I first met Simone Baron just a few weeks ago, at the Wednesday night jam session at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill. I remember being surprised to see her soloing on accordion, an instrument I’d never associated with jazz music. She was warm and friendly when we were introduced, and this being the close-knit D.C. music scene, I knew we would likely cross paths again.
A couple weeks later, CapitalBop’s editors asked me to interview the accordionist, pianist and composer, who on Friday is about to release an album, The Space Between Disguises, on her own label, GenreFluid Records. Only after she answered my FaceTime call did I finally realize that this was the same woman I had had such a pleasant exchange with weeks before. Baron, a D.C.-based musician of Italian and Ashkenazi Jewish descent who answers to both she/her and they/them pronouns, was calling me from Brazil, where she was at work on a few more projects.
The composer and leader of the Arco Belo ensemble, who identifies her music as “genre-queer,” incorporates sounds that are clearly rife with worldly influences. Jazz is certainly in there, but you can’t ignore the Eastern European folk and classical sounds that she drapes around her music. At times, it’s impossible to say which contribution is heaviest; you’ll wonder if you’re listening to a classical piece with jazz influence, a jazz tune with with classical influence or a kind of folk tune that references both. The penultimate track on A Space Between Disguises, “Buciumeana Kadynja,” is a reimagining of a Romanian dance; “Valsa,” a slow and sullen, folkish ballad, was written by Brazilian composer Tibor Fittel, who Baron was preparing to meet for the first time right after we spoke.
Throughout her music I noticed a deep introspection and slight sadness, suggesting loneliness or a search for meaning and belonging. I found her approach to jazz — and to music in general — immediately exciting, as well as admittedly perplexing. But there was also a quiet relatability about it; you’re not quite sure how she came to these sounds, but somehow you feel like you understand her. After taking a moment to chuckle about our unexpected reacquaintance, Baron and I got to talking more about her process of making such genre-defying music, and how her own personal journey with non-conformity has helped to shape the musician she has become. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CapitalBop: I want to start from the beginning. Could you tell me a little bit about who you are and where you’re from, and could you give us a little history about your background with music?
SB: Sure, absolutely. My name is Simone Baron [bear-own], and thank you for saying my name correctly! That’s always so awesome to hear. I am an Italian-Jewish pianist, accordionist and composer. I am based in D.C., but I do spend quite a lot of time in New York. As a musician, I started out playing and studying classical piano. I seriously started studying when I was 16, and I went to conservatory at Oberlin for that. And then when I graduated from Oberlin in 2014, in my last year of school, I started to play a little bit of accordion.
I really wanted an accordion when I was 12, so I kind of played around with it when I was 12 and put it away for a little while. I came back to it my last year at Oberlin and started to play around with it again and started to improvise with it and bring it to jazz jams, getting involved with all kinds of world-music projects. I did a lot of multiple-disciplinary stuff, like I wrote music for puppet shows and worked with theatre companies and dancers and stuff like this. So really the accordion kind of came in and opened my world a lot, and made me into what I like to jokingly refer to as a recovering classic.
And yeah, I live a really genre-fluid life, and actually I’m in Brazil right now for a couple of projects and I played a show the other night in Sao Paolo. When they introduced me, they had this amazing expression that doesn’t exist in English that I just learned, but its called “cachorro vira-lata,” which means “dog that is totally unleashed.” It’s almost like a dog that has rabies who’s just not afraid of anything and jumps on everything. So that’s how they described the kind of musician that doesn’t really care about genre or boundaries, and that’s how I’d like to [be]. I really, really like that term and I think I’m gonna start using it. And that’s my story!
CB: So, you mentioned “genre-fluid,” and I’m glad that you mentioned that because as I was looking over your press release, I saw that there was a description of you and it was “genre queer,” which I really love. Could you talk a little more about that? Is that something intentional for you, or are you influenced by so many different styles that that’s just naturally what comes out of you?
SB: So there are two terms floating around, and one of them is “genre-fluid” and the other one is “genre-queer.” … The name is GenreFluid Records and we’re trying to make that sort of into a label, but also a little bit of a concert/multi-disciplinary performance series thing, so that there’s some sort of community around it. I just really like that word and the thing that it plays on, and I really do identify with that in many ways, both in the way that I described in the previous answer but also, yeah, in my personal life and just politically. I very much identify with queer culture and embracing a sort of non-binary existence.
And actually, sorry to be using a prop, but I totally wrote something more articulate about the genre-queer [term]. So what I’ve written about that is: “genre-queer is my term for this shapeshifting, genre-nonconforming, non-binary music. It’s neither classical nor jazz; neither casual nor formal. This music embodies the spirit of the musical polyglot, restlessly searching for the next texture, the next timbre, the next melody. It is my way of expressing and addressing queer identity and culture.”
