SAN FRANCISCO — It’s not necessarily the most original conversation starter to ask an artist about the origin behind the name of his project, but for singer-songwriter Brian Fennell, it provides the key that unlocks his history and identity. The former Barcelona frontman embarked on his solo venture SYML with the release of 2016’s Hurt for Me EP. SYML means “simple” in Welsh, which is Fennell’s heritage. But more than simply honoring his past, the name also represents something bigger.
“I didn’t know that I was Welsh, or where I even came from, until I was an adult,” says Fennell, who was adopted as a child, in a chat during Outside Lands in August. “It became part of my identity, but part of it is still a mystery; like, I don’t really identify as a person at all.”
While the name is a reflection of Fennell’s personal journey, he liked the metaphorical nature of one’s personal search for his own heritage. He also chose the word “simple” as a personal reminder to himself that things are best when kept simple. Fennell says that his songwriting is less informed by his adoption and more by the connection between his adoption and the search for his identity as well as how it influenced him as a father.
“Even if you’re not adopted, at some level you don’t know where you came from,” Fennell says. “That mystery is something that drives the project.”
After making a series of EPs, Fennell finally released a self-titled debut this year and has toured relentlessly in support of it. The album crosses infectious indie rock with atmospheric and introspective balladry.
Fennell was musically inclined at an early age, but didn’t find songwriting until he was in high school—to process his emotions following the death of a friend.
“Coming out of high school [is] such a big changing and fluid time of your life,” Fennell says. “I had a ton of emotion that I didn’t know what to do with. It didn’t feel natural to start, but it became a good outlet for me and it still is to this day.”
Fennell says that while the songwriting bug may have developed during an awkward time in his life, it’s followed through to the subsequent seasons of maturation, including being a father and husband.
SYML wasn’t initially intended to a full-time gig. Fennell says he was content releasing one-off songs as he finished them. Maybe the occasional EP. But he found himself writing many songs. That, combined with fan interest, created the supply and demand for a full-length album.
“I was a little bit worried because I was in such a single mentality that it wouldn’t be cohesive,” Fennell says. “But as I got maybe eight or nine songs in I realized, ‘oh shit, this is actually a cohesive album!'”
Fennell recently released a video for “Girl,” a song he wrote about his daughter. He played the song for Haley Young, who went on to direct the video, and the two conceived the universal message of childhood innocence of a child overcoming hurdles that seem insurmountable at a young age.
“It was just such a simple story, captured beautifully, about the things a little girl goes through,” Fennell says. “It was just the perfect pairing for such a personal song for me.”
Fennell now plans to split his time on the road for SYML—with his family—as well as being home in his studio creating and working on music. He calls it a “beautiful mix” that creates a life balance.
Following the release of his album, Fennell continued to write, releasing new track “Meant to Stay Hid” and a new video for album track “Everything All At Once.”
Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald.