We had the good fortune of connecting with Maralisa Simmons-Cook and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Maralisa, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I grew up in West Marin in a small town called Lagunitas (part of the San Geronimo Valley), about twenty minutes from Point Reyes National Seashore. My house was at the end of a long winding road up in the woods on a steep hill. It’s absolutely beautiful there, with rolling hills and cows and redwood forests. My mom is a painter and visual artist, and her father, my grandfather, owned a well known dive bar called Specs’ in San Francisco (a watering hole for writers, artists, activists, musicians and more) now co-owned by my mom and I. I grew up venturing into the city quite a bit and hanging at the bar, attending music festivals and blues clubs, as well as art and cultural events with my mom. Marin County also has an incredible history of music, with artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and more spending much time there. My dad was a big fan of psychedelic rock and folk, with artists like the Grateful Dead and Neil Young, and my mom loved blues, jazz, soul, and world music, so I grew up listening to a lot of Taj Mahal, Leonard Cohen, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Bonnie Raitt, Buena Vista Social Club, and a handful of Irish and American folk singers. As a family, we would often go to New Orleans for Jazz Fest – in fact, my very first words were there – “beads” and “ice.” I was fully immersed in the world of roots music/soul and blues from a very young age because of my parents. I first learned to sing by listening to Billie Holiday, and it really wasn’t until high school that I caught up with my classmates and started listening to the popular music at the time. I guess I’ve always thought of myself as an “old soul” in that sense, because my early childhood influences really shaped my voice (tone, delivery, and even songwriting style) and so when I became exposed to newer artists like Little Dragon and Erykah Badu with distinct and powerful voices, I was thrilled to discover I could blend the two musical worlds. I think my songwriting style and collaborations still feel that way, a constant blending of genre and a looseness and experimentation that is really important to me. This was especially apparent when I formed my band Space Captain in college with producer/bassist Alex Pyle. He was coming from a background of hip hop/r&b and I was coming from a background of mostly jazz and Motown/old school soul. The result was contemporary r&b music that felt slightly left field to me, with imperfect and loose vocals. I still love to maintain this openness and playfulness in my singing and writing, and try to hold on to that feeling no matter what kind of project I’m working on.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
As a singer and songwriter, I am currently working on two main projects – my second record with Space Captain and my first solo record. After writing and performing with Space Captain for eight years, a collaborative project in which I am mostly writing toplines, I am for the first time in a long time discovering what my own unique sound is when I am working as both the composer and the songwriter. It has been a really interesting challenge to push myself more on the piano and guitar, explore song concepts/structure and learn to understand and appreciate that the music that naturally comes out when I am left to my own devices is quite different than what I have traditionally made in the past. My new music leans in a more folk/indie pop direction, steering away from the r&b/soul music that I have primarily made with my band. I am really proud of the fact that as a band we have maintained our relationship for almost a decade, and that we were granted the opportunity at the end of college relatively soon after our formation to sign with a label (Tru Thoughts in the UK). Through being a bandleader for Space Captain, I have learned so much about booking shows, planning a tour, coordinating with the group, writing, recording, performing, and more. I feel so much more prepared to embark on my journey as a solo artist now that I have had these crucial experiences within the context of a collaborative project. I am looking forward to the ever-expanding and shifting process of songwriting and just generally changing/evolving over time as an artist – the beauty of music making for me is that I never truly know what I’m going to create next or what is going to push and inspire me. I like it that way, maintaining spontaneity and an appreciation for the unknown in balance with a strong work ethic. My real goal in music and with my career would be to build, however gradually, a long-lasting and impactful mark, even if that image of success looks different than what I may have dreamed of when I was younger. I have always admired artists who have found success within a niche market/audience and might not be the most well known, but have built something that is sustainable and are respected as lifelong musicians with outstanding careers. That is my dream for myself, and with every collaboration or project I release I feel thrilled to be contributing to the “grand pot” of my life’s work. Something I had to remind myself when moving back out west and leaving my band behind when things felt so scary and uncertain was that absolutely everything you create as an artist, no matter the title or the project or medium, contributes to your success ands builds on itself. It’s okay to change lanes, go in a completely different direction, try something totally new, because everything you create is going to have your stamp on it and will be something you get to look back on years down the road. It has really helped me during this uncertain period of my life to think about the long game.
