Siberian ExpressTo find herself as a musician, Alina Simone first had to find her Russian roots
A decade ago, Alina Simone was drifting.After graduating from Tufts in 1997, she found herself in Austin, Texas, doing volunteer work for Vista, writing songs, and pondering law school. But it was all pretty halfhearted. Law wasn’t particularly appealing, and she’d gotten no farther with music than busking on street corners.
Then a thought came to her one day: “I need to go back to Russia, learn Russian again, and find my family.” While that might not seem like an obvious compass-setting move, it was for Simone—who was born in the Soviet Union, emigrated to the United States as an infant, and grew up trying to repress her Russian roots. So after finding a job in international development and dusting off her Russian as best she could, Simone got on a plane for Siberia one week after September 11, 2001.
“It was insane,” Simone admits with a laugh. “My parents thought I’d lost my mind. I went straight into the armpit of Siberia, where people had been exiled. I was there for a month. And it was so cold, like minus forty-five degrees.”
It may have been crazy, but it paid off. Bolstered by her own nerve, Simone hit her stride as a musician, writing darkly passionate songs that set squalls of emotion to jagged stabs of guitar. She also found the gumption to plunge into the music industry. While music remained a part-time occupation as she continued her business trips to Siberia, she released an extended-play (EP) disc and two acclaimed full-length albums.
Simone’s Russian heritage crept into her music, too. Her 2005 EP Prettier in the Dark included “Siberia,” a song that attempted to reconcile her conflicted feelings about the place: “This is Siberia, no joke, all trembling white / I love the pull of the train in the middle of the night.”
She came by those mixed feelings honestly. Simone was born in the Ukraine in 1975 to a family on the outs with the ruling Soviet regime after her father, the physicist Alexander Vilenkin, turned down a job offer from the KGB while he was in college. He was blacklisted and not allowed to pursue graduate school. Instead, he was drafted onto a building brigade and later worked at the state zoo as a night watchman. The family fled to America in 1976. Two years later, Vilenkin came to Tufts, where he remains a renowned theoretical physicist and director of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology (he is the author of “This Is the Way the Universe Ends”).
Simone’s wonder years were hardly bucolic. It was the height of the Cold War, not a good time to be speaking Russian in America. One Halloween, someone wrote “COMMIES GO HOME” in shaving cream on the family’s driveway. Simone resisted her parents’ desire that she learn Russian, and she Americanized her first name to Allie in high school. Even her college years—during which she earned degrees in English and photography from Tufts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts—failed to cement her identity. “I didn’t know what I wanted,” she says.
It was only when she reconnected with those long-denied Russian roots that Simone found her path. Her second full-length album, Everyone Is Crying Out To Me, Beware (2008), tied her heritage and music together as never before. Beware is a tribute record to “Yanka,” the late Yana Stanislavovna Dyagileva, a Soviet-era legend who was Russian punk rock’s answer to the Velvet Underground. Yanka committed suicide in 1991 at age twenty-four.
Simone first heard Yanka when some Russian expatriates in Brooklyn—where she now lives—gave her a homemade tape. She felt an immediate connection to songs such as “From Great Knowledge” (the phrase continues “comes only sorrow”), with their dark blend of punk rock and Russian folk. Work took Simone to Yanka’s hometown of Novosibirsk, where she studied the singer’s life and music while tracking down some of her own relatives. Yanka left behind twenty-nine songs, ten of which Simone recorded (in Russian). Her keening voice is the perfect instrument to convey the feelings of conflict and oppression at the heart of Yanka’s songs. Even if you don’t speak Russian, there’s no mistaking the anguish and jittery dread at the heart of a song like “Beware.”
The album raised Simone’s profile considerably. Not only did it appear on various “Best of 2008” lists, but USA Today’s “Pop Candy” blog included Simone in its “Top 100 People of 2008.”
Simone has since finished another album, Make Your Own Danger. But releasing it will have to wait, because she is busy writing a book, due out later this year from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. It’s an essay collection she describes as “loosely themed around my strange adventures in indie rock, especially in Russia.” She writes about her childhood friend Amanda Palmer, now one-half of the famous duo the Dresden Dolls; the ubiquity of Britney Spears, whose 2003 hit “Toxic” was inescapable even in deepest Siberia; and Simone’s own tragicomic journey through the underground music economy. One chapter recounts how a record deal evaporated when one of her label’s partners absconded with its $43,000 startup fund, a crime that was possible only because the entire sum was socked away in cash. Throughout the book—tentatively titled You Must Go and Win—Simone’s writing voice is that of a wide-eyed innocent trying to resist becoming jaded.
“The title is something a friend from Siberia said to me once,” she explains. “I was living in Hoboken and whining about having to play a show. It was in Manhattan on a cold Wednesday night, nobody was going to be there, I didn’t want to go. And my friend looked at me and said, ‘Alina, you must go and win.’ I thought that was the funniest thing ever. A statement of purpose, almost.”
DAVID MENCONI is the music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has written for Spin, Billboard, and a host of publications that no longer exist.