Cody Simpson on His Evolution From “Teenage Pop Star” to Poet

In this time of uncertainty, there have been very few constants. The release date of Cody Simpson’s debut poetry book is one thing that’s remained steady—the collection is still coming out on its scheduled date of April 7. Though, instead of doing readings at bookstores IRL, he’s been reading excerpts of Prince Neptune aloud on Instagram Live, occasionally to his girlfriend Miley Cyrus. (The pair, who share matching Neptune trident tattoos, are currently social distancing together in Los Angeles.) 

It’s not exactly what Simpson had in mind for his promo tour, which touts him as “Jack Kerouac meets Arthur Rimbaud for the millennial generation.” But he’s warming it up to it. After all, Neptune has always led an almost exclusively online life; a few years into adopting the writerly persona, Simpson made an Instgram account for Neptune. To the 23-year-old’s fans, then, some of the collection will no doubt be familiar—at least the one-liners like, “sex is life’s singular divine mechanism.” Despite appearances, Simpson is no Rupi Kaur; he’s just been diligently reading the feedback readers leave in the comments for years, and knows that a physical book is a much better format for a pages-long anti-establishment treatise. 

“I don’t want to be writing things that you can put on a candle,” Simpson said on a recent afternoon. Though as always, he remains at the service of his fans: “At the same time, if that’s what appeals to people, that’s great.” He took a break from doing “absolutely nothing”—a modest description if there ever was one of writing a second book—to share more about his evolution into a poet, plus how he’s handling social distancing. 

When did you last go outside?

Probably four days ago, apart from a little jog around the neighborhood. Which is crazy. But it’s lucky we have things like social media. Before, you wouldn’t have been able to even FaceTime your grandparents. 

What have you been up to at home? 

Not a whole lot, to be honest. I’ve had so much time on my hands. It’s nuts to do all the things you wish you had time for otherwise. I’ve been reading a lot, and writing music, playing guitar, exercising in a small space, watching stupid reality TV. I watched the whole first season of Love Island, which is something I’d never do in my whole life otherwise.

I haven’t seen it. Is it worth it?

Yes, I guess. Watch it—just be prepared that it’ll fry your brain and lower your IQ as you go. It’s insane, but it’s entertaining. It’s just fun. 

Now seems like a good time to write poetry, too. 

Yeah, I’ve actually taken this as an opportunity to start writing another book. It’s in its early stages, but obviously I’m still focusing on really doing this one. Honestly, I’ve been a little up in the air the last couple of days, just trying to figure out how we’re going to make it all happen from home. It’s a bummer, because I was going to do signings and readings around the country. But you’re really able to reach just as many or more people with live-streaming, so I’ve been doing that. And I just decided to do a recorded version. I think it’s a really good time for audiobooks, because people have time and maybe can’t get out to stores or are sketched out by receiving mail. It’s obviously a strange time to release it. But it’s also kind of divine in the sense that now is the time that people want to find ways to escape and to explore books and different measures of creativity. 

And for once, people have time to read. 

If I could contribute anything, I’d rather do this than play some music. It feels right, especially because a lot of the imagery I explore relates to freedom and escapism. Back in the day, poetry and writing were really flourishing. They were popular art forms for young people, especially. But nowadays with TV and all these other outlets, people read fewer books and people write less. It’s something I find important in my life, and I want to inspire others, especially my fans, to find alternatives. I’ve got to practice what I preach because I watched the whole season of Love Island, but I did write a book before I did that. I’m balanced out and redeemed. [Laughs.]

When did you start writing poetry?

I was probably seven or eight when I wrote my first poem. I think my mom still has it framed in her house. That’s when I had my first creative burst—learning guitar and writing lyrics, songs, poetry, and short stories. Just all kinds of writing, really. In primary school, my little hobby was entering poetry and prose competitions where you could win $50 or something. Then, when I was about 18, I really started taking poetry and literature seriously and reading voraciously. That was right around the time that I left my record label as a teenage pop star, I guess. I started exploring what I found to be more meaningful levels of expression. 

