SYML’s Brian Fennell delves into the depths of his raw, warm, and welcoming sophomore album ‘The Day My Father Died,’ a record channeling grief and love into cathartic and captivating indie folk beauty.
Stream: “Believer” – SYML
Grief and love are odd bedfellows at first glance, but upon closer look, they make the perfect pair.
Grief, for one, is absolutely gut-wrenching and life-changing; once you know it, it sits with you for the rest of your life, no questions asked. You can drown in its darkness and surrender to its empty weight. And yet more often than not, that grief stems from love itself – in particular, losing someone you love so intensely, that you feel their absence every day. SYML’s sophomore album is a testament, a reaction, and a reflection of these two opposite, yet inseparable experiences: Uncompromisingly raw, warm, and welcoming, The Day My Father Died channels heartache and grief, love and connection into cathartic and captivating beauty. Emotional wreckage has never had a more uplifting soundtrack, and intimacy has never hit this hard.
And yet, everything about this album is utterly inspiring.
Hold the call, hold the call
Good love makes you hesitate
Rolling slow, go so slow
Melting like a long last drink
I wouldn’t change one thing
Touch me like a lover
Speak to me like a friend
Teach me like my father
taught me how to live again
Hold me like no other
Embrace my brokenness
Don’t preach to me, a believer in a choir
You’re that hallelujah sweetness on my lips
– “Believer,” SYML
“I want to show you that life comes in circles; I want to show you life,” SYML sings on the title track. Released February 3, 2023 via Nettwerk Music Group, The Day My Father Died is an hour-long indulgence in the wonder of life and human connection. Born out of grief, the follow-up to 2019’s eponymous debut album and last year’s poignant DIM EP is, to put it bluntly, a sonic celebration.
And like any good celebration, this one has its share of highs and lows, and it leaves us in a space full of memory and reverie.
Woke up on your skin
I’ve never felt like this before
Woke up trembling
I feel electric underwater
Lay me down low, lay me down low
I’m coming down slow, so lay me down low
We made a fire in the purest way
When you explode it’s my holiday
I took too much it was my mistake
But I can be blamed, I’m insatiable
Keep me howling, baby
I’ll be your beast, I’ll be your dog
Keep me howling, baby
And I’ll keep begging you for more
– “Howling,” SYML ft. Lucius
“The Universe is expanding into infinity and no human brain has ever understood what that really means in terms of what came before us and what comes next,” SYML’s Brian Fennell explains. “The natural becomes supernatural and gods are created to fill the void that we find ourselves in. The ONLY thing we can fully experience and attempt to understand is… each other. We are churches and we worship human bliss in the form of intimate love in all its brokenness and perfection.”
Love has always flowed freely throughout SYML’s breathtaking music; here, that love manifests through heartbreak and loss, personal and familial growth, and Fennell’s own artistic transformation.
“The story behind this record starts in the pandemic, and it was really around the time that my dad was dying of cancer,” he tells Atwood Magazine. “The album title sort of is on the nose a little bit with that, with the day my father died. But rather than the record being sort of this mournful process, that process really happened in the EP that came before the record, called Dim. That was a grouping of a few songs that were written around the same time as the full length. They naturally grouped themselves, thematically and stylistically too, into two separate projects. So the full length record is really more of an opportunity to talk about the snapshot of the last couple years of going through what my dad went through, but also what our family went through, and what the world was going through at large. Rather than it being this sort of mournful thing, it really is a digestion of how things big and small change forever in our lives when these life events happen, like a kid is born, which we also went through. But also, when somebody leaves us or we fall in love or whatever, we can’t see things the same way ever again.”
“I guess my vision changed over the course of the recording,” he adds. “You go into the studio either by yourself or with a team of players or producers or whatever, and if you do it well, I think it will change during that process. Working with producer Phil Ek, who’s also from Seattle like me, was really great. He was equal parts therapist as he was coach as he was cheerleader. I think if you allow yourself to be vulnerable, which I think my music does lend itself a little bit, or at least I try to have it be a vulnerable art piece, it doesn’t always mean that creating that thing is easy or without its defenses.”
It’s the easiest thing in the world to write a sad ballad. If this is my job and this is what I take seriously, the challenge should be to channel that into something new that I haven’t said before.
The Day My Father Died is an evolution for SYML’s music – one that expands the artist’s world well beyond the atmospheric indie folk balladry of his debut.
“It’s hard for me to have a perspective on it,” he admits. “It was such a weird breaking down and building back up process mentally and physically, so I’ve needed this much time to really be stoked on it. I think it’s really beautiful and I really like it; the words I’ve been using about it are that it feels very honest and organic in its way, but it also feels really careful and comfortable. And that took a lot of time; I don’t think that listener will immediately get that, because it doesn’t sound like we spent years editing it. It does feel like an accurate account of what was going on in the studio, but to commit that to tape, and to the record in that moment, was a wild ride. I look back on it fondly, but also at the same time, I’m glad it’s done and I’m glad it will be shared now.”
