‘Sad boy,’ happy people: SYML delivers powerful, emotional performance at The Chapel


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The Chapel was steeped in darkness, a room full of people seemed to materialize out of nowhere when the set began. SYML, head down, dressed in a simple flannel, beanie and denim, was the picture of nonchalance. He took a seat at his keyboard and let loose the opening notes of “WDWGILY,” one of his most recent releases.

The room was transformed by the deep thrumming of haunting synths and vocal modulation mingling with SYML’s live vocals. The song was heavy, but it never sank. It drifted in and out of a crowd that stood at rapt attention. Sadness became ubiquitous in the venue, almost personified, and SYML didn’t let up, following with the existential, dread-inducing “Rising Upside Down” and the lament-soaked “Fear of the Water.”

SYML — Welsh for simple — is the solo project of indie band Barcelona’s former frontman Brian Fennell. Much of his content has so far consisted of singles and EPs, his first full-length album expected to drop at the top of next year. His music has been featured in both film and television, his song “Where’s My Love” used in both MTV’s “Teen Wolf” and the trailer for the 2018 film “Adrift.” In the span of only two years, SYML has amassed more than four million monthly listeners on Spotify.

With such commercial success, it was refreshing to see SYML occupy an intimate venue like The Chapel with such ease. Filling the spaces between songs with anecdotes describing his reaction to things such as hearing his own music on the radio, Fennell endeared himself to the crowd. And while the small San Francisco venue held a full house, SYML’s warmth attracted a kinship amongst audience members. Nothing brings folks closer than crowding in a small space to listen to a grown man croon the words, “I am a sad boy.”

SYML, ever percipient and self-aware, offered quiet thank you’s, and praised the audience for “moving as much as (they could) to sad music.” He was present but simultaneously muted, everything and nothing you’d expect of the voice behind a song like “Hurt For Me.” An inescapable air of humility surrounded him as he, more than once, derailed the show to not only speak to the audience but also listen — inviting the crowd to participate in a mini Q&A. He spoke of his love for his children, his love for San Francisco, and in turn, his performance spoke volumes for his talent.

Oscillating between gentle falsetto and powerful belting, his incredible vocal control made watching the performance differ little from his recorded music. But subtle changes in inflection and differentiation in musicality allowed the audience to sing along, as well as bear witness to the raw emotion that dominates SYML’s music. Fennell’s chatter between songs gave the audience permission to see the artist behind the music, but his performance offered permission to feel right along with him.

His performance redefined sad music, and the expert construction of his setlist gave the crowd easy transition between the heavier pieces such as “Wildfire” and — as the audience learned from a preceding anecdote — the marriage proposal inspiring “Better.” The night’s arrangement was intelligent and uniquely SYML. Placing his more upbeat numbers at the end of the night, Fennell even made the choice to forgo the “encore” tradition, instead favoring a final heartfelt expression of gratitude and closing with his most recent release, “Clean Eyes,” and his most popular song, “Where’s My Love.”

Nothing about SYML’s performance felt accidental, but the room felt as if it had collectively struck gold — a sort of miraculous convergence between man and music. The performance itself often felt paradoxical, managing to be dense and moving but light and sanguine in the same breath. It was vulnerable, but SYML seemed to find repose in that kind of honesty. His presence was frank — no level of pretense preceded him, and this made engaging with his music easy. Like his name would suggest, it was just that simple.

Contact Areyon Jolivette at [email protected].