The feted American performer SYML opens up about his early Irish influences, being adopted as a baby, and using music as a vessel for self-discovery
On March 9 in Santa Monica, actor Eve Hewson will be honoured at the annual Oscar Wilde Awards with the Wilde Card Award. She starred in Netflix’s critically acclaimed series Behind Her Eyes. Its theme song, ‘Mr Sandman’, was written by SYML, the solo project of American singer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Fennell.
On the phone from America, Brian says Behind Her Eyes “was a good show. And when I figured out the connection, it was special,” he adds, meaning that he grew up in Seattle listening to Eve’s father Bono sing.
“My first U2 record was when I was young. It was Achtung Baby. I was 12 years old. I went to see them on the Pop Mart tour.”
There was also, he continues, “a big collision with my life and faith and the church. I was never on the conservative side of things. But in the 1990s every church record that was being made with religious, Christian music especially, sounded like a U2 record. There was so much cross-over, I think, between that band and that community. U2 wrote about faith. There is a literal connection. And that’s how I got into it.”
“I fell in love with the structure and the melodies of Edge’s guitar and Bono’s voice. It was a good release valve outside of the more classical training that I was in at the time. I connected with it on so many levels.
"People have taken U2’s style which feels like this human release, this hope-filled conquering spirit, melodically soaring guitars – all these things that they are known for – and applied that to a church situation where these humans want to feel connected to a higher power. I think that’s literally what U2’s music is going for, sometimes. And a lot of popular religious music, based on what I know, sounds a lot like U2.”
He balks at the idea that he is religious.
“No, I’m not. I spent time in that community and I battled my way out of it. When I was 12 and 13, in the 1990s in America, there was heavy marketing towards my age group to be involved in these youth groups at Presbyterian churches where it was socially cool to be a part of. In Seattle, especially, it was very liberal and very left-leaning.”
“So, it wasn’t until I grew up and went to college and felt part of the community that I saw some of the conservative side and questioned it.”
Brian was adopted. Was religion helpful with navigating emotions around that?
“Absolutely, yes. For anyone who is adopted or not, when you’re welcomed into that kind of relationship with a church and then a God, naturally you have a sense of belonging and purpose. I don’t think I was wandering lost like a sheep to be rescued but the leaders of the group and the mentors that I had in that space were not father figures but were definitely fulfilling the role of someone to look up to in terms of ‘I do belong and I will be okay.’”
He was born on January 16, 1983, in Issaquah, Washington.
“I was adopted when I was a baby. I knew as early as I could remember that I was adopted. It was never an ‘odd’ thing to me. I only really struggled with it when I turned 18. That’s when I had all the questions of like – ‘What’s wrong with me and why was I abandoned?’ Those feelings of feeling unwanted. It was a brief period looking back and it wasn’t until I was in my late teens.”
How did you deal with the feelings of abandonment?
“I dealt with it by being upset and angry and trying to find girlfriends, people who would love me for who I was as I was discovering who I was, at that age. Music was playing a huge role. I was going off to university. That is a huge time in anybody’s life when you’re deciding who you are and what you’ll be.
“My mentors growing up were always music teachers and I will be grateful to them until the day I die. Music is one thing. But it is also a vessel for self-discovery, confidence and a general exploration of what it is to be a person, a friend and a lover and all the beautiful things that make up
being a human.”
I inherited a lot of morals and ethics – and what is intrinsically right in the world – from my father
At the age of four, his parents brought him to an outdoor children’s concert in Seattle. While the other children danced and ran around to the music, he stood still. He stared at the stage. His father would tell family friends he was worried that something was wrong with his son – until understanding that Brian was simply focused on the music in a way that other kids were not.
“For years, that story made me feel a sort of fucked-up smugness, like I was some sort of savant showing musical prowess at an early age,” he has said. “I liked when my dad would tell it, almost like vicarious bragging. I’m sure within the last year of his life, he said that story, but less because he was dying of cancer during a global pandemic.”
