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Carrboro rocker channels Soviet angst

by Jordan Green

“From great knowledge comes only sorrow,” begins the first verse of one of seminal Russian underground singer Yana Dyagileva’s songs, an anguished cry from within the depths of the shabby and deteriorating Soviet Union of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“From a reckless mind, only ditches and moats/ From a beautiful mind, only scabs and lice/ From universal love, only mugs of blood.”

The music of Dyagileva, who died at the age of 24 in 1991 and was known to her fans as simply Yanka, will receive its first significant American exposure on April 15 when 54-40 or Fight! records in Michigan releases Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware, a collection of nine songs reinterpreted by Carrboro indie rocker Alina Simone, with the assistance of a $1,500 grant from the Durham Arts Council.

The bearer of Yanka’s legacy to American shores is herself a refugee from Soviet repression whose father suffered the penalty of being assigned with hardened criminals to a building corps in central Ukraine for refusing recruitment by the KGB. Because of her father’s apostasy, Simone’s mother was not allowed to work, and then cruelly and absurdly punished in a communist system where unemployment was illegal.

The family fled to the United States when Simone was about 18 months old. They bounced around, from the Boston area to New York and Ohio. As an adult pursuing a musical vocation, the thirty-something Simone has continued a refugee’s journey, confronting her initial stage fright by busking on Austin, Texas’ 6th Street, dipping her toe into the New York club scene, taking a calamitous detour with a stillborn Greensboro record label and finally, last September, releasing her debut full-length, Placelessness.

And yet she has returned like a battlefield attendant to bury the dead and tend to the wounded of her Soviet homeland. To her parent’s alarm, Simone moved to a Siberian outpost that formerly served as a gulag and center of uranium mining in 2001 to help situate American volunteers sent to teach English. It was that same year when an acquaintance handed her a homemade cassette of Yanka’s music at a Russian rock show in lower Manhattan.

“I do think our musical aesthetic is similar,” Simone says of Yanka. “She made raw, spare, emotional music, and so do I. I do also really, really admire her. She was really brave to do that. She was really the only woman in the Soviet Union to do that. Here’s this woman traveling by train all over the Soviet Union. It was the ultimate punk, DIY approach. There was no music industry. She wasn’t trying to get on the cover of some magazine.”

Simone has hit some bumps in her struggle to make music, though nothing like those of Yanka, who reportedly grew up in a wooden house lacking indoor plumbing, carried on a tumultuous relationship with Siberian punk singer Igor Letov and lived her last days submerged in isolation and depression in the same house where she was born in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

Simone recalls steeling herself to perform at an open mic at the Ruta Maya in Austin and then chickening out by driving around the block. Later, she and a friend flubbed a song in the middle and had to start over again. At that performance a booking agent handed her a business card. Simone taped it into her journal, adorned it with heart drawings and never called the agent.

Then, in 2005, Simone started talking to a man and woman in Greensboro about releasing her first full-length CD. They came to see her play at the Carrboro Arts Center and later Simone met them at the Green Bean coffeehouse in Greensboro. With the album recorded, artwork completed, financial details hammered out and the CD set for imminent release, Simone received a call from the couple in November 2006 with the message that a third partner had stolen $25,000 and there would be no record released.

“I was on tour and I had to perform that night,” Simone says. “I was in this panic. I said, ‘Please send me back my master.'”

The fiasco was happily resolved when Carol Bui, a friend and artist who shares Simone’s independence and immigrant heritage, helped her make arrangements with her label, 54-40 or Fight! records in Michigan.

Like Bui, Simone’s music is rare among contemporary women artists in that it fuses anguish, strength and beauty in equal measures, projecting a complete artistic vision that transcends the limitations of narrowly defined gender roles.

“We really feel like it’s us against the world,” Simone says. “There’s a lot of women who sing quietly, who are more subdued and folky. We don’t feel like we’re in the majority. I think that we support each other because we feel it’s not the most popular or appreciated thing to do.”

One model is the early ’90s riot grrrl movement in Washington, DC, Olympia, Wash. and other cities when all-female or female-led bands like Sleater-Kinney and Tsunami roared onto the American landscape. In this regard, Simone looks to Bui, a DC exponent, for inspiration.

“Just to have a certain fearlessness, not to be afraid to yell, not to be afraid to have a screaming guitar solo,” Simone says. “It comes back to music that demands to be listened to.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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