Born to a military family in Italy, Ceshini Simmons arrived in Cambridge with her mother and siblings at the age of 13 by way of Pennsylvania, South Carolina, then Federalsburg, and Hurlock here in Maryland.
Her interest in music began around the age of 12 when she started writing songs. There was an organ in her church, The Greater Works Church in Cambridge, for which there was not enough space. Her mother had enough space, and the organ wound up in Simmons’ home, where Simmons started to teach herself to play to accompany her songs. She can’t remember where she found it, but she had a piece of cardboard that lined up with the piano keys, wrote the notes on the keys, and learned to read music a little, but mostly plays by ear. Simmons says, “My mother can attest that this was very painful – I was playing the organ piano style, and she was forever saying, ‘Turn it down!’”
As she began pursuing her art, Simmons’ main influences were church hymns that had always been part of her life. Her everyday access to these was through a hymnal her mother brought with the family from Pennsylvania, and her inclination was toward the traditional, like “Rock of Ages,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Every Bridge.” In addition, Simmons reads a lot, and the film, “Bright Star,” about the poet John Keats, has also influenced her poetic inclination when writing. More recently, she has been enjoying “The Sun and Her Flowers” by poet Rupi Kaur, and we share a recent discovery of poet Trev Cimenski on Instagram.
Simmons is very self-directed. To find open mics, she turned to Google, where she discovered places in Chestertown, Rock Hall, and closer to home in Cambridge at the Dorchester Center for the Arts. Her first time out was this year, 2023, at the Garfield Center for the Arts at the Prince Theater. She remembers the exact date, May 31, because it was also her birthday. She says that she took the fact it was on her birthday “as my sign to do that open mic.”
Open mic participants, says Simmons, are “very friendly, kind, open and accepting. There is no harsh judgment; rather, you and your songs are received as you are. It’s so much fun!” She has played as far away as Big Bear Café in N.W. Washington D.C., but says the Dorchester Center for the Arts is one of her favorite places because it is so close to home – “I don’t have to drive an hour and a half each way.” They have been very supportive of her and brought her in for a one-hour performance on December 9 for the town’s Second Saturday art walk, where she was well received by a good-sized audience for the evening.
Simmons’ process usually comes from the thought, “I’m just going to sit down and practice the piano.” But sometimes, that moves directly into songwriting. For instance, in the song in the video “Laid Hope Down,” Simmons says, “I hit a note, and thought, hmm, and then started right into the first verse:
“My heart’s been broken
in a thousand tiny pieces
Lost in the rubble of rights and wrongs
Waiting for answers that I know will never come
Searching for the hope that I let go of.”
At the time, she was going through a rough spot in her life, and she found herself “bawling my eyes out” as she wrote the words, singing them to herself.
The words seemed so personal – it was like sharing a piece of me and kind of scary. I wondered if it would mean anything to anyone else and then realized it is transparency by the artist that draws people in. To me, the song is such a prayer, and I knew I wanted to share it. It is my most favorite of all my songs because I find it so hopeful.
She honors her work and is very organized, keeping all of her songs in plastic sleeves in a binder, including notes on the song itself, such as the key it’s played in, how long it takes to play, and some notes for banter about the song.
Simmons defines herself as an introvert, someone who is happy to chat with people she doesn’t know but, in the past, wasn’t one to start a conversation. She is more comfortable in her room, writing for herself, but she realized that even though going out in public would take her well out of her comfort zone, she needed to do that for her art.
“My people skills have grown, and the way I view the world has grown – there are so many people who can relate to me, and I to them – we are alike in more ways than not. The world is so much larger to me now, and I realize how much we all need each other.”
Asked about what she would recommend to other singer-songwriters just starting out, Simmons lists giving herself permission to be creative as the first step.
“A lot of us artists don’t allow ourselves to really create. We box ourselves in by fear of rejection, by fear of really being seen, by fear of failure. I say, let go and give yourself permission to create. And permission to fail because all failure is a stepping stone to what is next in your creative journey.”
Simmons notes that not everyone will like what you do, but someone needs what you have to offer, so you have to go out and give them an opportunity to find you.
The next open mic at The Dorchester Center for the Arts is Tuesday, December 19, at 6 pm.
Tammy Vitale, an artist herself, has fallen in love with all the facets of art available in Cambridge and wants the rest of the world to get to know and love the arts and artists of this area as much as she does. If you are from Cambridge/Dorchester and want to showcase your art (broadly defined), contact [email protected], subject line: art.