The album’s title is an homage and an instant context clue, but it’s really the album’s starting point.
“It’s a lyric from a song on the record… The lyric on the record is, ‘I was born on the day my father died,‘ and that’s a bit of a nod to him as a father and me as a father. And then me just as an existing human, whether that’s as a father to my kids, a partner to my wife, a friend, a client, whatever my role is, it’s been influenced by this event, right? And like I said, this is not a record full of dirges. It’s certainly more of a celebration than it is sadness. But I think just like everybody, you need to carry all the things at the same time. You have to acknowledge that sadness goes with you in your happiness and in your celebration, because if you ignore it, awful things happen. I’m not trying to be tongue-in-cheek with the title at all; even though there are some tongue-in-cheek songs on it, I think it’s meant to just be like, ‘Hey, even in the most serious stuff we deal with, it’s okay to not take yourself too seriously.’“
From the heartrending, soul-stirring opener “Howling” featuring Lucius and the charming, soothing grooves of “Believer” and “Feel Your Pain,” to the pure magic of “The Day My Father Died” and “Chariot,” and the soft, loving glow of “You and I” featuring Charlotte Lawrence, “Tragic Magic,” and “Better Part of Me” featuring Sara Watkins, The Day My Father Died makes for an exceptionally moving, emotionally cleansing hour of music.
“I’ve been saying that, at least for now, my favorite song is the last tune, which is called ‘Corduroy,'” Fennell says. “I think for most folks it’ll sound maybe the most SYML-y because it’s pretty lush and really has an emphasis on pretty melodies and stuff. But lyrically, I’m proud of it because it’s a little bit of, again, with that snapshot of that synopsis from birth to where I’m at now. I love that challenge in the song to be able to talk about that massive span of time at this point within four minutes or whatever. So I love that tune. It’s a good send-off, it’s free of cynicism, and free of stuff that I love to wallow in, which is good. If for anything else, I guess it’s good for me, like therapy.”
“Corduroy” is also a lyrical favorite. “There’s songs on this record that are about my experience with faith in my past and spirituality, but in the sense of it being a human thing instead of a throw it into the ether and not understand it kind of thing, the last verse on “Corduroy” talks about what happens when we have knowledge, like when we gain enough knowledge to sort of disprove something we’ve had faith in. And it doesn’t have to just be religious; it can be your understanding of love or of how to be loved or whatever… And when you gain that powerful knowledge through whatever means, and it erases the faith you had in that, what a nauseating feeling that is, but also like, you wrote a beautiful thing because you’ll never have to live under false pretenses again, in that way anyway. That last verse of “Corduroy” is really powerful to me.
When you realize it’s not your fight
And you can’t avoid a chance to reconcile
Lay em down, the stones, the stones will never cry
No stone will ever cry
No stone will every cry
When the poison fruit tastes sweeter than you like
It’s a fertile place to propagate a lie
While you’re waiting for the nausea to subside
Let’s drink to what is right
Let’s share a drink tonight
Spend it in wartime and save up in peace,
love will be all that you need
– “Corduroy,” SYML
He adds, “Some of these songs were started lot of years ago, before even SYML – some old nuggets that hung around and ended up being useful. It can be a hard thing, because that thing that you saved from years ago, actually, is not cool. You’re just being lazy and you can’t come up with new ideas. But in this case, there were a couple nuggets that were useful and grew into songs on their own. I’m thinking like a song called ‘Laughing at the Storm,’ which has three part harmony the whole way through, is something I wouldn’t have guessed that I would’ve done a couple years ago. So, there’s also little gems like that.”
“Just like with anything that I put out, a large part of the joy is that it would be echoed back to me, whether I know it or not, like that listeners sort of absorb it and that it comes back into the general universe of human understanding or whatever like that,” Fennell shares. “‘Cause there’s a lot of hard stuff, right? There’s a lot of hard stuff that we all go through and it feels really isolating, but the reality is that we probably live on a way narrower spectrum than we think. So if that can help somebody, then that’s my hope.”
“What I’m taking away from it is that, you always learn from every recording experience and every writing experience. You learn like a new set of colors almost, in a new way, of breaking down a way you thought you knew before. I hope you know that I’m going into the next season of writing and recording with a better vocabulary.”
Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside SYML’s The Day My Father Died with Atwood Magazine as Brian Fennell goes track-by-track through the music and lyrics of his sophomore solo album!
Stream: ‘The Day My Father Died’ – SYML
:: Inside The Day My Father Died ::
Howling is the perfect song to start an album that explores my infatuation with what we are. We are all beautiful beings that long for completion, but we remain insatiable. In the house of the most holy, we are tortured animals and we sing hoping to reach enlightenment. Holly and Jess were gracious enough to join me here, and anyone who knows Lucius knows the soul and gravitas they bring to their songs. I wanted this song to feel like a church choir towards the end, and they delivered.
