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18.04.2006. EPICA, Simone Simons

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This interview with Simone Simons of Epica was done face to face by Audrey Dujardin on April 18th, 2006.

Epica are one the fastest growing young gothic metal bands from the Netherlands. They are the spearhead of Transmission Records, and everyone recognizes their red-headed singer, Simone. Young Simone has nevertheless been with the band since it was in the spotlight, and during this conversation with me she was kind enough to go into much detail about vocal technique, touring and speculation on the next Nightwish frontwoman.

Hello! I have many questions about singing, but first of all i was wondering if you could please tell me a little about the tour and how that is going, and if you have any touring stories ?
Okay… I think this is about the 8th or the 9th tour… We’ve done so far, apart from the shows we do every week end. We’ve been touring in Europe many times, Mexico, Brazil, Chili, Argentina, Turkey… We’ve been to many many countries. I must say that every tour has its own stories. But we’ve had some bad experiences with health problems. I got really sick once in Mexico, I had to go to the hospital and get surgery, and another singer had to replace me for a few gigs, and sometimes you are really over-tired and you almost faint on stage. But most of the memories are really really good. Our fans are really wonderful, we have really a lot of support from the French people. From the start when we didn’t even have the Phantom Agony, the French fans were already there for us and it keeps on growing every year. When we were here in Lyon last year, there were 300 people, and now it doubles! So all the touring is paying off very well and we have another tour planned in September, we go to America and Canada, and before, around June, we go to the UK also for a few days.

And you’re doing the summer festivals?
Yeah we’re going to Germany, M’era Luna, some other small festivals…

And last year you were at Fury Fest…
Fury Fest in France? Yeah last year we played there. Yeah that was in the same week end that we also did Graspop in Belgium.

And on this tour, did anything unusual happen?
Yeah we had already one flat tire, and also the car, it started, but it couldn’t connect so it would drive so… Tomorrow when we go to Paris, they have to take the bus to the garage to fix it… We can drive it now but it might break down again, so when we go to Paris, it goes away to be checked, again. So far… Yeah , some band members getting really drunk and we can have fun with them but no groupies in the bus so far!

Yeah, you’re in charge!

Ok, now I would like you to tell me how you prepare for recording a new record. How do you rehearse, how do you prepare your songs, and how do you work in the studio?
First of all, Mark has a home studio, we record the songs there, we record the basic vocal lines, we adapt the lyrics to it. Some songs you work on for a year, and some vocal lines you have in 15 minutes. For example the Phantom Agony, I made the vocal lines in 15 minutes. And Blank Infinity, it took really long. And then once we get into the studio, it’s also the producer and the man who is the vocal coach, they listen to the songs, and then we write the lyrics to new vocal line, we record it and I listen to it, and I listen to it all day long and the next day I record my vocals for the album.

So you write the music first, well the melody, and then you adapt the lyrics to the melody…
Yeah it’s 50/50. Sometimes you have a really cool melody and then some lyrics get into your mind, but now our new album is going to be a concept album, so we made already titles for songs, and when you sing it, you can’t just write any lyric. So this time it’s a little harder for me. So when I have inspiration, I grab my laptop and I write down some words and then if I have a really cool melody, then Amanda Sommerville, the vocal coach, she’s American but she lives in Germany, and she is really good in adapting to it because she has a large vocabulary, so she can change the lyrics a little bit too, to the melody.

So you compose most of the vocal lines then?
Yeah. In collaboration with Amanda.

So what else do you sing apart from metal music?
I started off with pop and jazz singing lessons when I was 14, and then I quit after a year, when I was 16 I started classical singing lessons, and I’m still taking those, so classical singing has my priority, but with Epica I try to mix everything a little bit, because singing classical gets a little bit boring for me too. And Epica doesn’t need all the time classical vocals so I switch a little bit. I listen to all kinds of music, it’s not just metal. I like pop too, and I’m listening to Sade and Katie Melua are like pop jazz so I’m not really a fan of the really oldschool jazz.

