one?

I wrote it four years ago or so, and it’s just about the classic sibling dynamic — no one else is allowed to mess with you but me. I’m the only one who can bully you! [Laughs] You saw the movie [The Iron Claw], it’s an emotional experience. I literally broke his thumb, the Lego really was mine until he came along. When I was writing it, I just thought it was funny but people hear it and think it’s so moving and I’m like, “I wasn’t trying to do that!” 

I’m talking about how much of an asshole I am! [Laughs]

Exactly! Goddamn! [Laughs]

Looking back on the process of making this album, is there a certain imagery or emotion that encompasses the whole journey?

Oh, that’s interesting. Let me think about that one. We can return to it.

I’ll hold you to it! “If I Said A Word” feels like a call to arms of sorts; I can imagine this being played live and having an entire crowd join you in a singalong. So much of your work I feel is steeped in how much you’ve worked on your live act and gigging. Are you thinking about the way songs will sound live when you’re crafting them?

I try to never think about how it’s gonna sound when editing or recording it. I just want it to sound the best it can be. 

Yeah, like a contained unit of productivity — not thinking about external stuff. 

Exactly, then we’ll figure it out live. Sometimes it depends on the song, I’ll realize it needs a string section or a choir. We’ll write a song and it’s just 5 members in the room and that’s it — that’s exactly how it should sound. You do ruin the process of writing and recording by focusing too much on that stuff, though. 

Do you think your relationships with songs change after you release them? Almost like they aren’t yours anymore?

It’s funny you say that because as soon as a song is released out into the world, it doesn’t feel like mine anymore. The album is my baby; it’s this thing that exists. As soon as it was released, it’s everyone else’s now. I feel almost removed from it which I’m happy to feel because it’s like a weight has lifted. People are going to have their own interpretations of the songs which is a cool thing. Hearing people sing songs back makes me think, “Maybe I should change that lyric” but it’s done now. It’s crazy when you’ve written a song in your bedroom and hearing it being sung back to you in a club.

Would you say you’re a perfectionist? [Laughs] 

Oh definitely [laughs]. “Wendy” we recorded four different times. I feel bad for my drummer.

How do you learn how to make peace with it being ‘done’?

I think it’s not until it’s really turned me on and it sounds like what it is in my head. Sometimes it comes out differently and it’s really exciting. As long as that happens, I’m at peace. That’s why it took us four times to record “Wendy” because I knew that song was good and we originally recorded it in my bedroom and I knew it needed something bigger. We went into a studio and I still felt like it needed bigger. We did it in another studio and it felt the same. We tried so much stuff out and I still didn’t love it, it still wasn’t there. I finally was like, “Alright, we’re going into the best studio and try it one more time.” I got the best musicians I know to come in and play and if it doesn’t work, I’m quitting music [laughs]. That was the day we hit it so well and it was exciting and I felt great. 

Did it feel like you needed to jump around in different environments to inspire you?

Yeah, yeah. I think if you’re too comfortable in a certain place, you’re not going to be writing anything that’s exciting. I’m trying to dabble in different instruments right now just to see what I come up with.

When you look back to your childhood, are there any stories from books or films that really resonated with you that you now think inspired you to become a storyteller and writer?

Oh, that’s cool. I like that. First one that comes to mind is Into The Wild. Have you read it?

Yeah, it’s really good. You must’ve read it when you were really young.

I must’ve been around 10 or 12. That book just changed everything for me. It opened me up to thinking that anything is possible like we said before — no one has it figured out and I learned that early on. You can look up to your parents when you’re a kid but they don’t know what they are doing either. I love that the book is open to however you want to interpret it. I did a road trip when I was 19 which made me feel very inspired, it was two and a half months around America. 

Did that help inspire “Dead Ringer”?

Yeah, good catch. We lived in my car so we saw all of the dirt and the grit throughout the whole trip. That song was about Texas and I had a friend who lives in a very small town there and they invited us to stay. We were there and it felt like every house and car looked the same.

Like Edward Scissorhands, cookie cutter.

Totally. All of the people have the same haircut and talk the same. It was creepy to me. It was the past and the future at the same time. I had to write a song about this weird thing [laughs].

I read in your interview with Alt Citizen that you spend a lot of money on clothes — I believe you bought a fedora recently.

I did — look at it!

[Laughs] It’s great. Have you always been a fashion lover?

I love clothes, but I’m not like, “Oh, I love that designer.”

You love thrifting and vintage.

Yeah, I love thrift stores. I just pick out what I like. It’s constantly changing [his style], I wore all of my mum’s clothes when I was first starting in bands and now I’m transitioning to actual men’s clothes for once.

You have a free day in New York — how are you spending it? Where are your favourite spots?

The weather does make a huge difference. I would say Mud Cafe — have you been?

Yes! I love it.

Yeah, it’s great. I’d go there and get breakfast. I’m trying to go to the beach soon because I like surfing in the summer. I’d go to Studio 151 later at night. I DJ there sometimes and it’s a vinyl/analog. There’s shit happening every night in New York so there’s always fun to be had.

So, lastly, let’s revisit that earlier question. Was there certain imagery or emotion that encompasses the whole journey?
I guess like the colour scheme, if we’re talking about that, is very red and black. It’s hard to go back to that time because even when you have such a strong vision for something when you’re making it, you go through other things after that change you. Going back to that place is hard because I almost don’t even remember where I was and who I was at that time, but you can hear it in the music.

Beneath The Brighest Smiles by Sid Simons is out now.

Interview Kelsey Barnes
Photography Matt Weinberger (Header) & Victoria Baczynska

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