Keaton Simons: White Boy with Soul (Exclusive Interview)

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100% Singer/Songwriter. Well, almost. Throw in a little funk, some soulful blues undertones, wrap it in powerful lyrics and dip it in a raw sensuality: That’s Keaton Simons.

His sound is one of a classic singer/songwriter (think Van Morrison or John Hiatt), but embraces his musical influences. “Hendrix, Dylan, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Robert Johnson, to name a few, he says.”

Simons is a Renaissance man when it comes to his career. He’s garnered a presence on radio, including MTV’s specially formatted college outlet, sharing top spins with Green Day and Eminem. No stranger to television (having appeared on The Tonight Show, Late Night with Craig Ferguson and Ellen), he’s shared the stage with Coldplay, Chris Isaak, Gnarls Barkley and Josh Kelley, and he’s worked with folks like Jason Mraz, Pink, Dixie Chicks, Cyndi Lauper, Black Eyed Peas and Snoop Dogg.

Not too bad for a 32 year old white boy with soul.

Born and bred just outside of Los Angeles, California, Simons rocked the guitar by age 12, and by 14 he had unequivocally decided music was his career.

“I grew up in the entertainment business,” he says. “My family is all involved in film and television mostly. Overall that’s been beneficial because it’s given me the opportunity to understand that world and even though the film and television industry are very different than the music business, there are similarities and it’s helpful.”

Simons attended Evergreen State College (Olympia, Washington), where he studied Ethnomusicology—the study of social and cultural aspects of music and dance in local and global contexts.

Evergreen College has gained notoriety due to its non-mainstream approach to education. Formed as an experimental college in 1967, the faculty issues narrative evaluations about students work instead of grades.

“I was always afraid that if I learned a real regimen, I would lose my soul and spontaneity,” he recalls. “But when I actually started to study music and composition, I began to realize that learning the discipline would actually enhance my ability.”

Enhance his ability it did. His songs began to appear in movie soundtracks and television scores, and he became music director for The Pharcyde, an alternative hip/hop group from South Central Los Angeles.

In 2004, Simons signed a deal with the ill-fated Maverick Records, which was officially swallowed up wholly by Warner Bros. in that same year. He was left without a record deal, but ever the DIY artist, he continued to tour, self promote and create music.

Four years later, in 2008, he was signed with CBS records.

“It’s wonderful,” he says. “The thing about CBS it’s a great mixture of the old school and the new school. They’re very progressive, forward thinking. But there’s also a great, traditional familial feeling. It’s still a very small roster and it’s great. I dig it, man. I dig the people there, and I dig the other artists on the label. It’s a cool situation.”

Simons released his first full length LP, Can You Hear Me, in June, 2008. The record was produced by Grammy-winner Dave Bianco, who has had an illustrious career with heavy rock bands like Coal Chamber, U.S. Crush, Danzig and Failure. Bianco has also worked with more mainstream artists such as AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, John Hiatt, Mick Jagger, Del Amitri and The Posies.

A man with a message, Simons recently joined the newly formed Give a Damn Project, headed by Cyndi Lauper. The organization—primarily focused on gay and lesbian rights—also addresses hate crimes, youth suicide, elderly care and other human rights issues.

“Any issue that has to do with human rights is really important and inspiring to me,” says Simons. “It’s absurd for anyone to be discriminated against based on anything, and the idea that gays and lesbians aren’t allowed to get married is unbelievable to me. It seems impossible that this would still be going on, and so it pisses me off. My sister’s gay, so it kinda touches home for me.”

“Give a Damn is a series of PSAs. Wanda Sykes, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Mraz, Elton John, Clay Aiken—just so many people. So, I did one that is yet to be released. They’re being released monthly, but I did the score and music for all of them.”

Give a Damn responds to Proposition 8, which gained attention across the country and the world and remains a topic of controversy today. In a nutshell, “Prop 8″ was a California ballot initiative which sought to change the state constitution and add a new section that would read: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in the state of California.” The measure’s passage in 2008 was met with riots, protests and civil unrest—followed by the state government rescinding previously issued marriage licenses within the gay and lesbian community.

“To me,” says Simons, “it’s representative of a dangerous blurring of the line between state and church, which is still not clearly defined after hundreds and hundreds of years. Still, every politician uses religion as part of their campaign. And the main position people take against gay marriage is some sort of religious stance. People use the constitution when they want, and ignore it when they want. I wish it would be just one way or the other. Value it and respect it or throw it out and start over.”

The strength of Simons’ lyrics is born from a pure and unbridled honesty. “My ultimate goal from my creations is to have it be as clear a window from the deepest part of myself straight out to the world. And my goal is to get more and more honest, more and more candid,” he explains.

Touring with Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon—artists that had their heyday when he was still in diapers—seems a strange combination for this young singer/songwriter.

“I’m just super stoked to be on this tour,” he says. “My tour manager’s dad gave me a gift of a bunch of REO Speedwagon and Pat Benatar records, and I didn’t know, but they actually have a record called You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tune a Fish. That’s the kind of shit that would never fly in modern day record business. Do you think anyone would let that go today? No way. The cover itself is a fish with a tuning fork in its mouth.”

Simons is currently working on his follow up to Can You Hear Me, which is expected to be even bluesier, even more Ray Charles than his debut effort. “I’m really excited about it,” he says. “I would love to release it this year, but you never know. This is a wacky business,” he confides with a wink.

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