Sometimes, you find collaborators in unexpected places. In the case of Seattle-area musician/producer Brian Fennell, aka SYML, it was Instagram, where he was cruising around last fall, looking at stuff under #vincestaples (he’s a fan of the Long Beach rapper). That’s how he discovered Larieza Leigh, who’d posted a video of a dance she choreographed to a track by Billie Eilish featuring Vince Staples, “& Burn.”
He immediately knew he wanted to work with her on his own video, and it ended up being for his track, “The Bird.” Coincidentally, Leigh was from Tacoma, and Hayley Young, the director he hooked up with via his label Nettwerk Music Group, was also from the Seattle area. These were the first people he’d worked with from his own community, and he says it felt like it was meant to be. “It was crazy how it came together.”
Fennell had experience working collaboratively for the past dozen years with his bandmates (and various guest musicians) in the gentle indie rock group Barcelona, although this was different for a few reasons. First, it was for his solo project, which meant he was making all the creative decisions, and second, it was for a visual medium, not aural. But in past instances, when he's asked someone to bring their concept to an already existing art piece, “I’ve found the best results come from being very hands-off.” In the case of Leigh and Young, “I’m enthralled with dancing but I’m not a dancer, and so I wouldn’t ever try to weigh in on the technical side or creative side when it comes to conceptualizing how or where to shoot it.”
The process of creating the video was “very 21st century.” He was on the road when they found the location, a “crazy old gym locker room” at a high school in Tacoma. They Facetimed to show it to him, and he was struck by a powerful flashback to a memory “of being beat up in a high school gym, in the shower area.” All the handles of the showers had been removed, “so there were these long bolts sticking out of the tiled wall, and I got shoved into one and it got stuck in my back. And Hayley was like, ‘Oooh I love that, I’m going to channel that for this dark video moment.’”
The video does, indeed, capture that darkness, especially when the song's broodingly exquisite opening—which finds Fennell's gorgeous falsetto climbing over quietly picked guitar—breaks down into sinister electronics as the fluid dance moves of the trio, led by Leigh, become tighter and more pointed and robotic. It is perfectly conceptualized and executed, standing on its own as a rather captivating art piece that happens to be set to Fennell’s music.
He’s happy with it, too. “If I’d tried to chokehold the process, it just wouldn’t ever have been as cool as it should be. These ladies sort of owned it, and obviously took it to another magical level which I’m so proud of.”
Fennell is dropping his debut self-titled LP (named for his solo performing alias), SYML, on May 3. The dozen tracks mix elements of dream pop, synth rock, and alt folk to lovely, emotive effect.
Surprisingly, the headlining date he’s playing at Columbia City Theater next Tuesday, April 16, is sold out. “I never have confidence that anyone’s going to come to show, so the fact that the Seattle show is sold out and the Portland show’s sold out… any time a show sells out, there’s no normal way to think about that. It’s always mind-blowing.”
But perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising in light of the success he’s already enjoyed from the placement of one of his tracks, the melancholic mid-tempo acoustic ballad “Where’s My Love,” in MTV’s Teen Wolf. He’d produced it as a side-project single while he was still active in Barcelona. “I’d worked for a number of years with a company that essentially pitches music for film and TV projects, and my song was in a batch of one of those.” He didn’t know it had gotten formally selected until he started receiving emails about it from random Teen Wolf fans, including a superfan who wanted to post the song to a YouTube channel that featured music from the show. It drew nearly 4 million views. “It was a crazy few weeks. It felt as close to overnight as I ever experienced, in terms of energy and momentum happening behind a song.”
Once people hear “The Bird,” and see this video, there’s a good chance it’ll happen all over again.
If you missed your chance to get tickets to the April 16 concert at Columbia City Theater, another date was just finalized for Neptune Theatre that will happen August 17; tickets go on sale tomorrow.