Raised in Queens and living in Brooklyn, Sye Elaine Spence explains to us the relationship between her musical and healing experiences and the series of events that led her to find her sound.
I had the pleasure of hearing Sye Elaine Spence perform at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, NY on March 11th, 2020. She was supported by a live string quintet comprised of cello, 2 violins, viola and contrabass that enhanced the beautiful songs off of her “MORE” album. That night, Sye Elaine Spence sang her poetry; her music is very light in words but carries weight, meaning and are extremely vivid. Her words are accompanied by a crescendo of sounds and her ethereal presence was mesmerizing. I recommend attending a live show from her to anyone. I have been listening to her music ever since, and was excited to sit down with her (virtually) for a conversation about her experience and music.
Tell us about your family and background.
I grew up in Queens and I come from a Caribbean background; my family is first-generation Jamaican in the United States. My Caribbean background influenced me heavily as a person and instilled in me discipline and a strong work ethic. Creatively, I knew that I wanted to do something in the arts but that scared my family. I think being a doctor and lawyer and having a stronger sense of security was preferred.
What was your journey like in being introduced to the arts as a career?
I attended college at Morgan State in Baltimore and received a degree in Sociology. I had intentions of going to law school but I called my Grandma and explained to her that I could not get myself to continue that route. She encouraged me to do what I wanted to do most, and when I received her blessing, I felt so happy and excited to be able to do what I wanted. In a way, I really needed that kind of support from my grandmother, who literally felt like home to me. After that, I met up with producers in Baltimore.
In 2008, I started writing for Ava Raiin who is an incredible artist who has toured with Solange; Ava and I performed recently at a show together at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. Working with Ava helped me find my voice. In 2010, I wrote my first EP. It was a different experience than writing for another artist. It was much more personal. At the time, I was really into punk rock and experimental music. I casted a wide net musically and worked with Q Kegler, who produced the project, but after performing in support of the record, I just felt like there was still a lot of room for me to find my voice as an artist. I think these songs would have better served someone else if I am honest. These were big anthemic songs, making big loud statements, and as a person, I am way more reserved and quiet. I really needed to challenge myself to trust that I can be just that in my work.
A few years later, I started writing for Michael Lesowsky and he introduced me to folk music. We had a very organic and effortless creative flow and we wrote a lot together. His family has a horse farm in Florida, and we visited for a few days to write. We would just sit in nature and write music on the farm for hours. It was such a beautiful time in my journey and I learned to be really attentive to detail in my lyricism and allow my art to be reflective of my experience.
How did your second EP, “Bloom” come about?
Working with Michael on the farm was truly a spiritual process and that’s when my next EP, “Bloom”, came about. I did not have any expectations on any outcomes of releasing it, I just believed in what we created and wanted to share. I started praying about it, and remember just asking God for it to just bring beauty and peace into the lives of anyone who hears it.
Not long after, Michael I had the opportunity to tour in the Southeast in support of the project. We opened for The Von Trapps, Jesse Marchant, Mirel Wagner, July Talk, and built up a local following over that year.
Your work is always paired with beautiful and simple visuals. How did you expand your art outside of songwriting?
I wrote the song “Repeat” about my stepfather who passed away and in that piece, I was talking about the steps of grief. That song planted the seeds for my next project, “MORE.” I wanted to build upon this ambient sound with sparse vocals that were lyrically potent.
I co-directed the music video for “Repeat” with Evan Brown from dreambear, who also produced the piece. Chayna Douglas was casted as our lead and the video was one take of a slow motion film of her running through an open field in a white, flowing dress. In the video, she falls to the ground and the camera pans to her face, where you see tears streaming down. It’s all about coming to terms with the grief. I definitely wanted to be more involved in creating visual narratives as well after working on that.
How exactly did your project “MORE” materialize?
After the song “Repeat” premiered on NPR , a composer by the name of Martin Hviid, from Denmark, reached out to me on Soundcloud and we decided to collaborate. We worked together for over 4 years, writing songs over email. I flew to Copenhagen to record with him . The album premiered last year and had a debut performance in Amsterdam at a festival called, RIGHTABOUTNOW INC with the whole band.
What do you want people to know about your music?
