Music

Nina Simone Remembered: Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, Mayer Hawthorne, And More Reflect On The Icon

As society continues to wrestle with racial and socio-political tensions, the release of two new Nina Simone-related projects — the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? and star-studded tribute album, Nina Revisitedfeel incredibly appropriate. There couldn’t be a better time to look through the the iconic singer’s life and legacy for hope, guidance, and inspiration.

Though her name will forever be legendary in blues, jazz, and soul circles, she was more than just a mere musician: Simone was an artist who spoke truthfully of life and the landscape around her, even when the masses forbade it, even when the truth was ugly and painful.

She may not be walking among us any longer, but her fighting spirit lives on throughout her more than 40 albums and releases, many of which continue to influence new generations of strong, socially aware, and talented soul/blues singers. We’ve gathered together some of those modern-day acts and asked them to reflect on Simone and all that she represents.

Ruby Amanfu

After Ruby Amanfu moved from Ghana to Nashville, she ended up adopting Music City’s heart and soul. In addition to her own material, she’s teamed up with Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard and Patti LaBelle, as well as being prominently featured on Jack White’s solo record Blunderbuss. On August 28, she’ll release a covers album called Standing Still, featuring new takes on classics by Bob Dylan, Kanye West, and Wilco.

How has Nina Simone and her music influenced your work?

Nina Simone inspires me musically to express the truth, even when the truth is raw and/or painful. When you listen to Nina sing, or even speak for that matter, you gain insight into what she might have been feeling at the time of that public expression, even if it was anger, grief, or her famous short temper. I gain inspiration and conviction to express my truth – to be honest about my feelings – because I believe that expressing an authentic feeling is the most important part of art.

What’s your first memory of Simone and/or the first song of hers you heard?

I started really digging in to Nina in my late teens. I would go to my school’s music library and find a corner desk and put on headphones and listen to her music for hours. I’d be wide-eyed, wondering, “How does she do that? How does her voice carry so much weight and power, even when she’s whispering?” Nina’s version of “Strange Fruit” (which was originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol) was the first offering of hers that I heard as a young girl. It was definitely not received as a point of celebration but as a point of grief, identifying the bitterness of racism that still runs under the soil and up through the roots of our society. You could tell by how she sung it that she wouldn’t allow the message to be candy coated, but that she wanted it to sound just as bitter as it was meant to taste.

Why do you think Simone has remained such an icon after all these years? What’s her place in music history?

I believe that Nina Simone, although a confessed tortured soul seemingly from start to finish, created a space for music to be brutally raw. Even if some of us who follow in her footsteps choose to not be always quite so blunt and raw, we have respect for her as a mother lion. It comes down to reverence.

What is your favorite song and why?

Too many to count. I can’t answer this.

Bilal

Since 1999, Bilal has delved into everything from hip-hop to funk to jazz and counts A-list artists such as Common, Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, J Dilla, and The Roots as past collaborators. In Another Life, his new album released just last month, featured cameo spots from Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., Kimbra, and Ghostface Killah associate Adrian Younge.

How has Nina Simone and her music influenced your work?

I like Nina Simone. She’s a rebel, you know? She’s a rebel and a very high musician and artist. Nina knew the music, and she knew the rules and she knew exactly how to play them.

What’s your first memory of Simone and/or the first song of hers you heard?

My first memory of Nina would be when I found a record of hers a long time ago in high school, there used to be a record store around my way and I got a record of hers and the song was called “Wild Is the Wind.” I love that song by her.

Why do you think Simone has remained such an icon after all these years? What’s her place in music history?

Well, I think she remained an icon because of the things she stands for and the figments that she made with her music, you know she was a trailblazer. She’s opened up a lot of doors and when you’re part of the fabric of music you’re going to stand the test of time as long as music is around and music will be around forever. I don’t know, I can’t really say why but you know she means a lot to the struggle blacks have went through in the past and still going through today. I see a lot of Nina Simone in Lauryn Hill.

She really stretched the fabric of what black music can do. Her music was soulful but at the same time it was classic. She was an incredible classic pianist. She was mixing genres. You couldn’t say it was completely soul music; you couldn’t say it was gospel or blues. You know she mixed all of those elements in to make her own sound. That was the dope thing about Nina.

What is your favorite song and why?

“Wild Is the Wind”

Cold Specks

Somali-Canadian musician Al Spyx, also known as Cold Specks, is known for her rich vocals and self-described “doom soul.” Along with two full-lengths under her belt, including her Polaris Music Prize-nominated I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, the singer-songwriter has joined forces with Moby and Michael Gira of experimental rock outfit Swans.