So yeah, those two terms are somewhat interchangeable, but also a little bit different. They’re important for how you identify, but also just in a broader way. … Like, the music of the future, this music that I’m making that I’m trying to make a community around, this music that fights for a lot more inclusivity and connectivity between different communities and different ways of improvising and approaching improvisation and being a lot more inclusive to many different musical backgrounds. In our group [Arco Belo], for instance, we have very, very classically trained people or people that play a lot of contemporary music, so their approach to improvisation may be really different than someone that plays a lot of jazz or a lot of world-music stuff. I wanted to write music that would like all of that and give all of that space and explore those, sort of, different ways of improvising beyond the text.
Whatever it is you love, you are the bridge between all of the things you love … and the fact that you love them and you love all these different mix of things together makes you, you.
CB: Yeah, and I would say personally that I really appreciate the use of that term because it’s something that I identify with myself, but didn’t really have the vocabulary. Because music now is, for me, becoming more genre-fluid. But for some people that don’t have the vocabulary, they find themselves kind of sweating when someone asks them what genre they’re in because they can’t really decide. … So I really appreciate you going into that.
Let’s go into a little bit more of the upcoming project, The Space Between Disguises. I noticed, as I was reading the description, that there were a lot of different emotionally related words that were associated with the project. Is this project a personal exploration of mental health, or a kind of introspection with regards to processing certain events in your life?
SB: I just wanted to say really quickly that I appreciate the comment about naming things. Giving names to things is really important, especially in this world of fusions. It’s really important to give people a sense of community. If you love these different things — like you really happen to love Indian food and gummy bears (I don’t know, I’m just making stuff up) — but whatever it is you love, you are the bridge between all of the things you love. You are the thing that is in common with all these things. And the fact that you love them and you love all these different mix of things together makes you, you … just knowing that you can find your own pathway in between these different worlds that you navigate and it has to be coming from you. That’s the thing that I find really empowering about all of this.
And to answer your second question about the emotional and the process and what this is about, right? Every time I listen to the album … it’s just like, “Whoa, this is so…” [laughs]. This does not stay in one place, right? It’s constantly changing. Essentially, the album, the underlying theme, is dedicated to the creative process and the messiness of it. Because for me, because I’m always thinking about process, it’s such a messy thing. For me, it’s actually a big struggle for whatever reason. Just writing and creating is this struggle, and then after this struggle is over, I realize it’s like being lost at sea and there are all these waves that are batting me around. Then all of a sudden, I realize that I’ve washed up on shore and I open my eyes and it’s a sunny day and everything is easy, and I wake up and there’s a treasure chest next to me. And it’s like: why do I have to go through all this crazy thing, and like, drown? Like, I could’ve just been on shore this whole time and chilled out. There’s a little bit of that going on.
But there’s kind of a unifying thing with the title track called “A Space Between Disguises” … that one is especially more about mental health than other things. There’s this melody that represents truth and that sort of beauty, that treasure chest that I mentioned that’s been there all along, and it comes disguised in these different forms like the “Disguise” interludes throughout the album. So those little radio-staticky [interludes] … are there to sort of hint at that melody and hint at that truth and they’re there all along. So yeah! That track, and especially the track before it, are a lot about that mental health struggle and the creative process. “Post-Edit-Delete” is also a little bit about that. And then others are things that I wrote or arranged at different points of the year.
CB: So you talk about the album being a lot about the creative process itself. I’m a big fan of very interesting titles because one: they’re just cool, and two: it also allows me to get a more complete perspective about what the song could be about. So I really took to your track “Post Edit Delete” because I automatically thought of the anxiety of social media, where we’re trying to craft the perfect version of ourselves, so we put this version out and then we go back we revise and then we realize how uncomfortable we are with it and we end up removing it altogether. Is that something that you thought about?
And we’re talking about disguises here, and social media is all about disguises, and people putting up these masks and these versions of themselves, which we do in real life, to be real. But I wonder, is that something that you thought clearly about or —
SB: [Laughing] No, I’m laughing because it’s so funny because I never — first of all, post/edit/delete is [a reference to] Craigslist, which I used to troll when I just got out of school. I’ve gotten some really randomly awesome gigs on Craigslist, and also, it’s freakin’ Craigslist, you see the weirdest shit. There’s like the man that’s like, “Hey, punch me for $500 and then dumpster dive and feed me cherries.”
CB: Very specific!
SB: Whatever it is, it’s just one of the goofiest things … I definitely have more than once gone on there to waste time and just be like, “What is Craigslist gonna feed me today?” But I’m also happy because I didn’t really understand a lot of things about social media until really recently right now, because I guess I’m trying to play the game and make the post and do the thing. And I’m just discovering how much of a pain it is, so it’s definitely not my process. That definitely wasn’t the original intent, but it could be. I’m glad that you’re reading that into it and it makes me really happy that you feel like you’re reading into it. But, there’s still a lot to be said about what you said.
