Sounds of Silence

If you ask Rachel Simring, there's nothing quite like the sound of your own voice.

Rachel Simring sits down at a linoleum-lined table at Pete's University Cafe and does something she wouldn't do last spring: She speaks. In late 2002, after doctors found a cyst on her vocal cords, she entered a period of veritable silence that lasted for the better part of a year. But today, she orders a Reuben sandwich and lays out an exhausting litany of reasons she hasn't eaten or slept much in a week: She's been teaching classes all over town, attending meetings, rehearsing with her band, running around putting up fliers for an upcoming show and just generally freaking out.

"I don't relax. I don't," she says, dead serious and drumming her fingers on the tabletop. "A friend of mine who was in massage school offered to practice on me -- hours of free massages. I was lying there on the table, like, clenched: 'Okay! I'm relaxed!' She finally said, 'I can't work on you! I may as well massage the table.'

"It's possible I'm a little obsessed," Simring considers. "I tried to yoga once, and after ten minutes, I said, 'Screw this. I've got too much to do.'" Simring is making up for lost time.

In October of 2002, Simring's distinctly deep and husky voice grew hoarse during a performance, an important gig opening for songwriter Michelle Malone at the Soiled Dove. The next month, it disappeared altogether. After snaking a very long hose up her nose and taking internal pictures, a doctor discovered a large cyst on her vocal cords and recommended she lay off her voice.

For the next eight months, Simring limited herself to an hour or two of talking per day -- something that would challenge most people. For Simring -- who regards words as the very manna of life itself -- it was a Herculean feat of will.

"What's the very worst thing you could do to me?" she asks. "Make me shut up. That's what I do: I sing, I talk, I teach. My whole livelihood -- my job, my personality -- is tied to my voice. It was like...hell."

Simring didn't resign herself to that hell completely. She picked up a special amplification device to aid in her work as a Spanish teacher (Simring has her own company and tutors students at twenty Denver elementary schools). Instead of talking to friends, she wrote, going through a pad of paper a day before investing in a dry-erase board and an extensive marker collection. During that time, Eric Shiveley, Simring's friend and sometime bandmate, also used the dry-erase board as a sign of solidarity.

"People thought that we'd only use the board to communicate when we had to -- the 'important stuff,'" Shiveley says. "But we'd write dumb things. To us, that is the important stuff. She'd have the board for ten minutes, then come back with some huge white-board post all about some new Hello Kitty thing she got or something stupid that happened to her dog.

"Even when she couldn't talk, you wouldn't know it," he adds. "She can't be contained."

At the time she lost her voice, Simring was working in Shiveley's studio, Desert Air, laying down tracks with her band, Rachel's Playpen. A singer and rhythm guitarist, Simring formed the group in early 2002; she'd originally planned to release the Playpen's debut album, Everything That Was, in the winter of that year. But her health problems skewed the schedule, and the recording continued through the spring of 2003, when a specialist told Simring that she'd need to undergo surgery. She couldn't sing, but she could play guitar, and, eventually, she discovered that she could write: Though she penned lyrics and arranged harmonies for her former collaboration, Rachel & Andy, Simring hadn't dipped much into the songwriter realm. As a solo artist, she had relied mostly on cover material in her live sets -- playing tunes by artists like Concrete Blonde, Sheryl Crow and Patty Griffin, which she'd learned while teaching herself to play guitar. But during her quiet period, Simring wrote songs for the album, dropped covers she'd planned to record and refined her production values.

"At first I didn't want to play guitar, because it reminded me of singing," she says. "It was too depressing. And what was the point? I didn't want to think about the possibility that I might wind up a backing guitarist in someone's band. I'm not a guitarist. I'm a singer -- a singer who couldn't sing.

"But I had so many months to listen to this wretched recording," she continues. "I'd say, 'Ooh. That would be a cool place for a vocal effect.' Or, 'Maybe we should add a twelve-string guitar to this song.' It was a frustrating period, because I couldn't sing any of the songs that were coming out of it. I'm sure it was frustrating for my band, because we couldn't do anything but play in the studio, and I think part of the fun of this band is playing live. But they were great sports, and I think ultimately we produced a much better album than we would have."

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