Q&A with Alina Simone, author of You Must Go and Win

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I've gotten two different sets of press releases about Alina Simone — one about her music and the other about her book. After a chance listen by a major publishing editor on Pandora, Alina was asked to write the essays for the book, You Must Go and Win (Faber and Faber, 2011). What comes out are essays about trying to find a roommate in Brooklyn, living in the realm of the music PR machine and explorations of her Russian background. Some would say “poignant” and “introspective.” But there's also a deftness Alina has in discussing the business of music along with the hopes and dreams wrapped up in it.

Alina also has an album coming out this June called Make Your Own Danger. She'll be reading from the book and playing some new songs from her album during a tour. Dates can be found on her website.

Here are some questions with Alina:

Your book laments your lack of indie rock success, yet you get a book deal with a major publishing house, a major goal for many authors. Was this ever part of “the plan” hidden in your subconscious? Had you done much writing before? Plus all of that seems kind of odd, to struggle for one thing but then have something else come very easily.

Great question. I actually considered addressing the “book deal” issue within the book itself, but eventually decided that would be just a little too ‘meta.’ No, a book was never “part of the plan,” unless it was buried so deep in my subconscious that even I was unaware of it. I had never published anything prior to the book deal and if the whole thing “seems kind of odd” it’s because it WAS very odd. What happened was this: One day, after driving back from a show in New York to my (then) home in North Carolina, I received a message from an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux who was a fan of my music and asked, point blank, whether I’d be interested in writing a book. At first I thought he was a random crank and the whole thing was some twisted hipster’s idea of a joke, but it turned out to be a serious offer. And yes, I did often marvel that “success” arrived in the form of a book deal and not a record contract, but isn’t that just the way life goes? You make the art you feel compelled to make, you try your best to stay true to your own vision, and just hope that somehow, somewhere, someone out there notices. If you are trying to make a career for yourself in the arts, your fate often turns on a dime, I suppose.

A couple of your essays mention Yanka Dyagileva. What about her music was captivating and why did you feel you needed to bring it to a larger audience via an album of covers?

It’s difficult to put into words…why do you fall in love with someone? Why do you become obsessed with any given thing? It’s almost a chemical reaction. When I first heard her music, it just struck me in the most primal way. There was nothing but her voice and guitar. No effects, no fancy re-mixing, no studio-magic to speak of. Nothing, in other words, to hide behind. As for the motivation to bring the songs to a wider audience, I’d love to claim it was some noble impulse to educate the masses about the most seminal female artist in Soviet rock history, but I think it was more about the selfish desire to have a good excuse to sing these songs myself.

There's a lot about being Russian, being in New York, but not much about being Russian in New York or Russian in America for that matter. Do you feel 'Russian' in America or 'American' in Russia or has your Russian background pretty much assimilated with your American self?

To be honest, I feel pretty American. I came to the US when I was only one year old. That said, I was raised by people who grew up in the Soviet Union, so there was nothing American about my upbringing. At home, we spoke Russian, ate Russian food, played chess, figure skated around the living room and quoted Lermentov to one another. (JK!) As a result, I grew up feeling very comfortable around crotchety Russian Babushkas, darkly ironic scientists and over-caffeinated, uber-materialistic computer programmers. I do feel quite at home when I’m in Russia, but have no doubt that Russians also consider me more or less American. Mostly, I’m just happy that the Cold War is over and we can all share a good laugh at one another’s quirks rather than freaking out and jamming nuclear missiles up one another’s asses. That whole thing made elementary school a real drag…

Have you reconciled yourself to the music/PR machine or are there some aspects to it that are still hard for you to take or understand?

I’ve definitely gotten used to it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I’m still not sure whether I was just extraordinarily naïve — for denying the influence money and PR can buy a band, and for assuming everyone was on an equal playing field. I get the sense that bands today are a lot more savvy than I was, and that serious musicians treat their bands like start-up businesses. If you ever hope to make a living making music, this kind of mentality (and the capital investment it requires) is imminently practical. Alas, I’m simply not wired that way.

The piece about Amanda Palmer (of The Dresden Dolls) was very illuminating about experimentation. Is her music and her type of career what you imagined that she would be in? And how do you think Amanda would handle or has handled the idea of “growing into the universal”?

I don’t think I imagined any specific career trajectory for Amanda — it wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d become a movie star instead, or an astronaut or a business mogul for that matter— I just had no doubt that she’d succeed spectacularly. She was the most confident and terrifyingly ambitious sixth grader I’d ever met. And I actually don’t think that her music (and other creative output) are very universal at all. That’s what’s so impressive about her — rather than conform to everyone else’s idea of what’s universal, she struck out on her own to create a unique (and truly weird) aesthetic that has attracted hundreds of thousands of fans.

Speaking of that idea, do you think your music has embraced the “universal” more over the years?

Definitely. My next full-length album, Make Your Own Danger, (which comes out in June, simultaneously with my book) is by far my most “universal” yet. Of course, it’s still not very universal by Britney Spears’ standards. I think that as indie rock has grown more mainstream (e.g., Arcade Fire) mainstream music has grown weirder (e.g., Lady Gaga, Kanye). And when you have artists like Bon Iver collaborating with Kanye and Joanna Newsom telling the press that she wants to collaborate with Nicki Minaj, the whole concept of “selling out” seems rather moot, doesn’t it? So I will boldly go out on a limb here and announce that my next album will be much more beat-based and dance-y.

After your many moves and apartment settings, how do you suggest is the best way for someone to cope with a less than harmonious living or roommate situation?

In a word, I would say: leave. The physical and psychological torment of living with a shitty roommate or sleeping on an air mattress in an unheated squat all winter is rarely worth the couple hundred dollars you will save on rent. Unless, of course, you plan on writing a book of autobiographical essays, in which case, you should definitely tough it out. And be sure to take notes.