Alina Simone

The mournful singer wants her stories to make you laugh.

Photograph: Bryan Bruchman

Ukraine-born Brooklyn musician Alina Simone garnered critical acclaim for her haunting 2008 record, Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware. And though she's not yet rich and famous, Simone's indie-rock life has provided her with a wealth of stories. Her debut collection of personal essays, titled You Must Go and Win (FSG, $14), addresses adventures on the road, awkward auditions set up through Craigslist and playing shows for crowds of two people, among other things. Simone spoke about the book, whose release coincides with that of a new album, Make Your Own Danger (Virtual Label, $13), before a gig at Joe's Pub.

The story behind You Must Go and Win is that an editor from Farrar, Straus and Giroux just asked you to write a book.
He liked my music, which is very dark. I think that's the book he expected—he wanted me to write some kind of dark novel that was movingly haunting. And everything I really wanted to write was just kind of funny. It is very different from my music. Maybe I get that out through my music and then I don't have to be a morose person. I tend to draw my lyricwriting influences from the starker end of the American fiction spectrum, whereas I'm much more concrete and prosaic.

Where does your sense of humor come from?
There may well be some sort of dark Russian humor gene that got passed along to me. My father, who served a couple years in a pretty brutal brigade of the Soviet army, in particular, taught me that any experience, no matter how dismal, "builds character." I was also very inspired by authors like Geoff Dyer, David Rakoff, Jonathan Ames. Dyer is one of my favorite authors, period. His raw honesty is always a revelation.

The book seems to describe a person trying to find her identity both in her career and culturally. What do you think the essays have in common?
It's more or less about becoming yourself: that becoming yourself is an effort. It's like, "I'm a work-in-progress"—especially during this period I'm writing about: my twenties and early thirties. Also, I think I made a lot of people sad with my music...that last album, [Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware], was heart-wrenchingly sad.  At the end of that, I was like, I really want to make something that makes people happy. I want them to laugh, and I want them to enjoy themselves.

In your essays about Russia, you mention seeing male strippers and being baptized by a priest called the Punk Monk. Do those things usually happen to people visiting Russia for the first time?
I went looking for odd situations. I was like, I'm here, I want to experience everything to the fullest. I said yes to everything. I had this sort of anthropological hunger to experience everything because I hadn't grown up there and I wanted to understand it.

You talk about your visit as an adult to your birthplace of Kharkov, Ukraine, which you left in 1976 when you were a child. Your parents were not pleased when you told them you wanted to return there.
They're obviously very proud of Russian culture. But they absolutely abhorred the Soviet government. We came to this country as political refugees. I think we came to understand one another. They eventually understood that I needed to experience this country on my own terms—create my own relationship with it and absorb the culture in my own way.

Alina Simone reads from You Must Go and Win, and performs new songs from Make Your Own Danger, at Joe's Pub Thu 9.

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