This is not a love song
New Zealand-born singer/songwriter Simon Patterson, a frequent sight at local music clubs, on why living in the English-speaking world is boring to him.
Published: September 14, 2011 (Issue # 1674)
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
New Zealander Simon Patterson first visited Russia in 1995 when he went to Irkutsk to teach English at the age of 19.
Simon Patterson, the New Zealand-born, St. Petersburg-based singer/songwriter, has lived in the city for many years, but only started performing his own songs — characterized by interesting English-language lyrics and a touch of punk — in public in the last couple of years.
With local acoustic bassist and background singer Stanislav Manchinsky, Patterson, 36, who plays guitar and sings, can be found performing at local underground clubs like Fish Fabrique and the No Orchids piano bar several times a month.
“I’ve always wanted to do this, but perhaps I was too scared in the beginning,” he says, speaking over a Baltika beer at an outdoor bar in Park Pobedy.
According to Patterson, he wrote a lot in his home country between the ages of 19 and 21, and during his early years in Russia in the 1990s, but later got distracted by marriage, the birth of his son and the necessity of working to make a living.
Patterson, who works as a translator and who also spent a stint as an arts editor at The St. Petersburg Times some 10 years ago, could be heard singing his early songs at house parties back then, but never at a public gig.
It’s not that people here weren’t ready back in 1997, when Patterson first came to St. Petersburg, but it was difficult to find musicians who would want to play his type of music, especially with lyrics in English, he says.
“There was a 10-year break, but at some point I realized that I should return to it,” he says.
He was prompted to start writing songs again and performing concerts by his wife bringing home a piano. “I didn’t really touch it for a year, but then it all began, step by step,” Patterson says.
Two years ago, he formed a duo with a Russian friend, Alexander Kozyrev, who had plenty of free time on his hands while waiting for his U.S. qualifications to be approved so that he could work as a pilot in Russia. They played a number of concerts at home before starting to play at small local clubs.
The duo’s current bassist Manchinsky has played with a number of local bands, including Rave Ticket Sellers.
Patterson’s songs are far from being escapist; he does not hesitate to make an angry comment on society. Some songs are critical of the corporate lifestyle (“I come from that kind of background myself, my father is a lawyer,” Patterson points out), some deal with paranoia in present-day Russia.
“It’s difficult to write about nothing, I write about what annoys me — it’s very easy to find a subject,” Patterson says.
“Not that it’s deliberate, it just happens this way. You can’t sing about love all the time. Actually, I have no love songs at all.”
Some of Patterson’s finest songs could be qualified as poetry, though he says his words should go together with music.
“I used to write a lot of poetry, but who reads poetry in the English-speaking world now? Nobody,” he says.
“The lyrics don’t stand on their own, you can’t read them as poetry, it would look silly.”
Last year, however, when Patterson and Manchinsky performed at Anglia bookstore, the printed lyrics were distributed to the audience of mostly Russian Anglophiles to make it easier for them to follow the songs.
Despite the years spent in Russia, his love of Russian literature (he cites Alexander Herzen’s “My Past and Thoughts” as one of his favorites) and of Yanka, the talented Novosibirsk singer-songwriter who died at the age 24 in 1991 (“She was unusual,” he says), Patterson denies any Russian influence on his music.
“This is the tradition of English songwriting, of English poetry,” he says.
“To live in the English-speaking world is simply boring to me. I can’t stay in New Zealand or England. They tell me, ‘Your songs are very strange,’ while people are more open here.
“It’s a bit like The Tiger Lillies: I read in an interview that they are more popular in countries where people don’t speak English. But when they play in the English-speaking world, people take offense or think it’s absolute nonsense. I understand that.”
According to Patterson, who was born in Auckland, he finds more freedom to express himself in his songs here than in New Zealand, where people, in his opinion, approach frank discussion cautiously.
“When I was in New Zealand, I gave some lyrics to poetry connoisseurs there, and they told me, ‘This is racist, this is sexist,’” he says.
“One band in New Zealand recorded a cover of a song that I wrote maybe 15 years ago without asking me, which is OK. I even got royalties — about $20.
“They played it on the radio, and there was an interview, and this guy said, ‘This man is very strange, he is from New Zealand but lives in Russia. I’ve heard his songs, and they are all sort of very anti-New Zealand.’ People simply don’t understand satire there, that’s why their songs turn out to be about nothing. To sing about love is very boring.”
Patterson started playing classical piano at the age of six in New Zealand, and has now resumed his studies, taking lessons in classical music.
He has been playing guitar and writing songs from the age of 14.
“We formed a band in school and even recorded an album on a 4-track; I still perform some of the songs that I wrote when I was 16,” he says, citing Pixies, They Might Be Giants and Elvis Costello as early influences.
Elements of everyday Russian life do turn up in Patterson’s songs, but usually with a twist, as in a song called “Kupchino” after the district on St. Petersburg’s outskirts.
“A friend moved to Kupchino and invited me to a party there,” he says.
“I’d never been there and it was interesting to me because of its bad reputation. It was in winter, I got there late in the evening and left in the morning, and so it happened that I didn’t see Kupchino at all, so I wanted to create my own Kupchino in my head. So the song is not exactly about Kupchino.”
Another song, “Irkutsk,” refers to Patterson’s first visit to Russia in 1995, when he was 19.
“I met some businessmen in New Zealand from Novosibirsk who invited us students to go there to teach English,” he says.
“When we got there, we had an idea of going to Irkutsk to see Lake Baikal, but then it turned out that it was another 36 hours away by train… Sometimes I get inspired by a name or word in the beginning, but the final song may have nothing to do with that word.”
He says performing at local clubs serves as self-development and is a good hobby.
“I realized that I don’t like going to clubs because I don’t like the music. I could go to classical concerts, like Wagner, Schumann and Schubert, but the atmosphere is very prim there and these people died a long time ago so it gets boring, and I’d like to be somewhere and have fun. I can do both by playing at clubs,” Patterson says.
Simon Patterson will perform on Friday, Sept. 16 as a special guest at the Man Bites Dog concert at Fish Fabrique (old room), located at 53 Ligovsky Prospekt, Tel. 764 4857; and will give a full-length concert on Thursday, Sept. 22 at PirO.G.I. on the Fontanka, located at 40 Nab. Reki Fontanki, tel. 275 3558.