Our songwriting contest in association with ReverbNation is back by popular demand. This month’s winners: a gypsy-folk-blues quintet from NYC
t gets harder and harder picking the winner of our ReverbNation songwriting contest each month, mostly because it’s proved popular beyond even our expectations – August’s competition received over 3,000 entries. Which means to stand out, you’ve got to be really very good indeed. Luckily, Sylvana Joyce & The Moment are very good indeed.
Trust us. After hours spent wading through a sea of music ranging from truly excruciating (we won’t name names) upwards, your ears get tired. Your mind starts to wander. And then suddenly, you’re jolted back into the present by what sounds like an unholy marriage between Amy Winehouse and Gogol Bordello… with a little Pink-ish pop sass thrown in for good measure. The track in question turns out to be Sylvana Joyce & The Moment’s The Break, and suddenly it’s all worthwhile again.
We’re not the only ones to think so either, it seems. As well as managing to drum up enough cash via Kickstarter to fund their debut album For You, Comrade (available on iTunes), this New York-based outfit (consisting of Sylvana on keyboards and lead vocals, Chris Smith on guitar, Sean David Cunningham on violin, Ross Liberti on drums and Peter Bellomo on bass) have already picked up props from the Huffington Post and a whole stack of US music magazines, and featured in an unsigned bands slot on MTV, no less.
In fact, with a distinctive sound all of their own, a cast of accomplished musicians and a frontwoman whose striking East European beauty certainly won’t do front covers any harm at all, we may only just have caught this lot in time. So without further ado… take it away, Sylvana!
Tell us a little bit about yourself, the band and your music…
“My name’s Sylvana Joyce. I was born in New York but both my parents are from Romania – they defected during the Communist regime in the 70s, and it’s been an interesting upbringing because of that. I’ve been making music since as long as I can remember, but this band’s been together since 2010, and most of our fans have called us something like gypsy rock, because we have a violinist in the band who really adds a folk element to our sound.”
How old were you when you started writing songs?
“Probably around the age of three. My father bought me a tiny keyboard and I loved making sounds and singing, and I would improvise songs a lot. And my mom would buy me singalong cassettes with booklets… I was lucky that my parents encouraged me being put in a musical environment. So by the time I started playing piano, when I was five, I already had a songwriting background. I felt like the piano was the pet I couldn’t have, because our apartment complex didn’t allow pets, so I spoke to the piano instead. And it started speaking back!
“I grew up listening to my grandfather’s records, he was a tango and romantic music composer in Romania, and I was very influenced by opera and Romanian folk music. But then at college I discovered classic rock music like Bob Dylan and The Doors, so now I blend those classical and Romanian elements with a kind of rock feel with the band and it comes out as a very eclectic sound.”
Is the piano still your main instrument?
“It is, but I’ve been dabbling in other instruments… I recently bought a bass guitar and I’m kind of playing with the idea of learning as many instruments as I can and playing all the instruments on a future album.”
“I auditioned some very talented musicians and I found my band”
You formed the band via an ad on Craigslist, is that right?
“That’s correct. The Craigslist ad happened because I hadn’t really had any experience with rock bands before, I was classically trained as a musician so I pretty much had to enlist the help of strangers… and I was incredibly lucky! If someone asked me for advice, I would NOT tell them to go to Craigslist, but I auditioned some very talented musicians and I found my band. I found a Berkelee graduate who plays amazing jazz and blues but also has a metal and hard rock background, and that adds texture to our sound. I found an opera singer turned bassist, pianist and guitarist. So we have a lot of tricks up our sleeves.”
Can you remember what the ad actually said?
“I said that I wanted to build a musical empire… that I wanted music to be my day job and I wanted to take some very passionate music friends along with me for the ride. And I put some YouTube videos up of me playing a few of my song ideas, and I fibbed a little bit… in the ad I put ‘artist management’, only the management was me because I’m self-managed. And when they turned up I said, okay I don’t really have a manager but I’m passionate about promoting the band! And since then we’ve been touring all around and building a band bank so that we can fund things like albums and tours. I feel almost as much like an entrepreneur as I am a songwriter.”
Okay, so let’s talk about your songwriting! Who writes the songs, is it just you or the whole band?
