UC Berkeley alumnus, songwriter Jack Symes talks ‘Songs for Moms,’ joys of touring in a minivan

Ned Trim/Courtesy

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Name: Jack Symes

Age: 24 years old

Hometown: Pasadena, California, where he’s also currently based

What he’s been listening to: Lately, a lot of Nat King Cole’s Love Songs, particularly “Let’s Fall In Love.” Also Ben Kweller and his tracks “Thirteen” and “Until I Die.” Mason Jennings is also a favorite.

Who he is: A singer-songwriter and UC Berkeley alumnus.

His voice: Jack Symes has been in three bands over the span of his musical career. Though he’s now primarily a solo artist, in his past musical lives, there was the high school group the Beefcakes and the college projects the Shady Ladies and the Midwest Can Company.

All the names are pretty solid in terms of their creativity, but upon hearing the last one, my ears perk up and I have to ask: Why the Midwest Can Company?

Symes grins and launches into a brief but detailed story about the group’s fortuitous origins: In short, a friend found an old oil drum at the local used-goods store Urban Ore. The drum was fashioned into a guitar, and the oil drum label still on it was — of course — the Midwest Can Company.

“That (name) was by far the best one,” he tells me.

As we sit in a cafe just on the perimeter of campus, the air outside is thick and smoky, and the cafe’s soundtrack is tapped into a broad-sweeping “Best of the ‘60s and ‘70s” sort of thing: a lot of Fleetwood Mac and Buffalo Springfield. This is appropriate considering Symes’ sound, which is folksy and lyric-driven, a spiritual successor to some of the nostalgic tracks buzzing around in the background. He also mentions James Taylor and Van Morrison as influences, particularly in his latest tunes.

Symes is a self-taught artist, having picked up the drums and guitar in seventh and eighth grades, respectively. Music was always a central focus in Symes’ life, providing a respite from the doldrums of school life. “It was always my kind of escape from those things I had to do,” Symes says.

After coming to UC Berkeley, Symes spent summers spent working at the Lair of the Golden Bear high in the Sierras, which laid some of the groundwork for his move into the music world. The Lair, as Symes describes it, sounds idyllic — he talks about playing songs around the campfire in the evenings — and in a chance moment, it was a link between Symes and the music industry. A listener in attendance at one of the Lair gatherings had heard Symes playing and offered a place for him and a friend, fellow UC Berkeley graduate and musician Brittany Hanson, to record.

“We both skipped class that day and went in there, both of our first times doing that. And that’s how I got my first recording,” he says.

Symes took his junior year spring semester off, spending those months traveling around South America in locales spanning from Peru to Colombia, backpack and guitar in tow. In a five-week stint in Buenos Aires, Symes’ boss suggested he go to a local open mic night. Though Symes says he wasn’t totally confident performing at this point, he ended up going every Monday while he was there.

“Playing music was my key ‘OK, I’ve got the day off’ kind of thing,’ ” Symes says. “That was my main means of meeting people down there.”

Back at UC Berkeley, Symes studied energy and climate policy in the Interdisciplinary Studies Field department but also continued to delve more into his music. Symes describes his time at UC Berkeley as “everything,” and the community he found here was central to his work. Though he graduated in 2016 and has since moved to Southern California, he makes the trek north for shows four or fives times a year. “The Bay has just been really good to me,” Symes says.

After graduation, Symes and two of his friends embarked on a tour, taking to the road in a minivan for about 40 shows across the West Coast and in Montana and Wyoming. “It was awesome … but definitely the most exhausting trip of my life,” he says.

We finally settle in to discuss Symes’ latest work, the forthcoming Songs for Moms, set to release in February. The 12-track album is a collage of titles Symes wrote beginning when he left home for college and throughout the years since, an amalgamation of his varying experiences and changes in those formative years.

Symes frames the album as describing his life to his parents in the years since leaving for college. “(The songs) all kind of tell a different part, talk about a different part about my life since leaving home. It covers love, loss, heartbreak, spiritual development, personal growth. … It’s pretty all-encompassing, the central theme being ‘These are my answers to your questions,’ ” Symes says.

The album came into existence through a Kickstarter campaign, with fans helping Symes raise more than $8,000 in order to produce the album. “The support system and following was feeling it, and they crushed it. It was crazy, it was really crazy how quickly we hit our mark,” Symes says. The Kickstarter of course had the requisite perks for supporters — stickers, concert tickets, hard copies of the album in advance — but the kicker of the final tier of sponsorship was beyond all that: the chance to shave Symes’ moustache and have it delivered by mail.

Though one of Symes’ supporters did achieve this high honor, the donor — one of his mom’s friends — did not end up following through. Symes’ moustache remains intact.

Regarding his songwriting process, Symes describes it as a combination of scribbled one-liners, voice memos and recorded guitar licks. Songs for Moms is more focused on themes of family and personal stories, but Symes emphasizes that he uses all elements of storytelling within his writing process.

“I like to pull from other people’s experiences a lot. I love the idea of convincing a listener that it’s a first-person narrative,” Symes says. “A good scary story isn’t true, that kind of thing. If you can tell it well enough, who cares if it’s true?”

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jack Symes graduated in 2014. In fact, he graduated in 2016.
The image accompanying a previous version of this article was incorrectly attributed to Jack Symes. In fact, the image should have been attributed to Ned Trim.