Simplicity, Sad Songs, & How Shazam Inadvertently Launched His Solo Career: A Q&A With SYML

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On one fateful day in early 2016, Brian Fennell woke up to a inbox flooded with fans who had Shazam’d his feature song on MTV’s hit series, Teen Wolf. While he was completely unaware that “Where’s My Love” had been licensed and synched in the first place, the overwhelming support inspired the official birth of SYML.

As a solo project, SYML manifested the softer, sadder side of Fennell’s creative virtuosity, diverging from the collaborative alt-pop sounds employed in his previous band, Barcelona. The Seattle born-and-raised native saw massive streaming success with his first single, “Where’s My Love,” followed by the complete Hurt For Me EP. Staying true to his name’s Welsh translation of “simple,” SYML continues to create minimal soundscapes that find power in their relatability and emotion.

Get to know the man behind SYML in our Q&A below.

OTW: So let’s start with the basics–is it SYML as in SYML or S-Y-M-L?

SYML: It’s SYML, pronounced sih-mul.

OTW: And I understand that means “simple” in Welsh? How did you decide on that?

SYML: My wife actually came up with it. She’d be very happy that I’m giving her credit. I am also in the band, Barcelona. We’ve been a band for like 10 years, and it was like so hard to come up with that band name, even though it’s just a city’s name.

OTW: How did that come about?

SYML: We were still in college when we started, and it was everybody’s assignment to go think of like twenty names. Barcelona was the only one that everybody didn’t hate, and so we just rolled with it. With SYML, I was just like, “Oh my gosh, I have to think of a name again because it’s just me.” And so my wife, my sweet wife, basically went like word-sleuthing and had this list. And I was like, “Wow, these are actually great.”

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OTW: Nice.

SYML: Dude, I almost called it…it’s the worst sounding name. The word is “petrichor,” but what that means is literally the smell of rain. Like when it rains on concrete or something like in the sun–that smell has a name.

OTW: Wow. It doesn’t sound like what it means.

SYML: (Laughs) So SYML…I’m adopted and didn’t know what my heritage was until like way late in life, like mid-20s. And both my parents were from Wales, so I’m like 90-something percent Welsh. 

So that’s the significance for me–it’s my heritage. And “simple” is just a reminder for everything aesthetic. I appreciate simplicity.

OTW: There you go. So you’re from Seattle? 

SYML: Yeah.

OTW: Were you born and raised there?

SYML: Born and raised in Seattle, just kind of around the city. I was actually telling someone this morning, I was born in Issaquah, which is the eastern-most suburb of Seattle. I lived sort of all over the city, and then moved back to Issaquah, where I first originated.

OTW: What’s it like?

SYML: Shitty. It’s not nice a lot of the year. It’s really green all the time because it rains. But it’s like dark at 4 o’clock and like everybody just drinks and makes it through till summer, basically.

OTW: What is the music scene like there and how did you come up in it?

SYML: When Barcelona began, the scene was like Band of Horses, like Death Cab, etc..  So it was kind of this rainy alternative thing, which we fit into. And then it kind of transitioned way more into folk, like Fleet Foxes and Head and the Heart, which we did not fit in with. 

Being from there, it’s hard to have great perspective on this, but Seattle feels like it doesn’t know what it is at any given time. Post-grunge, it’s sort of like just been up in the air. And Macklemore is from there. I don’t know how to say this without sounding like an overly pretentious dick, but it doesn’t seem to have an identity, as much as people think it does.

So, Barcelona was too pop for Seattle, kind of. And then everywhere else we go, they’d be like, “You’re so indie. You’re so Seattle.” So now, although I’m from there, and I’m totally inspired to live there creatively, I don’t totally identify with the scene too much.

OTW: Do you plan to stay there?

SYML: Oh yeah, forever. I love being from there.

OTW: So you started SYML as a solo project, but you’re in Barcelona as well. How is SYML different from Barcelona?

SYML: I mean, it’s kind of inherent in the set up, having it just be me with little to no collaboration. One of my best friends, who does all the strings for SYML and started Barcelona with me, is very much involved in terms giving feedback and whatever else.

But I’ve really enjoyed the difference, in terms of being by myself–that’s how I find that I work best creatively. Musically, it’s just a lot softer, and there’s a lot less going on. It’s all very sad too. Barcelona grew into more fun music–we just stopped taking ourselves so seriously. But for SYML, it’s just really cathartic to write sad songs.

OTW: Totally, I noticed that as well, which leads to another question: where do you pull those really sad lyrics from?

SYML: Yeah, I’m kind of fucked up. I basically appreciate all the good things in my life by imagining losing them. Metaphorically some of the songs are about stuff that’s happening or happened, but not like these literal sad, sad stories.

Looking down the road, it’s really exciting, but kind of a daunting task like…Do I have to keep writing sad songs? In my history of songwriting, I tend to always go back to that darker place. Two of the first SYML songs were written years ago, and they just weren’t meant for Barcelona at the time. 

I eventually recorded “Where’s My Love” and just put it out in the world. It ended up getting used in MTV’s Teen Wolf. It’s actually a crazy story, like they used some of the song in a twenty-second ad. I didn’t even know it had gotten licensed, and I kept on getting emailed from like fans who had Shazam’d it. Then it got added to the Shazam database.

OTW: And this was before the song was out?

SYML: Yeah, and I didn’t even plan to put it out. People were just like, “What is this song?” So I put it up shortly thereafter, and it just totally took off. It was crazy.

OTW: Why do you think it did so well?

SYML: Well, I think everybody can relate to being sad much more readily than people can like relate to being super happy. I feel like a lot of Top 40′s are really happy and bouncy and stuff. Being sad is a way longer-lasting feeling than being happy, unfortunately. I’m not trying to bring everybody down. I think it’s just more like a feeling that people can relate to.

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OTW: I agree, makes sense. So for all your sad fans: what’s your number one advice for a broken heart? 

SYML: Communication is obviously so giant. Being able to talk about really, really hard shit. I mean, I’m lucky to be able to have music to speak my thoughts about relationships.

OTW: Totally. So who are your top Ones To Watch right now?

SYML: Man, let’s see. I mean I just discovered Francis and the Lights, and I know he is pretty well-known already, but I’ve really enjoyed him. 

I do production with other people and writing with other people. So discovering music that way is really fun, in terms of being part of it.

OTW: Any notable collabs?

SYML: I’ve been doing a lot of work with Third Eye Blind, randomly. I produced some of their stuff, and co-wrote some of their stuff in the most recent album, not out yet.

But there’s also two Hawaiian artists I’ve really enjoyed working with this girl named Kimie and this band called The Green. I used to hate reggae, like genuinely hate reggae, but now I’m just working with a bunch of reggae artists and it’s great.

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OTW: Cool, so what’s next on your agenda?

SYML: I am working on new SYML music basically. All my other projects are pretty much done, so I can now focus on SYML. 

Eventually I’d want to do a full-length album. But we’ll see; it’s like creative time right now. It’s been a really, really exciting year. The trajectory of SYML so far has been great, like all the coolest things that have happened have come from people seeking it out rather than me. I feel like super lucky that people respond to the music so well already.

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