KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.
Listen to this segment on SYML below at the 1:35 mark.
This story was produced by Jonathan Zwickel.
It took Brian Fennell a lifetime to achieve overnight success. His transition from home-studio hermit to international tours and millions of monthly Spotify listeners seems like a familiar story: he's the artist who quietly honed his craft only to be swept up in a wave of fame. But the details are excruciatingly improbable… they're also the perfect representation of the unconventional way music is made, distributed and discovered in the streaming era.
"Anywhere I go, pretty much around the world, there's going to be like a handful of people that are like, 'I know that song' or 'That song spoke to me.' Just for that to even exist is some element of virality,” says Fennell.
Fennell is a 37-year-old Seattle native and veteran recording artist who first gained attention in the late 2000s as lead singer, songwriter and keyboardist for the indie-pop band Barcelona.
After being discovered on MySpace--you heard that right--the quartet signed to Universal Motown and released a couple low-key hits before going on hiatus a few years ago. His latest endeavor is the downtempo solo project he calls SYML. And the best place to drop into his journey is where it intersects with Teen Wolf.
No, not the 1985 comedy starring Michael J. Fox, but the Twilight-inspired werewolf soap opera that aired on MTV between 2011 and 2017. Back in 2016, Fennell had never seen Teen Wolf, didn't even know it existed. But his publisher in Los Angeles had sent a digital version of his song "Where's My Love" to Teen Wolf's music supervisor, who dropped it into a 30-second promo for the show.
"Where's My Love" was such a perfect fit for Teen Wolf that it ended up in a bunch of scenes over the course of the last few seasons and basically became the show's de facto theme song. Fans were swept up in the beautiful sound of doomed werewolf romance.
Fans Shazam-ed the song to discover its provenance, posted about it on Reddit and YouTube. They found Fennell's online information and began emailing him impassioned messages about "Where's My Love" and how it was made for Teen Wolf's star-crossed lead characters. Fennell, of course, had no idea about the show, much less the characters. Before he realized what was happening, "Where's My Love" was an internet phenomenon.
“Teen Wolf changed everything," says Fennell.
The sudden flurry of activity around his music meant Fennell needed to make his burgeoning solo project official. He had to choose a name. He went with a suggestion made by his wife. Long story short, syml is Welsh, the Welsh word for simple. The name is a reminder to himself as an artist to always pare away the excess and keep only the essential stuff. Simple, he says, is always better.
And, about the Welsh?
“My heritage is Welsh,” says Fennel. “I only learned that when I was 18, because I was adopted and had a closed adoption, and that was like the one piece of paper I got when I was 18. Sort of sharing some of that health history and heritage history.”
Growing up not knowing his birth parents, not knowing his background – Fennell says that his creative process has mostly been about looking back at his life, recognizing those voids, and filling them with music.
“I know that it's an important part of why I create,” says Fennell.
With SYML as his new name and new mantra, Fennell started releasing more songs online. And those songs started taking off. Spotify added his heartrending "Girl (Acoustic)" to a popular proprietary playlist called, with no apparent sense of irony, "The Most Beautiful Songs in the World."
With "Girl (Acoustic)" plus "Where's My Love," SYML's play count skyrocketed.
"That's got to be one of the coolest parts of Spotify is the discovery factor,” says Fennell. “I keep playlists now on Spotify that I get fed artists that I never would've stumbled onto otherwise.”
The Teen Wolf connection drives home an important aspect of Fennell's music: This stuff is inherently cinematic.
“There is, at this point in my musical life, a consistent theme of very visual-sounding music,” says Fennell.
His compositions escalate slowly and build dramatic tension that pairs perfectly to visual storytelling. So, no surprise, his music videos have taken off on YouTube. Since it was released in early 2017, his video for "Where's My Love," has been viewed more than 48 million times.
When Fennell finally released SYML's self-titled debut album in May of this year, it landed at number 5 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart. It contains his previous hits plus a dozen more songs in a similarly yearning, ethereal mode, like the song "Wildfire."
He self-recorded and produced the album at his home in the Seattle suburb of Snohomish. He polished it by sharing tracks online with a handful of close collaborators in LA.
“It’s a bit of 21st-century music creation,” says Fennell. “I have my little hermit studio, they have theirs, and we can just send files.”
Even as his process of recording, brand-building and fan-gathering is rooted online, Fennell spent most of the last year traversing the real world, playing dozens of dates across the U.S. and Europe. Performing live, his stage setup varies. Sometimes he plays with a backing band of drums and keys, sometimes he's accompanied by a three-piece string section.
At a show at the Crocodile in Seattle earlier this year, Fennell stood alone on stage with an acoustic guitar and balanced his brooding music with sincere personal asides between songs. The young, mostly female audience was rapt.
Those same fans might be equally into Jenn Champion's most recent record, Single Rider--especially if they knew that Fennell produced it. Champion is a longtime Seattle singer-songwriter with a history of writing sad, solo acoustic folk, but she told her record label that she wanted to branch out and make pop music.
“And then we tried to basically write this, I wouldn’t say a pop hit, but a very like accessible song.,” says Fennell.
If you've heard Champion's new album--and you really should, because it was one of the best albums of 2018--you know that it's not seriously sad. It's an upbeat album, full of low-key bangers and electro-pop anthems of personal empowerment. It acknowledges life's problems and then sweats them out on the dance floor.
As a bandleader, Fennell craves direct audience engagement. As a recording artist he appreciates the instant unfettered access that technology provides. And as a producer, he bridges emotions and musical styles. And all of it, from the moment of creativity to the moment of discovery, is governed by forces he can't quite grasp – mystery. And he's fine with that.
“That moment when, in spite of yourself, there's a chain of events that happen and people that discover the music from so many different areas of the Internet or radio or film and TV all convening because of this one three-and-a-half-minute song… is more powerful, I mean it’s supernatural,” says Fennell.
Sound & Vision airs on KEXP every Saturday from 7-9 AM PST, utilizing interviews, artistry, commentary, insight and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter
Sound & Vision airs on KEXP every Saturday from 7-9 AM PST, utilizing interviews, artistry, commentary, insight and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter.
In this week's Sound & Vision, Disston chats with KEXP's John Richards about the musical and how he can kind of relate to the character he plays in the show.