So when you sing opera what do you sing for example?
Everything, also musicals, the Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Mozart…

What techniques do you use when singing? I didn’t notice that on stage you used too much belting…
I do belting with some songs, Kreatus, Blank Infinity, Mother of Light, it’s really the really loud vocals. I do belting. But no one really taught me the right technique, I just do it the way it feels good… In the past, my throat was like (gasp) killing me so you try to learn your body and adapt it the way it feels good. Also my vocal teacher, he didn’t teach me that. I asked him how to do it and he said he heard some kind of techniques, but for me it works out fine the way I do it. A lot of the technique is coming from the whole body, it’s not just about singing with your vocal cords, you need a lot of support from your belly, your diaphragm, especially when you have to sing really high… And you have to feel it in your toes sometimes.

I think that your singing range has improved a lot since the beginning of Epica. I can see that you practiced singing high pitched, and although you are mezzo-soprano, I think you’re pretty close to singing in the soprano tessiture…
Yeah, I’m mezzo soprano, second soprano. I can sing high… I have sung in a choir for a while, but I was singing the alto because… The alto version is really difficult because it’s mostly a melody that goes… It’s a contra-melody, and soprano melody is usually the first melody of the choir. But if it’s constantly really high, then my voice gets tired. But now I progressed in techniques and my voice has matured a little bit and I’ve been practicing a lot with playing so many times, so it’s getting better at the higher voice. Because I know the technique, it doesn’t feel bad or it doesn’t hurt. Even if I’m really tired, if I sing with technique, my voice still manages to it. But sleeping is the most important.

And if you have to sing high for a long time, do you find it easier to use a classical/opera voice?
Yes it’s easier for me to sing really high with an opera voice than with a pop voice. I think it’s because the classical voice is a little bit artificial in a way. And if you really work on the technique, you can get really high. I was teaching one girl, and she said she was an alto, she couldn’t sing higher, and I was practicing simple vocal scales with her, and she was getting higher and higher, and she said ‘wow, I didn’t know I could sing that high!’ It’s all technique.. So women or guys, they’re like natural talents. They can do that by themselves. But I had a really good teacher for 4 years now and I owe a lot to him.

How often do you take lessons with your teacher?
For 2 or 3 years I went every week, but last year I maybe had 4 lessons. Or 10 lessons. Because when we are on tour, a lot… I used to have an (system) where every week you get 40 minutes, but now I just bought 20 lessons and I can come whenever I want to, I just have to call them. So it’s not really regularly.

How about the vibrato in your voice, is that natural?
Yes. It’s natural, but if you first stretch the note, you have to work it with your belly, and once you want to get vibrato, you let it go, and it comes naturally.

And does your vibrato work with the whole range, or does it have to be lower notes only or high notes only?
No… Both.

Can you sustain it for the whole length of the note?
Yeah, if I have to!

And can you stop it if you want to?
Yeah. I can stretch, vibrate, stretch, vibrate, vibraaaaaaate, stop!

So how do you prepare before you go onto the stage?
I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, I sleep a lot, I just eat a lot of candies, that’s my sin! My ritual first, when I started off 2 or 3 years ago, was 2 hours before the show ‘oh I gotta start preparing!’ But now I can do it within 20 minutes make-up: 5 minutes, it used to take me one hour! I sing a little bit, but mostly when we have soundcheck I sing already before soundcheck, so I’m kind of warmed up for the rest of the day. If I’m tired, I drink Red Bull, or I eat an apple to relax my voice, I listen to some music to seclude myself from the rest of the people in the backstage, I get dressed… And if I have to I can be ready in 30 minutes.

And is there anything that you have to avoid? Like certain food, like chocolate, or getting mad?
I don’t get mad that quickly, I’m really calm. Chocolate is really nice during the day, but it’s not so good before the … I don’t really like to eat it before the show actually… Orange juice is really nasty! I don’t drink it that often any more. I just drink water and Red Bull. There’s a little bit of a side effect to the Red Bull….