How has Nina Simone and her music influenced your work?

I go through periods of exclusively listening to one voice. I always come back to Nina Simone. I know she has seeped into my music somehow as she has been a constant in my life. As a young black girl getting into music, one of the things I really appreciated was her defiance of popular music structures. Mostly, I loved her stunning, provocative songs.

What’s your first memory of Simone and/or the first song of hers you heard?

The first time I was exposed to Nina Simone was as a teenager. I came across this picture of her by Jack Robinson. The one of her crouching down to meet the camera with her intense gaze, jewels and beautiful afro. I was a young black girl desperately searching for a familiar looking hero and in that image I had found what I was looking for.

Why do you think Simone has remained such an icon after all these years? What’s her place in music history?

I think great art only transcends time if it provokes something in people. Her voice has the ability to make every strand on a body rise like a wide-eyed child honoring a great queen. Her performances were wildly beautiful. She addressed the burden of being black in America in a way that did not adhere to what was considered the norm in popular music. Her songs are as relevant today as they were then.

What is your favorite song and why?

“Alone Again, Naturally.” She sings hauntingly about the death of her father in a celebratory way. Singing lines like “I waited three weeks for him to die.” It’s all very f*cked up.

Andra Day

Promising soul singer Andra Day initially found her fame on YouTube after expertly covering Notorious B.I.G. and Marvin Gaye. She’s since gone on to perform at the BET Awards and the ESSENCE Festival, and even grab the attention of the Spike Lee, who directed the music video for her single “Forever Mine.” The classically trained artist — who’s earned comparisons to Lauryn Hill and Amy Winehouse — covers “Mississippi Goddamn” on the Google Play exclusive version of Nina Revisited and is gearing up to release her debut album, Cheers to the Fall, on August 28.

How has Nina Simone and her music influenced your work?

Her unique voice, vivid storytelling, and the way she would write about volatile issues so unabashedly, inspired me never to be afraid in my music, sonically or lyrically. It’s okay to shock people as long as simply shocking them is not your goal, it should be to tell the Truth.

What’s your first memory of Simone and/or the first song of hers you heard?

“I Put A Spell On You” was the first song I heard and it was initially the tone of her voice that drew me in. She started singing and it was like she reached out and pulled my face toward the speaker. She literally put a spell on me.

Why do you think Simone has remained such an icon after all these years? What’s her place in music history?

In addition to brilliant musicianship and versatility, she was the voice of a generation. The rebellious voice that says I am willing to put my life, art, and career on the line if it will move the needle for my people even a little. She understood that she had a responsibility with her gifts and her platform. That is a timeless thing.

What is your favorite song and why?

I would say “Mississippi Goddam” because it is so bold, and is everything that needed to be said about race and the South at the time she wrote it. It is fearless.

Mayer Hawthorne

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Producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Mayer Hawthorne has been delivering slick neo-soul tunes for nearly a decade now. The Grammy-nominated Renaissance Man first started out on Stones Throw Records, the indie hip-hop label headed by Peanut Butter Wolf, but has since released records, including 2013’s Where Does This Door Go, through majors like Universal and Republic Records.

(Note: Hawthorne chose to pay homage to Simone in his own way, with two short, yet moving lines.)

“Nina put her entire soul on every record. If you listen to ‘Wild Is the Wind’ and you don’t get the chills, you’re not even human.”

Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard

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Expert guitarist and tremendous vocalist Brittany Howard has led Alabama Shakes to three Grammy Awards for their impressive debut album, Boys & Girls. While the band firmly command the blues/roots rock genre, Howard herself has long drawn from soul music and has cited Simone as a major influence. This past April, she and the Shakes released Sound & Color, their sophomore LP and quite possibly one of the best of 2015.

How has Nina Simone and her music influenced your work?

Ms. Simone always considered herself a student of music. Before her death she was still studying piano. I believe that this drive is what.

What’s your first memory of Simone and/or the first song of hers you heard?

I remember hearing her deep contralto voice on public radio one day when I was in my teens. It was so unique and androgynous. Then I learned, afterwards, it was a woman.

Why do you think Simone has remained such an icon after all these years? What’s her place in music history?

