What We Talk About When We Talk About Sydney Wayser
by Chris Diestler
Some say art is a mirror. Held up to a person’s gaze, the brain has a tendency to extract meaningful patterns or ideas from the art, even if the artist intended none. Some say that art is an escape hatch, both for the viewer and the creator, allowing them to visit another world for a time. That would make it a window (a window to another time and place than merely “outside,” but a window nonetheless). Of course, the only difference between a mirror and a window is a membrane-thin, reflective layer of metal. Maybe art is both, depending on your focus, like those “Magic Eye” 3D illusions from the 90’s.
Recently, singer-songwriter, keyboardist,-Pixie-frontperso Sydney Wayser found herself delving deep into the magic mirror of her soul and came back with 14 songs set in a fantasyland called “Bell Choir Coast.” She and her traveling minstrel cohorts – Zach Mangan (drums) and Gabe Duncan (guitar) – stopped in Santa Fe, opening for Blitzen Trapper, on June 4, 2012, and wove a dreamy, musical tapestry of love, emptiness, redemption, feral beasts and myths.
I wouldn’t have expected such fantastic tales to unfurl themselves from the mind of a Berklee College of Music honors graduate, but Wayser (pronounced like “laser”) intentionally crafted the “Bell Choir Coast” cycle as an escape and a rebirth. She took my call after returning home from the tour:
CD: The idea of a concept album hasn’t been tackled by many, and fewer have executed it well. Where did the concept for “Bell Choir Coast” come from?
SW: It was the middle of winter. I was in New York and I just didn’t feel like it was home. I didn’t feel I understood myself and I wanted to be a different person than I’d become. I didn’t want to be here working on a record, but I had worked on it for a year. I felt I needed to take a minute and find myself. I stopped working on that album and created a world where I could escape to, a person I wanted to be, and that came out as “Bell Choir Coast.” It was a transformation for me.
CD: And you just abandoned the album you’d been working on?
SW: No one will ever hear that record. That was my own personal dark age.
CD: Your guitarist, Gabe, told me for the Blitzen Trapper tour you needed to strip all your arrangements down from a five-piece to a three-piece ensemble. Given the lush treatment of the “Bell Choir Coast” material, was this difficult?
SW: Well, originally it was just me and Dan Molad recording the album. Sometimes friends came in to play guitar or drums, but [Dan and I] played most of it. Putting it into the live format in the first place was hard for me, even with five people. But three people, not as hard as I thought. I play most of the bass lines [on the keyboard]. The guitarist also fills in some bass. I was worried the sound wouldn’t be full enough, but once we got on the road, I realized it carried its weight. It’s fun to reinvent the songs based on different configurations.
After getting off the road I’m excited to continue exploring, like I have new life and energy. I’m really inspired to get together and start working on other songs we didn’t play.
CD: I noticed you only played material from “Bell Choir Coast” at your Santa Fe show, but Amazon tells me you’ve got two previous albums as well. Are you making a line in the sand, saying: “That came before, this is what I am now”? Did those songs not translate to a three-piece, or do you just like the new songs more?
SW: Yeah, a little of all that. I felt very much when I made this record that I needed to stop, revaluate and find fun in music again, and I wanted to just start over. It’s hard to play the older songs because of past emotional history. Those are another life, another record. We weren’t really prepared to play the older songs, haven’t been working on them.
I wanted to start this album cycle in a new place. The new record’s about a fictional land and I want people to come with me on that journey and I think it’s hard to disrupt that by adding old songs from a past place.
CD: Where did the title, “Bell Choir Coast,” come from?
SW: We knew we wanted “Coast” in the title. Originally I wanted a children’s bell choir to play on the record. Difficult to get 50 kids with bells into a studio in New York as it turns out. The second I had the full title, though, the songs came quickly.
CD: Do you plan to use that thematic approach in the future?CD
SW: It’ll be different every time. Sometime it’s nice to write for a concept. With no guidelines we can go a little crazy. But, straight road or the windy road, eventually you get to the same place.
CD: Got plans for when the next album might be ready?
SW: After coming back from tour I feel really inspired, ready to write again. What I don’t want to do is try to commit to getting a new album out every year, year-and-a-half, like a lot of artists. I’d rather my favorite artists come out with an album every three years and reinvent themselves and blow me away.
CD: In the realm of dream pop, who are your favorites?
SW: Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles. Contemporaries like Rufus Wainwright, Grizzly Bear, Beach House. I don’t know if they count, but I also really love Modest Mouse.
CD: Berklee College of Music has a certain aura of prestige. What was your experience there?
SW: Berklee is just a lot of really nerdy musicians making nerdy musician jokes. When you say “Berklee,” people either think, “Oh, UC Berkeley, your parents must be proud,” or they think that everyone at Berklee music school is a musical genius. It’s just a lot of nerdy kids who like to play music and listen to records and talk about harmonic progressions.
CD: Well, the secret’s out now. Do any of your collaborators date back to your Berklee days?
SW: I met Zach my last week of school. Dan and Gabe I met in New York.
CD: You said it was mostly you and Dan recording the tracks for the album. How did Zach and Gabe get involved?
SW: Zach basically played all the drums on the record. Gabe I met when we were recording at Dan’s. He’s a good friend of Dan’s. He was sick and sleeping in the hallway on a futon mattress, trying to get better. I tried to avoid walking over him while he was sleeping. One night, we were recording “This One Goes Out to Ethan Hawke” and he knocks, walks in and says, “I have an idea, can I play it?” And since then he’s been playing with me in a live setting.
CD: Now that you’re developing a body of work, when you look at a band like the one you just toured with – Blitzen Trapper, who have cultivated a loyal following, and have released six albums, but who are still growing their audience – are you daunted by that? By seeing how much of the road still lays in front of you?
SW: I’m always writing, even when I’m walking down the street. I wrote 40 or 50 songs for “Bell Choir Coast,” and only 14 made it on the album.
CD: Are you going to revisit some of those leftovers?
SW: Maybe one or two but in most cases probably not.
I just read this great book by Haruki Murakami called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”…
CD: I know Murakami, but I haven’t read that one yet.
SW: You should read it! He talks about how his writing changed when he started running. He’s a marathon runner. He understands he needs to train, he runs the distance he’s supposed to run every day, he changes his diet, he spends three or four months preparing for a marathon. So how come, when he’s writing a book, he sits down and gets frustrated and thinks, “Oh, I’ll write when I’m inspired,” or, “Oh, this idea’s not coming; next!” and he just sort of drops the ball?
Writing a novel is its own marathon and if you sit down every day you’re gonna write some great ideas and you’re gonna write some bad ideas, but the key is that you’re writing every day. You’re gonna finish the book, and you’re probably gonna have a better book because you took the time to write the bad ideas to find the good ones. You didn’t settle for the bad ideas.
So I wrote six or seven months everyday. It was my job. It was a fun job but it was my job. I’d wake up every morning. I’d have my tea. Zach would have to leave because we live in New York, we have one room. Every day I would spend time writing. When you write every day, you write great songs and you write bad songs, and it’s important to write the bad songs because they help you get to the next good one.
# # #
SYDNEY WAYSER – 6/4/12 – Sol, Santa Fe, NM
"This One Goes Out to Ethan Hawke"
"Dream It Up"
# # #
photo credit: Shervin Lainez