“I’m a happy person,” Simon Townshend says.
This may not come as a surprise, considering the 52-year-old has been recording and touring with big brother Pete Townshend’s band, the Who, since the mid-1990s.
But the youngest of the three Townshend brothers — Pete is 67, Paul is 54 — admits there was a time when he was “living in the shadow of a famous rock star.” He doesn’t worry about being Pete's little brother anymore.
One need look no farther than “Looking Out, Looking In,” the title song and emotional fulcrum of Simon’s newest solo album. “It’s a very introspective song,” he said from Pittsburgh, the sixth stop on a four-month North American tour in which the Who has returned to performing its 1973 classic “Quadrophenia.”
“I’ve had the ups and downs of being Pete’s brother. It’s helped me and hindered me along the way,” he said. “But one thing I’ve discovered more recently is, more than ever before, I am happy. I am a happy person. I love the fact that I can write music and am still hungry to record.”
The singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer was 8 when he declared that he, too, wanted to be a rock musician, according to Pete’s new autobiography, “Who I Am.” A year later, Simon contributed vocals to “Tommy,” the Who’s landmark 1969 rock opera about a messianic “deaf, dumb and blind boy.”
Simon launched his own career in the early ‘80s. Comparisons to his brother were inevitable, especially since they share a physical resemblance and reedy, plaintive vocal timbre, and his solo career floundered. It wasn’t until Simon joined the Who as a guitarist and backup vocalist on their 1996-97 “Quadrophenia” tour that he began to find his own voice, and audience, as a solo artist.
He worked on various Who-related projects, including tours by the band and its singer, Roger Daltrey, plus a couple of Pete’s solo albums. Simon also released four studio albums of his own, a live set and toured solo and with his own bands. The youngest Townshend credits time, age and changes in the music industry with allowing him to reach the satisfied state he’s in now. The ‘80s, he said, was “a time where music and success were gauged on how many sales you had and how much money you earned.”
He doesn’t feel those pressures anymore. “I’m a happy soul. I’m honored to work with the Who. It’s a pleasure to be on stage with them,” he said. “It’s also a pleasure that I can play clubs and do my own little shows.”
On the Who’s current “Quadrophenia and More” tour, Simon has worked in various solo shows and signs copies of “Looking Out, Looking In” at a merchandise stand 45 minutes before the Who hit the stage.
He calls “Looking Out, Looking In” a “very inspired record,” its 11 songs flowing out pure and easy. “I’ve managed to put my heart and soul in the record and keep it real,” he said. “I’m sure that’s what people really want, to listen to something and actually feel like they’re getting to know that person.”
Townshend said the key for him these days is to write when the inspiration hits him, drawing on real-life experiences over fiction. “Those sort of moments, if you can capture them, the feeling of that moment, that’s when the magic happens,” he said, adding “the best songs write themselves.”
“She Asked Me” was written in response to a request from a fan to write a song about her. “Forever and a Day” had been kicking around for a few years when a key change “made all the difference.”
Having a website, simontownshend.com, and blog allows him “the power you have and freedom” to post what he wants when he wants, including new songs and video.
He’ll follow the “Quadrophenia” tour with shows of his own, opening for Heart in Canada next spring, followed by solo shows in the U.K. and a string of European festivals with his band.
For now, he’s focused on “Quadrophenia and More,” a four-month North American tour that began Nov. 1, runs through Feb. 26 and includes the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy benefit in New York, a Feb. 6 show in Phoenix and Feb. 12 stop in Denver (no Texas dates have been announced).
It’s a return to the Who’s sprawling 18-song examination of teen angst and the original band’s four distinct personalities, set against the backdrop of clashing middle-class Mods and blue-collar Rockers in early ‘60s England.
Simon first joined the touring version of the Who for the “Quadrophenia” tours of 1996-97, after the 1978 death of flamboyant drummer Keith Moon, before the 2002 death of enigmatic, fleet-fingered bassist John Entwistle. Those tours featured guest singers and a filmed narrator.
“It wasn’t so much the Who as it was a production,” he said. “This is definitely the Who.”
A 10-member version of the Who, with three keyboardists, two horn players and longtime touring members Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son) on drums, Pino Palladino on bass and Simon Townshend on guitar and vocals.
For the first time, the band has inserted video of Moon singing “Bell Boy” and an Entwistle bass solo on “5:15,” which was Daltrey’s idea to keep “it in the Who camp, rather than stretching out and getting other people to do the parts,” Simon said.
Crowds have been going wild. “The audience response has been phenomenal. I can’t say enough how well received it’s been,” he said. “It’s quite moving. I think Pete has noticed that, how well it’s been accepted by the crowd.”
Simon has noticed how much closer Pete and Roger have become since Entwistle’s unexpected death on the eve of a tour 10 years ago.
“I think Pete and Roger are closer now than they have been for the four decades (of the band),” he said. “ ... I think that there’s mutual respect and there’s also an element of let’s get out there and do it while we still can. They’re both very fit, surprisingly fit.”