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'I'm Nina Simone's daughter. Of course I'm angry'

Lisa Simone is finally escaping the shadow of her notoriously difficult mother. The singer tells Nick Duerden why it's her time now

Published 02/04/2016

Lisa Simone performing
Lisa Simone performing
Troubled voices: Lisa as a child with her mother Nina

It is rarely easy, if you are the product of a mercurial parent, to establish your own identity in life - even if, to some extent, you are a chip off the old block. Lisa Simone knows this only too well. She has lived within her mother Nina Simone's shadow for most of her 53 years.

"I prefer to call it her shade," her daughter says, smiling serenely.

Nevertheless, the shade continually threatens to consume her. A new biopic about her mother, entitled Nina, opens next month, and has come under criticism for being full of factual errors. "The project has been tainted from the very beginning," Lisa Simone told Time magazine recently. "Clearly, it is not the truth about my mother's life. This is not how you want your loved ones remembered."

Like her mother, Lisa is a singer of jazz and blues, and has been throughout adulthood. But it was not until 2014 that she released her first album, All Is Well. Now comes My World.

"If it had been up to me," she says, "you and I would have been having this conversation a long time ago, or else I would have been on to my 10th album by now. But life has a way of being life, doesn't it?" We meet in Boisdale, a jazz venue in the heart of Canary Wharf, in London. She is here to play a three-night residency, and has travelled overnight from her home in the south of France. The switch from the US to France two years ago was necessary, she says.

"I had an epiphany one night," she says. She explains that she had long been trying to establish a music career in the US but had been told she was too old. So she came to Europe, played shows to receptive crowds in Paris, and then sought out her mother's old house in a small village just outside Marseille. It had lain empty and abandoned since Nina's death in 2003. "It felt like home to me, and knew I had to stay," Lisa says.

Simone emits the kind of radiance suggestive of someone who has been pushed to the brink before managing to claw her way back.

"Have I been angry in my time?" she says at one point. "Have you seen the film about my mother?" She is talking about 2015's What Happened, Miss Simone?, a riveting documentary she co-produced about her mother's turbulent life: the abusive marriage to Andrew Stroud, a former police officer; her increasingly vocal part in the civil rights movement; and her long undiagnosed depression and bipolar disorder. She was a difficult woman, so furious at the world that she needed someone to take it out on. Often, that someone was Lisa.

"Of course I've been angry," Lisa says now. "I'm Nina Simone's daughter. That's who I come from. That's why I've had so much work to do."

Endeavouring to explain how her new album brought about some much-needed personal fulfilment, she says: "We are all one in this world, and we have so much depth that unites us, so much more than that which divides us. So I have written some songs about the human experience.

"Twentysomething years ago, when I decided I want to do this for a living, my mother was like: why? So I asked God to help me inspire love and positivity in others from the stage, with examples of my own life. I was 28 years old, and had no idea quite what a mouthful that was."

Her point is that now she does. "It's important, I think, to come from a place of clarity," she says. "Don't you?"

Lisa Simone was born in 1962 and, until her parents' separation, she grew up in New York.

After the split, she divided her time between her mother and father, attending a series of boarding schools. She had wanted to become a lawyer, but ended up as a civil engineer in the US Air Force, serving in the US, South Korea and Germany.

But the yearning to sing - irrespective of her mother's opinions on the matter - never quite left her. At 28, she returned to the US, and managed to find work: first as a backing singer, then in Broadway musicals.

"I didn't think being 'the daughter of' would stand in my way," she says, "and I didn't think I needed it to open any doors either, because I always believed in myself. Call it naiveté or arrogance, but I never imagined it would take me this amount of time."

The fact that it has clearly pains her. For years now, she has practised a Buddhist meditation called the three doors of liberation, devoting much of her time to it. She says it has helped her deal with the myriad difficulties in her life, among them the problems she has faced as a mother herself. Simone has four children (including a stepson) between the ages of 16 and 33. While she has a strong bond with her 16-year-old daughter, relations with her other children, especially her oldest son, Joe, have been problematic.

"No matter how much I attempted to make different choices with him, we still came to the same place I did with my mom," she says, frowning severely. "Now, how did that happen? I didn't want it to, I tried to make different choices, I was cognisant. And yet! And yet! Here we are, still estranged, still with so much pain between us."

She tells me that two years ago, Joe, then 31, told her he hated her. Lisa was deep in meditation at the time; it helped her deal with the outburst, and, she says, see through it.

"You don't get angry if there isn't love, right?" It seems she continues to deal with familial pain all the time. After just one year at boarding school in France, her daughter deemed it "toxic", and so she and her father, Simone's husband of 20 years, returned to the US, leaving her alone in her mother's house, lonely and heartbroken.

Then why, I ask, does she simply not return with them? Her smile is a patient but tired one. "Because I'm at a stage in my life where the window won't stay open forever," she says. "My daughter will go to college soon; my husband [who works in international business] travels a lot. I don't want to be home twiddling my thumbs.

"And I don't want to continue focusing on my mom's legacy, either. I want to find my own place.

"For too long, I have been trying to navigate the quagmire of my mom's dirty water, if you will. No more. A different chapter, please. It's about me now."

My World by Lisa Simone is out now

Belfast Telegraph

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