JD Simo discusses his new album, being a part of the Nashville music scene, playing with Phil Lesh and Friends and what’s next
Nashville guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer has been playing music all of his life. Simo grew up in Chicago, learning to play the guitar by the age of 5 and forming a band and releasing a live EP by the age of 15. He spent most of his teenage years touring, both in solo endeavors and in various bands. He moved to Nashville in 2006, becoming the lead guitarist in the Don Kelley Band, which led to his employment as an in demand session musician until 2011. He formed the rock band SIMO in 2010, performing at festivals such as Mountain Jam and Bonnaroo and opening for artists such as Gregg Allman, Deep Purple, Blackberry Smoke and Trigger Hippy. Although he loves the old school blues that SIMO plays, he also loves free-form psychedelic music and in 2018, he did his first solo tour opening for Tommy Emmanuel. On March 1st, Simo released his first solo album Off At 11, which mixes old school blues with more psychedelic free form rock. He produced the album himself at his home studio in Nashville and has been touring in support the album over the past couple of months, both in the US and abroad. He recently started playing, as well, with Phil Lesh and Friends, having performed his first show as a member of the band at Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads. With more touring, side projects and recording on the horizon, Simo has no plans to slow down anytime soon. You can follow JD Simo and stay up-to-date with upcoming music and tour dates, as well as stream and purchase his music, via the following links. Check out the track “Boom, Boom Out Go The Lights” from the new album below.
You have been playing guitar since you were 5 and had formed a band and sold 5,000 albums by the time you were 15. What has your growth and evolution as an artist been like over the years? What do you feel that you have learned about yourself as an artist, as well as about the industry as a whole?
Well that’s a very complicated question. In short, the older I get the more I realize the less I know. The most important thing I can do as an artist is to be honest. Over time, I’ve certainly grown more ok with what it is I truly am. It’s a never ending process, but only in the last couple of years do I feel that I’m finally getting to a point that not only do I have something to say as an artist but that I’m willing to say it. Youth is wasted on the young and I certainly wish I could bury anything I did until recently but it’s a part of my journey and I’m proud of where I am at because of it.
You recently released your debut solo album, ‘OFF AT 11’. What can you tell me about the inspiration behind the album? I read that the album was inspired by a solo tour you did in 2018 and the realization that there was a lot of old school blues music from the ‘50s that you really wanted to do that you never felt the support to do in your band SIMO. How do you feel that your solo project has helped to cultivate your creativity?
I had built a studio in my house in Nashville…just a funky 8 channel space that made the kind of sounds I love the most. Like Willie Mitchell’s studio in Memphis kind of a vibe. Homemade and funky.
I did a tour alone in January of 2018 with Tommy Emmanuel and yes, there was a ton of old school stuff that just never made it’s way into the band in any lasting way. After the tour, I started recording a bunch of songs with friends, mostly to learn the room and experiment. However, over the course of a few months, I’d recorded a bunch of stuff I wanted to use. Then I went to play with Phil Lesh and I was confronted with the realization that as much as I love old school blues like Magic Sam and Earl Hooker I also love free form psychedelic music, whether Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, Funkadelic or Isaac Hayes. Phil simply said I should “do both” hahahaha. So when I returned from that trip, I recorded a few out there type tracks and coupled those with a few old school tunes that I thought went well together. That’s now “Off At 11”.
You recorded ‘OFF AT 11’ during a 3 day period last year while on a break from touring. What was the recording process like, recording an album in such a short amount of time?
Well the 3 days was really spread over several months. In the end, the old school songs I’d recorded earlier the year, “Mind Trouble”, “Sweet Little Angel”, and “Got Love If You Want It” were all recorded in like a day or so and then when I got back from playing with Phil we cut the others in 2 days. I like to work really fast. I spend more time getting the sounds, then I teach the guys the tune quickly and we get a performance. I then do overdubs really fast, and if I didn’t sing the vocal live then I do that quick too. Old school.
You were born and raised in Chicago, spent some time in Phoenix when you were younger and now reside in Nashville. What led your decision to move to Nashville and what to you enjoy and find inspiring about the scene there?
I wanted to live in a place that had opportunities for someone like me. I had one dear friend who lived in Nashville and he talked me into it. Nothing about my life would be the same had I not moved there. I’m very grateful I did. It’s a very SMALL community and everyone knows one another. If you aren’t on your game or a jerk, you don’t last. It’s a beautiful community that I’m proud to be a part of.
You play as a guest of Phil Lesh and Friends. How did that opportunity come about? You also play with a variety of other musicians. Do you feel that being involved with so many different projects helps to keep you inspired and keeps your creativity flowing? Are there any musicians that you haven’t worked with that you are hoping to work with in the future?
My buddy Luther Dickinson introduced me to Phil and it’s a pleasure and blast whenever we do a Phil and Friends show. We just did one a few days ago in Vegas. As an improviser, it’s an indescribable thing. It’s just the mainline! Sure, you have to stretch and listen to music and seek out musical experiences as much as possible to grow otherwise you’ll stagnate. Oh there’s tons. I’d love to jam with Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade, Herbie Hancock. I could go on and on.
You have said that there isn’t a single way to express the blues and you always express two sides to yourself when playing, your joyful side and plaintive side. What can you tell me about these two forms of expression and how you go about combining the two live?
Oh I don’t really think about it. Thinking about it is what kills it. If you’re too cerebral, it can’t by nature be primal. I just try to be natural and let happen whatever can.
You were a session musician in Nashville for a number of years before forming SIMO and embarking on your solo project. How did you get your start as a session musician and what did you enjoy about it? Do you still do session work on the side?
It started as just playing on demos, then that led to working on publishing work for songwriters and eventually led to playing on masters. It was a gradual process but once I was in, it was intense and never ceasing. I enjoyed the challenge and getting to work with musicians I always looked up to. It certainly made me completely comfortable recording to a point that I have no issues with it now as an artist. Also I got to learn for years how to do it and make up my own mind about what I prefer and such as far as process and the technical side. I still do stuff on occasion but I’m too busy these days for the most part. I did get to play on some Beyonce stuff for Jack White a while back which was fun.
You have said that you are more inspired by limitations then options when it comes to gear/equipment. What is it about limitations that you find so inspiring? Do you feel that they result in more of a challenge to come up with the sound you are looking for?
Absolutely! If you’re dependent upon something other that just sheer connection to the God’s then I’m not as into it. If I have too much going on, again it’ll cause me to think too much which doesn’t work for me.
In staying so busy with many different projects and collaborations, what do you have coming up outside of the band? Anything new in the works?
I have a side project with Luther Dickinson that we should be able to finish soon. I think there will be some more stuff with Phil Lesh coming up later this year. I think more solo stuff with Tommy Emmanuel is in order as well. Lots going on!
What are you looking forward to the most with your tour with the Allman Betts Band? What have some tour highlights been so far and how has the response been to hearing the new album live?
Oh I just love to play! That’s the best part and I always look forward to that no matter what the circumstance. So far this year, the solo tour with Tommy Emmanuel in Europe was dope! This past Phil and Friends show was absolutely incredible with the Blind Boys of Alabama guesting with us! I’ve loved all of it!
What’s next for you after tour?
More touring, more recording and more life I hope! 🙂