On the edge, once again
JARED LEVY, a manager of artists and a music industry marketing strategist, was playing volleyball on the beach a few years back when Eliza Roberts began chatting him up. She insisted that Levy go see her son, Keaton Simons, play a show that night at Temple Bar on Wilshire Boulevard.
Levy was tempted to blow it off, but Roberts was forceful, and charming, so he went. He was floored by what he heard. Simons was what music executives call a “triple threat.” He could write compelling songs, sing with a distinctive, soulful voice and play guitar with skill and ferocity. He sounded like a polished pro, not a raw newcomer, with enough sound and charisma to fill an arena. It turned out there was a reason for that. “I’d been around for years,” Simons said recently.
“He was one of the best musicians I’d ever seen. And there were 15 people there,” Levy said. “I know this is a tough town, but I thought: What is the disconnect here?”
The answer, he would learn, was tortuous, even by the standards of the modern recording industry. Simons’ career had been delayed and derailed from the start -- by cursed Hollywood connections, by a doting but heavy-handed mother, by his own drug use and melancholy, by business deals that collapsed around him, including one with Maverick Recording Co., the record label founded in part by Madonna.
Now, Simons -- who has toured the West, played “The Tonight Show” and had songs on big TV series -- finally has his first major-label album. “Can You Hear Me” landed Tuesday on Larry Jenkins’ relaunched CBS Records, and the first single, “Good Things Get Better,” has the catchy, hand-clapping beat of a potential summer hit.
Simons, 29, appears ready, at last, to make a splash. If only the music industry -- and this town -- can stay out of his way. “I love everything about music,” he said, the other day, as he puttered around his home studio in Woodland Hills. “I do not love everything about the music business.”
Simons was not born into Hollywood royalty, but he was born to people who lived just outside the castle walls.
His grandmother, Lila Garrett, was a pioneering TV writer. His grandfather, David Rayfiel, wrote the 1975 award-winning film “Three Days of the Condor.” Another grandfather, Don Garrett, was a publicist for The Supremes and numerous other acts. His mother was pregnant with Keaton when she played Brunella, the doe-eyed desk clerk in “Animal House,” and has since performed in dozens of films and TV shows. His father, Jimmy Simons, was a producer on the critically acclaimed, long-running sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle.” His stepfather is the actor Eric Roberts, Julia Roberts’ brother.
Pretty much from the start, it was clear that music was Simons’ thing. At 2, he would sit at the piano and imitate -- with surprising precision -- the first measures of whatever his mother had played, whether it was Joni Mitchell or Domenico Scarlatti.
A few years later, his parents gave him a kids’ guitar, but he rejected it in favor of a regular-sized one -- not because he wanted to play a grown-up instrument but because, he said, the sound quality was superior.
It was an unusual childhood; no one ever seemed to be working a normal job and people always seemed to be awake at strange hours, he said. “I did a lot of parenting,” he said. “I had a very adult thing about me when I was little.”
That did not translate into a steady academic life. When he was 14, he said, he was kicked out of high school after he was caught growing marijuana inside an abandoned school locker. He finished high school with a tutor at home, at age 16.
At Evergreen State College in Washington state, Simons poured himself into music, dissecting the works of Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon and mastering every instrument in a traditional Indonesian gamelan ensemble. And he began writing his own songs -- including “Currently,” which is on the new album. That song demonstrated the wry wisdom that would become a hallmark; it concludes: “I am currently in love with you.”
Simons soon began making waves in the L.A. music scene, playing with a host of influential artists: Snoop Dogg, with whom he appeared on “The Tonight Show”; Tre Hardson of the Pharcyde; N’Dea Davenport of the Brand New Heavies.
He appeared to be on his way, largely because of his musical gifts but also because of connections. Eric Roberts began carrying copies of Simons’ recordings with him to auditions to leave with producers needing music for soundtracks. Actor David Duchovny, a family friend, would soon hand-deliver Simons’ recordings to Craig Ferguson, resulting in a booking on Ferguson’s show.
“People would tell me year after year after year: He’s going to be huge,” his mother said. “But unrealized talent can be a great burden.”
On a rocky road
Indeed, IT seemed to be weighing on him all along.
Simons said his drug use was increasing. Pot, then acid and mushrooms, then heroin. He doesn’t regret much of it, but today -- after six years of sobriety -- he realizes that he was troubled and sad at the time. It was particularly acute in the wake of the death of a close friend and musical collabo- rator.
