Simone Berk has performed and recorded under the name Sugar Snow since 2008. She has played her dreamy, melancholy pop songs in the vein of Mazzy Star, Cowboy Junkies and The Sundays around New England and the Midwest. In 2010, Sugar Snow’s eponymous record was released to excellent reviews and airplay on college radio around the country.
In March, 2018, Simone joined forces with Brian Charles of Zippah Studios in Boston to interpret the Crowded House masterpiece, Woodface. Together, with the help of some of Boston’s best musicians, they have created something more than a cover record. It is a tribute to the band they both love, while giving each song an original twist. This is a labor of love.
"...there is definitely that sadness of truth that flows through the lyrics--but it's a beautiful sadness. It's like sugar snow summed up in two words. Beautifully sad. "
Interview with Pam Layne
Host of WMFO's On The Town With Mikey Dee
Why Crowded House, and specifically why Woodface?
I have very, very, very vivid dreams. Much to my detriment. Often really horrible dreams. But they have soundtracks. And I had a dream – the dream in itself I don’t remember now, but – the soundtrack to this dream was “It’s Only Natural,” with two voices, both being mine, and slowed down to a Julee Cruise / David Lynch kind of thing. That was my dream. So when I texted Brian and said “This is my dream,” he said, “Let’s do it!” And then it was like, “Well… do you want to do one more? Let’s do one more. Let’s see what happens.” And then, “It would be kind of cool to do an EP,” and then it was like, “Well, if we’re already doing this, let’s just do the whole record.” Woodface is one of my favorite records. It’s a record that I loved, and I dreamt about it, and that’s what we did. I wish there was a better story!
Has your relationship to the album changed over the years?
Nope… Um… Mm… Yes? Yes. In the sense that, some of the songs that I didn’t like before, I like now because of the way we did them. I shouldn’t say I didn’t like them – they weren’t my favorites before, even though they’re my favorites now. I appreciate what they [Crowded House] did, I have questions that I would love to ask them about why they did some of the things that they did... But I still love the record. I still think that some of the writing on that record – a lot of it, but some of the songs in particular – is just magnificent. So I will always have that feeling about that record, that when I listen to their version, there’s this silent [sigh, hushed tone], “Oh I love this song!” There are other Neil Finn songs that do that to me too, but this record has a couple of the best ones for me.
What do you hope the listener takes away from this album? …or is that a weird question?
It’s not a weird question, it’s just nothing that I’ve considered, to be honest. I think because my focus – and I think it’s fair to speak for Brian in this area – both of our focuses were on to make a record that we both really liked, that we were both really proud of, that we had put our creative all into, and that we were really happy with. I hope it introduces this band and this record to young people who don’t know this band, or reintroduces it to people who do know this band and Woodface and just hadn’t heard it in a while. I would love that. I hope that the work speaks for itself. But at the end of the day it has to be a record that we’re both really proud of, really excited to share, and we hope other people are excited to listen to it. Maybe this will be my way of meeting Neil Finn – I hope so. [Laughs, speaks into recorder] You hear that? I wanna meet you.
How did you come to work with Brian Charles at Zippah?
When I was looking to record an album [Sugar Snow’s first], somebody recommended Brian to me, and I called him, and I said “Here’s what I want to do. Let me send you some of my songs. Listen to it, and I’ll come over and we’ll see if we’re compatible.” And so I went into the office part of the studio – which I think was the only time I was ever in there, because I’m always in the studio part of the studio – and his record collection is in there, and it is almost identical to mine. So when I said, “Here’s what I want to do,” he said “I get these songs, I love these songs.” I had no vocabulary for how I wanted it to sound because I’d never been in a recording studio. It could have been a really scary experience, because I had done nothing in a studio, I’d never been in a studio, I didn’t know what they did there, I didn’t know about scratch tracks or anything. And he was very gentle with me, in terms of not making me feel [like], “You should know that. If you were a ‘real’ musician, you would know that.” It was never like that. But [he was] also super encouraging, in the sense that “That was good, but I know you can do better,” or “Let’s try again, except this time…” You know, we were able to communicate in that way. When Kid Gulliver was looking for a place to record, there was no question as to where we were gonna go as far as I was concerned. It was sort of like coming home. It was a very comfortable situation. I knew how to work with him. And so when the seed of this latest project was planted, there was no question – he was the only one that I would go to. So I just texted him and said, “This is what happened. Let’s do this.” And Woodface is an album that he loves very much. It’s never happened that I’ve referenced a song that he didn’t know from any record, to be honest. When I said, “This is the one I want to start with,” he didn’t ask me “Who did that song?” He immediately knew, he knew the record, he knew the year that it came out…he knows his shit. So I didn’t have to explain that part of it to him. He got it.