Did you feel limited when you were in that pop star mode? 

Yeah. Not when I was really in it, but eventually I did start to feel a little suppressed and limited. I felt like there was more for me elsewhere. I don’t regret a single thing that I’ve done in my life, but when you’re young and you don’t really know any better and you’re not as educated on music or literature or anything whatsoever, you’re still developing your interests and personal identity and stuff. You’re very impressionable as a young person. For me, it was like I was going along for the ride, not really thinking about it. And then once I started developing a mind of my own, I had to start making decisions that were going to make me happy, not some guy behind a desk up in Manhattan. That was just a decision I made for myself and I dropped out for a while. I moved to Venice Beach in California and for a year or two, pretty much all I did was read, write, surf, and practice guitar. I wanted to develop my craft in a way that fulfilled me and that’s when the poetry started happening. That’s when I initially conceived of Prince Neptune, because I was just filling up these notebooks with ideas and poems and little tidbits of writing here and there.

Is that when you started reading the writers you dedicated the book to, like Rimbaud and Baudelaire?

Yeah, I discovered them when I was around 17, 18. It started with French and English 19th-century writers, and then some more modern American ones like Ginsberg and Kerouac. I started going into bookstores a lot, looking into the books that they read, too. They were the ones who compelled me to begin. If I had to describe it, Prince Neptune is just a mass collection of my thoughts in all different kinds of settings, whether small bits of storytelling or little quotes I made up or actual poems. I read a review that said it was incohesive, but that’s the way I wanted it to read, That’s the way a notebook is to me—each page is something different. I didn’t intend for it to be read like a book or a novel. I intended for people to flip through it and find something that spoke to them out of the hundreds that are in there. That’s all that really matters to me—that at least a couple of them will stick with someone. And I think everybody can get something out of it, because there’s such a wide variety of text. 

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Her very own dawn

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Her very own dawn

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It seems like Instagram has been a really effective platform for the ones that are just a single line. 

Those are the ones that usually do the best. I think of them as the easiest stuff—the most viable or appealing. I don’t want to be writing things that you can put on a candle, though. You know what I mean? I want to be writing legitimate work. But at the same time, if that’s what appeals to people, that’s great. I’m writing something that touches somebody somehow. Even if it’s something I just jotted down, it’s still important, so I have a bit of both in there. 

Do you always use a pen and paper?

It varies. Sometimes I use a typewriter, and sometimes I use pen and pencil. And sometimes I’m on the go and it hits me, so I’ll just use my iPhone notes. I wrote probably a quarter of the book on the Notes app, actually. It’s helpful. Maybe it’s against tradition, but I don’t think it’s any less creative or inspiring. If I can’t carry around a notebook and pen all day long and I’m sitting somewhere random like at an airport or a restaurant or something, I can jot it down straight away.

Did writers like Kerouac also influence the Prince Neptune identity—and do you consider him an identity? Will he stick with you after this book? 

Oh yeah, for sure. Along with mythology, which I also became extremely interested in around then. All of the great civilizations had a form of mythology, but the Greek and Roman stories were the ones that really spoke to me. I started examining what mythology does for people and an overall culture. Even now, we rely on these kinds of stories to excite and romanticize our lives, whether we know it or not. I think that’s why people go and see Avengers movies. They’re almost a modern form of Greek mythology. People look to these fantasized and romanticized versions of humans. I did that with Prince Neptune. I decided to cultivate a position and an alias to write from, and when I’m writing from that standpoint, I can write whatever I want. For me, as a lover of the ocean, I was thinking about people like Poseidon, but in the end it was Neptune that really spoke to me.

How is Neptune different from you? Or is he not? Are you not?

That’s a good question. It’s like a character I felt kinship with, so there are a few similarities. But he’s obviously a lot grander and more courageous than me, just being a human being. 

Are your new poems written from that same perspective? 

