Dave Simonett: Songs Full of Shadows and Light

The Trampled By Turtles frontman steps out for his first proper solo venture

Dave Simonett Red Tail Variation (Art: Ron Hart)

Dave Simonett is the singer and main songwriter of Trampled by Turtles, a bluegrass band that strays into the territory of Americana and acoustic rock.

He also fronts Dead Man Winter, a side project with a more electric rock approach. However, Simonett left both bands behind for his new offering, Red Tail, an album he describes as his first solo project. 

“I tried making solo albums before, but they always turned into band projects,” Simonett said, from his Minneapolis home. “This time, I recorded completely by myself, in the small studio I have in a warehouse building. Initially, it was just me on guitars – electric and acoustic – and a little Casio keyboard, run through a couple of guitar pedals. I sang harmonies with myself, one of my favorite things to do. When I listened to the recordings, I didn’t feel satisfied, so I rerecorded half of them with a few more people. We did those tracks live, everyone together in one room. I picked guys I know, old friends that play well, and had them lay down whatever came out first. They hadn’t heard the songs before we went in there, so it was really done on the fly.” 

Dave Simonett (Photo: Zoe Hinds, Art: Ron Hart)

The songs on Red Tail are full of heartbreak and missed connections. Many deal with disintegrating relationships, or love affairs that are in a state of dissatisfying stasis. “Revoked” opens with quiet acoustic fingerpicking and Simonett’s whispered vocals, describing a man standing alone in the winter night, trying to come to terms with the emotional damage he’s done. Gospel flavored acoustic piano and long sustained notes from an electric guitar lend an ambient melancholy to “In the Western Wind and the Sunrise.” The singer contemplates the happy moments of a long gone relationship, as the music slides into an instrumental coda filled with yearning and regret. It’s a technique he uses to great effect on several of the album’s more desolate tunes. “The instrumental passages were not planned but, since I was producing, nobody told us to stop improvising. The music was serving the need of the song and, when I went back and listened to the result, they became my favorite parts of the album.” 

While it’s not a break-up album as such, it was written in the wake of Simonett’s divorce, so a bit of autobiography did slip into the lyrics. “The songs are all about my feelings. They may be true stories, but they’re usually a lot of experiences distilled into one song, rather than a specific story I’m trying to tell. I’ve never been that good at linear storytelling. The music is usually more uplifting than the lyrics, but I don’t put a lot of thought into why I write that way. I connect with songs that are about real feelings, so I hope people can connect with my songs in the same way.  

“I like it when a song hits you in the gut. Sometimes it’ll be the lyric, sometimes the melody, or the way that elusive combination of both touches you. It’s an indescribable quality I’m reaching for. I don’t know if I get it every time I write, but I’m always searching for that magic.”

 

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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