SYML on 'The Day My Father Died': "I find a ton of beauty in sadness and darkness"
July 20, 2023
Interview and Photos by Alyssa Goldberg
Brian Fennell – better known by his artist name SYML – recently released his third solo album The Day My Father Died – an honest and introspective exploration of grief and love, driven by the loss of his adoptive father to cancer in 2021. His melodic tracks are driven by piano backings and echoing vocals, often stripped down to unveil the barest of emotions. He's recently collaborated with the likes of Lana Del Rey, who used his composition for the song "Paris, Texas" off her latest record.
Sounds of Saving sat down with Fennell ahead of his show at Racket NYC to discuss the album and the process of grieving, creating, and balancing family and tour life.
SOS: After your father passed away, and even before you were able to sit down and work on the new music that was a reflection on this – was music in any part an aid in your grieving process?
FENNELL: Yeah. The first thought I have is that I think since day one SYML as a music project has been a very direct outlet, whether it's for grief, the pursuit of being known, love, or anger – basically the full range of things that we feel. It was the unplanned outlet for those things that ended up working to be a "commercially successful" thing. I think you can kind of tell because I just did everything myself. That was unusual for me because I used to be in a band where I relied on other people, so to just have the songs be a minimal expression of fear, insecurity and doubt was a really nice origin for SYML because it set the stage for the songs I'm writing now.
The second thought I had when you asked that question was, there was an EP that came out right before this album. All the songs from the EP in this record were written at the same time and they just sort of naturally broke off into two projects. Most of them were while [my father] was still living with cancer, but I grieved a ton before he died and I only really acknowledged that after he died, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel like I've already been here.’ You can see that in a lot of the songs. I remember recording a music video for a song on that EP, and it was up in the air if I'd even be able to go because he was like, actively dying. And it was the most strange... I want to say it's therapeutic, but I don't know if it was. So like, [I was] trying to channel creativity in this song that was about him and not wanting him to go. I think it's healthy. But it certainly didn't feel comfortable. So that's the sweet juxtaposition of having the music. [It’s] a project where I can just feel safe to talk about what we're going through.
SOS: With the process of coming together to collaborate with other people versus it being just you – your first name, your last name – does it ever feel a little bit safer being part of SYML versus like, being just Brian up on stage?
FENNELL: Yes, absolutely. I mean, you make decisions differently based on your community, so it wasn't that being in a band negatively affected that and still to this day, even though it's just me, I do collaborate with other producers, songwriters, and artists. And going back to what I said, since the origin of SYML was very bare and exposed, it didn't surprise anybody that I would bring another song that was close to that in terms of trying to be clear and concise about a thing that was not easy to talk about. But even then, it's still sometimes safer than, like, talking to my wife about it, which is a really hard thing to reconcile. Because, I mean, if she were here I think she would say like, ‘Yeah, it's not the easiest sometimes if you feel like you've already talked it out through your art.’ It's a degree of safety, or it's a question of safety, and how safe it feels or doesn't feel.
SOS: That's interesting too, the idea of being able to write something through your art that maybe you don't say out loud.
FENNELL: Or it's impossible to say. In that way, anyway.
SOS: Do you rely a lot more on lyrics in that sense, or do you feel like the actual act of creating the music itself – the melodies, the rhythm – also helps?
FENNELL: Probably equal. Melody is really big for me in terms of expression and what I like or what I think is beautiful. And lyrics too. I mean, my wife again, as an example, really listens to lyrics last. And that's normal, you know, probably 50% of the people in the room tonight will hear the music and not necessarily the lyrics. And for me, it's tied. They both have to communicate in tandem.
SOS: So do you think a melody could carry an emotion?
FENNELL: Absolutely. I mean, look at Sigur Rós, like when they became big in the States. I mean, no one speaks Icelandic. In fact, I think they made up their own language at one point, probably as a point to say like, all you need is this texture and this melody.
SOS: I'm thinking back to earlier when you mentioned that the EP you released was all written while your father was still sick with cancer. How did you write through that haze of being in the thick of his sickness? Were you able to remove yourself to write about it, or what was that process?
FENNELL: Honestly it's a bit blurry because of the pandemic and because of his sickness and fight, and we had just come off another cancer death close in my family. But they were all written together and some songs more than others were very much mournful and just really grieving, while others were not directly about that process, which is why I said they kind of broke themselves into two natural sort of statements. The song "The Day My Father Died" was written, you know, I don't know if it's obvious, but after he died. I picked the title not to declare that this is an album only about that. More than that, when somebody leaves you permanently, you can't see things the same. So it's that perspective shift.