I believe she has remained an icon because 1) She had an absolute and undeniable talent and 2) She was unwavering in character. An immovable force both on and off of the stage. She was fragile and she had problems but that’s why So many people can relate to her. She was imperfect and she would tell you about it. Despite what history may say down the line, I will always remember her as a woman who doesn’t take shit from anyone.

What is your favorite song and why?

My favorite songs of hers are from her live performance at Montreux Jazz Festival in ’76. My favorites are either her rendition of Janis Ian’s “Stars” or “How It Feels to Be Free.” Why? I can relate deeply.

How to Dress Well

Tom Krell, better known by his stage name How to Dress Well, is an experimental musician who weaves R&B and soul into his ambient, otherworldly arrangements. He’s covered the likes of R. Kelly and Janet Jackson and has released three widely-acclaimed albums, including last year’s devastating What Is This Heart?

How has Nina Simone and her music influenced your work?

Her voice is so pure. I love the way she uses her voice as a kind of material instrument beyond words and how her singing outstrips gender preconceptions.

What’s your first memory of Simone and/or the first song of hers you heard?

The first song I heard from Nina Simone was “Just Like a Woman.” It was right around the same time I had first heard Antony. These two people taught me that there is so much more freedom in singing than I had imagined before.

Why do you think Simone has remained such an icon after all these years? What’s her place in music history?

Low-key I think she’s underappreciated in music history and it’s – of course – because of her radical politics and her radical personality. If she were slightly easier to gentrify, she would be heralded as one of the absolute greats, but she doesn’t admit of that treatment because every note she sings burns with her radical spirit.

What is your favorite song and why?

My friend Colin recently tipped me off to this tune [“All We Know”]. It’s so amazing and just shows how far beyond Nina was and how live and real her music remains today!

Kimbra

Long before she and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” took over the airwaves in 2012, New Zealand’s own Kimbra had already carved out a loyal following on the strength of her unique electropop stylings, which often incorporate hints of classic jazz and soul. In fact, her debut album Vows, released back in 2011, featured a cover of Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring.”

How has Nina Simone and her music influenced your work?

Nina has influenced me with her abandonment and sometimes unsettling vulnerability that is at once met with a ferocious kind of strength, as well. She can dance on a note with incredible elegance and fragility one minute then embody a warrior in the next. I feel as though she carries both the masculine and feminine energy in a perfect balance as her instrument has such a muscular tone while being so tender at the same time.

She inspired me to be fearless in my own music and to let my pain and experiences shape my voice, instead of masking it. She taught me a lot about the power of restraint and subtlety also; the way in which she can color and convey so much emotion in one simple note or phrase.

What’s your first memory of Simone and/or the first song of hers you heard?

I knew vaguely of Nina’s work as a young teenager, I sung in a jazz choir that did covers of jazz standards and I remember owning a compilation CD that featured Nina singing songs like “My Baby Cares For Me,” etc., but it wasn’t until I heard Jeff Buckley cover her songs that I was taken deeper into her discography, and in a new way.

My most vivid memory would have been discovering her version of “Be My Husband.” I was so enamored with the song when I heard Jeff Buckley’s interpretation on his Live at Sin-é recording (which was the first Buckley record I ever heard). I went down a rabbit hole to find the origins of the song and found Nina’s version. It was so powerful. I loved hearing it as a women’s song, as I had only heard it first from a male perspective before then.

I watched the video a hundred times, and that sparked my deep love of Nina. I think her arrangement of this song also impacted the way I liked to use a cappella vocals and stripped back rhythm a lot in my early music. I loved the sparseness of the voice against the foot stomps. It had a primal quality about it that I was very drawn to.

Why do you think Simone has remained such an icon after all these years? What’s her place in music history?

She remained exactly who she is and never put a mask over her struggle and pain. She lived in a day and age where her kind of honesty and confronting performance style was not commonplace, but by staying true to her vision she has continued to live on as an icon of empowerment in black music and across the world. She spoke for a generation and embodied a strength and “realness” in her work which I think is so rare. I look up to her as a women driven by spirit and with a strong calling on her life and music.

What is your favorite song and why?

I have so many favorite moments from Nina, but my most treasured is probably her version of “I Put A Spell On You”. I always experience a kind of transcendence listening to this. The way she phrases everything is so gut-wrenching and effortless. I learnt a lot as a vocalist, about patience, from listening to Nina Simone. This song is the perfect example of that, she oozes every line with a teasing nature, but at any point she can fire off and become explosive, too. To me, that is the most exciting part of listening to a great soul singer; the tension and release.

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