As a casual listener of film scores, the cinematic crescendo on “Symmetry” was my perfect introduction to the murky world of SYML (aka Brian Fennell). This is a world where lyrics that revolve around heartbreak, loss, and everything in between are frequently laid bare on musically opulent instrumentals. One might be quick to tag this as “sad music”; however SYML’s charming vocals along with his songwriting provide a sense of immense comfort and reassurance especially when it comes to dealing with the tides of life.
“Where’s My Love” – the viral sensation that led to the formation of SYML as a project literally serves as a shining example of that sentiment. It was featured on the series Teen Wolf long before its release though the track was popular amongst the show’s cult following. As Fennell’s journey gradually came to an end with his previous band Barcelona, he finally decided to release music under SYML. The debut EP “Hurt for Me” which dropped in 2016 not only racked up tons of streams but he connected with millions across the world with his comforting art. Last year SYML treated listeners to 5 EP’s (including an instrumental EP) and it seems like his release spree has spilled over to this year with the release of “Stay Close”, “True” and “Talk You Down”. In this interview Fennell open up about the melancholy in his music, the creative process behind the single “True" and much more.
If you were already in a reasonably successful band, what initially made you start with SYML, and what motivated you to pursue the project further?
My previous band, Barcelona, had 10 years full of ups and downs. But the beginning of SYML had more to do with the time of Barcelona naturally ending than with the success, or lack thereof, that we experienced. I learned a lot about how I prefer to make music during those years. I basically grew up with those guys, some of my best friends.
In which ways do you think your upbringing in Seattle impacted the kind of music you were into when you were younger?
I was too young to go to concerts when the grunge scene was still in full swing. By the time I was able to go, I got to see Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, but they were giant by that time. I love repping Seattle and its musical history, but I don’t know if I think there is anything magical about the scene, other than it is a beautiful place to live and create.
You've been involved with music for pretty much your whole life, although what were some of the factors that gave you the confidence to decide music would be a career for you?
Anytime you are able to sense that someone other than yourself connects to something you created, it stays with you. I remember some of that happening when I was young, but only really after I started writing songs. Especially when TV shows or movies would use my music, that had a huge impact on the direction my career has taken. Those moments have certainly given me confidence, but being accepted for who you are as a human in a creative field is what keeps this sustainable.
Even though you've stated that you're happy most of the time, much of the music you create is quite melancholic. What do you think it is that has you gravitating more towards a sad kind of mood in your songwriting and musical arrangements?
I know I’m not alone when it comes to embracing the melancholy when it comes to writing. The happy and bright side of life is undeniably nice to live in. But I think songs and art, in general, are more useful when we are in the darker times. Bright happy music doesn’t fit those times, so I tend to write songs that can accompany me, and all of us, when we might feel isolated in the dark.
You gave us A LOT of amazing music in 2020! How would you say lockdown played a positive role in your creative process?
I got to be home more than I have in the last three years, which my family is happy about. It’s relieved some stress that’s inherent in this job, which has allowed a more calm atmosphere to create in.
Is there any sort of a connection between Work, Lost, Chill, Sad, and You Knew It Was Me? Or are the EP's their own separate body of work without thematic similarities?
There isn’t any connection between those playlists and You Knew It Was Me. They may be thematically similar in some ways, but YKIWM was created as an instrumental EP as one body of songs.
Which of the EP's was the most personal for you to write and why?
The instrumental EP, You Knew It Was Me - was incredibly personal to write, which is interesting because there are no words. It was a great exercise in expression.
The direction you went on your latest single "True" surprised many as you had more processing on your voice than usual, with slight electronic elements peppered in the instrumental too. What led you and Paul Meany towards this direction for the creation of "True"?
I wanted the “voice” in "True" to represent two separate voices within me. One voice is sensitive and compassionate towards what someone else is going through, while the other voice is judgmental and fearful that what might happen to them might happen to us. Digitally tweaking the voice helped us accomplish this.
Something you do very well when it came to the lyrics on "True" is writing from what you are feeling while keeping things vague enough so that the audience is able to imprint their own experience from your lyrics. Is this something that you do consciously? And what is the track actually about, I'm in distress here trying to crack the code...
This song is about divorce. I have many friends who have gone through a divorce and it has shaped them. It’s incredible difficult, I imagine, to not feel shame during a divorce. This song is exploring that, and also the perspective that just because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t make you immune to it. It’s a bit of a cautionary song I think.
How has getting married and starting a family influenced your songwriting and subject matter throughout your music?
My partner and my kids each shape my writing in different ways. But their inspiration is always centered around love and all the ways we experience it. They’re great.
Since you were a music teacher I'm curious to hear your thoughts about going to an institution to study music vs being in a bedroom for years and teaching yourself?
Ha! This is a good question. I think some instruction is important, even if you throw it away for something else. I think instruction can look like many things though. As long as you learn some basic skills with the tools you have, the important stuff happens when you infuse yourself into the art, which can’t really be taught.
Okay so, 1) An artist/band you’d love to have a D.M.C (deep meaningful conversation) with 2) An artist you think would be rad to party with 3) An artist you would love to spend a week within the studio. You’re welcome to select from artists who are dead/retired.
1 - Trent Reznor
2 - Liam Gallagher
3 - Brandon Flowers