“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me,” Nina Simone once said: “No fear.”
If many of the most important records of the soul icon’s career were about political freedom, her 1982 album Fodder on My Wings, newly reissued, was about personal freedom—about liberating herself from her past and finding the liberty to create as she pleased. It was Simone’s means of working through fear—of death, manipulation, discrimination—in search of joy and self-discovery.
A marvel of self-expression, Fodder on My Wings is a culmination of Simone’s frustrations molded into a jarring personal statement. At times manic, at times depressive, she shares many different sides of herself in vignettes that make up a portrait both intimate and immense. Although it does not achieve the unrivaled brilliance of the performances on her albums for Philips, it marks her creative apex as an artist, somehow both her most worldly and her most introspective work.
Even in Simone biographies, Fodder on My Wings is usually represented as an outlier in her career. But it is a strange, captivating document that helped capture what a complicated person she was, the tumultuous life she’d led, and the nature of her travels. Some songs she sang in English, some in French, and on others, she alternated between the two languages. The album contains some of the most poignant ballads of her entire catalog, some songs that could double as rallying cries, and others that feel like fun sketches made for her own amusement. It is a record as unsteady, daring, damaged, and sensational as she was.
For a while, it didn’t seem like Simone would be back in a studio again. Her 1978 album Baltimore had soured her on the recording process. She butted heads with CTI producer Creed Taylor, recording all that record’s vocals in a single hour-long session on the final day of taping. “The material was not my personal choice, and I had no say whatsoever in the selection of songs. It was all done before I could make any decisions,” she later claimed. Simone was not fond of the album’s reggae-tinged sounds and rhythms (“What is this corny stuff,” she asked CTI arranger Dave Matthews). The album recreated songs by Randy Newman, Judy Collins, and Hall & Oates, and while it is often hailed as a late-career highlight, Simone said that she felt forced into making it.
After the experience with CTI, Simone sought greater authority in recording Fodder on My Wings. She always exercised some measure of control over what she recorded, but this was different. She was adamant about composing and arranging nearly every song, and she wanted it known that she had done just that. She played all of the piano parts. She enlisted African percussionists Paco Sery and Sydney Thaim—who played congas, bells, timpani, and woodblock—and bassist Sylvin Marc. All three men sang backup. This band produced what Simone liked to call black classical music, parlor music which drew on soul sounds and calypso rhythms. It was the sound of her recent travels.
The album’s title track puts this odyssey into perspective. Simone portrays herself as a bird that fell to Earth, landed in human debris, and was irrevocably changed. “Although it was able to survive, it couldn’t fly. So it walks from country to country to see if people had forgotten how to live, how to give,” she explained. “Most of the people had forgotten.” The metaphor was reflective of how Simone saw herself (a damaged songbird), the world (ungiving), and the world’s impact on her (harmful to her fragile psyche). Many of the album’s songs carry stories or lessons from this journey, things she’d picked up living in Switzerland, Liberia, and France.
Simone had enormous respect for France and French people. In her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, she described them as a people with “a lot of respect for serious artists” and Paris as a safe haven for African exiles. “I would be able to create my own Africa in the heart of Europe, Africa in my mind,” she imagined. After a rejuvenating trip in the 1970s to Liberia, Simone’s ancestral home, which was settled and made independent by free blacks from the American South, the singer had reconnected with her romanticized idea of Africa. But that Liberian pilgrimage produced a difficult loss, too: After Simone left, there was a coup in 1980, and her former lover, the local community leader C.C. Dennis, died of a heart attack two weeks after his son Cecil was executed by the military.
The album is deeply touched by the experiences of these trips, full of African spirituals sung in French, musings on black spirituality and the hereafter, and attempts to recalibrate and recapture a glow lost in the wake of personal losses. “Fodder in Her Wings” is a song about this meandering journey to Africa with “dust inside her brain.” Simone takes a second crack at the hymn “There Is a Balm in Gilead”; the version on Baltimore, performed leisurely in English and like reggae, sucked the character out of her voice. As if to spite Taylor, “Il y a un baume à Gilead” maintains the island sway of the original but lines its edges with a more nuanced vocal take. She reintroduces the spiritual “Thandewye,” first recorded for the 1974 live album It is Finished, pushing even deeper into divinity.
