When the email invitation came from David Byrne, best known for fronting the hit band Talking Heads (“Burning Down the House”) in the 1980s, native Woodstocker Simi Stone was so ecstatic, she cried. She will be touring with Byrne and his band as a backup singer, both in the U.S. and internationally, over the coming year — including a sold out show at UPAC in Kingston on March 10.
“I feel like an ice skater landing a triple axel,” confessed the full-voiced, statuesque singer, violinist, and guitarist. The connection to Byrne came through Natalie Merchant, former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs and a Hudson Valley resident. But Stone’s training as a musician is rooted in her childhood in Woodstock and her teenage years at Onteora High School.
She studied classical music from age eight to 18. “I took to it like a fish to water,” she said. “I started writing songs when I was nine. At Onteora, I studied with Winnie Paetow. She could’ve taught at Julliard, but we were happy to get her.” Stone also studied singing, choreography, and dance at the New York Conservatory of the Arts in Hurley and took three years of ballet with Anne Hebard in Saugerties.
At 18, she began performing with bands, often writing songs with other musicians. “I’ve been on the road a lot,” she said. “It’s been such a part of my life the past 15 years, on and off.” Stone has performed with The Gipsy Kings, Simone Felice, and other prominent musicians, as well as fronting her own bands, notably the Afro-punk group Suffrajett. A musical alliance with producer David Baron generated a solo CD and an EP of a song they wrote together, “Good Girl.” Stone’s TV appearances include a performance with the New Pornographers on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
In 2012 Stone joined Merchant, actor Mark Ruffalo, Pete Seeger, and others for a concert that became the centerpiece of the film Dear Governor Cuomo, a protest against the prospect of fracking in New York State. (Cuomo ended up banning fracking for the foreseeable future.) Stone also worked with Merchant on a campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence. “It was an amazing process to watch,” said Stone. “She is such a compassionate person. She showed me how to do activism.” Stone put together “Ladies of the Valley,” a benefit concert for Family of Woodstock’s crisis hotline and walk-in center, drawing together local musicians such as Kate Pierson of the B-52s, Amy Helm, Donna Lewis, Elizabeth Mitchell. “We have so much talent around here,” marveled Stone.
She sang on a number of Merchant’s recent albums, including Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. It was Merchant who recommended to Byrne that he give a listen to Stone’s music, and he included a song of hers on one of his online playlists. In 2015, he invited Stone to join a band he was assembling for a surprise appearance at Carnegie Hall. The event was a tribute to Byrne by other musicians. As Billboard described it, he “crashed his own tribute concert, leading a marching band down the aisle…and, eventually, to an onstage dance party to the tune of ‘Uptown Funk.’ He showed up at the end of an annual tribute that benefits music education, an unusual sight, since past musicians whose work was celebrated — like Paul Simon and Prince — did not appear.”
Stone first met Byrne in person at rehearsals for the Carnegie Hall gig. “He’s highly intelligent,” she said, “and he puts a lot of energy into perfecting what’s going on. He knows what he wants, but he’s also humble, learning it with you.”
Since the Talking Heads’ breakup in 1991, Byrne has pursued many artistic adventures, including solo recordings, performance art, and world music. He co-wrote two rock operas, one about Joan of Arc and the other about Imelda Marcos. He has called his 2018 tour “the most ambitious show I’ve done since the shows that were filmed for Stop Making Sense,” the 1984 Talking Heads concert movie.
Stone, who remembers listening to the Talking Heads when she was four, spent much of February in New York City, rehearsing for the shows, in which she’ll be singing back-up vocals and dancing. The tour, entitled “American Utopia,” has been booked across the U.S. and in places from Santiago, Chile, to Zagreb, Croatia.
Stone said Byrne is “in a great place where he wants to find joy in life, even though it’s tough right now, and share that joy. This is unlike anything I’ve done before. I am excited and so grateful to be part of David’s band.”
Simi Stone will appear as a back-up singer with David Byrne and a 12-piece band at Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston on March 10. For details and tickets, see http://www.bardavon.org/show/david-byrne. To learn more about Simi’s music and other shows on the tour, visit www.simistone.net.