To be a believer in something is as pure as it gets. For me, it’s when I realized it was never a god or magical ghost, but my lover and how I fell at her feet.
Laughing at the Storm
Laughing at the Storm has been banging around for years in various forms. I’m happy it found a home on this record. I love the feeling of a desert storm, which is what this song sounds like to me. I also love the idea of each of us being guided by an inner child who is restless and never fully content. That energy is wild!
Sweet Home is never one place. It is never one person. It is a collision, beautiful and hideous, of every place and every person that we entangle ourselves with that allows us to recognize “home”. This song feels cozy and nostalgic, like the nostalgia of something good is enough to carry us through any storm. That is home.
Lost Myself is a sneaky sad song. Not one minor chord! Can you imagine a notion more sad than the realization that you’ve lost who you are? Especially when you thought you knew yourself? I think we all lose ourselves at times. Also, the fact that Guy Garvey, from Elbow, joined me on this song will never cease to blow my mind. I’ve been a fan of Guy since I started writing songs back at University. His verse is one of my favorite on the record.
The Day My Father Died
I wrote most of this album before my dad died and I recorded all of it after he passed. I remember that day vividly. I felt the weight of the sunset. I remember breathing through it … and it was quietly visceral. My dad left behind many good and beautiful things. This was the last song I wrote for the album (and the only song on the album I wrote after he passed). Instead of writing a song that felt as heavy as that sunset, I wrote one that feels light on its feet. One we can dance to, knowing that life comes to an end for all of us.
Feel Your Pain
“Feel Your Pain” sounds patronizing as fuck normally. But to meet someone where they are and hold their burden of pain with them . . . there’s nothing more beautifully human. Trauma rarely heals alone and in the dark.
This is one of my favorite songs on the album. My parents never dragged us to church, but I chose to go to youth group in middle school. That time and those people were a positive influence in my life. With an adult’s perspective, I can now see the ways in which we were “marketed” to in the boom of 90s pop Christianity, which leaves me feeling icky and duped. The whole package has always had this too good to be true taste, like a miracle drug. It should have been marketed as magic, and it really is tragic. That rhyming title always makes me smile.
I have always associated chariots with those from ancient stories and history, containers with wheels made of precious metal, carrying royalty. But I never liked that so this song asks what if chariots were vessels of love and deliverance? We recorded most of the album at Studio X in Seattle, which is an old church. A lot of the percussion and drum beats on this song were played on leftover church pews in the studio.
Marion is my partner. This song takes us through meeting each other, an early vacation we took in the honeymoon phase, and finally to me talking to our son about how I hope he finds his person like I found mine. Musically, this song reminds me of so many songs I loved in my formative years (the mid to late nineties). I’m pretty certain this is Marion’s least favorite song on the album.
Better Part of Me
When we talk about someone being the Better Part Of Me, it’s certainly a familiar trope. For me, there is a sweetness that is appropriate and not saccharin when we think about our “other”. Love is certainly a journey full of conflict and challenge, and the best way to become better together is through being honest with ourselves and one another. And to have Sara Watkins join me on this song is something of a dream. Nickel Creek’s first album was a blueprint for me as I started singing and writing songs. I love her voice, and the tenderness and simplicity she brings to this song fits perfectly.
Baby Don’t Lie
Last Winter, I woke up in the middle of the night and recorded a melody on a voice memo. That melody is the chorus for Baby Don’t Lie. It feels luxurious to me, I don’t know why. I wrote the song around it to feel kind of slippery and lazy, like a poolside wealthy person who is bored with being wealthy but also desperate.
You and I
You and I are soul mates, maybe. I’ve never believed in soul mates. I do believe in falling in love so deeply that nothing else matters. This is a simple song. It feels like it came out of familiar dirt. Like someone came along, plucked me out of the ground, washed me off and fell in love with me. Charlotte Lawrence’s voice is perfect for this song. She moves so effortlessly between airy and focused.
Being sad and drunk feels like Caving In. A bit hopeless, a bit ok with it all. Apathetic and earnest. Pleading to no one in particular. For the melody and music, I wanted to give a nod to two of my favorites: Jeff Buckley and Soundgarden.
My favorite outfit when I was 6 was a pair of blue, corduroy overalls. Originally, I started writing this album “The Day My Father Died” about the tension I have felt about my relationship with faith. I don’t know if that’s because my dad was sick when I wrote most of these songs or not. I spent a lot of time trying to focus my anger and cynicism, which left me empty. But through the writing process, I was able to realize that my tension was never rooted in the things that made me angry or cynical, it was simply in trying to understand myself and others. I think that’s true for many people. This album turned into an exploration of that. And Corduroy felt like the perfect song to end the album since it feels like a return to the innocence of my youth; moving forward into the unknown with a sense of peace and outlook on the world without judgement.
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? © Sarah Cass
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