Simone’s voice could open the sky or scorch the earth. Despite reports that her vocal cords were decaying, her contralto described as having “deepened into a mannish baritone,” she had lost little of her power. Her own characterization, as recorded in the 2015 Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, was still more accurate: “Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.” In the lighter moments, the feathery French of “Gilead” or the crescendos of “I Sing Just to Know That I’m Alive,” she exudes grace and poise. In the dark ones, like “Thandewye,” she plays into the harshness of her tone. She is a master of dynamics, knowing when to hurt and when to heal.
“What I did on this album was try to get myself deep into joy,” she wrote in the liner notes. On the triumphant opener “I Sing Just to Know That I’m Alive,” she reaffirms her belief in the sacred power of performing. The repeated refrain of “Color Is a Beautiful Thing” feels like something she’s trying to internalize, a coda to 1969’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” “Liberian Calypso” channels the night she felt most free, naked and drunkenly blissful, table-dancing her way through an African discotheque. All of these effervescent songs feel like they’re swirling around the tragedy at the heart of the record.
At the center of the reissued Fodder on My Wings is “Alone Again Naturally,” Simone’s stripped-down response to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit of the same name, in which she recounts the events surrounding her father’s death a decade earlier. (Its place on the tracklist has shifted over the years.) She was glad to learn he was dying: he had betrayed her when she needed him most, and in dying he’d taken her mother with him. Suddenly, the song grows somber, and in the closing minute, she reveals that losing this man was, in fact, a devastating blow. No one was closer to her. No one else understood her. She points to his loss as the impetus for all subsequent struggles. The specter of his death casts a pall over the album’s pursuit of joy. One moment, her father’s death makes her question God’s existence; the next, when singing a reassuring song her father introduced her to (“Heaven Belongs to You”), she embraces heavenly salvation. This is the push and pull throughout the album: the weight of pain and the beauty of faith.
Together, all these songs become a memoir. She wasn’t just singing to know that she was alive; she sang also to reflect on how she’d lived and what she might learn from it. The haunting piano solo “Le peuple en Suisse” revisits her time in Switzerland, among a people she believed to be cold, but not before waxing poetic about moving forward. “Let no one deceive you/You have so little time/So let the corpses molder/To live your life is bolder/To waste it is a crime,” she sings, as though trying to convince herself. She didn’t want to be trapped, least of all in her role as a performer.
Nina Simone spent much of her life on stage, and it was in those moments that she really seemed to become the High Priestess of Soul, but by the 1980s, her shows had developed a reputation for devolving into chaos as much as for achieving excellence. “Her performances have the aura of sacramental rites, in which a priestess and her flock work to establish a mystical communion,” wrote the critic Stephen Holden in 1983, during her first show back in the States to perform songs from the album. As if cognizant of such a spiritual relationship with her audience, there’s “Vous êtes seuls, mais je désire être avec vous” (You are alone, but I want to be with you), a song that seemed to be an olive branch to crowds around the world. She chants the phrase over and over until the words completely disarm and overwhelm, until she felt exonerated. (Nicole Cerf-Hofstein wrote that, for many in attendance when Simone first performed the song at the New Morning, it was “a missed rendezvous.”) The song seems indicative of her ongoing battle to overcome both internal and external demons. Even her deepest explorations of self were made in conversation with her public.
Simone was privy to the way the world at large saw her and sought to sideline her, as evidenced in songs like “I Was Just a Stupid Dog to Them” and “They Took My Hand,” but she was optimistic she could make a better future by learning from the past. “Now, everything will change!” she exclaims on the former; “You took my teeth/You took my brains/You try to drive me so insane/And now you’re trying to take my eyes/But it is finished/Because I’m too wise,” she sings on the latter. With Fodder on My Wings, she found new freedom in song, seeking out new heights as she left her fears far below.
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