One of the first things you notice about Simone Grey is the violet eyes. They're contacts, of course, but set against her black hair and beautifully sculpted, unmistakably Middle Eastern face, the effect is still striking.
And, like a lot of things about Simone, carefully calculated.
There are the black toenails, the gold nose ring, and the laugh--a silky trill that comes often, lasts long, and cuts through the conversation with a manic, self-reverential edge that says "I may be out of balance, but I'm also bright, and let me assure you, it's a grand combination."
A solo performance artist as of this winter, Simone appears around the Valley under the name Bare Wire, singing selections from her recent, self-released "ambient blues" album Delicatessen. It's a theme recording. Like the young singer/songwriter in Say Anything . . . who only writes about an ex-lover named Joe, Simone writes material that deals with the same failed relationship (it's Henry, in her case).
But Simone doesn't play guitar. She just sings, gliding atop stagnant pools of pre-recorded ambient tracks in a voice so powerfully emotive and haunting that it transcends her one-trick lyrics, which read like the heartbroken missives of a 15-year-old bedroom-journal writer, blasting the Cure and scrawling their pain in finger-pricked blood.
When she talks about her life and work, Simone talks hard. A single prompt can yield 15 minutes of seamless, stream-of-consciousness word jams, splattered with whiplash subject changes, vivid metaphors and glaring, self-critical neurosis. She says the on-again, off-again affair that inspired Bare Wire began nine years ago and ended only last summer. So you ask her, "What do you miss most about that relationship?"
And this is what she says:
"I miss wanting something and being deprived of it. I was usually the other woman in this relationship. I was always the girl who wanted what she could not have, and he would always quite happily not give it to me. And I thrive on that. I thrive on the turmoil and the angst. I get pleasure in hungering for what I can't eat, and if I feel full, I feel weird, like the waves have stopped and the wind has died down.
"I've spent a lifetime accepting, justifying, reasoning and working with not being happy, not being balanced. I suppose if I were a better person, I could probably make the switch, but I'm not, so I won't. I try to imagine what I would be like if I were dating somebody that really loved me and treated me well, and I realize that I couldn't handle it, and I would do things to sabotage it.
"I'm like this little kid, about 5 years old, and I desperately want to be held, to feel arms around me, the security and affection. Only the thing is, no one will ever put their arms around me. Or at least I think that they won't. Or maybe they have put their arms around me, but it feels like they don't really mean it, like they just have their arms on my back but they're not really touching me. And so out of frustration and anger and hostility, this something within me that is really sinister and self-destructive, I get this irresistible urge to push that person away. And then they fall down, and they get hurt, and they walk away. And that's what I do to people.
"I write about this stuff all the time, and I have people read my writing and I'm so proud because I'm like, 'Look, this person is so disturbed, and they're aware of it.' Most people aren't really impressed, but I always thought it was kind of a talent to be as neurotic and psychotic as me and be totally philosophical and self-aware about it."
And then she stops, breathes, takes a sip of her iced tea and looks at you like, "Okay, now what?" And you're sitting there thinking, "Get the fuck out of here." The tortured artist as pretense. What a put-on. And then when Simone cries during a performance a few days later, you cynically wonder where those tears are coming from.
They start to trickle down her cheeks five songs into an eight-song set on a small stage in the courtyard outside the Willow House, a central Phoenix java joint. The song is called "On Grade," and it goes a little something like this: Please watch me, watch me crawl for you across, across the floor, you bastard, watch me crawl, make me crawl, oh, how I want to crawl, crawl to you.
Stark on paper, the words sound like cheap dialogue from an S&M porn script. The music on Delicatessen is no help. It's just minimalist synthesizer lines and ambient wave patterns that Simone wrote herself as a perfunctory backdrop to her vocals. The album also has no beats. "I don't play drums," Simone says. "And I don't have a band, because being in a band involves getting along with people. And I don't play well with other children. Eventually, I always do something to ruin it."
Before she began Bare Wire, Simone was in a project called Urethane with Tempe musician Chris Bailey, who also plays guitar for Beats the Hell Out of Me. Urethane had a strong studio track on the Exile on Cameron Harper Street local compilation CD released earlier this year, but broke up in June after Simone wrote Bailey a list of demands, including total control of the group's image.
Precise control, however, is the lifeblood of Simone's vocal talent. She has a phenomenal range and a deep bag of dynamics she seems to reach into at will, pulling out a sultry whisper for one phrase, an unnerving banshee wail for the next and a stuttering moan for another. And most of the time, Simone bends notes so wildly or draws syllables out so long, she might as well be singing in another language. Shallow lyrics become vehicles for purely visceral expressions of pain.
Watching Simone onstage is a captivating experience, but not a comfortable one--you are forced into the role of voyeur, as if you just stumbled upon a stranger who is naked and sobbing but doesn't know you're there.
Simone performs barefoot, sitting down, eyes alternately open and closed. She wears studio headphones in favor of stage monitors, pumping the same mix of prerecorded backing tracks and live vocals the audience gets directly through her head at extreme volume. She also wears a revealing, black silk dress and sways suggestively while she sings, occasionally toying with a lace strap, slowly running a finger from her shoulder down to one of her breasts and back. "I'm aware of the eroticism in my performances, but it's instinctual," she says. "After all, I'm not singing of an asexual sorrow. My pet didn't die, I lost my lover."
The dedication on the back cover of Delicatessen reads "all for henry/always for henry." Simone says the songs on the album were written over a three-year period starting in the summer of 1992, six years into a torturous relationship that began when she was 17 and fell for an Arizona State University art student who worked at a record store. She met him buying music. He was 20 at the time. His real first name is Hank. "Henry" was Simone's pet name for him.
"When I first wrote these songs and figured out how I wanted to sing them, it was so I could play them just for Henry, as an effort to reach him," she says. "Obviously, if he had broken down and said he was moved and that I shouldn't feel that way and that he loved me, there never would have been an album or a Bare Wire.
"But I could have hanged myself in public and said I was doing it because he wronged me and he wouldn't have reacted to it."
Once it was obviously, finally over, Simone says, she decided to take her material public. "I felt he should be held accountable, and I wanted to get under his skin. But I've started to outgrow my desire for him, and that motivation is waning. And because I know that gradually these songs will lose their meaning for me, I'm writing new material that comes from a different place, because my old source of agony has dried up."
Hank/Henry still lives in Tempe. But he says he hasn't been to see Simone perform, and has no plans to. "I know it's really a stage thing. You need to see her pulling her hair out and beating on her boobs to get the message, but you have to understand, I've already heard most of these songs three or four hundred times. I was trying to sleep half the time she was burning candles and sweating over her keyboard trying to write them."
Hank, whose tall, blond, chiseled, all-American good looks make for a compelling contrast with his pierced tongue, says that "Henry is not real. The person she wrote those songs about only exists to her. I'm not proud of the way I treated her. She was just someone I called between or during other relationships. But she followed me, she would always call me. She was obsessed.
"She put all the buttons in my hands and I was like . . . [Hank makes frantic button-pushing motions, as if he's holding a remote control], 'Wheee, look at what she'll do.' And I recognize that was wrong. But, no, I'm not going to go put myself through one of her shows. I don't thrive on confrontation and scandal. Besides, it would just give her more to write about. I just want this to be over, once and for all and forever."
Hank recently took a job as the manager of a coffee house. He says he had Simone's old name for him put on his business cards. That way, he says, if someone phones the shop asking for Henry, he'll know it's not a personal call.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.