Forget tall-walking ancestors, a decade in the post-grunge trenches and a viral streaming hit courtesy of an MTV Gen Z drama: Brian Fennell has experience of all those, but it’s the simple things that move him most.
The mountain view from his home studio in Issaquah, 20 miles east of Seattle. The warmth of his young children lying on his chest. The sounds he can conjure alone, just him, his piano, keyboards, guitars and laptop. The primal feelings he conveys with pin-point-and-personal lyrics, effortless melodies and a pure, emotive vocal. Even the clarity of having little money and, therefore, fewer options.
Focusing on the things that matter are how Fennell writes and records under his alias. Simplicity, then, is what moves SYML – pronounced “simmel”, it means “simple” in Welsh. It’s what makes his self-titled debut album such a wonder. SYML by SYML is 12 tracks of transcendent dream-pop, synth-rock, folktronica and cathartic, uplifting emotion. All recorded at home, just him and his imagination. And all filtered through an instinctive, genetic appreciation of the valleys and mountains of a corner of distant Britain.
Given all that, it’s perhaps ironic that the American singer-songwriter’s Welsh heritage is far from straightforward.
“I’m aware of a few hilarious random details: disease history, the fact that my second aunt really enjoyed knitting, and that I have a seven-foot uncle. Just freakshow shit!” Fennell laughs.
That grab-bag of family minutiae is down to the fact that the musician was adopted. Before the age of 18, he knew nothing of his heritage. Not the identity of his birth parents, not his birth family name, not anything. Then he learned that he was of Welsh extraction, and that in his genes lay that “freakshow shit”.
“I did gravitate towards what I knew, which means I locked on mentally to that majority Welsh aspect – and as a songwriter, a common thread in all my music is identity and how that impacts me. I got a Welsh flag, and then later my wife and I tried to learn a few words in Welsh. It’s such a beautiful but mysterious and crazy language – it looks fictional with all those w’s and y’s” he observes, not inaccurately. “So there were very few words we could pronounce, never mind wrap our heads around.”
Fortunately, SYML worked on every level.
“Simplicity has always been really important to me. As I’ve gotten older it’s been more of a challenge to execute simplicity across my life. You get a house, a family, all these things that add more stuff to your life. But whether it’s a piece of art – a song or a photograph or a painting – simplicity is the hardest thing to do well.”
Brian Fennell grew up in the Pacific Northwest, in and around Seattle. A self-taught producer/programmer/engineer as well as a guitarist, percussionist and classically trained pianist, music was always in him, and bursting to get out of him. And not just for his own benefit, or improvement, or enjoyment. His aim was to be a high school band teacher, “after I realized being a veterinarian would be too hard. And music teachers have always been my mentors, both on the academic side and the personal side.”
Paying it forward from a young age, Fennell supplemented his meager student funds by giving private guitar and piano lessons. But shortly after completing a degree in music education, those career plans were derailed by his forming a band. Barcelona came together in a Seattle music scene still coloured by the long shadow of grunge, at a time when newer bands like Death Cab For Cutie and Band Of Horses were coming through.
Fennell admits his band never fit into any local scene, past or present (“we were too pop”). They released three albums, one via Universal, and a handful of EPs. Then, after ten years’ hard gigging Fennell decided he needed another outlet.
He wanted to write more simply – or as he puts, “distill” his experiences and emotions into a new songwriting style.
The turning point was the emergence of acoustic soul lament “Where’s My Love.” Created in the dying days of Barcelona, Fennell released the midtempo ballad as a side-project single. He admits he had little expectations for it. All he knew was that he needed a forum for the sad songs he couldn’t help but write.
Then, out of the blue in early 2016, his inbox began to fill up with enquiries from strangers: was he SYML and was this his song? After some investigating, he learned that MTV had used his song “Where’s My Love.” Fennell had no idea his song had even been licensed.
SYML’s first release became a chart hit in Canada, Belgium and The Netherlands, where it was helped along by a remix by Dutch DJ Sam Feldt. To date four different versions of “Where’s My Love” have 160 million Spotify streams between them. The self-effacing Fennell still can’t quite get his head round that.
