Whatever you do, don't flip up Jade Simmons's skirt. She'll punch you. "My first playground fight happened when a little boy flipped up my skirt and I told him, 'If you do that again, I'm gonna punch you.' He did it again, and I had to punch him," Simmons laughingly tells us. "I said I would and so I had to do what I said."
When her record label delayed the release of her upcoming CD of classical music, Simmons's playground survival skills kicked in again. "I went to them with all sorts of options. I said, 'If we can't do a full-length album in September, can we do an EP? Can we do a single?' Finally, I went to them and told them, 'If you don't put something out in September, I'm going to put something out myself.' It wasn't like a threat, I was just trying to be honest with them. I guess they thought I was bluffing."
She wasn't. She also wasn't prepared to release any new material. She had been working on the planned CD, The Paganini Project, for the last year and had nothing else recorded. With a self-imposed September deadline looming, Simmons put together her own EP project, Playing with Fire and got it ready for a late-September release. "This was like [that little boy and my skirt] again. I had said I would do it and then I had to."
The Paganini Project included classical music and an original experimental piece featuring frequent Simmons collaborator Roburt Reynolds. For Playing with Fire, Simmons went back to Reynolds, but this time she had a completely new style in mind - rap. "I realized, nobody listens to just one type of music anymore. I wanted to do something fun, so I thought, 'I can experiment with stuff, do just four or five tracks and see what the world does with that music.' What I ended up with is an EP that's a mix of my musical influences and a reflection of this i-Pod world we live in."
Playing with Fire is a five-track EP, with Simmons's piano and vocals laid over electronic beats by Reynolds. One song, "Fire," is done in both a virtuoso version (somewhat experimental, but clearly based on classical technique) and a rap version. "I wanted the two tracks to be strikingly different. I wanted them to be two different kinds of fire. There's that inner fire that those of us who are very driven have, where it's quiet and brooding and beautiful. It's usually representative of some kind of passion, that's the piano version. The rap version is that scary fire. It has that same opening bass beat sound that's more ominous and foreboding."
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For longtime fans, Simmons's foray into rap may not be all that startling. The pianist has long been mixing classical, jazz, electronic, pop, and experimental music in her live performances. As she's added stylistic influences over the years, her audience has enthusiastically accepted them. "The audience that I started with has followed me everywhere I've gone. Every change I've made, they've come with me so I feel really blessed to have that kind of support. I'm hoping to have them come along with me on this.
"I've been constantly shapeshifting in my career. People aren't coming to my concerts just because I'm playing Mozart, but because they want to see how I'm doing it differently from the last time. What I am trying to believe as I move forward is that if I can focus on creating a unique and powerful experience, then people are going to come."
Even with a supportive and loyal following, Simmons admits the change in styles has been a stumbling block in terms of marketing. "The classification has been hard for me. I don't think the term experimental classical will be scary for new classical music lovers, the guys that are into 21st century avant garde classical music. At the same time, classical bloggers don't know what to do with it. And I can't just send it to hip-hop bloggers and say, 'Hey, here I am!' They don't know me. So I think it's going to have to float around and find its own little place."