Makes you burp!
Yeah! If you see me doing this on stage [pushes down on the stomach] that means I’m trying to push it down, cos if you feel it coming then you are restraining yourself from singing really well and you’re afraid to go ‘BURP’!!! And that happened to me a couple of times … if you see me smiling really really loud, then I just burped!

So now that you can sing the higher notes, you’re ready to sing in Nightwish!

I’m not saying that you WOULD, but you definitely COULD…
Yeah, Nightwish is the reason why I started to sing in that way. My interest for metal has been there for a while or so, but that was more the dark stuff, the black and death metal… But now it’s more pop metal. I even can say that I like Within Temptation songs. They are good, it’s not the way they were before, but it’s really catchy, it cheers me up, they have happy songs! But Nightwish.. Yeah, I can sing all the songs easily now with my range. When I was practicing, earlier when I was 16 or so, singing on the toilet or something, and I was like **gaaaggg*** ‘ I cannot do this!’ but singing lessons have improved it.

So about Nightwish then, do you know anybody who would be suitable for it? I mean I see some people who would be CAPABLE of doing it, like Floor Jansen, Sharon (den Adel), but definitely NOT Cristina Scabbia…
Her style is totally different…

Yeah, and she doesn’t have the range, I think she never even took any singing lessons… Who else would you see?
Hum… I think that’s probably it! I think Tarja fitted the best with Nightwish, she has a really nice voice, I really like her vocals on Angels Fall First and Oceanborn, I don’t like her vocals that much on Century Child and Once, because she’s not suitable to sing in the pop style.. When she sings really dark opera, I love it very much, especially Walking in the Air, that version… That’s one of my favourite songs…. But now, the way it happened… You actually only know one story from Tuomas, you don’t know… I actually met Tarja once, and she was really distant. But I know before a show you want to have time to yourself and there are always people who want to have pictures… When you are in a band, you have a 24 hour job, in a way, but everybody needs privacy so I cannot judge if she is really a bitch… We women sometimes have our days !![everyone laughs] But the guys have it too, but they don’t show it that much! But Tarja was the best for Nightwish. And I think, well if they have a new singer, Marco is going to sing more on the new album. He’s going to get a bigger role. Like in Tarot.

Well except Tarot is already pretty much Nightwish without Tarja… I really liked Wilska’s voice, back in the day… Remember?
Who’s Wilska?

You know, the guy who did a couple duets with Tarja…
Oh yeah, that big guy? The one who went WOOOWOOOWOOWOOOO?

Yeah… Now he has his own band, with clean vocals and everything…
I met him once with Finntroll. It was in the UK, in Birmigham…

Yeah, last year!
Yeah, he was there. He’s really big! He lost his bag, and we had to bring it to him, I remember… Yeah , in the airport.. We found a strange bag, and we were looking in it, and it was his. But are you from France?

No, I’m Franco-American…
Ah because you don’t have zee frènche accènte… [all laugh] Like some French chicks!

I have so many questions about singing… I could go on forever….
Are you a singer as well?

Yeah, but not as good as you!
You want to be the successor of Tarja in Nightwish?

Haha, don’t we all!
Well singing isn’t about going on stage, doing a show that you CAN sing… It’s also a way of expressing your feelings. Some people do kickboxing, some people do singing!

