Alina Simone's spartan living room mirrors the life of a nomad who must travel light: The wooden floor is bare. A narrow bookcase contains tomes about Soviet gulags. On a low bench rests an iPod sound system. A dining table is crowded with a laptop and a large cat.
"I feel like we have so much stuff," says Simone, who moved to Carrboro with her husband, Joshua, in 2005. "Although I do live out of a really small bag when I tour. An iPod, some clothes and a book. I could do it indefinitely."
Placelessness, Simone's debut full-length CD, explores the fluid nature of geography and identity. "'Where are you from?' That's the first thing people ask you," says Simone, who travels extensively to Siberia for her job in international development. "When someone asks me, I don't know what to say."
Simone was born in the Ukraine in the 1970s, when it was still under Soviet rule. Her father was forced to serve in a military work camp for refusing to join the KGB. After his release, he could get only a job as a night watchman at the state zoo, even though he had a physics degree. Like many people in that Cold War era, Simone's family fled the country to escape persecution and arrived in the United States as political refugees. "Every family was scattered to the wind," Simone says of the Soviet-era diaspora. "Unless you cooperated with the regime, no family was untouched."
At age 1, Simone and her family relocated to Buffalo, N.Y., and moved around several times before finally settling in Lexington, Mass. There she lived a dual life. "I had a very Russian childhood. I grew up speaking Russian, not Ukrainian. You stepped into the house and it was Russia; outside it was Lexington."
She loved to sing since she was a small child, but she kept her aspirations to herself. She graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in her 20s, lived in Siberia, New York City, and Austin, Texas, itself a town of transient college students, wanderers and passers-through. There, on Sixth Street, Austin's main strip of nightclubs, tattoo parlors and restaurants, Simone couched herself in a cranny of an abandoned storefront with a guitar, five chords and a tiny amp, and began singing Bob Marley and Nirvana covers. "I always wanted to sing, but it was a secret," she says. "I felt like I was put on this earth to do one thing, but I couldn't express it."
Although Simone carries herself with an easy-going, amiable demeanor—her confidence no doubt honed from navigating strangers and odd circumstances inherent in traveling—she suffered from severe stage fright and had to gather the courage to perform at open-mic nights, even in the risk-free environment of local coffeeshops. "I remember driving around the block and then driving home," she recalls. "Finally I broke through because the only way to get over it was to do it so much. You do it until you don't give a fuck. And you see that life goes on and you didn't die."
She moved to Hoboken, N.J., in 1999, where she cobbled together a band after taking out an ad in the Village Voice. She continued exploring the concepts of place and self in New York, the landing place for a century of immigrants. "Being a refugee literally and figuratively, I was fascinated by New York, and the many identities you could have there. And I was nostalgic for the places I'd been."
She explored Siberia for six months after recording her debut EP, Prettier in the Dark. When she returned, she moved to Carrboro, eventually returning to New York to rehearse and record Placelessness in an abandoned Brooklyn warehouse where she squatted with producer Steve Revitte. "It was in a bombed-out block surrounded by apocalyptic churches," Simone says. "There were no distractions, no place to go. It was placeless, but yet had a sense of place."
In an unheated small plywood room furnished with only an air mattress, a stack of books and a desk from Target, Simone spent two months polishing her songs and recording the CD. Placelessness feels as sparse as the conditions under which it was made. Although the instrumentation is varied—electric guitar, cello, organ, bass, drums and filing cabinet—the songs are not crowded. They breathe easily in expanses of space.
Feelings of flight and survival inform "Refugees," where Simone—in an intense moan—sings: "See we're all refugees/ running from the scene/ and looking for someplace warm and safe to hide."
"Lonesome" evokes images of Siberia, where Simone will spend part of this winter, working and touring. (It was also the home of Russian punk-folksinger Yanka, who died in 1991; Simone has recorded an EP of her covers for January release.) "So keep on running from the winter/ but you can't help missing the snow/ and all these unfamiliar people who can't ever go back home." Finally, in "Country of Two," Simone finds her home through her lover: "Where am I going/ where am I coming from/ the only thing that's real/ the only place that's home/ is this country of two."
Simone launched her first national tour in late August. She recently called from northern California en route to San Francisco. "It's going pretty well," she says of the crowds and response. However, she left her wallet, money and ID in a Eugene, Ore., bakery. "They're sending it back to me," Simone says. "But you don't realize how vulnerable you are out on the road."
Shortly after she returns later this month, Simone heads for Siberia for work and a three-night stint performing Yanka songs. Much like Simone's peripatetic life, Placelessness reinforces the idea that—in a mobile society—we can travel with an array of related identities, like changes of clothes in a knapsack. We may be uprooted by hurricanes, corporate downsizing or economic opportunities. We may be displaced by wars or redefined when political boundaries are redrawn. We may be merely restless.
Alina Simone plays Nightlight Thursday, Sept. 27, at 9:30 p.m. with Nathan Oliver and Adam & the Weatherfords. Tickets are $5.