It’s similar, but I think it’s a little more developed. Writing as a 22-, 23-year-old is a little different than writing as an 18-year-old, which is how old I was when I started this book. I wrote a lot of what’s in it at a time when I was taking psychedelics and doing things like that. I was really into fantastical imagery and a lot of universal themes and concepts and greater consciousness ideas. Now, at least from a writing standpoint, I’m a little more rooted in reality, a little more grounded. My writing is a little more developed and mature, and maybe a little less fantastical. But I’m really glad and grateful that the collection is the way it is, because it really reflects a period of my life that I’ll be able to look back on forever.

How much of the book dates back to when you were 18? 

It’s pretty evenly dispersed from 18 to 22. I had to turn in the manuscript about six months ago, and it took me a while to cut it down. That’s one of the hardest things to do. I get the same way with music and albums, cutting out songs. Some of what’s in the book are lyrics adapted into poem form. And I think it’s cool for people to see that some of my lyrics started out as poems. 

“Some mornings it’s like the sun rises only for her” Prince Neptune. . . Thanks again @codysimpson and @mileycyrus go pick up your copy of Cody’s new book, Out April 7th

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I saw that you and your girlfriend got matching Neptune tattoos. That’s quite a nice show of support.

I know. I’m going to have to get one for her soon. But yeah, the trident is really symbolic of the next era of my life and her being supportive as shit, did it with me and I think it’s a symbol I’m going to carry on into my life for a long time. I certainly don’t have any intention of not using or identifying with that symbol for a while. Yeah, it was just cool we did it together.

Yeah. Was it your idea?

No. She’s just a really big fan of the work and of Prince Neptune in general.  And me, I guess. [Laughs.]

Has your relationship affected your writing? Did she inspire the poem that your tattoo artist captioned his Instagram—“some mornings it’s like the sun only rises for her”?

I’m trying to remember. I may have written that one pre…Well, there are definitely one or two in there that she directly inspired. Anything meaningful in my life tends to inspire me directly, so it’s sort of inevitable. It’s nice to have somebody that supports and believes in the stuff as much as I do because I’ve taken a little less conventional slash commercial route with my work, and just my life in general. 

I noticed that you published the book under the name Cody R. Simpson, with your middle initial. 

Yeah, I thought it just gave it another layer and differentiated it from other things like the music. Since I decided not to publish it under my pen name, and making Neptune the title instead, I wanted to make sure it had a bit of a different feel. 

Are you always writing? Do you ever take breaks? 

I definitely take pretty solid blocks of time away from it. Before the last couple of days, I probably wasn’t writing for a couple months. I find that I get struck at random times—quite heavily after doing something active like surfing or exercising when your mind is a little clearer. Anytime I do something that clears my mind, like exercise or meditation, it opens up that channel. But honestly, the most I ever get done is when I actually sit down with the intention of writing and putting myself in that space. It’s almost like working out. You can’t really get better at it if you don’t sit down with the intention of doing it. So when I’m not inspired, I try to just work.

Can you tell me about the moment that you first held the book?

Oh yeah. It was like holding a newborn baby—like birthing a child. It was one of the better moments ever. It was just like when I held my first album when I was 15, back when people still did physical albums. Just as visceral and just as beautiful, but for this era of my life. 

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1 week

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1 week

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Is there a poem in there that means the most to you?

There’s one called “Freedom” that’s probably one of the more political slash philosophical. It’s one of the ones I almost had to convince the publisher to let me put in, because it has some intense themes like war and sex and politics. Those can be harder to get published formally, so I’m glad it’s in there. “Cool Sensations” also sticks out to me. It’s one of the final poems, and one of the longest. It talks about my journey to independence and stretches over four or five pages. 

What’s your advice for people thinking about trying out writing poetry? 

Now is a good time to grab a journal or grab a diary or a notebook or something and just be jotting down your thoughts. Just do what comes out naturally. Do what feels right. Discover new books. Read and write as you go. It’s like a muscle you develop and the more you do it, the better you get. And it’s good fun. It’s really relieving—almost like a release. 

What are you doing the rest of the day in quarantine?

Absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing. Except maybe writing the next book. 

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