Lisa Marie Simmons is a Boulder Colorado native, singer/songwriter, essayist, and published poet currently based in Italy. She recently joined the Grammy award-winning artists signed to the American label Ropeadope Records who released her poetic/musical album NoteSpeak in March 2020, which received a four-star review from the iconic Downbeat magazine.
The American debut of NoteSpeak was at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival in Boulder Colorado in September 2017. She was invited to be a speaker and performer at the 70th Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in April 2018. In November 2019, she presented NoteSpeak in Italy, Austria, and Prague. In January 2020, she presented NoteSpeak in India on the Jaipur Music Stage.
We interviewed Lisa for The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast, below are excerpts from the interview.
James Morehead: When do you first remember writing poetry, and when did creating poetry become part of your identity?
Lisa Marie Simmons: “I wrote really, really bad poetry when I was in junior high school. Let’s say I started writing poetry, and then it quickly evolved into writing songs, but with a really poetic bent.
“My mother listened to a lot of folk music: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, James Taylor, all very poetic writers. That was a huge influence on me. Then on my father’s side was the jazz bent, but I’m very much a wordsmith; that plus literature had a huge influence on me.
“My mother would read to us when we were children and the power of the pictures that you can create with word play.”
James: Your backstory, of being adopted, abused and abandoned, the racism of your adopted grandparents, and ultimately meeting your birth family, is extraordinary. How has your story influenced your writing?
Lisa: “Oh, gosh in so many different ways. I think it’s been healing to be able to write because it’s a way that I have processed it. Music and literature opened up my world and allowed me to see that there was something beyond what I was living in.
“I also relate to others who have gone through traumatic events. It created empathy, learning about, listening to, reading and then doing it myself was a great way to process everything that I was going through.
“I have this great drive to speak to others, to do that same thing that was done for me when I was listening to those songs, or having the radio close up to my head when there was fighting in the other room. That was something that I could dive into, and I wanted to do the same for anybody else who might be listening to whatever it is that I have to say.
“That is a huge part of my creative process: thinking of the listener.”
James: You’ve used your words and music not just to entertain but to support causes you care about, I’m thinking of Ampersand Families as an example. When writing, how do you balance your poetry and music, with a message you are trying to convey and make sure shines through?
Lisa: “Oh, that’s such a beautiful question, nobody’s ever asked me anything like that! It’s all a balancing act though, isn’t it? Especially when you’re trying to write with music, we want to make sure that they’re really intricately entwined, not just ‘this is a poem and here’s some music’.
“We really write them together but that’s a whole different thing as far as causes that I care deeply about, I work with whoever it is that commissioned the piece to see what is there. The message that they want out there more than anything else, and then just find the prettiest way to to impart that message with the most efficacy. You don’t want to alienate. I think it has stood me well that I’m a songwriter as well because writing songs is just this teeny tiny space, like poetry, to say so much.
“It’s just about getting to the heart of the matter in a way that will reach the widest audience possible. It’s the same when I’m speaking about my personal intimate details, I don’t want to alienate anyone and I don’t want to dump on anyone. It’s about finding the beauty in the message in a way that’s relatable.
“I also think it’s great when the listener can take their own meaning from it, you’re not spoon feeding the meaning. It’s a delicate balance.”
James: You started to talk about the the difference between poetry, and words set to music. I’m thinking of an interview with poet Billy Collins where he talked about getting arm-twisted to having a couple of his poems set to music that weren’t originally intended to be set to music, and he said it didn’t work very well. He also had a poem animated, which is what triggered my inspiration to have one of my poems animated, and that worked much better. I’m curious, what’s the same about writing words to stand alone and writing words that are intended to be backed by or incorporated into music?
Lisa: “Again, a beautiful question, and it’s really interesting what you said about the animation, I think the visual element really helps if they’re two separate things, the music and the poetry. I’m very much inspired by people like Gil Scott-Heron, his poetry and music. He worked really closely with everyone that was in the band to create pieces, ad that’s what Marco and I do as well because it’s all about rhythm, isn’t it?
