About fifteen years ago, a new song popped into my head. It had a title, a melody, and a handful of lyrics. It had a faintly Brazilian feel to the rhythm and the harmonies. The title was Simone. It seemed to be about a woman who left her partner and escaped to some exotic location.

But the chorus was lacking a punchline. If I was going to sing her name several times, I needed to tell Simone something. There was no message to give her. The atmosphere was certainly there; yet to keep it from lapsing into it ‘lounge’ territory, it needed an ironic twist. And every time I tried to sit at the piano and play it, I got lost in the chord sequence. It seemed that every few bars there were several different ways for the chords to modulate. I would pick a given key to start in, but when I got back to the next verse I’d be in a completely different key. It was a musical Rubik’s Cube, and it was frustrating me. So over the years, I never made progress with the song.

This happens from time to time. There are remnants of unfinished songs in my closet. Not many, maybe a dozen over the 35 years I’ve been a songwriter. Usually if they never get finished, it’s because there wasn’t enough substance to begin with. But in the case of Simone, it bothered me. A lot. There was something fantastic about the song, and it kept nagging me. It would come back to haunt me every couple of years; I’d sit at the piano and try to play it, but I’d end up just as confused.

This is not like me! I usually have a very good sense of orientation with melodies and chord sequences. I can bend music and lyrics until they make sense. But with this piece of fiction, it took a slice of real life to bring me to a place where I could complete the song. Someone I’m close to told me they have gender dysphoria. (S)he felt a transition was taking place. This news was astonishing, and more than a little frightening. I found it hard to process. Looking back, I realised I could have seen this coming.

But it brought me back to my song. What if Simone was previously Simon? She was running away from her former, male self? Suddenly I had unlocked the riddle, I’d found the ironic twist I was looking for. I went for a long walk across the marshes, which is where I usually come up with my best lyrics, and I found the punchline I was lacking for the chorus.

‘You’re like a timebomb in his blood.’

With its new ambiguity, the plot line opened up many possibilities for a backstory with lots of tasty lyrical details. The next missing piece was the chord sequence. I thought hard about why I was unable to get my head around it. I decided it was the malleable and jazzy nature of Brazillian chords that was throwing me. So finally I tried something I’ve never done before: I sang the melody unaccompanied, and added the chords afterwards, as if I was voicing someone’s instrumental solo. What I ended up with was very curious: each of the three verses, and each double part of the song’s three choruses, is in a different key. I wrote down a chart for the chords, but I still can’t play them straight through without referring to it. How am I ever going to do this song live?

Happily the musicians I worked with are able to read pretty fluently, so armed with the chord chart (and with editing help from my friend Chucho Merchan) I put down a version with acoustic guitar, drums, percussion and upright bass. They did a grand job of negotiating their way around the tricky chords. It took me a few weeks to sift through the performances, but last night I finished a version (still absent a lead vocal) that I can finally call a complete song. As I often do, I emailed myself an MP3 from the lifeboat studio, so I could listen to it on my laptop speakers this morning.

I woke up today, did some chores, returned a few emails, played a little online Scrabble with my friend Rachel, and gave the song a listen. It’s damn good! How satisfying to have finally brought it to life after all these years.

And as a final ironic twist, I turned on the TV as I ate my breakfast, and what did I find? a 2002 movie starring Al Pacino as a Hollywood mogul who invents a computer-generated female movie star called…. ? S1m()ne.

10 Responses to “Simone”

  1. Katie says:

    As a long time fan of yours (since the early 80′s) who ALSO has gender dysphoria, I would LOVE to hear that song. Hopefully it’ll be on the new album or something. Thank you for even CONSIDERING writing about the topic! It means a lot to those who deal with this on a daily basis.

  2. BeechwoodAve says:

    Intriguing, intriguing… a different key for each verse! I’m assuming this isn’t just the one-upmanship of the stereotypical step-modulation for the sake of ‘taking it to the next level’ (a la Whitney Houston etc.). Key modulations as a metaphor for the change in gender orientation… intriguing.

    Glad to hear that you’re still in touch with Chucho Merchan. I loved his playing on the Flat Earth tour. Sounds like the new album is going to have an all-star cast!!

  3. TMDR says:

    Far from it! In order, the verses begin in B, Bb, and Ab; the choruses begin in Em, Am, and Fm. Pretty random.

  4. heretic says:

    How Bizarre! I must have been watching the same film. I thought it odd that there was an Al Pacino film on this afternoon! I had to leave it at the point he ditched Simone over the side of his yacht in a trunk. It seemed to sink pretty quickly, but I’m sure your Simone will find a much more hospitable home somewhere in your floating city!


  5. duglmac says:

    Sounds intriguing. Can’t wait to hear it.

  6. astronaut says:

    glad you found your chords. i was going to suggest A7#5 – works every time – with tremolo!

    obla di obla da.


  7. dtnelson says:

    Interesting! I can’t wait for your finished product…all of it!

    Btw, why haven’t you blogged about the new Prefab Sprout album? I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to hear your thoughts and opinions of it…you must have had some influence on its outcome since it was written on the heels of your Jordan collaboration.



  8. bricameron says:

    It’s so great to read the process that you go through to write a song.You’re so Human!

  9. skierpage says:

    Didn’t you play keyboards on some rockin’ tracks for “Gender UFOria” in the late 80s?

    Did Britain hear in 2008 about “‘Pregnant man’ Thomas Beatie gives birth to baby girl”? Write the chord changes for that! Being true to yourself can take more forms than anyone can imagine.

  10. piano says:

    There is also the jokey track “S1m0n3″ that Brian Eno sent to Kevin Kelly as a gift. You can hear it if you click the blue “here” in the text of Brian’s message on this page…