“Usually I’ll bring in a finished song but I’ll leave it open to interpretation by the band, and we’ll figure out our own unique way of performing it, which will sometimes change from month to month. Sometimes we’ll hear it at a faster tempo, sometimes we’ll hear it with a darker groove, but usually I bring finished songs to the table.”
“I’ve been making sure that each word has its place”
So do you have a particular songwriting technique that you normally use, or does it vary?
“It’s strange, because for most of my songwriting life I would have this sudden urge come about, and I would know that within an hour I was going to write a song. It was a feeling, like feeling suddenly nauseous or aroused… just a very intense primal feeling. And then like clockwork, from half an hour to an hour later, music and lyrics together would start flooding out of me, and within 10 or 15 minutes I’d be finished. And that would be pretty much the only way I would write songs.
“But lately I’ve been influenced by my other songwriter friends, to sit down and say, well, your first draft is not always your last, maybe you should look at your lyrics and see what you want to do here. So I’ve been making sure that each word has its place, and I’m very careful with the marriage between what the lyrics are saying and what the music is saying. I’m applying more craft, for sure, and I’m taking my time more.”
Have you sought to develop your craft by reading books, taking courses or anything like that?
“The thing about songwriting for me is, I get a little bit defensive about having others tell me how to express myself, because for me it’s something that’s so fiercely personal, and improving is not so much about using better words, it’s more about developing and enriching your relationship with yourself, doing some – to be a little bit hokey here – soul-searching. That’s what lends itself to better songwriting. To me it’s not about writing a great hook, it’s about the bigger idea, the message. And that for me is lost if it’s encapsulated in some… some ‘method’.”
Although your track The Break stood out a mile among the competition entries we received, here in the UK there has been a lot of interest in Balkan and gypsy music over the past few years. Is that something you were aware of?
“Only vaguely. I wasn’t really aware of it until some friends visited here from London and told us about all these bands that I didn’t know about, which was obviously very interesting for me. It’s certainly not something I chose to do as a songwriter because I thought I could ride a wave of any sort, it just kind of happened. But when I heard there was so much interest in that kind of music, I was certainly very encouraged! Perhaps the UK will be our biggest market in the future… who knows?”
Speaking of the future, do you plan to continue down the DIY route for the time being?
“Well, it’s definitely a source of pride for me because I’ve been able to reach some pretty amazing opportunities. I feel incredibly excited by the prospect that I can build something on my own, and that I’m in creative control of what it is that I’m selling, not just on a musical level but on an image level. So for me it’s encouraging that I have all the tools now, with the internet and having a direct relationship with our fans. I’m not sure what an indie label could give us that we can’t do for ourselves. But I think they do still have a place, because I can understand that some artists don’t want to do the business aspect, I completely understand that.”
What if Universal or Sony rang up tomorrow and offered you a million-dollar deal, though?
“Obviously when a big label has as many resources as they do, it’s definitely something to sit down and look at. But usually when you’re going into business with such huge corporations, there’s going to be some kind of compromise going on, which may or may not involve selling the rights to your songs, or certain other things which may put you in a lot of debt. And that’s a little worrying to me.”
So what are your immediate plans?
“We definitely have plans to do another album – we have more than enough material, it’s more about funding. We hope to fund our next album through the pockets of our emerging fan base, so we’re touring and trying to grow as much recognition as possible. But with all this business talk I should stress that, when I’m songwriting, business doesn’t come into it at all. I only concentrate on the marketing after I’ve created something. You need to maintain some kind of purity about it, otherwise you’re going to feel like you’re selling out or that whatever you’re trying to express is not authentic.”
Interview: Russell Deeks
To find out more about Sylvana Joyce & The Moment, visit their website. Their debut album For You, Comrade is available now on iTunes, and there’s also a Sylvana Joyce solo album available on Bandcamp.
Want to be in a feature like this? Our monthly songwriting competition is brought to you in association with ReverbNation, the leading social network and community for musicians. To enter, you’ll need register with ReverbNation as an artist (if you’re not already), then submit a track for consideration… bearing in mind that it’s a songwriting competition so no covers, please! We then pick one winner each month to be featured on Songwriting.