Kyle Simmons, who records and performs solo under the name Boog, sings like he’s really seen some shit. Like he’s ridden the rails, been to the depths. Like he’s a scarred veteran of the emotional wars, a man who’s at home only on the ripped-vinyl upholstery of the back booth of some grim dive, taking stock of decades gone with clenched-jaw regret unsoothed by bottomless whiskey and smokes slowly choking him to death.
His is an unruly, off-kilter baritone. Oddly accented, it delivers strange phrasings and enunciations as it veers from low, skulking growl to bugged-out bellow or gasp. This kind of voice can’t be easy to corral, or even to believe in. Seems like it’d take a singer ages to muster the confidence to offer it up to the listening public.
Which makes it all the harder to fathom that Simmons is only 22.
“Yeah, I’ve gotten the ‘old soul’ thing for a while now,” he says with an easygoing drawl. “I do kinda feel like I’ve been in the world forever, been through some stuff. It gets to you sometimes. Sometimes it’s really hard to relate to the people around you. Everyone’s, like, ‘You’re so young, you’re 21, 22, whatever — just be that. But I can’t be that, and if I was just that, I probably wouldn’t be doing this.”
On a frigid Saturday evening, Simmons ducks into the lobby of Temple’s “1300” dorm building. He’s friendly, fresh-faced, smartly attired, quick to smile, not sullen or morose. It’s difficult to reconcile this guy and that demented-sounding voice (the disparity’s not Rick Astley-weird, but close). Still, there’s an ache below the surface.
1300’s a meaningful place for him — it’s where, four years ago, things started to fall apart and come together all at the same time. Things went south not long after Simmons enrolled at Temple in 2008 as a Greek and Roman classics major. A self-described “floater” and lone wolf from Pottstown, Simmons felt alienated from his peers, miserable, insecure, desperate to hide out and find refuge in his songwriting. “I used to play the guitar in the elevator on Friday nights when everyone else went out,” he recalls. “I just wanted to be left alone, do my own thing.”
Still, if he had a hard time connecting with people, at 18 he was already a remarkably prolific musician. He’d recorded six albums on his own and had dozens more songs in varying stages of completion. And he wasn’t exactly a recluse: Since age 13 he’d been a regular on the open-mic circuit in the ’burbs — at Steel City Coffeehouse in Phoenixville, Burlap and Bean in Newtown Square, MilkBoy in Ardmore — honing that “weird bastard child of a voice,” as Simmons puts it, shaped from years of singing along to Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Elvis Costello. He played his first Philly show as boog (a nickname given to him at birth by his father) at Lickety Split on South Street the night before his freshman move-in day at Temple.
A few gigs at M Room, Danger Danger and Kung Fu Necktie followed. But even artistically, Simmons had a hard time fitting in — he was too much of a “guy with acoustic guitar” to play indie-rock bills, too weird to play milquetoast singer-songwritery bills. “I was kind of the black sheep of the Philadelphia folk scene,” he says. “People told me I was doing things all wrong, and I felt like everyone was knitting together to recycle the same ideas and spew out the same thing and I had more to offer than that. I was pretty sour grapes about it for a little bit.”
But he pushed on. Studies took a backseat to days and nights spent walking all over the city, observing people, scribbling lyrics in his notebook, creating mythologies and merging them with his own troubled times and relationships, then coming back to 1300 to add melodies to his emerging first-person narratives. “That’s always what’s made me the happiest,” he says. He’s still hyper-aware of his surroundings and the people who flit in and out of them. As we head out of the building to take a walk around campus, a pretty girl with Doc Martens and a Black Flag four-bar tattoo on her hand approaches Simmons and asks for a light. As she struggles to strike a match in the wind, Simmons eyes her not with lust, but in a way that suggests she’ll end up in one of his songs someday.
After three difficult semesters at Temple and in the local music scene, Simmons finally quit school, and the city, at the end of 2009. He moved back in with his parents, got a warehouse job, focused all his energies on boog, only rarely played Philly for a couple of years. “I totally retreated,” he says. “I had to figure out who I was and feel better about what I was doing, because this is my calling.”
Several more albums and EPs quickly tumbled out. Most, like last year’s excellent self-titled LP, were just his voice and an aggressively strummed guitar. This year’s Regency EP is an anomaly — a reverby, rough-and-tumble electric/bass/drums affair. He’s readying three more EPs for self-release by year’s end; one of them’s entirely a cappella.
His compositions are invariably intense; sometimes as angry as a swatted hornet, other times as pained as a bird with a broken wing. Inside his story-songs, lovers leave, dreams are deferred, promises go unfulfilled, guilt and spite are persistent companions. Sometimes the imagery’s fanciful: “I won’t just weave the rugs on which you walk/ I would dye the fabric myself with all the blood-colored flowers I can find.” Other times, reality intrudes: “I’m soaked to the socks/ I punch a broken clock/ Check stock and break down boxes/ Character, character, I have that in spades.”
This year, the struggle finally seems to be paying off. Simmons pulled off a well-received two-month national tour of tiny venues at the end of the summer on a shoestring budget — he didn’t go broke until one of the final dates, in New Orleans, and fans there bought enough of his CDs to pay for the gas to get home. Along the way he did a Daytrotter session, too, which has already helped raise his profile.
Simmons thought about moving to Chicago or Seattle and starting over. But he’s feeling better about life here. He wants to connect with Philly again. “I love this area,” he insists. “The city was really pivotal for the things I wrote. A lot came out of here and shaped my perspective, even when it was really hard. I’ve been through a lot for the little sliver of something that I have, and I want to fight for more.”
Simmons may feel like an old soul, but he’s really still a young’n, and the future looks bright.
Boog plays Sat., Nov. 17, 9:30 p.m., $8-$10, with I Am Love Brethren and Twin Ghost, MilkBoy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St., 215-925-6455, milkboyphilly.com.