SYML Finds His Love
For musician Brian Fennell, it’s the simple things that move him most.
The view of the mountains from his home studio in Issaquah, near Seattle; the warmth of his young children lying on his chest; the sounds he conjures and primal feelings he conveys through poignant lyrics, melodies and a pure, emotive vocal.
Adopted as a baby, Fennell knows very little about his birth parents other than they are Welsh. It’s probably no surprise, then, that his musical moniker SYML — pronounced “simmel” — means “simple” in Welsh.
“Simplicity has always been really important to me,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older it’s been more of a challenge to execute simplicity across my life. You get a house, a family, all these things that add more stuff to your life. But whether it’s a piece of art – a song or a photograph or a painting – simplicity is the hardest thing to do well.”
Fennell’s childhood was spent in the Pacific Northwest, in and around Seattle. A self-taught musical producer and performer across a range of genres, as a teenager his aim was to be a high school band teacher, “after I realised being a veterinarian would be too hard. And music teachers have always been my mentors, both on the academic side and the personal side.”
Fennell made extra money during his university years by giving private guitar and piano lessons. But shortly after completing a degree in music education, he eschewed a traditional career to form indie-rock outfit Barcelona. While the band enjoyed some success, releasing three albums, one of which was through Universal, they were viewed as “too pop” to fit snugly into any local scene during the noughties.
At something of a crossroads, Fennell decided to try his hand as a solo artist. He tasted unexpected success soon after with the soulful acoustic lament “Where’s My Love”. Created in the last days of Barcelona, it was typical of “the sad songs he couldn’t help but write”, but became a hit in several countries, and gleaned 160 million Spotify streams.
One of my first reactions when I became a father was: ‘How do I use this little thing to protect me, even when I should be all about protecting it?’
Like so many men before him, a huge turning point in Fennell’s life came through fatherhood.“Being a father has been the most impactful element in my creative life,” he says.
It was a life-change that inspired “Connor,” one of the standout tracks on his recently released self-titled debut.
“It’s about becoming a father, and weighing that against my experience of my adoptive father. Connor was what my parents were going to call me before they got me – then they were, like, ‘no, this is a Brian!’”
“And it’s about making peace with certain things relating to my father from childhood,” he continues. “He must have been as scared as I am now about raising babies. One of the lines is about how we use kids as protection for shit we don’t want to deal with about ourselves: ‘My cover fire, come lay down right here on my chest…’
“It’s a little dark – you shouldn’t use your kids for anything!” he admits. “But that was one of my first reactions when I became a father: how do I use this little thing to protect me, even when I should be all about protecting it?”
More poignant still is his latest single, “Girl” a lovely ode to childhood that was written for his daughter Josie after she underwent emergency surgery on her skull as a baby.
Fennell says the song’s purpose was twofold — self-therapy and as a “bit of a letter for her to have when she grows up to better understand what she went through”.
“[The operation] was really intense, and it’s the song I’m most proud of lyrically,” he says. “The fragility of life is something we should all be reminded of in this short time we’re here. For the video, Hayley Young (the director) and I wanted to capture some of what it means to be a child. Curiosity, joy, sadness, and simplicity.”
Fennell says for him, fatherhood has many forms. “For me, it’s easiest to feel like I’m living that role when my kids look to me for comfort or help, or when we’re having fun. However, recently, I am trying to feel that role more in the disciplinary moments. My wife is amazing in that department, which is not an excuse for me to be lax. I’m continuously learning that by giving our kids those outlines, we are actually comforting and helping them.”
Fennell is currently on a headlining world tour that includes sold-out dates in West Hollywood and Williamsburg, and several European festivals. Over the past year, he has shared the stage with or supported modern hitmakers including Lewis Capaldi, Flora Cash and Dean Lewis. But like any working parent who spends stints away from their kids, it’s a lifestyle that presents fresh challenges.
“There is no way to sugarcoat being a parent who travels for work,” he says. “At the end of the day, having the partnership that my wife and I share is ultimately what allows me to be a father and a touring musician with any hope of success. I’m thankful to do this as a job, but I am more thankful for the inspiration behind it, which is my family.”
At the age of 36, SYML has lived a life worthy of someone much older, and is well equipped to deliver strong life lessons to his young kids. Thus, in the spirit of our Heart Talks section — in which dads write letters to their kids with advice on anything they should know before they turn 18 — we wind things up with one of Fennell’s favourite lines in “Girl”:
‘Sometimes our bodies will hurt for some time / and the beauty in that can be hard to find / but I want you to find it.‘