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Sounds of Silence

John Johnston

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."  

Simring says she and the group's members -- guitarist Dan Garcia, drummer Laura Coleman and Andre Guerra on bass -- planned to record vocals when she recovered her voice in the summer, after her surgery. But there was no guarantee that she would recover her voice. The procedure was considered a risk -- the same operation was recently performed on Julie Andrews, who has yet to regain her singing voice -- but leaving the cyst was riskier: It was rubbing against her vocal cords, causing partial paralysis. She scheduled the surgery for June, so that she could finish the school year.

"I was scared shitless," Simring says. "It felt like, with one slip of the knife -- if the surgeon sneezed, let's say -- I'd have no voice left. Some of them said to me, 'Well, maybe this is why your voice is so sexy and husky.' Part of me worried that if they got rid of it, I'd sound completely different."

But the surgery was a success (though Simring had to wait 48 hours after the surgery before she could find that out; doctors told her not to let any air pass through her vocal cords for two days after the operation). Today she sounds much the same as she did before. Her famously wide-ranging singing voice, which often hovers in the lower register, can still sweep up to a confident high C. Through vocal therapy, she's discovered that she has a three-octave range. But she's not completely in command of her instrument: "I've been dropping some notes that I know did not come from me," she says. "Some funky-ass notes. It's like, 'It's not my fault! I can't control it!'"

She sees a vocal specialist every other week -- to learn to breathe, to warm up her voice, to talk the right way. But she doesn't follow every bit of her doctor's advice: At Pete's, customers at surrounding tables glance in Simring's direction as she bellows out jokes, slams her hands on the table and makes strange sounds to better illustrate her anecdotes, like auditory punctuation.

"It's going to take a while, and I'm not doing everything I'm supposed to do because it's exercise, and who wants to do exercise?" she says. "My therapist has been appalled with me at times. She'll say, 'If you were a pitcher in baseball, would you even think about going out on the mound if you hadn't warmed up your arm? Would you expect to start your car on a freezing-cold morning and not expect it to lurch around?' Honestly, I really never thought about any of that before. A lot of singers don't.

"In a way, I'm like a really fat girl who decided to change her life and try to get skinny," she continues. "After she works and works and loses that initial weight, she'll still always have to watch what she eats. My doctor is trying to teach me to talk all over again. I learned a really bad habit -- expressing myself through my voice."

It's easy to understand why those habits might be deeply ingrained. Simring's voice has been a focal point of most of her life. Posters promoting the upcoming release of Everything That Was feature photos of a dark-haired eleven-year-old girl standing center stage at a school concert, wearing a plaid skirt and performing a solo. Simring sang throughout grade school and high school; in college she hit the live-music circuit in her home town of Atlanta. With her then-boyfriend Andy Ard, Simring formed the acoustic duo Rachel & Andy, recorded a demo and found a niche among students at the University of Georgia.

But in 1999, Simring felt the band had hit stasis. She and Ard had dated for four years but hadn't made concrete plans for the future. So Simring moved to Colorado, where her parents lived, and started her Spanish-language business. Ard followed soon after. The two married in early 2001 and forged the Colorado incarnation of Rachel & Andy.

"Everything picked back up," she says. "I was more the businessperson, and Andy was the creative side. And our voices just worked: I never sang with anyone whose voice worked as well with mine as his does. People in Denver warmed up to us. It was really a good thing while it lasted."

Though they eventually scored some steady gigs and made friends within songwriter circles, the good thing didn't last very long. Simring and Ard had a personal meltdown that Simring now describes as "Fleetwood Mac-ian." The couple's implosion made good fodder for local-music gossips, and Simring sometimes fueled it: During her performance at the 2002 Westword Music Showcase -- Simring was nominated in the singer/songwriter category -- she wore a T-shirt that read "DUMP HIM," a clear dig at Ard. Many of the songs on Everything That Was deal with a woman coming to terms with the end of a relationship -- and Simring freely acknowledges them as autobiographical. But Ard's presence can be felt, too. A new version of "Eleanor," a Rachel & Andy song from 1999, appears on the disc, as does "What Shade," a sensual, lovesick country ballad written by Ard and Denver songwriter Victoria Woodworth. (Woodworth's version of "What Shade" appears on her recent disc, Faultline.)  

"Music is where our hearts met, and we'll always share that," Simring says, noting that Ard performs some Rachel & Andy songs with his new band, Andy Ard and the Meantime. The two aren't exactly friends, but they remain kindred spirits when it comes to music. "We made those songs together, and we never wanted to see each other not do music. I'm not trying to take anything away from him, and he's not trying to take anything away from me. You can't deny where you came from, and playing with Andy is one of the experiences that makes me who I am."

Many of the songs on Everything That Was orbit the emotional sphere of boy-girl relations and are clearly painted from a feminine perspective: "We're different from boys," she says. "We share. We talk about our feelings. We're girls. So what? Why can't our music reflect that?"

But Simring has other things on her mind, as well. "Black Cloud," the opening track, concerns negative people and what a drag they can be, while "See Saw" is a barn-burning homage to horniness. Everything That Was definitely has its quiet moments, but it's far from mopey. Simring knows the value of the perfectly placed hook, and her songs, though straightforward and pop-friendly, aren't as simple as they seem. Simring likes to play with chords and modulations, moving up and down the fret board and making connections between sounds and notes that don't usually come together.

"I actually think that's a benefit of being self-taught," she says. "I don't know the theory behind a lot of what I'm playing -- not that I don't think it's good to know that; it is. But I have a good ear, and I can let that be my guide rather than thinking, 'No way can these things be played together! It just isn't done!'"

Simring considers her songwriting a work in progress, and she's right: Everything That Was is a largely satisfying collection, but there's a sense that Simring is just starting to come into her own. She's writing more than ever, learning, moving away from her influences to forge a more individualized sound.

"I really think that she could do with music anything that she wanted to," says Shiveley. "Her goal with this album was to prove to herself that she could write songs, and she did that."

Simring's got plenty of time to track down the muse. She can't go to smoky clubs. She doesn't drink. She's in many ways cut off from the music scene, an active member plugging away from the sidelines.

"I have no life," she says. "I live in my house. Most people use their house like a truck stop. I live live in mine.

"But," she adds, "at least I can talk. I talk to myself. You know I do."


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