His father, who was diagnosed in May 2019 with stage four pancreatic cancer, died in 2021. SYML’s new album is called The Day My Father Died. “My dad worked in telecommunications in Boeing, the airplane-maker, in Seattle for a long time.
“But then what was cool about the end of his career is that he worked for a non-profit until the end of his life, the Bill Gates Foundation, working with blood donation and research and stuff. It was something he really loved. He was a good person. He came from an Irish-Catholic family on the East coast of America. “
“I inherited a lot of morals and ethics – and what is intrinsically right in the world – from my father.”
And your mother?
“My mother was married to his best friend when they met. Speaking of morality and ethics!” he laughs. “But there was no affair. It was love and it was something that they grabbed on to. She spent her career in microbiology. She’s a scientist. What was cool about my parents is that they never remotely pressurised me into careers like what they did. They supported me in music.”
He came home from school at the age of seven and told his parents that he wanted to play viola. There was a piano in the house, and they suggested he start on that instead. He started lessons and studied classical piano. He would sometimes play in his grandmother’s retirement home.
“My grandma and her friends would always applaud as if I had just completed a proper symphony. Pride would beam from her and my parents, but I wouldn’t know how to digest that pride until much later in my life when I became a father,” he told Talkhouse.
At the age of 18, he began writing his own music. A girl in the community died in a car crash and he wrote music as what he believes was his way of coping. He got a degree in music education at Seattle Pacific University.
For ten years, he was the lead singer with Seattle indie-rock band Barcelona. When the band ended, he started performing under the name SYML — Welsh for “simple”; his biological parents were, he discovered, Welsh. He released his self-titled first album in 2019.
It is not an exaggeration to categorise his work, which is both cinematic and electronic, as innovative. The 2020 EP You Knew It Was Me was entirely instrumental.
The new album, which is not instrumental, is an emotional listen. He once described the people who like his music as being “fully comfortable talking about their feelings.”
“My strengths lie in music,” he says, “where I can speak about things that are very raw and honest. The most fortunate facet of SYML as a project is that I am essentially speaking to a diary in these songs. It is a safe space – a really welcome, unifying place, a human place.”
I hope people absorb my music and echo it back
Released worldwide this Saturday, The Day My Father Died has a few well-known artists contributing: Elbow’s Guy Garvey is on ‘Lost Myself’, ‘You and I’ has Charlotte Lawrence, ‘Howling’ has Lucius and ‘Better Part of Me’ has Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. (SYML also appears — together with Jon Batiste, Jack Antonoff’s Bleachers and Father John Misty — on Lana Del Rey’s new album, out in March, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Boulevard.)
He believes he comes across on the album as “somebody who is so sure of the words they are singing that it doesn’t matter what the world thinks. I hope people absorb my music and echo it back. That’s really esoteric but that’s what I think people do when they listen to my music.”
Asked what adjectives he would use to describe his music he says “comfortable” and “cosy.”
“I think it comes from where I’m from in Seattle,” he says. “It’s mostly rain, grey, like Ireland or Norway, where most of the year you need to be warm and cosy. I think sonically and melodically it feels safe and comforting.”
“There’s a song on the new album called ‘Tragic Magic’. It’s about the 1990s marketing that was I talking about earlier, about how manipulative it was. It is a laid-back song. There’s a bridge in the song that goes: ‘Let him in/No one else/Save yourself/Hate the sin/Love yourself.”
The Day My Father Died ends surreally with the song ‘Corduroy’.
“That’s my favourite song on the album. That’s full of lyrics I love. Again, I am not obsessed with church faith but I do find inspiration in the contradiction in ridiculous fairytale.
"In the end of the song there’s a lyric that says: ‘When the poisoned fruit tastes sweeter than you like/It’s a fertile place to propagate a lie.’ This verse is really about when you have knowledge and it contradicts something that you have faith in. It’s really easy to turn away from knowledge and embrace a lie because it’s safer for you to believe the lie.
What’s the lie?
“That there’ s a magical sky fairy that demands your worship.”
‘The Day My Father Died’ is released on February 3. SYML plays the National Concert Hall in Dublin on April 25