David Wilcox and his daughter have come to enjoy ‘a strange sort of friendship,’ says Simon.Simon Wilcox was a complete stranger to Ottawa audiences when she stepped on the stage of Centrepointe Theatre last month as opening act for Chantal Kreviazuk.
Alone on stage with her acoustic guitar, Wilcox cast a spell with her music, then charmed the crowd by telling stories about herself between songs, showing a sweet, disarming sense of humour.
“Yeah, my name’s Simon Wilcox,” she said. “Simon — like a boy. And Wilcox –like my dad.”
Curiosity was piqued.
“David Wilcox?” someone yelled.
“Yeah, do I look like him?” she responded, twisting her face into a grimace that was the mirror image of David Wilcox, the veteran Canadian blues-rocker, who’s known for his wacky facial contortions — not to mention Cancon radio staples such as Riverboat Fantasy, Hypnotizing Boogie and Layin’ Pipe.
Although it’s no secret that she is David’s daughter, it isn’t something she usually tells audiences, Simon Wilcox said the next day over tea in a Byward Market restaurant.
“I get caught in my words,” she said. “Because I try to be really honest when I’m on stage. I try to let people know how I’m feeling. And I knew I had to introduce myself because I was playing to an audience that had no idea. It just came out.”
Partly because of her name, but mostly because of her songs and stories, concert-goers felt an immediate connection. Wilcox spent the intermission in the lobby signing autographs and being approached by newly converted fans while the CD table did a brisk business with her independent release.
The disc, Mongrel of Love, recorded with Wilcox’s band, has a quiet, understated feel.
Stripped of the levity of her stage personality, the emotional intensity of her songs packs a wallop. Set against folky melodies infused with rhythm, she writes lyrics with a sophistication that seems older and wiser than her 23 years.
“A makeshift mother in the bathroom with a can of hairspray in her arthritic hand, it’s fallen down/My father in a public stupor/was he drunk and lonely. I dreamt of men to replace them … I was a grade school joke/Like a little old lady/Too old too early.”
The song, Pigeontoed, is one of several that contain fragments of Simon Wilcox’s strange childhood.
Her parents, David and his first wife, Sadia, who produced and co-wrote much of David’s music, sent her to Ottawa to be raised by a friend of theirs, from the time Simon was three years old until she left the woman’s home at the age of 16.
“I didn’t grow up with my father and my mother,” Wilcox says quietly. “I grew up with a woman who was hired by them to raise me because, of course, they were always travelling. My father was living in Toronto; my mother living in L.A., New York, London, Tahiti, wherever the heck she was.”
There were reunions every once in a while. Her parents would call to say there was a plane ticket at the airport, and Wilcox would fly to whatever city they were in.
“I would go, I would stay at the Four Seasons with them and we would go shopping and they would buy me lots of stuff because they felt really guilty. And then they would send me home,” she says.
Home, such as it was, in Ottawa.
“I grew up here. I went to Glebe (Collegiate). I was raised by a woman who lived here who had a daughter, so I never really felt as though I had a real home or any sort of structure that way. So the minute I turned 16, I was like, ‘OK, this is a hoax.’ So I left immediately.”
Though the experience left scars that are evident in her songs, she’s come to terms with it and realizes the effect it’s had on her creativity. She describes the woman who raised her as a rock ‘n’ roll fan, “the kind of person who hung out with rock ‘n’ roll musicians.
Wilcox names Patti Smith, David Bowie and Elvis Costello as influences.
And how do her parents fit in to her life now? She avoids mention of her mother, who’s living in England, but Wilcox says she has a great relationship with her dad, who lives in Toronto and is still performing and recording.
He has a new album, produced by Colin Linden, that will be released when a deal is in place.
“My dad and I have always had this sort of strange friendship,” she says. “More than being father and daughter, we’re like really good friends. So there’s a mutual respect, I think.”
Indeed. David is proud of his daughter and believes that things worked out for the best, though he seems uncomfortable talking about her upbringing. When prompted, he agrees that his friend gave Simon a more stable home than he and Sadia were able to provide.
“We broke up fairly early in (Simon’s life). We had turbulent lives, both of us, and therefore all three, if you’re a small child,” said David. “There are large holes in my history because I have spent many years drinking and drugging, and that’s no secret, and Simon suffered for that, I’m sure.
“My side of it is that Simon is an excellent person who I admire and learn from and I love her. She seems like a happy person and she’s making excellent music.”
It took a few years to get to that point. Wilcox can’t remember a time she wasn’t making up songs, but she wanted to go to art school after she left home.
She studied art in London, came back to Canada for a while, then went to Italy for an apprenticeship in 17th-century mask-making techniques.
“I always wanted to sing, I just didn’t believe I could,” she says. “My second choice was to make art, because I felt like if I did that I could at least create a realm within which I could be happy.”
Wilcox was in Toronto for Christmas a couple of years ago and a friend convinced her to come over to his home studio and record her songs. The next time she was home, another friend got her a gig. Her career snowballed from there. Last year she recorded Mongrel of Love.
“What was really wild was, I could do this,” she says. “It just seemed to gel completely. There was actually some merit to what I’m doing. My father’s music is very guitar based. Mine is not guitar based. I play the guitar so I can get up there and say things and not be treated like a freak. If you have a guitar on, it’s OK to do that.”
Wilcox now has a development deal with Warner Music Canada that’s allowed her to record demos in Los Angeles with a big-name producer. Other major labels are circling, but there won’t be a new album until a recording deal is signed.
Still, the hard part is baring so much of herself with her songs.
“There have been some nights where I’ve been so emotionally involved, I feel like I’m this close to breaking down. I’ll be singing a song and I’ll be focused on ‘Everything I’m saying right now is true.’ And I’ll get to this point where I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” she says.
“I think that’s why I try to be very warm to the audience and lighthearted between songs, because I want to keep people engaged and let them know that it’s not all bad.”
Sometimes her first name helps break the ice. David and Sadia started calling their child Simon while she was still in the womb — without knowing her gender.
“You know what’s weird,” she asks. “It’s so my name. I’ve always felt like Simon. And I always liked the idea that it was a descriptive adjective, ‘oh, she’s so Simon’ or ‘she’s very Simon.’ “
When you see her — she’s back in town for a show at Zaphod Beeblebrox 1 on Wednesday — you’ll know what being Simon means. As her father puts it, “She’s a singular person and having an unusual name suits her well.”