Another turning point was his becoming a father. It was a life-change that finds beautiful form in “Connor,” one of the standout tracks on SYML. Based on a, yes, simple piano motif and glitchy atmospherics, it features lyrics as affecting as Fennell’s vocals.
“It’s about becoming a father, and weighing that against my experience of my adoptive father. Connor was what my parents were going to call me before they got me – then they were, like, ‘no, this is a Brian!’
“A name is a huge part of your identity, but it’s also just a word on a page. So Connor is about not knowing shit about raising kids. We barely know ourselves and we’re supposed to foster these lives from zero till college age?”
“And it’s about making peace with certain things relating to my father from childhood,” he continues. “He must have been as scared as I am now about raising babies. One of the lines is about how we use kids as protection for shit we don’t want to deal with about ourselves: ‘My cover fire, come lay down right here on my chest…’ It’s a little dark – you shouldn’t use your kids for anything!” he admits with a guilty chuckle. “But that was one of my first reactions when I became a father: how do I use this little thing to protect me, even when I should be all about protecting it?”
There’s another tribute to his kids in the stunning “Girl,” on which Fennell’s falsetto projects a stop-you-in-your-tracks vulnerability.
“That’s about my daughter and a surgery she went through in the past year. It was really intense, and it’s the song I’m most proud of lyrically. The fragility of life is something we should all be reminded of in this short time we’re here.”
Then there’s “Clean Eyes,” the exuberantly New Wave-like opening track that could have been plucked from the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie. The upbeat vibe is a tribute to Fennell’s wife.
“It’s about waking up every morning and choosing to be reborn, and not carry the shit from days and years beforehand. It’s her instinct to hold back the darkness, which is the complete opposite to mine. That balance is good for me, and I need to be reminded of that.”
A companion song of sorts is “WDWGILY (Where Did We Go I Love You),” which hits the sweet spot between Bon Iver and James Blake. “That was a tough song – it took about eight months,” he admits, squirming still at the thought of the bleak place from which he dredged it.
“It’s a pre-emptive shout: ‘Don’t leave me, I’m an awful person, I get it, just be patient with me!’” he relates with a self-aware smile. “It’s a classic catharsis song.”
“Writing and recording is totally a coping mechanism for me,” Fennell expands. “It makes the hairs on my arms stand up. And it’s the closest to something supernatural that I ever experience. I love chasing that feeling every day.”
That focus is externalised, too, on the emphatic, surging “Break Free” – a timely and socially aware song, but also a mea culpa.
“That song came after I’d just had a conversion with somebody I’m very close with in the music industry, and it just turned misogynistic so fast. It was so weird. I didn’t say anything and afterwards I was so angry with myself: why are we still talking about women this way? So that was my solution: turn it into a song. I’m talking about toxic masculinity like it’s a disease, which I think it is.”
In deft counterpoint is “The Bird,” the first single to be taken from SYML. Imagine Jeff Buckley embracing electronic soundscapes that build from ambient minimalism into jazz-like swirls. It’s a reference Fennel will gratefully if reluctantly embrace, albeit more from a lyrical perspective.
“What I loved about Jeff Buckley was his way of speaking in metaphor. But it was almost like you were reading his diary, so it’s very personal at the same time. That was definitely an inspiration for this song.”
“It’s that idea of: how are we supposed to love somebody if we don’t even know who we are? And then on top of that: I need to hold on this to thing tightly otherwise it’ll fly away – but if I squeeze too hard, I’m going to choke it.”
Questing, questioning, yearning and dreaming: SYML by SYML is the sound of Brian Fennell opening up and letting us in, his emotional honesty – and way with a killer melody and sharply observed lyric – combining to powerful effect.
Like the man said, it’s the simple things that matter, that are most disarming, persuasive and powerful. “Because when things are stripped back, when they’re naked and raw, there’s nowhere to hide.”
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