SOS: Yeah because you're right, it's not just about your father's death. It's about the way that that changes your view of everything around you.
FENNELL: Yeah, people and yourself. It's crazy.
SOS: And you mentioned too that you grieved a lot while he was still sick. I've experienced this too in both situations – where someone dies unexpectedly versus when you have time to prepare – and it is a completely different battle. So I think that could be part of why I feel like the actual title song feels almost celebratory – it's so upbeat and feels a bit more like a 'celebration of life' type of song. I don't know if you felt that consciously while you were writing, but do you think that's part of why you were able to write a song like that with that title?
FENNELL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s the concept of being born like when your father or mother dies... I actually heard Ed Sheeran talking about it, like two weeks ago. He had a friend die and this last record he did is all about that, or at least his life in perspective of or as it relates to that. He was saying that it occurred to him that you just never really grow up until you lose somebody as an adult or lose a parent. And in hindsight, I do feel that and think that song I wrote is pointing towards that as well as like, everything changed and I woke up a bit when that happened.
SOS: So I know he passed in 2021 and the album is recent (2023), but when did you write these songs for the album?
FENNELL: Basically, in the last year of his life, so through 2020. Like basically from the beginning of the pandemic.
SOS: Oh, so a lot of these songs aren't from after [his death]?
FENNELL: There's only a handful from after. We definitely tweaked and added a couple songs after but the majority are from leading up to it.
SOS: When you look back on the songs now, do you ever feel like the things that you wrote about were something that happened to somebody else?
FENNELL: Yeah, I'd say that actually with most songs. Like, if I happen to be upset about whatever I'm writing about or I'm in love with something – with the exception of a few songs that are definitely only about one thing and I channel the same thing every time – I think they're all sort of chameleon. At least for me, I can't put myself back in the exact place that was when I wrote it [and] it feels like somebody else's song.
SOS: Is it ever hard to sing a song even as your grief has changed over time and with how your perspective on it has changed?
FENNELL: During the process of recording, there were songs that I really just did not like or where I was trying to say too much or dress something that didn't need to be dressed up. And like, I'm happy with how the record turned out across the board, but now seeing those songs that I went in not liking, now I really like because when you really workshop something and push something to be the most honest replication of what's happening in your head at the time, I think that it's like a sweat.
SOS: I like what you said like, am I saying too much? I feel like sometimes it's just as hard to say less as it is to say more.
FENNELL: Yeah, absolutely.
SOS: I think when you're conveying feelings that can be so complex, it can feel really hard to say it in the right way, to the point where sometimes things feel like they're never done.
FENNELL: That's every album ever. I mean, if you're good at it yourself to know when to call it that's awesome. And then being open to somebody's opinion and having a sounding board that you trust is really [important] too.
SOS: I think especially when you’re dealing with something heavy on your own, you can be more self critical of your work, so it’s good to have another person’s voice to bounce off of. Your songs are so deeply about your own experiences, especially with an album like this. When you write, do you ever think about the personal to universal aspect of it, like how your listeners will relate to it? Or is it really just this process of getting out what you need to get out? Not that it can't be both.
FENNELL: Right. I think I have this universalist approach in some songs where, if something didn't specifically happen to me or somebody I'm really close with, then I put myself in an imaginary world and as a human put myself through something there. But I'm rarely thinking about what it will come across as a performance. Not like literally a live performance, but like the performative side of art being recorded. I'm rarely thinking about that in terms of how it will communicate.
You can silo yourself in a vacuum of creating and follow whatever that gut is and fully exhale that thought, and then you can come back to it if you need to, which I do sometimes. I think it's 50/50 for me. I'll work on something for the months after the initial sort of 'I have to get this out,' and then sometimes it's just 'I have to get this out' and it's done. So the trick is to not overcomplicate it and overthink it. And to just believe what you do is good. I mean, that's like the hardest fucking part.
SOS: Story of any writer's life. I think of any artist's life. Yeah, and then it's just an added bonus that everyone likes it and to see other people be able to see some bits of their own experiences in it. I'm curious, were there any songs on this album that you surprised yourself with, like you didn't even know that that was something that was in you that you had to get out? That question could be seen as musically, but I’m thinking more emotionally.
FENNELL: For sure. The last two songs on the record, "Caving In" and "Corduroy." "Caving In" was one that I hated pretty much the whole time and "Corduroy" I loved the whole time. But both are the same in terms of that. Like, I had no idea that I wanted to say it that way.