I didn’t say this in the last answer, but I was working with this therapist on this thing she calls “parts work,” and I was working on parts work when I wrote this. Parts work is when you’re: You have all of these different parts of you when you’re working on yourself in this scenario, and there’s like this part of me that’s the 5-year-old that got rejected from the group of kids on the playground, and now she’s really scared of rejection, and that part of me is coming off. It’s like, what’s her story? Let’s listen to her. Let’s listen to her. Let’s be friends with her. Let’s listen to her and figure out what that is. But ultimately, that’s not me. That’s just part of me. That’s just a disguise. … So this thing that you work on, and anything you work on with yourself — whether it’s meditation or therapy or music or some sort of spiritual practice — your goal is to get to this core of this truth (which is represented by the melody). [To get] to this you that’s behind, beyond and within all of this other stuff — all of these other disguises that pop up and they’re there and they’re there for a reason and they have their stories, and you gotta spend time with them and listen to them. The album has all these shapeshifting moments and so those are all characters and parts too, in a way; these different tracks and these different genres.
And then the final thought about that is “Post-Edit-Delete” references Craigslist, but it’s in the creative process you post something, you edit and then there’s this moment that we don’t really talk about: deletion. You release it out into the world and it’s not you anymore. It has a life of its own.
CB: So I was thinking. As a writer, there are certain things or certain ideas that we are inspired by. Like for example, I tend to be inspired by themes of love and the quest for liberation and trying to find the most honest version of yourself, which I feel like I connect a lot with this project because of that. Is there any particular theme that you feel like you’re primarily inspired by?
SB: Yeah! There’s a few things. I would say there’s a couple of things that tend to pop up with me. I torture myself with myself with this unrequited love thing (laughs). But I think unrequited love means a lot of things. I’m Jewish, so a big part of my identity and the fact that I travel around a lot — like I have this feeling as this wandering Jew. So there’s this certain restlessness about having a home, and by home it could signify either a home like location, or home like a person, like a love. So it’s this sense of Unheimlichkeit, as you say in German: this unhomeliness, this wandering-ness, this restlessness. That kind of identity and exploring that persona, that’s like a pretty big recurring theme for me, both in the genre-fluid sense and in the content and the story. … I mean, there’s a lot of other things going on and you can read a lot of other things into it. But yea, there’s a lot of unrequited love in there, I guess.
And then something I’m thinking about is the whole process thing, and the idea of “what is process?”, and “process is a struggle” and just navigating that, and how the album navigates through that whole creative process thing that I mentioned earlier.
I was never a choreographer, but I’ve always connected to dance and been kind of a dance-adjacent person. Every time I talk to dancers and choreographers, there’s this very specific way that they talk and express themselves that really speaks to me. So it’s like this gesture. What you’re trying to explain from your body, and your heart, and your mind all unified in one, but translated into music. And that’s the third thing I would say.
CB: So this is one of my fun questions because this is something I’ve always had this thought about, and I’m asking more so because I’m curious about what you think of this. When it comes to mental health pathologies … I wonder how you feel about whether or not there are benefits to these pathologies. As artists, there’s this association with mental illness. It’s almost expected for you to struggle with that as an artist. Do you feel like there are some benefits to that? For example, people with depression might be more intuitive and because they’re more intuitive, it makes them better writers because they’re able to reach deeper and connect deeper with feelings. Because they spend more time with themselves, they might develop more of a propensity for creativity. Do you think there is a real connection with that?
SB: Yea, absolutely! I think everything is a two-sided coin. Depression and anxiety are also just indicators of highly sensitive attuned individual who just have a very heightened existence in a certain way. …
I don’t know, somebody said something really beautiful to me once about being in a cocoon and how you need time to be in a cocoon so you can come out a butterfly, if that makes sense? And that’s something I really like thinking about sometimes. Sometimes I just need my cocoon time. … Like pain, suffering and sadness — they make your heart deeper. They make everything so much more dimensional. I think all of this stuff is what makes us ourselves, and it’s part of us and we just have to learn how to deal with it, and be functional people and how to talk about it. But more importantly, how to make the conversation so that we can make the world more inclusive and accepting, and build a support system for ourselves, and really really figure out how to be there for each other and not create this weird individualistic thing where people just retreat into themselves and just disappear, and people can fall through the cracks so easily.
I’m reading this really beautiful book right now called And Then You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World by Anne Bogart, this theatre director. She has this beautiful thing about articulation where she says “the moment we lose the ability to articulate, is the moment we die,” and that’s the moment we lose the ability to speak for ourselves and we might as well be dead; we might as well be zombies walking around. So we need to make the world a place where people feel like they have the space to navigate these really difficult sides of themselves and find their own ways to articulate.