“Even if I’m writing a poem that’s going to stand alone there’s an internal rhythm. When I’m not writing with music or I’m working on a very specific structure, I’m finding my rhythm. When I’m working with music I want the echo of the words to be in the music, and vice versa, like I both the music could stand alone that Marco writes and my poetry I hope can stand alone, but they are exponentially greater when they’re entwined.”
James: And building on that thought, when you are contributing as a member of Hippie Tendencies or NoteSpeak does that influence your poetry? How are writing for a band and writing for yourself as an individual performer different?
Lisa: “Marco, who’s my partner, is the pianist and the arranger of the Notespeak and Hippie Tendencies songs. We live together, and work together. Often I’m at the top of the house in my office and he’s downstairs in the studio, and I can hear him sometimes working on something and it’ll infiltrate into my work. We have been working together for so long that we are really connected. He’s the best partner I’ve had to collaborate with. We workshop the material together before we even get to the other musicians. It’s just the two of us and there might be something he just thinks doesn’t work, or I think doesn’t work. Sometimes I will bring a musical phrase to him and sometimes he’ll give me a great concept for a poem. It’s a great collaboration because we both work on both things.
“And as far as the poetry is concerned, when I’m really happy with a poem, he is the one who adapts, he doesn’t expect me to. When I get into the place where I’m like, this I think is beautiful and perfect, he agrees with me and we will adapt the music to reflect the poet. That’s normally how we work, but everyone is different. Every poem is different. We have different processes but over dinner each night we just talk about the progress that we’re making on the project that we are currently involved in, and inspire each other. It informs his work and mine and helps us.
“We both know each other so well now that I kind of know where he’s going to go.”
James: I binged a whole bunch of your music preparing for this interview, which was wonderful, it wasn’t work work. Sometimes you sing, sometimes it’s spoken word, sometimes it’s a mix. How do you choose which works better for a piece of music? Or is it completely intuitive?
Lisa: “Usually what happens is we have a project in mind like ‘Identity’ for Hippie Tendencies. At that point, I was questioning what my identity was. I had this concept for the album and I wanted it all sung because it’s such heavy material. I wanted that contrast, where it could lighten up a bit with singing it.
“And as far as the spoken word that followed with Notespeak, I was really inspired by a piece that was on ‘Identity’ that we adapted from Joan Baez, who wrote for the film ‘Sacco And Vanzetti’, who were killed in America for a crime they didn’t commit. We took two songs from the film and we combined them. They come from letters that Vanzetti sent into his father in Italy, and they were so beautiful. He was just accepting his fate and trying to reassure his father and still didn’t lose his faith in humanity.
“We combined these letters with a part that was sung. Mostly I just declaimed these letters on stage with Hippie Tendencies and we were astounded by the reaction of the public. We use these to talk about immigration, because here in Italy there is such a debate about all the people who arrive via Lampedusa, and so many people who condemn those immigrants. We use that to say ‘well listen, not so long ago we were in the same situation going into the United States.’
“We wanted to open that conversation and it really struck a chord with audiences, and that made me want to continue to explore the spoken word. I was saying earlier that with songs you’re trying to get to an essence, and trying to pare things down, with spoken word I feel like I have a lot more room to be in your face and direct. It was nice to have that freedom and not be parsing my words quite so much.”
James: Italy is renowned for its art and architecture. How did you find your way to Italy, and how has life in Italy influenced your art?
Lisa: “The way I found my way to Italy is a very long answer and I’ll make it really short. I went from Golden Colorado to New York City where I studied theater and music, and then I went from New York City to France, then I went from France to St Martin, on the French side of the island, and then from there, I went to Amsterdam and lived there for a couple years, and then to Central America where I met my ex-husband and he’s Italian, and then I came to Italy. My ex-husband and I split up but my band by that time was put together, Hippie Tendencies, and that was my family, andI just got stuck here!
“As far as how it’s informed my art, in so many ways. It’s all of these different cultures. I think that the more that you travel, the more that you realize how much we have in common, how similar we are, for all of the beauty of each different culture.
“The reality is we all fall in love, we all get angry, we are all curious. Human nature and what binds us I find fascinating and beautiful. The other thing that about Italy are Afro Italians, the fact that people think of Italy and think only of white people. There’s this whole world there that I find fascinating and has had a huge impact on my work of late.”