I want people to know that there are so many people contributing to what the end product is. Although my name is on it, there are so many people that I could not create without such as the producers, recording/mixing/mastering engineers, visual artists, photographers, friends giving honest feedback or teaching me how to use new gear before a show. There are so many dope talented people who contribute small parts to make a piece of work whole. There is a lot of disconnect in seeing what an artist releases versus the whole process behind the scenes, so it’s really important to me to acknowledge that.
How did you build the confidence to start writing music for yourself?
I always wanted to be an artist and have the opportunity to perform, write songs and sing. As a child, I didn’t even know that writing for other people was an option. However, it was so cool to start out that way because it allowed me to be in an environment in which I was a student. That was so valuable to me, especially when I transitioned into writing my own songs.
In your music, I can sense pain or tough times but also resilience. There’s a lot of duality in your words about being broken but also choosing freedom and strength. What was the pain you were experiencing and what was your healing journey like?
Songwriting is a huge part of my healing process. When I see and hear the words being sung, I feel a sense of comfort. I am also a very introspective person so I’m always trying to analyze my feelings and understand the psychology of others, which is really important in building empathy. When I started writing this album, it was hard because a few of the songs were too deep. I did not want to dig emotionally into myself, but I knew that I wanted to make an album that went there. I wanted to challenge myself to be more vulnerable in this medium.
How did you make yourself vulnerable? Was it through support from yourself or others?
I wrote a lot in isolation, it was such a personal experience. It probably came out that way because Martin and I were writing over email so I wasn’t as shy as I would be typically. I don’t know if I would have been as confident about the lyrics that were coming out if we were in the same physical space. During that time there was a lot of conflict in my life that I wanted to unpack; working on the album helped me do that.
In your song “Currents” you talk about who you are and who you are becoming. How is this person that you are becoming different from the old you? Is it who you envisioned?
It’s not at all what I envisioned, it’s actually more than that. I think what I used to strive for was a sense of external validation that just doesn’t matter as much to me now. I just place a higher value on things like inner peace and a strong sense of self. To see myself in this way is really exciting for me. And it didn’t take many of the things I thought that it would take to get to this place, and I love where I am.
What advice do you have for up and coming artists of color, to help them build confidence and put themselves out there?
Don’t feel like you have to wait until you’re at a certain point. Continue to grow your craft but also get out there, even if it’s an open mic, or a writing session with other artists. That is precisely where your growth happens. Keep immersing yourself in a community where you are challenged and pushed outside of your comfort zone. Don’t feel like you have it all together at once, just start where you are and with that, will come the accountability to consistently learn and improve.
Someone told me once that both rehearsals and this type of workshopping is simply practiced failure. You will make mistakes, and that’s the point, you want to keep practicing, and exercising your talent until the failure is worked out of your muscle memory. It’s the same idea of not practicing until you get it right, but practice until you can’t get it wrong.
What’s something that people may not know about you?
Most people don’t know that I am a homebody and that I am super domestic. I’m married with a daughter and I enjoy just being at home and catering to my family. I also am super low maintenance, I’m not big on being at big parties or events much, I’m actually super shy at those types of things, a bit of an introvert. I really put a lot into my work and my shows, from wardrobe to the production, but when I’m not working, I am super low key in my personal life.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I do, I love the real housewives of any city. I can’t choose a city as my favorite but my top 3 are New Jersey, New York, and Atlanta.
In regards to COVID, how can people support you in this time?
People can support me by staying connected. I did a live stream with Ethel’s Club yesterday and I would like to do more. Martin and I will also be doing an AMA series over the summer, discussing the album, and our production/writing process. Also, on Spotify, I’ve added a link to raise funds for the MusiCares COVID – 19 Relief Fund, which is actively supporting artists who have had to cancel shows as a result of the pandemic.
Are you working on anything or had plans before the whole world shut down?
Yes, I had more shows scheduled in New York for the year. I am also writing for some TV projects which is what I am focused on right now. Hopefully during this Fall, there will be some return to normalcy and I can have shows, but if not I’ll continue to do more shows online.
If you had to listen to 3 albums for the rest of quarantine, what would they be?
“Legend” by Bob Marley, “Lover’s Rock” by Sade and “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”
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