SOS: And what message exactly are you trying to get across?
FENNELL: I joke and tell people that "Caving In" is about sort of being drunk and feeling sorry for yourself and about how cathartic that can be. And "Corduroy" is really the opposite. It's about believing in the Hallmark sort of sentiment of like, "Love is all you need," and really living that without any strings attached to a type of faith in like a god or literally any of the things. It's [saying that] you are unique and capable of being a member of this world and to bring and receive love. So like, be consciously available to receive and store up love so that when it's chaotic you can recall that instead of being cynical and angry, which I tend to need those reminders.
SOS: Yeah, I think obviously one sounds healthier than the other and is healthier than the other, but do you think that it's like 'the devil and the angel' or that it's okay to have your dark parts of grief? And then, you know, they can coexist?
FENNELL: I think you absolutely need both. I think that's a pretty common theme for me, and I tell people this at shows, like I think that you need to carry your sadness and darkness through into happiness. And I am not a professional and have been to very little therapy, but I am thankful for music in the way. I need to remind myself as much as another human listener that those things can inform you in a way that is really beautiful. And I find a ton of beauty in sadness and darkness. But then in that, an appreciation of the joy and hopeful things in life that are also beautiful. But the sheen that I think gets removed in a beautiful way is if you do carry those dark things with you, you have a better perspective of when it's good.
SOS: Yeah, very true. Very cliche quote of like, "You need darkness to see light." That's the quote right?
FENNELL: Yeah, if you didn't have darkness, you would have no perspective of light. Or something like that.
SOS: I spoke to the artist Half Waif, her name is Nandi Rose, and she was saying something about how when she was dealing with grief, and the quote that stuck out for me was like, 'When we know loss and we touch pain, we touch grief, we know what it means to feel life and we know what it means to feel love and joy.' And then you can never see those things the same and you grow a new appreciation. I feel like there's so many cliches that are actually true, that you can say about these juxtapositions with pain and happiness.
SOS: We at SOS have a project called "Song That Found Me at the Right Time." We ask artists for the song that found you at a time that you needed it most and how that song either changed your perspective or was a support for you. Is there any music in that time of your life while you were experiencing the loss of your father that you really turned to?
FENNELL: Gosh. I mean, this sounds like a cop-out answer, but I think I was just so involved in my own music during that time that I tuned everything else out. So, I mean, the first songs that came to my mind when you ask that question, I thought back way farther. Like, to two songs that I found when I started writing music. One song that hit me was Jeff Buckley's cover of "Lilac Wine," which is Nina Simone's song, and also right before we got married, which was Patrick Watson and The Cinematic Orchestra's "To Build a Home."
SOS: I love that song.
FENNELL: Oh my god, it changed everything for me.
SOS: It changed everything for you?
FENNELL: Oh, yeah.
SOS: In what way?
FENNELL: I mean, I take a lot of influence from Patrick Watson in terms of singing and just communication through music.
SOS: His song "The Great Escape" was on my iPod Touch, I was going crazy with that song.
FENNELL: Let's see. Yeah, but I can't think of anything around that time. I'm sure if I looked back, there'd be something.
SOS: I think too when we are going through times of intense grief or hardship, sometimes when we look back, everything feels a little washed over. Like you can't really think back and be like, I loved that song at this time because it wasn't the most important thing.
FENNELL: And I think it was a bit of a drought. Like I remember distracting myself with stuff like friends and family or whatever. And it was in the fucking pandemic, so I mean, there was that too. There were no dance parties, it was just surviving. But it was music, for sure. It was just like, my own thing.
SOS: Yeah, that's nice that you never strayed away from creating because I think a lot of times people can lose that inspiration. But it's great that you were able to channel a lot of what you were experiencing into your own work.
FENNELL: Yeah, to work through it. It wasn't like a perfect fit, it was not a quick exercise, it was certainly hard work.
SOS: Has there been a point since that you've reconnected with your love of other music?
FENNELL: Yeah. I have three kids, they're 8, 6, and 1½. We try to always have music around, and it's like fun music. It's peaceful, beautiful music.
SOS: Obviously I'm young, and I don't have kids, but I feel like it's fun how everything changes when you have that added dynamic. I wouldn't know, but I just feel like the way that you listen to music and find new music changes when you have a family because you love music so much you want to introduce your kids to this love of music, but there's some songs that you just wouldn't play for them because they would be completely uninterested in them at this age. That's just me thinking out loud.
