Flowers and boxes. Those are the things singer-songwriter Simi Stone is absent-mindedly doodling on the page in front of her while she talks. She laughs a little when asked why. "In high school I was always sketching," she says. "Boxes were something I was always drawing, for some reason. I don't know why."
Artist types will commonly spend their teens and 20s doing their best to break out of the box they were born into. And often that box is some slow, quiet neck of the woods, far from the flashing lights and constant cool of the big city. But in the end, after a Homeric journey of self-defining and wild-oat-sowing, some of them return, spiritually if not physically, to the very place they once chafed so relentlessly against.
Having lived the life of a hard-rocking frontwoman and, more recently, toured the world with some of music's major acts, Stone has come back to the quietude of her hometown, Woodstock.
In some ways, Stone's upbringing is classic modern Woodstock, although she wouldn't grasp the distinctiveness of her surroundings until after she'd been out of them for several years. She was born Simi Sernaker in 1979 to a free-spirited Jamaican writer father and a New York-raised mother who taught at Saugerties High School. (Her mother is a disciple of Indian spiritual mentor Satchidananda Saraswati, whose famed followers include Alice Coltrane, Carole King, and Weezer's Rivers Cuomo. "When I was little, I'd meditate with my mom," Stone says. "She'd put me in her lap, and then we'd sit. It was just what we did. And when I was a teenager, I did a lot of walking around barefoot with my friends while we were tripping and listening to NWA and Bob Marley," Stone says with a laugh.
Stone's creative and performing impulses were apparent very early on and her parents encouraged them, enrolling her in ballet classes and, at age seven, classical violin studies. At 10, she began to get a taste for Manhattan's performance world when she started commuting there to study musical theater, jazz dance, and vocals at the New York Conservatory of the Arts. Her older sister's record collection (Devo, Talking Heads, David Bowie) lit a flame, and after high school she moved to the city to study in the theater department at Marymount College. There, she and some fellow students formed a rock band called the Slithy Toves, named for a line in Lewis Carrol's famous poem "The Jabberwocky." (Other bands with names sourced from the surreal, moniker-rich opus include Frumious Bandersnatch and T'was Brillig.) The Toves made inroads into the Lower East Side, where the exotic, statuesque Stone and her electric violin soon became fixtures of the late-1990s club scene.
In 2000, she hooked up with some other Downtown rockers and formed Suffrajet, a post-grunge hard rock outfit that stormed the stages of CBGB, the Bowery Ballroom, Irving Plaza, and Central Park, opening for such acts as Joan Jett, Erykah Badu, and the Roots while the city was at the height of one of its periodic rock revivals. "It was such an amazing time with the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and all the other great bands who were starting up in New York back then," she recalls. The group released its self-titled debut album in 2003.The following year, they moved to Chicago, where they made two more records, appeared in the 2006 film I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, and toured hard with the likes of Cheap Trick, Urge Overkill, and Eagles of Death Metal before checking out in 2008. After living the "crazy rock 'n' roll dream for six or seven years" and "partying like Led Zeppelin—but without the hits," it was time for the rolling Stone to roll home.
"I had no plan. I felt like I was living at the bottom of a fish tank," she says. "I went back to New York for a few months. I started doing Buddhist chanting and moved back to Woodstock, but I was still getting fucked up a lot. I lived in a place with pretty much just my guitars, my violin, a TV, and a bed."
Through it all, however, she kept playing, doing local solo acoustic gigs. One of them was at town venue the Colony, supporting Felice Brothers cofounder Simone Felice's project the Duke & the King. Felice liked what he heard and invited her to open dates on his group's impending US tour; soon enough, he asked her asked to join his band. Alas, the Duke & the King's reign was brief. After some heavy European and UK touring and numerous TV appearances for the 2010 album Long Live the Duke & the King, which saw Stone's live performances singled out for praise in the press, the act disbanded. Landing back in Woodstock, she continued to perform on her own and as an accompanist for an impressive list of touring and local artists that includes Conor Oberst, Dan Zanes, and Natalie Merchant. (Stone appeared on Merchant's 2014 self-titled album and 2015 record Paradise is There.) She also put together her own band to play the poppy mix of folk and contemporary soul she'd eventually dub "mountain Motown." Working with producer and songwriter David Baron (Lenny Kravitz, Michael Jackson, Meghan Trainor), she recorded 2015's Simi Stone with a cast of players that includes bassist Sara Lee (Gang of Four, B-52s), bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, and drummer Zachary Alford (the latter two of David Bowie's band).