“I would describe it as intense apathy,” he said. “I began to think: Is there a difference, whether I’m alive or dead? There is, of course, but I wasn’t sure.”
In 2002, through a friend of his mother’s, he met the brains behind the Matrix, a “hit factory” that had hatched artists such as Avril Lavigne. Maverick Records had asked the Matrix to bring in new talent, and Simons was among those picked. He signed with the label, and the result was an 11-song album, “Exes and Whys.”
It was a sure thing, Simons said, “a smasheroo.”
But Maverick executives, who initially had professed their love for the album, soon announced that they were going to turn it into a low-budget, five-song EP -- “to an artist, death,” Levy said.
The reason would become clear: Maverick was collapsing in a flurry of lawsuits and alleged financial shenanigans. When Simons tried to retrieve master tracks of his album, he was told he could have them, he said -- for $600,000. He didn’t have the money.
The EP got him some traction on regional radio; he was popular briefly in Tucson, for instance. But radio stations’ interest faded quickly.
Without the backing of a label, there wasn’t enough of a push behind Simons’ songs to get them into mainstream circulation on pop radio.
And yet, station executives told his mother -- by then his new manager -- that he was too connected to fit in with alternative programming. How handy, they whispered, that he had been cast as a folk singer on “Malcolm in the Middle,” his father’s show; that he’d been asked to write a song for the film “Mercy Streets,” which featured his stepfather.
“There was this perception that he had been kissed in,” Eliza Roberts said. “It’s the prettiest-girl-at-the-dance syndrome. Keaton looks like he’s got it all.”
Flustered that the rest of the world wasn’t getting it, she began compiling every recording Simons had ever done -- professional-quality recordings, as well as outtakes and demos with unpolished sound quality. She put them together on a 28-song compilation and published it herself.
It was done with the best of intentions. But it’s a catty industry, and it was interpreted like this: Simons’ mother had released his greatest hits before he ever had a hit.
Right or wrong, that was not the way for Simons to accrue credibility.
“It was not,” Simons said, “the smartest thing to do.”
His mother is unrepentant, insisting that the compilation was the only thing that kept Simons on the industry’s radar.
“I just want it with all my heart,” she said. “It kind of better happen, in a way, because my heart would break if his did.”
ELIZA ROBERTS kept pushing the CD compilation, dropping it off at the offices of music producers and selling it after Simons’ shows. She would tell strangers about her son -- which is how she wound up meeting Levy at the beach.
Levy, then working as Fran Drescher’s personal assistant, eventually became Simons’ manager; one of his first orders of business was to pull -- from online music distributors, mostly -- every copy he could find of the compilation. It was time to start over.
Simons, fighting his instincts, recorded another five-song mini-album. Levy sent that to Jenkins, the veteran music record executive, who had just been asked to run CBS Records -- to build, effectively, an independent label with one foot in traditional recording and one in modern media.
“It was like: My god,” Jenkins said. “How is the world not beating down the door to sign this guy?”
Jenkins began trying to sign Simons in February 2007. Both sides were advised not to do it. Simons’ lawyers told him to walk away because CBS Records was asking for free use of his songs on ads or network television shows -- “and that can be the bread-and-butter of an artist’s career,” Levy said. And music executives were telling Jenkins that Simons had had his shot, that despite his modest perch he had no place to go but down. Jenkins did not agree.
In July 2007, Simons signed his contract. He went back into the studio a month later and walked out in September having completed -- sort of -- his first traditional album. It’s a deft effort at capturing Simons’ unusual and versatile sound. The songs include delicate, jazzy ballads and powerful blues numbers, peppered with elements of Elvis Costello, Eagle-Eye Cherry and Lenny Kravitz.
“It’s easy for people to say that artists have had their time: Move on. But when you have great talent you don’t just set it aside,” Jenkins said. “It doesn’t go away because of someone’s age or because of bad circumstances. . . . Now he’s part of our family. We’re not going to stop until the world knows about Keaton Simons.”
Despite it all, Simons remains ambitious -- and supremely confident.
“Everything I’ve done has prepared me for this moment,” he said. “I want my music to get to people. I want to perform in front of as many people as possible for the rest of my life. To get to that place, you have to be totally focused. You don’t just slip through. Nobody knows that more than I do.”
Keaton Simons will perform June 23 at Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles.