In May of 2010, singer-songwriter Simon Felice should have been feeling on top of the world. His band The Duke & the King was preparing to release their second album Long Live the Duke & the King, the follow-up to 2009’s critically admired Nothing Gold Can Stay, And Felice’s wife was heavily pregnant with their first child, a double blessing given the couple had previously suffered a late-term miscarriage the previous year.
But Felice, who first gained a following playing alongside his siblings in folk-rock act The Felice Brothers, was not feeling on top of the world in the early summer of 2010. In fact, he was feeling like hell warmed over. “If you look at pictures of me, I was just pale and grey,” says the singer, 35, over the phone from his home “on a cliff” in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains. “I didn’t have insurance, I never went to the doctor. I didn’t know it, but I was slowly dying.”
Felice is not speaking metaphorically. After suffering a string of fainting spells, the singer eventually sought medical advice and was informed that he required immediate heart surgery to rectify a congenital defect that was severely reducing blood flow to his brain. “They told me, Mr Felice, there’s no medical explanation why you’re still alive, you need emergency open heart surgery tomorrow,” he says.
Felice was admitted to Albany Medical Center in upstate New York where, on June 2, his chest was cracked open and an irreversibly calcified aortic valve was swapped for a mechanical replacement. “My wife was eight months pregnant with our first child,” he says. “They wheeled me away on a gurney and I had to say goodbye [to her], and say goodbye to her belly and never know if I would see my baby.”
He would. Felice “busted out” of the Medical Center after just a few days of convalescence—“Hospital is the last place I want to be when I’m not feeling well”—and his daughter, Pearl, was born a month later. “We had her up here in the mountains with a midwife,” he says. “I cut the cord and I was just strong enough to pick her up. She looked me in the eye and it was almost like a rebirth. It was like I was born the same moment she was born. I wrote the song ‘You & I Belong,’ the same day.”
“You & I Belong” appears on Felice’s self-titled, debut solo album, which was released on Tuesday. After years of playing in bands, the singer says that he was inspired to strike out on his own by both his near-death experience and his daughter’s birth. “It came upon me like a storm in that summer,“ he explains. “It was almost as if I had this great initiation in blood and pain and then rebirth and joy with my daughter. That voice in my head that’s always been there, that whispers which path to take artistically or spiritually, it said, ‘It’s time for you to tell your own story—beat the dust off your wings, and don’t be afraid.’”
Musically, Simone Felice is a cohesive collection of country-folk songs, but its lyrics tackle a wide-ranging number of subjects from the rape of a young Native American woman (“Hey Bobby Ray”) to doomed actress Sharon Tate (“Ballad of Sharon Tate”) and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, the imagined loneliness of Courtney Love (“Courtney Love”). Felice says the album’s array of lyrical obsessions can be explained by the fact that the songs were penned during his post-operation recovery period. “I was on heavy doses of morphine,” he says. “I was having waking nightmares and also moments of complete bliss. Everything I read would have this supernatural sheen to it. I read this article about Courtney Love and it just broke my heart. It made me cry. I felt how lonely she must be.”
Guests on the album include the Felice Brothers and two Mumford & Sons members, Ben Lovett and Ted Dwayne. On March 10 of this year Felice reunited with the latter pair when he and the Mumfords played at one of the famous, jam-friendly “Rambles” hosted by ex-Band drummer Levon Helm at his barn in the Catskills, within bicycling distance of Felice’s own home. Among the songs he performed that night was Neil Young’s “Helpless,” a tune he played again a couple of weeks later in the course of his album’s release party show at New York’s Mercury Lounge.
Although the track doesn’t appear on Simone Felice, the singer says it has accrued a special meaning for him in the two years since his operation. “I was helpless,” he admits. “Like Neil Young says: ‘Helpless, helpless, helpless.’ For weeks, I couldn’t take care of myself, I couldn’t aid myself. This album really became the soundtrack of my humbling, or the soundtrack of my deliverance, if you will.”
These days, Felice is feeling on top of the world. In addition to releasing his solos album he also recently published his first novel, Black Jesus. “I’ve been chipping away at it for about five years,” he says. “I had a friend that had fought in Iraq. He came back with the kind of wounds that you can’t see, the ones that are in your heart and in your mind. It really shook me up. I wanted to write a story about a soldier coming home. It’s about this kid from a white-trash town who comes home blinded by a roadside bomb. This runaway stripper from L.A. comes into his town on a moped and she finds a way to love him It’s really a story about how love is the greatest balm. It’s been in my own brain for about 5 years, so it’s nice to let it have a life of its own.”
“Honestly I haven’t felt so good in many years,” continues the singer, who reveals that, after talking to EW, his next appointment is with a pile of wood that needs chopping. “Because of the problem with my heart, my airflow was being cut off. I was failing. Now I have a proper amount of blood to my body and brain. For many years, I lived for myself, I was the center of my own universe. Now Pearl is the center of my universe. I take very good care of myself and I just live for my work and my daughter. I‘m very fortunate just to be here.”
You can watch the enjoyably bananas video for the Mumfords-assisted “You and I Belong” below.