FENNELL: Totally, [there's] these little personalities. My son is super athletic and into that world right now, so we're just listening to a ton of like, pump-up hip-hop. He loves Kendrick [Lamar] and that's awesome. And my daughter, like if I hear this saccharine sweet pop song, like Eva Maxwell or these newer younger artists, or if it has a banging pop chorus, I'm like, you're gonna love this. She's like her mom, who will want to listen to it 20 times in a row. And I'm down for it, I love that.
SOS: I imagine it's nice to see your kids have that passion.
FENNELL: Oh, it's amazing.
SOS: Was there anything else about the album or music or mental health that you really wanted to convey?
FENNELL: Gosh, I've always shied away from trying to be too declarative and stamping it [as being one thing]. It's just such a fucking fluid process, being alive. And we just adapt and change to like how the world and the collective humanity changes. I will say getting off Instagram has been fucking awesome for my mental health as an artist and as a human, like a detached-from-art human. And I just never thought I would feel that strongly about it, but I feel great about it.
SOS: Why did you go off Instagram in the first place?
FENNELL: Mostly time. That's a fucking huge realization when somebody dies, is how scarce time is. So speaking for myself, spending an hour or two or whatever it is a day on my fucking phone is just such a bummer. And, I don't like the idea of having an algorithm touching me, even in a harmless way of just serving me things I'd like to see. It was like, why the fuck do I care so much about this? It [seems to be just] darkly passive but it's actually quite active and is interacting with me. I hit a point where I was like, that's enough.
SOS: I like what you said about using your time more wisely after death and grief. [...] I don't know anyone who's gotten off social media and has regretted it.
FENNELL: Allowing stuff to open up more from your senses is really great. Like I'm still on my phone, for sure, but the constant consumption... for me, my Instagram [feed] had a handful of friends and music stuff, and I don't know, barbecuing? Like, whatever my thing became.
SOS: Like you're a dad, we're gonna get you Fourth of July barbecuing on your feed.
FENNELL: Like check out these really cool shows, and this new grilling technique! But to just have that stuff removed, even if it was only subconsciously part of my identity, was cool. You didn't ask about that but...
SOS: No, but I enjoyed hearing it.
FENNELL: I think it's part of mental health for sure.
SOS: I was gonna say, that's just a small thing that you can do for your mental health. On that note, are there any other little rituals that you do to keep your wellbeing up, especially as you're touring?
FENNELL: That's harder for me. Like, I don't feel creative on the road. And, I mean, the social [media] thing, especially because there's so much downtime, you're just scrolling all the time. I try not to drink too much and to eat well. On other tours we have a little "SYML Run Club" and that's great to try to be fit and stuff. Beyond that, it's trying to stay plugged in at home as much as possible. And then just, yeah, get home safe.
SOS: Does your family join you at all on the tour?
FENNELL: In the past, pre-pandemic. But not since. And I'm not much of a big reader. I don't bring books [on tour]. I also don't watch anything on tour.
SOS: So what do you do?
FENNELL: I just sort of get through each day.
FENNELL: Yeah. Pretty much.
SOS: That's cool. Just sleep a lot?
FENNELL: I mean, I'm lucky that I get to travel with friends. We play like, word games. It's really dorky.
SOS: Yeah, that's nice. Where are you from again?
FENNELL: Seattle. From there and live there.
SOS: Oh, that's my favorite city. I was just curious because I was thinking about how far away from home you are. So even the whole time you were in Europe, you were just away. Is that hard?
FENNELL: It is very hard, yeah. There's no substitution for being home. And choosing this as a job after we had kids, it's every day. I mean, it's like as a parent and as a partner, you try to just be the best version of those things while you're also doing something that you want to proceed to be happy and to be your version of successful. And it's really hard for all those things to coexist. Even if it wasn't being in a band and traveling a bunch, pursuing those things everyday is also really hard.
SOS: And thinking about this concept of time, it does bring a new appreciation to the time you spend at home. Not that you wouldn’t appreciate it anyway, but with the idea of using your time more wisely, being fully present when you're home is really important.
FENNELL: Yeah, it's hard though because since I don't feel creative on the road I just get home and have a bunch of work. But I mean, at this point it's like a 9 to 5, so when my kids are in school I can go crank.
SOS: That's a good balance. It is very hard being a creative person and having a creative job. Because the lines just blur all the time.
FENNELL: Absolutely. I'm just sitting in bed thinking about it, or at dinner or something. I feel really fortunate that those lines do blur because I have a family that, you know, knows me and loves me and wants me to be an equal part of a contributor to the family and myself as a musician.
This interview took place on May 23, 2023. It has been edited for length and clarity.