Interview: SYML On His Debut LP & Next Batch Of Songs
Every now and again, a song comes along that changes the whole trajectory of an artist’s career. That’s exactly what happened when SYML unleashed “Where’s My Love.” The sparse, haunting ballad caught fire on Spotify — the song is closing in on 200 million accumulated streams — and earned syncs in an eclectic array of movies and TV shows. As such, Brian Fennell (his real name) had to readjust his humble expectations and come to terms with the fact that his latest musical endeavor would be heard by a large, and ever-growing, audience.
The next step in SYML’s journey is releasing his self-titled debut LP (out May 3). As expected, the album contains his breakout hit as well as tracks as diverse as ’80s synth-pop adventure “Clean Eyes,” and gloomy gems like “The Bird.” I recently spoke with the artist/producer about curating the album and its overarching themes of healing and acceptance. Get to know SYML a little better in our Q&A below and check out dates for his just-announced North American headline tour here.
In the press release for the album, you expressed surprise that a SYML LP even exists. Were your expectations really that low?
The thing that is surprising about it is also the thing that makes it really fun. There was such low expectation going into it, sort of on all fronts — especially mine, for the project to grow beyond anything that was just an outlet for these slower, sparser songs that I was writing. Any success felt like a big one, each time a song landed on a playlist it was an unexpected sort of victory. I think it’s a bit of a mantra. I’m trying to enjoy every moment because, man, I didn’t expect to be here.
After releasing a series of EPs, is it freeing to create an album with more space to create a narrative and a flow?
I’m back and forth all the time with my artist friends about what is the best vessel for delivering music because I think there’s no wrong way. Especially now with the landscape changing and continuing to change. People have shorter attention spans now, but there’s still a really sacred place for a full length album — both from the consumer standpoint as well as the artist. From an artist perspective, I have the fear that, “I haven’t made a full length album for a while, are these songs going to feel cohesive?”
At the end of it, after we agreed on the track-listing and went back and listened to the album, it really is cohesive. I shouldn’t have been afraid of putting together an album that sounded like it didn’t fit. And then from the aesthetic, presentation standpoint, it all made sense as a whole. It was like, “This is the vision, this is how I think we should keep it. So it was a bit of a surprise, if I’m being honest, how well it all came together.
Is there an overarching narrative or theme that runs through the album? Most of the songs are about family dynamics and relationships.
Yeah, I think the common theme is… the unifying thing between all of us is brokenness, a disconnect between giving and receiving love. Sometimes it’s physical, spiritual or manipulative. It’s all the ways that we dress up our motives in love and how we let love affect us, how we give it freely or with conditions. A lot of my music is almost a study of that. That is also reflected in the artwork. There’s a black-and-white image, which shows that duality.
In some ways, it’s a mini greatest hits. How hard was it to decide what to include?
Right. The thing that I have to be continually reminded of is that this my first full length album. You have to treat it as such. As an artist, you want everything to be new all the time, and that’s not a reasonable approach as I’ve come to learn. So, a song that I’ve played a hundred times or more, is brand new to somebody tomorrow. Just because there’s this history of songs being out in the world doesn’t mean that they’re any less valuable or less special. They are all an important part of my first album.
I think there would have been a riot if you didn’t include “Where’s My Love.” I still hear that song in the most unexpected places. Did you suspect it was going to be big when you recorded it?
Certainly not to the extent that it has been. I saw early reactions of people connecting to it, which was really special. I mean, I don’t think the song screams pop or screams accessibility. So we didn’t approach it that way and I think because we didn’t concern ourselves with that, it ended up working.
“The Bird” is another haunting song, which has a strangely therapeutic bent with its message of acceptance and healing. Is that wildly off?
No, not at all. Each one of these songs is therapeutic in some way to me, or to somebody I’m close with. I’ve been trying to find peace, and process cynicism and frustration over why things are the way they are. And I think that’s universal. Everyone has these frustrations and is trying to understand why things happen. We want answers. Which is not always realistic. So, I often write about trying to find peace in the journey towards healing. That’s where it actually occurs. It’s more about the process, and who you’re doing the process with.
On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got “The Bird” and then, on the other end, there is the catchy, upbeat pop of “Clean Eyes.” What is hard to get into that headspace?
You know, going back to what I was saying about the album being cohesive, I go into into the studio with the same mentality of when the project started. But any given day, you’re in a different place physically, lyrically, spiritually. I try to let my guard down and let that inspiration flow and just end up where you end up without overthinking it or worrying if it will fit with your other songs. There’s a beauty of taking the reigns off and just letting it happen.
Another song that lingers in the mind is “Connor.” Can you explain the story behind it?
Well, it’s called “Connor” because that was going to be my name before my parents named me. I was adopted as a baby and my dad had the idea that his son would be called Connor. I don’t know how I know that, but I’ve known it for as long as I can remember. It’s just always been in my head. When I was younger, I almost wished I was called Connor instead of Brian. I don’t know why, I just liked it more. But the song is really about me becoming a parent and contrasting that with what my parents must have felt when they received me from the agency.
The emotion that goes through you is just foreign, it’s alien. And thinking about my parents, specifically my dad in those moments, gave me this sense of connection that I’ve never felt before. It was raw and a bit scary. This human being that I’m partly responsible for creating gives you purpose. I need to be able to teach it emotions, and how to digest the world. It’s just this overwhelming wave of everything you’ve ever been through coming at you through the most beautiful mirror you’ve ever seen.
I don’t think anybody’s ready to be a parent when it happens to them. And you sort of go through the fire together and when you realize somebody did that with you, it’s even more touching and humbling.
That is really beautiful. The album is done and the promo is only just beginning. Does your mind already start wandering to what’s next?
[Laughs]. That’s a great question. You know, it’s funny. Mentally, it’s really hard to not move on. I’ve already been in the studio and I have new songs coming together. It’s the classic, bored musician move to be like, “This new shiny thing is now what I’m interested in instead of this bundle of shiny things that the world still has no idea about.” I’m trying to be a good guardian of the album, while also paying attention to where I want to go creatively beyond that.
What was it like touring with Dean Lewis?
Yeah, we’ve been on the road together for about two weeks now, and the first few weeks of tour were crazy with promo and flights. I was bouncing back to see my family on days off, so we really didn’t get the time to sit down and talk until the last couple days. He’s great, I’ve never met somebody who’s so intensely in tune with their career on as many facets as possible. It’s inspiring and challenging to meet somebody like him, who cares so deeply about being honest in music.
We’ve only had a few in-depth talks at this point, but it’s always fun to compare your experiences with somebody else’s. We both have a love of accessible pop songs. Right before you called, we were throwing songs back and forth. Like, “Do you know this one? Oh, you’re going to love this one!” We were in the middle of a tour hangout session. It’s been fun. His band is great and the crew is great too.
Good luck with the album. Thanks so much for your time!
Thank you, man. I appreciate you.