When considering the roll call of rock’s most influential icons, those rare artists that pose a triple threat are the ones that consistently stand out, musicians that seize the spotlight through their singing, songwriting and instrumental prowess. That hallowed breed of musician has become increasingly less common in popular music, so it’s especially worth noting that Keaton Simons also qualifies as a triple threat, given that his multifaceted talents have garnered him a presence on radio, television, film and the concert circuit. It’s an especially auspicious distinction for an artist who is only now on the cusp of releasing his debut album, the prophetically titled tour de force, Can You Hear Me, on CBS Records.
The many career accomplishments he’s racked up in such a relatively short time attest to both his aptitude and his attitude. In fact, music seemed to be in his genes. He was singing from the time he started talking… even before his first birthday! By the time he was two, he was entertaining his classmates in daycare. At age twelve he was already adept on guitar, and by fourteen he had decided to make music his career. That obsession carried over to college, earning him a degree in Ethnomusicology – the study of World Music – at The Evergreen State College in Washington State. Absorbing a varied array of classic influences – Hendrix, Dylan, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Robert Johnson among them – he immersed himself in all forms of music, from Rock to Jazz, Blues to Bluegrass and melded them into a mix that’s timely and timeless.
Keaton played in various bands before college but his studies at Evergreen taught him about theory and technique. “I was always afraid that if I learned a real regimen, I would lose my soul and spontaneity,” he recalls. “But when I actually started to study music and composition I began to realize that learning the discipline would actually enhance my ability.”
Meanwhile, Keaton was also learning some real life lessons. A family friend, bassist Gordon Edwards of the famous funk band Stuff, invited him to come to New York and sit in on some sessions. Eventually, Keaton met Tre “Slimkid” Hardson of the alternative L.A. rap group The Pharcyde. He signed on as their musical director, while contributing guitar, songwriting and arranging to Hardson’s subsequent solo album. From there he expanded his musical apprenticeship and began working with other notable hip-hop acts, including the Black Eyed Peas, Medusa and Snoop Dogg, with whom he performed on The Tonight Show.
Despite extensive roadwork and a growing professional pedigree, Keaton started getting restless and chose to focus on ways to move his own career forward. Eventually, he signed a deal with Maverick Records, which led, in turn, to a debut EP called Currently. The title track garnered massive airplay at several stations around the country, including L.A.’s leading tastemaker station KCRW. It also achieved Top 5 rotation on MTVU, MTV’s specially formatted college outlet, sharing top spins with Green Day and Eminem.
Keaton soon began garnering exposure in other media as well. His songs were tapped for several movie soundtracks while Keaton himself was recruited for guest appearances on such popular network shows as The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Malcolm in the Middle and American Dreams. He also appeared in feature films like Hollywood Dreams (from noted independent director Henry Jaglom). Meanwhile, he continued to tour, gaining exposure before increasingly larger audiences and sharing the stage with such notable names as Coldplay, Chris Isaak, Gnarls Barkley, Mike Doughty, Josh Rouse, Guster, Five For Fighting and Josh Kelley with whom he co-wrote three songs for Kelley’s upcoming album. He capped his accomplishments with a second place win in the prestigious John Lennon Songwriting Competition.
Unfortunately, Maverick’s fortunes began to falter, and when the label was absorbed by Warner Bros., Keaton became a free agent once again. Still, he remained undeterred, touring the country and keeping his contacts at radio while sustaining his airplay. “The anticipation for a full-length album was always there,” Keaton claims. “Radio programmers kept asking when there would be more. So when I had the chance to join CBS, I knew I’d finally have another opportunity to get my music back out there.”
Indeed, Can You Hear Me lives up to all expectations. Produced by Dave Bianco, the album mines the classic singer/songwriter traditions spawned by greats like Van Morrison, Rod Stewart, John Hiatt and other artists known for their soulful sway.
Keaton’s tasteful fretwork, masterful songwriting and searing vocals bring an honesty and integrity that’s instantly embracing, a warm emotional center core that reaches from the tangled vulnerability of opening track “Without Your Skin” and the lean, sensual drift of “To Me” to the spry suggestion of the title track and the playful intrigue of “Misfits.” “Nobody Knows” proves instantly infectious, its sinewy rhythms wrapping around an irresistible refrain, while “Masterpiece” lives up to its title through a suggestive sway certain to put its listeners in a romantic mood. “I wanted to get back to honest, straight-forward expression; a purity and dynamic that relied on the strength of the songs and not the added embellishment of the arrangements,” Keaton insists. “I think this album represents who I am as an artist and captures the sound of my live performances authentically.”
As he views his prospects going forward, Keaton maintains his main ambition is to continue to focus on his live performances, and draw more and more fans to his shows. “I’ve been doing this awhile, but I believe there’s so much left for me to accomplish,” he reflects. “There’s no reason to aim low; I have confidence in my abilities and I believe that widespread success is within my grasp. It’s cool to be with a company like CBS that feels the same way and believes in me so strongly. It reinforces my confidence.”