It’s 1am and a sequin-clad figure has just taken the stage at the Flamingo Club in Berlin. She may look like a supermodel but she howls like PJ Harvey. And, flitting effortlessly from keyboard to guitar, she’s got the crowd in a trance.
At twenty-five, singer-songwriter Simonne Jones has sauntered down more paths than most people will in a lifetime. She moved from Hollywood to Berlin two years ago to pursue music, spent her teen years modelling, and also boasts a visual arts and biomedical research degree. In the university lab she researched HIV/Aids; in the art studio she indulged her love of painting. And this year she’s found a way to weave activism into the mix.
“I got a text message from [electro-clash rapper] Peaches and she was like, ‘Do you want to write a ‘Free Pussy Riot’ song?’ Of course, I was like, ‘Yes!’ so I started working on it that night. I wrote a page of lyrics, Peaches wrote a page of lyrics and we came together and combined them,” says Simonne.
Two days later they created a Facebook event and invited a bunch of friends to shoot a video for the song. Four hundred people showed up (alongside the media and police) ready to show their support for the three members of the Russian punk feminist collective serving time in prison for ‘hooliganism’ after participating in a protest against the Catholic Church. Featuring a montage of flash-mob-style protests – with ‘rioters’ clad in Pussy Riot-esque neon balaclavas – the video boasts notable contributions from the likes of Lykke Li, JD Samson of Le Tigre, comedian Margaret Cho and Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
By bringing together a diverse roster of artists, Simonne wanted to let Pussy Riot know they are not alone. “I’m doing this because I’m inspired for action,” she told Rolling Stone from behind a pink balaclava at a demo in August. “I want Russia to know that what’s happening there is not okay. […] There are people all around the world, musicians, that stand for human rights and will continue to stand for human rights until we’re heard.”
Today, in the Berlin basement she rehearses in – surrounded by keyboards, guitars, pedal boards, loop stations and cables – Simonne goes even further: “I was born in a country where I have certain liberties, and they were born in a country where they don’t. I can’t imagine what that’s like as an artist, not being able to say what you want and be fully expressive. The whole thing really saddens me, but I think it’s important to realise that that kind of thinking could happen anywhere. It’s not just an isolated event in Russia.” In addition to the video clip, Simonne and Peaches started an online petition at Change.org where they collected over 145,000 signatures protesting the imprisonment of Pussy Riot.
For Simonne, her political consciousness spills into her passion for science, which she sees as another outlet for creativity and activism. When she says she’s “in-love with medicine” she means it. “In my lab we would try and detect different structures within HIV, all with the intention of trying to regulate genome packaging – the way that HIV packages its genome and replicates and infects new cells – to try and stop replication,” explains Simonne.
Not content to stay inside the lab, she set up a programme in Ghana to raise awareness about the disease in schools. “Before I taught them anything I conducted a survey to see if they knew how HIV is spread,” says Simonne, who found that sixty-five per cent of students believed HIV could be cured by having sex with a virgin. Shocked at this kind of misinformation, Simonne tried to reach as many young people as possible and in the end 155 students passed through her programme.
Fighting HIV on the frontlines is one thing; making music in Berlin is quite another. But Simonne – like her hero Leonardo Da Vinci – believes art and science share common ground. “[Science] is really similar to writing music in the sense that you’re problem-solving, being creative and inventing different experiments,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m writing, it’s almost like solving a math problem. It sounds kind of strange, but the more advanced you get in studying math – or science – the more visual it becomes. Even finger dexterity, practice and repetition – training yourself to play an instrument is similar to training yourself to study sciences. You use the same thought processes.”
And it’s not just inside the lab that Simonne’s experiments unfold. Her sound has been described as everything from electro-punk to baroque-pop. She loves old blues and rock ‘n’ roll like Howlin’ Wolf, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Chuck Berry. But she also digs the finger-picking slap-and-tap style of Michael Hedges and Preston Reed.
Her acoustic guitar is a bit of a cyborg: fitted with three pads that connect to her laptop, it lets her trigger any sound – “a screaming monkey, anything I want” – with a single tap. Throw in the three keyboards she surrounds herself with and Simonne Jones is a one-woman machine. “I wanted to have this large sound where it was just me and an acoustic guitar, but still people would be dancing,” she explains.
While her experiments are turning heads (she was recently accepted into the next Red Bull Music Academy, one of thirty artists out of 10,000 applicants), Simonne is far from a laptop junky. In keeping with her musical roots (her grandfather played bass for BB King and James Brown), Simonne is something of a self-taught perfectionist; she learned to play piano by ear and insists on practicing guitar for five hours every day. “I really wanted to distinguish myself as an actual musician,” she explains. “Not just somebody that wrote songs, not just a singer, but somebody that could actually really play their instrument well.”
And that’s the thing about artists like Simonne Jones; music, it seems, is in their DNA. “It’s almost like a holistic thing in a way that if I’m really happy, I have to make music. And if I’m really sad, I have to make music. As long I’m making music, then I’ll be whole in some sort of way.”
Join Simonne Jones and Peaches in the fight to free Pussy Riot at change.org/freepussyriot.