Well like you said, its a 24 hour job, and it’s true that so much changes in your voice from one day to the next… I mean if I can’t sleep, I can’t sing, I can’t support my breath, simple as that. I know how little you get to sleep on tour, so I don’t know how you manage it…
Well I can’t sleep really good on the tourbus when it’s driving, I sleep really light, I have to sleep in a hotel if I want to sleep good… But if the bus is leaving in the middle of the night, I can fall asleep before the bus leaves, and then it’s ok… But I’ve had a couple times when I lost my voice, it’s just because of lack of sleep, hanging around in the backstage of venues, not getting good food, that’s really bad. It’s like playing on a guitar with no strings you know? If you don’t get food or good sleep…

So is there anything that you would suggest to do, if you’re in those conditions?
Well what’s important, it’s not only the body but it’s also the mind. It’s really powerful. So if you think ‘I’m not going to make it’ , then you won’t make it. You should try to relax as much as possible, eat fruit, drink tea, and just try to find a quiet corner and just meditate… Even if you don’t sleep, if you can lie down for a while on a couch and just relax, listen to nice music so you don’t go crazy, or get stressed, cos you just can’t make it… But also technique is very important. If you’re tired.. If I’m in a really good day, then I don’t have to may so much attention to technique. It almost goes automatically. But if I’m really tired, then I really have to think about it.

So after all that do you still think that you can improve your voice?
Yeah! I think that every day you’re growing… I’m 21, and the voice is matured around 38, especially the opera voice can get better and better and better… But I already feel the improvement from 3 years ago, that it’s not such a big effort to sing, it goes quickly. In the past I thought ‘I cannot sing that high’ but even my vocal teacher was going higher and higher on the scale, and I say ‘I can’t make it!’ and he says to me ‘if you think you can’t make it, you can’t make it. You have to think positive, and think higher, and you will get there’

So basically, you never hurt your voice? Well apart from when you tried to belt without having technique…
Yeah, when you swallow, and it’s really really painful… But the technique with the belly, to contract it and to relax your throat, breathing techniques… that way it’s really open doors for me so…

Now let’s imagine, tomorrow in Paris, that your voice is gone and you cannot sing. Who is going to replace you in this band?
In the band? From the guys, or someone else?

Well maybe I’ll put on a CD and I’ll pretend!But we did that in the past, with Marivi when we were in Mexico with Legion of Hetheria, and their singer was really young, but she had a good voice, and she was a fan of Epica so she knew all the lyrics, and we were happy , we were lucky that she could do it. But if my voice is gone, we can’t do a show.

Now, tell me, where do you think you and the band will be in 5 years? I mean I know that Transmission is pushing you guys a whole lot, releasing a DVD after only one LP for example… I fact, I found that they were pushing you a whole lot more than they were pushing After Forever, for example… Do you see any reasons for that?
Well the collaboration between Transmission Records and After Forever (came) to it’s end now. They didn’t think on the same line. We have to work together. If Transmission has a good idea, you should grab it. With Transmission we had a very good debut album, but they wanted to put a lot of money in the production so if you’re a good band, you cannot make a CD, only a shitty demo, and no promotion and no press and no ads in the papers… there are so many other good bands out there that you don’t know of because they don’t have a good record company. And Transmission Records is one of the last record companies that are willing to put a lot of money in a new band and we are very thankful to them. We like the ideas they have, and they also listen to our ideas if we an idea, they are always influent. They got new staff, Transmission, really good people, so they have improved as well.

So in 5 years where will the band be then?
I think here again!! [Laughs]

Yeah but not in this venue. In that venue over there, that holds 20 000 people!
Yeah well if it’s going to double everytime we come back, then yeah, it will be a bigger venue. But yeah, we are working on the new album it’s going to be recorded at the end of this year, it’s going to be released around spring, next year, we’re going to continue touring, maybe there will be another score album.. I think that it will be every year the same routine and let’s see if we can get bigger and if we can play more…

How about America?
Yeah, we’re coming to America this September with Kamelot, we’re going to do about 18 shows! Yeah I’m looking forward to that, I heard some wild stories about the Americans and I’m happy that Kamelot is there so that I can be with my boyfriend!

Heh well I think that’s about it! Would you like that add anything?
No I think now you know everything I know! Thank you so much!

A big thank you goes to Simone for being so friendly, and to the promoter, Serge, who was prompt at putting us all in good conditions and catering to all our needs!


Links of interest:

Transmission Records

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