On a separate note, I have been the co-owner my grandfather’s historic bar Specs with my mom for the past few years now, and we have been facing tremendous challenges as a small business through COVID. Specs has been fully shuttered since March of 2020, and with the pandemic have come many lessons in owning a small business that I have never faced before. Founded in 1968, this is the first time in our almost 53 year history that we have been forced to close our doors, but luckily with the immense support of the community of North Beach and our patrons behind us, we have been able to crowdfund enough so far to get by. I feel that the lessons learned during COVID as a business owner have directly impacted me as an artist as well, in that I have quickly become a sharper negotiator, self-advocator, and developed a strong work ethic and ability to budget, plan and interact with our online community. It has been an extremely draining and interesting year balancing the emotional response to the pandemic, our struggling business, and still trying to push forward in my musical career and remain open to creativity and productivity. Each day is different, and there are some days I devote entirely to the bar and to business, while other days I let my mind float and create. I. think the balance of having these two very different careers and responsibilities has challenged me in ways I don’t even fully understand yet. I am immensely grateful to be carrying on the history and legacy of Specs’ with my mom and to be a part of a community as vibrant and wonderful as North Beach.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Well, I just moved here last August in the middle of COVID so my knowledge of LA isn’t too expansive just yet, but here are some of my favorite activities so far:
Drive through Hollywood Hills/Mulholland Drive
Topanga Canyon cruising/shopping – The Well Refill is an amazing package-free shop. All the little hippie shops up there are so great and remind me of where I grew up (close to Fairfax in Marin)
Pygmy Hippo Shoppe – oddities and gifts shop, best spot in LA for finding a one of a kind gift! Wandering through Pan Pacific Park afterwards (La Brea Tar Pits, Holocaust Museum, LACMA all there)
Prelude & Dawn – amazing home-wears and apothecary shop, paired with hanging in Highland Park for tacos, coffee, and exploring the neighborhood. The backstreets are so lovely. Kumquat or Civil Coffee are my favorite cafes in that neighborhood.
Bat caves at Bronson Canyon, spooky and magical! Also Runyon Canyon, a classic!
Griffith Park hike up to observatory and Fern Dell Nature Trail
Will Rogers State Beach/exploring Malibu and its beaches as well. El Matador Beach is gorgeous.
Sidecar Doughnuts/Sockerbit for unreal sour candy off Fairfax – I’ve got a sweet tooth!!
Canter’s Deli – absolutely classic Jewish deli near my apartment. A must when visiting LA. Exploring Fairfax and the amazing history around that neighborhood.
Jon & Vinny’s – delicious pizza right across the street from Canter’s
Lastly, if it were open, we would go to Molly Malone’s to have some brews or Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, followed by a cool show at Zebulon! The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I have to give a huge shoutout to my mom Elly Simmons, who I mentioned earlier, for dragging me to more musical events than I can count when I was young. She is almost entirely responsible for my decision to pursue music and my early exposure to fantastic and inspiring artists. Furthermore, she instilled upon me the importance of family, of tradition, and of community and made sure that I had a connection to my family’s business and my grandfather from a young age. We are now business partners in our family business Specs’ Bar and it has been so amazing and special to carry on the torch together. Secondly, my voice teacher from ages 12-18, Amber Morris, was the one who really helped me discover my own unique voice and confidence. She was so much more than a voice teacher, a mentor, a therapist, a friend, and a huge musical inspiration. In college at The New School, meeting my bassist/producer Alex Pyle had a tremendous impact on me and has shaped a huge part of my adult life. We have maintained our friendship and musical relationship as Space Captain for eight years and counting, and it’s still going strong even though I’ve now relocated to LA and he’s in Brooklyn. He has pushed me musically and creatively and I am really grateful for our relationship. My boyfriend, artist and producer Max (Elbows) has also been incredibly inspiring and my main support system for the last six years and some change. Especially now that we’re fresh LA residents and I am beginning the journey toward my first full-length solo record, he is a constant source of support and encouragement.
Photos 1, 2 by Lissyelle Laricchia Photos 3, 4, 5 by Noel Woodford Photo 6, 8 by Nick Vaughn Photo 7 source unknown