Women in Music Series
By: Justin Stokes
The resolve for a discussion on female artists comes not as an exclusion of other creators, but as a means to zero in on a certain outlook.
When I had pitched the idea of a series focusing on Nashville’s most talented female musical contributors, I was met with a great deal of approval and appreciation. Unfortunately, my own personal exhaustion – caused by the greatest of obstacles, life itself – got in the way.
Highlighting the feminine experience in music means continually accessing some of the best performers Nashville has to offer.
Searching for someone whose musical essence was rooted in a spiritual ground zero. In that quest, I discovered the musical stylings of Sara Syms, whose perpetuity at life’s intersections really spoke to me. I chatted with Sara about her upcoming show at Douglas Corner, her music, and how the blossom of music is rooted in sadness.
Justin Stokes (JS): You’ve got a new album coming out October 9. Let’s discuss the album, the making of it, what inspired it, change of creative direction, etc.
Sara Syms (SS): The new album, Way Back Home, is about change. My adversity to change, fear of the unknown, feeling stuck in a place I desperately want to move from, etc. The album was recorded right before I moved from New York City to Nashville.
Every song on this album is me at a crossroad. Coming into my own. Not being afraid to fail. Proving perfection is nothing but an illusion. Finding my own voice. Being terriﬁed to leave the life I worked so hard to create and essentially starting over in a new place. The greater the risk, the greater the reward.
We went “old school” and recorded the this album analog to tape in Brooklyn, at GaluminumFoil Studios. It was produced by Chris Cubeta and Nick Africano, after spending a week locked away from the winter cold with my incredibly creative and talented players. All sorts of magic emerged and the record organically arrived at exactly the right place.
JS: As a musician, how would you compare New York City to Nashville?
SS: Both are great music scenes. Nashville feels a lot more like a tight knit community. There seems to be a lot more collaboration here, even in the sense of putting bills together with like minded musicians and the amount of co-writing that goes on. Also being on a much smaller scale, you run into the same people around town.
JS: You share that you’ve been afraid to writer your own stuff. Describe that fear, what produced that fear, and how you overcame it.
SS: Have played music for years but always been afraid to write my own material. Am a bit of a perfectionist with a dark side and always felt it would never be good enough or too sad and the moment I learned to lean into those insecurities instead of running from them, the writing took on a mind of it’s own. I found a place to put purpose to what I have been feeling all these years.
JS: Explain the dynamic of your two prior bands “The Key Party” and “Dirty Water” and how it compares/contrasts to your current sound.
SS: The Key Party was an integral part of ﬁnding my voice and growing as a musician. Founded in NYC by lead singer Darren Gaines, The Key Party was a 7 piece subversive lounge act described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “Nick Cave meets No-Wave” and “a house party of an unusually artistic coterie” by CMJ. Drenched in guy/girl counterpart harmonies, I sang female vocals, played keys and electric violin. It was my ﬁrst band, and an inﬂuential stepping stone in where I have arrived today. I owe a lot to Darren for helping me discover and uncover the delicate, dark and sultry side of my voice. He is a true poet and has a way with words I will always be in awe of. Dirty Water was a band that grew out of a collaboration of Mark Abrahams and myself for our love of Americana, particularly inﬂuenced by the sound of Buddy and Julie Miller. Dirty, gritty, down home country blues. It was with this project that I really discovered my pipes and ability to let loose and wail. Between these two worlds is where I’ve found my sweet spot. Haunting atmospheric vocals meet the grit and grind of life.
JS: You’ve cited Portishead, Iron & Wine, and Amy Winehouse as influences?
SS: I’m a huge Portishead fan. And similar vibey artists such as Warpaint, Blonde Redhead, Mazzy Star, Massive Attack, Morcheeba, Goldfrapp… Iron and Wine holds my heart as well. There is a haunting quality to all these artists. Each song paints a canvas, it’s moody, intricate and dense. I tend to lean towards the minor keys. There is a part of my music that draws from these inspirations.
As far as Amy Winehouse goes, she’s a legend. What a talent we lost, struck down in her prime. She lost to her demons but we gained so much from her ability to transform pain into brilliance. Lyrics that cut right down to the bone, the ability to stand in the face of truth and make us all feel something.
JS: As someone who’s a part of the new guard of Nashville’s music, do you think there’s something of a “bastardization” of Americana music? What do you see as the perception?
SS: I would say the term is more “over-used” than bastardized. Everything these days seems to be “Americana”. But what does that even mean? It’s with any ﬁeld. The buzzwords start ﬂying around and pretty soon everyone is using the same lingo. Americana is “roots music” drawing from the likes of folk, country, blues, bluegrass, rock and more. Americana radio formed from songs not quite ﬁtting into “country” or “rock” and with the creation of the Americana Music Association, great light has been shed on this style of music.
JS: You’ve discussed that with the passing of your mother, that music was sort of a means of communicating with her?
SS: My parents were very supportive of my interest in music, especially my mother. She got me involved in piano, violin and singing at an early age. She was a folk singer and some of her favorite musicians were Judy Collins, Eva Cassidy, Carol King and Joni Mitchell. She was my best friend and biggest supporter.
My mother passed away when I was in college and it shattered my world. Took me awhile to get back on my feet but through music I learned to connect with her again in an incredibly special way. There is one song in particular on my last album called “Dance On My Grave” that deals with the death of my mother and written from the perspective of her talking to me. It’s a silver lining sort of song.
JS: And this almost caused you to abandon music entirely?
SS: Music is something my mother and I shared so intimately. It was just too hard for awhile.
Growing up, she’d sit in the chair next to our piano and listen to me practice for hours.
I remember performing my senior year, just a year or so after her passing. Towards the end of my performance – in the middle of a very intricate fast paced section – I remember looking down at my hands ﬂying across the keys and having no idea how or what I was playing and how I was going to get out of this. It was a complete loss of control. She was suddenly there, talking me down as I struck the ﬁnal chord to a roar of applause. Such a beautiful moment, yet after graduation, I ran from anything and everything that reminded me of our connection. Was a good year or so until I started playing or singing again. I felt dead inside.
JS: You were able to bounce back though through you love of karaoke, right?
SS:. Ha! True story. So, for awhile I was playing in 2 bands and life was great again. Both were very different styles and rounded out my musical cravings. Around the same time, both sort of disbanded and this left me pretty down and disheartened. I tried getting some other projects together but around the same time, my guy friends at work had this local spot near our ofﬁce where they’d go sing karaoke. The machine would score you (similar to Rock Band) and a couple nights a week, if you got an 89 or higher you got a free drink. So me along with some other singer friends became the ringers for our group and pretty much drank this poor bar out of house and home. I entered the karaoke world championship and ended up winning NY state,onto regionals, then nationals. The following year it was a TV series. When I was on vacation with my friends in Mexico, they had a karaoke intervention with me. Pretty much convincing me to get back to writing my own music. They knew how much I missed being a part of these 2 bands and wanted to see me get back to doing what I love.
Sara Syms’s latest album Way Back Home is set for release October 9th, where she’ll be performing at the Douglas Corner Cafe with openers Vina and Robbie Hecht in a Nashville Flipside showcase. To keep up with her creative exploits, be sure to visit her website (www.sarasyms.com) and visit her social media. Her music videos for “Crossroads” and “Dance On My Grave” are available via her YouTube channel.