It's less than 60 minutes before show time at Jazz Café at Music Hall in Detroit and Trey Simon is all grins and laughs. He's the night's lone balladeer from a collection of poets, emcees, and instrumentalists booked to perform. "I strive for the three S's: soft, smooth, and soulful," Simon says, detailing his musical methods between sips from a glass of ice water. "I want to be versatile, someone that will take your grandparents back to classic love songs." There's a lot of intrigue when a 21 year-old crooner talks of making classic love songs. But Simon is sincere.
He knows precisely what he's talking about and is faithful to what he is and where he wants to be musically. "I grew up on soul music — Motown and all that — so I get it naturally," he says. Simon is husky, fair skinned, and looks more likely to bust into "Volare" than the classic R&B ballads at which he excels. The offspring of a biracial marriage, his appearance is more ambiguous than his music. "I've been mistaken for black, white, Middle Eastern, and Samoan," he says.
Originally from Rochester, Simon got into music in high school. "I found a guitar under my uncle's bed and started messing around with it," he says. Simon's mother found him a teacher, but once he learned the basics, Simon ditched the lessons. He practiced day and night, perfecting his skills and gently eased into writing songs, and then singing.
"I was singing in an empty practice room at school and some teachers and classmates saw me," he says. Simon began to do a number of talent shows and joined a small band called Baldwain. But just as he was laying his musical foundation, his family structure began to crumble.
"My parents divorced, and we lost our house," Simon says. "I went from living in this nice house to an apartment with my dad." The family hardship deepened when he told his mother he was forgoing college to pursue a musical career. "I remember just sitting down looking at all these college applications and I just stood up and told them I wasn't going," he says. Simon's mother put him out, and after graduation Simon found himself living in his car before moving in with a friend's parents and working at a coffee shop. "It humbles you," he says. "I was very spoiled."
In the three years since, Simon's been a regular at Tuesday Night Live in Waterford and Pontiac's Pike Room. He credits fellow singer Kenny Watson for meaningful help. "Kenny was the one that helped me book gigs here in the city," he says. Simon is still working at the coffee shop and staying with friends, but his family is now also on board. "Once they saw how serious I was, they started to support me more," he says.
Simon's self-released debut EP What the Future Holds came out last summer. "Several friends helped me with it, and played different instruments," he says. The four original songs have minimal musical accompaniment, which means every tune is carried by Simon's overwhelmingly robust tenor.
"Fighting for You" addresses interracial relationships with lyrics like "I know it's hard to not live in hate, to walk the other way after feeling what I've felt/ We're all God's people, why divide us so/ This earth could be heaven, why make it hell." In "So Hard to Be," Simon plays the role of a jilted but not bitter lover. The title track "What the Future Holds" is the perfect lunch date song. And in "Baby," he's courting at a serious (but not corny) level as he sings, "Showing this lady how a man can feel so right/ Asking questions about her family and what loves look like." It's the most vocally impressive track on the EP. Simon uses both his voice and the accompaniment in a way that's similar to John Legend. He puts passion and punch at the right parts, simply and forcefully. Simon's style and attitude stand out because he's not trying to be trendy.
Around the 9 o'clock hour, Simon, dressed casually in jeans, is presented to the crowd of 100-plus. He slides into "Be with You," a slow and silky ballad that highlights his vast vocal range. He wins over the audience halfway through the first song. All eyes and ears are on him until someone yells, "Don't look at my girlfriend when you sing that good!" Everyone burst into laughter, but Simon never breaks stride. Twenty minutes later, he exits to a much louder applause than the one he entered to.
Listen to Trey Simon at treysimonmusic.com.