How did you select the arrangements for the songs on this album? The music/lyrics/song-order/etc was all set in stone, but within that framework you were able to be quite playful.
Most of the time we had no plan whatsoever. Aside from “It’s Only Natural,” which was the first song, almost entirely the rest of it was: I would go into the studio and we’d say “Which song should we do today? How about “Whispers and Moans?” Let’s do that one.” And we’d listen to it, and listen to it again, and listen to it again, and Brian would go get a guitar, and he would start playing it, and be like, “You know, this reminds me a little bit of – whatever band,” so like one song it was, “I’m thinking a Portishead feel to this one,” and that’s where we went with that one. Or “Fall at Your Feet” was just because he picked up a nylon-stringed guitar, and that gave it sort of a Brazilian feel, that’s the way we did it. But most of the time we had no plan. There was absolutely no plan. It wasn’t mapped out, like, “OK, the first song is gonna be like this, and then the second song is gonna be in this style, and the third song is gonna be…” There was no plan because we didn’t do it in order. We did it as we went along. Whatever felt right at that time. Most of the songs, Brian did all the music. All of it. Whatever is in there, including drums, he did. So a lot of that was done as we were sitting in the studio. So we had a basic idea of what we were gonna do, and he would go and get his guitar and record it. Sometimes that was the finished product. Sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes he would say, “Alright, after you do your vocals to this scratch track, then I’ll go back and play the real guitar part that I wanna play.” Things evolved. So there were times that I did vocals, and then he went back and did the music, and then the vocals didn’t fit anymore, so I went back and did the vocals again. There were just no rules. We had no template to work from.
It’s almost like you have a script for a play, and you have the lead actor, and some of the costuming. And then you go out and say, “OK, this is the cast that we need. And this is the kind of person that we need for this role, and this is the kind of person that we need for this other role.” And between you & Brian, you pulled in a bunch of different players.
We had a stand-up bass in one song, which was Jim Haggerty, and he played bass on another song as well. Chris Anzalone played drums on two songs, which were very different, but then we had another drummer on the [first] song [Conor Duffy] which was a completely different kettle of fish. So in a sense, what you’re saying is exactly right – that each song was its own performance, and so it required its own cast. But that also went for me, in terms of how I sang it. To push myself in a way that didn’t feel at all natural to me. And he really pushed me to do that, which I’m really grateful for, because it opened up a whole world of vocals for me. It has changed the way that I do Kid Gulliver, because that’s been an evolving process, just getting comfortable with that style of singing anyway, which is so different from my Sugar Snow stuff, but I would say that as I’ve done more of the Crowded House songs, especially in the styles that we’ve done, it’s an attitude that translates well to Kid Gulliver. So I’m way more comfortable doing that now than I ever have been, and it’s way more fun for me now.
Did you want to take people through the process of recording one of the songs?
Each of them had their own genesis, really, so there was not one particular way. I can say for some songs I had really bad vocal days. For whatever reason, my voice was uncooperative. Most of the time it is, but there are days, for whatever reason, that I could not get those notes. I can’t listen to it. I hate it. Let’s just do it again.” “Chocolate Cake” is actually one that I had a vocal that was fine. And I went back and said,“I can’t listen to it. I hate it. Let’s just do it again.” And we did it again, and it changed the whole song. And it changed not just the feel of the song, but then also what we did with it. So there really was no typical – not the way it usually is when you go into a studio and record your own stuff, it wasn’t like that at all. We both allowed ourselves to just be totally free in terms of creativity and not go into it with a preconceived notion about what it should sound like, or what will people like, or what will reviewers like – it was just not in the thought process.
Did you find that personally, regarding the songs you had to work harder for, do you like them a little bit more?
I do. For sure. But overall the songs that I loved the most I still love the most. I have a new appreciation for some songs I liked a lot but didn’t love before, that I love a lot more. I really appreciate what they did. What Neil Finn did on those songs, how he wrote them, his ad libbing. I can appreciate it in a completely new way. I had not listened to so critically before.
Are you releasing this under the name Sugar Snow?
I am. Sugar Snow has evolved into me and then a rotating cast of players. So the stuff that we do is me, my voice is the thread, and then it could have different, disparate people. And if I play my own record again – I’ve done some stuff solo, but it’s not with a band – I’d have to really think about who would be the right fit for me. So short answer: yes. Sugar Snow is me. It’s like an alternate me. I often get emails addressed to Sugar: Dear Sugar.
I have the impression from this conversation that this won’t be an album that you’ll be performing live [as a full band].
Probably [not]. Unless it’s a one-off show that we might want to do for fun. It’s a complicated record, in terms of how each song was done. Some of them would be very easy to do, some would be impossible to do. So at this point, yes, it’s purely recorded. What the future will hold, who knows. [Into the recorder] If Neil Finn asks me to play something with him, I will agree!