A future so bright
Jazzy folk-pop trio St. Simon 3 unleashes its vision of old and new on Sacramento
There’s a rule carved in stone somewhere that says that if you want a lifetime of glowing reviews and other nice comments from music reviewers, don’t write a song that bitch-slaps them. And if you do write one, and you get as far as recording it, don’t put it on your album.
Simon Ennis most likely never heard anything about that rule. So, The Future We Were Promised, the debut album by the charming trio he fronts called St. Simon 3, contains a song entitled “Rock and Roll Journalist.”
Ennis gets off a few choice bon mots in the song, like this couplet: “Even before your band has reached the first chorus / I’m already looking up words for ‘distaste’ here in my thesaurus.” But other meow-worthy lines are less witty: “I speak for the kids or at least so I am told / So please don’t mention that I’m 45 years old.”
Ennis, who moved to California as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, studying psychobiology—the ways the mind and body interact with one another—had been living in Denton, Texas. Denton is about an hour northwest of Dallas, and Ennis had played a few shows in Dallas. There, Ennis had caught the ear of a music writer at a free weekly paper, and the writer decided to make Ennis his personal whipping boy.
But that was then, and Ennis has done a lot of growing up since then. And now he has a band, a rather swell one at that.
The trio came together after Ennis met bassist Tara McConnell at a Northern California Songwriters Association open-mic at the Fox & Goose. “I heard Simon singing, and he was looking for a bass player,” McConnell recalled. “She was sight-reading,” Ennis added, impressed by that feat.
Chip Conrad, St. Simon 3’s drummer, had seen Ennis around town, too. “I’m not a big fan of open-mic singer-songwriters,” he said. “But I liked his dynamics; I liked his songs.”
Conrad, a personal trainer whose 21st Street gym, Bodytribe Fitness, provided a location for this interview, liked the “peaks and valleys” in Ennis’ songs. He soon approached the singer. “You need me to drum for you,” Conrad recalled telling Ennis.
Both McConnell and Conrad cut their musical teeth playing jazz, a music whose lightness of attack may run counter to the four-on-the-floor slam of rock ’n’ roll, but it fits Ennis’ loftier aspirations. Conrad grew up in Honolulu and studied with a drummer who played with exotica musician Arthur Lyman. McConnell hails from Sacramento, but she studied at the University of the Pacific, where onetime student Dave Brubeck is still God, and by day, she works with autistic children as a musical therapist.
Their fluid facility suits the music of Ennis. At heart, he’s a crooner, with an appreciation for song craft from the classic pop canon—writers like Johnny Mercer, or Cole Porter. He discovered that music through Elvis Costello’s recording of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s romantic favorite “My Funny Valentine.”
But Ennis’ vocal phrasing is much more contemporary; think the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano; or Joni Mitchell’s version of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’ jazz-vocal gem “Twisted.” Ennis’ guitar playing floats around his voice like Buddy Holly’s Crickets at a garden party, and McConnell and Conrad provide backing that stays sparse but sympathetic.
On The Future We Were Promised, it manages to come together nicely. “I like this first album,” Ennis said. “It’s very well-crafted.” That final word slips from his mouth like a portent, as if something aberrant will follow soon.
And it does. “Increasingly, I’ve been writing songs about disorders,” Ennis said, mentioning songs about H.I.V. on Steely Dan singer Donald Fagen’s solo album The Nightfly as an example of that. “We’ve been talking about our future direction, and I’m ready to get weirder.”
As long as that weirdness doesn’t include a swing-band opus with lyrics about hooking up electrodes to music critics’ privates, St. Simon 3 should get some very nice write-ups—outside of Dallas.