First things first: it's pronounced 'simmel'. Wondering what the connection is between a singer-songwriter from Seattle with roots in the rock scene, and the Welsh word for 'simple'? Well, read on. We recently chatted to Brian Fennell, the man behind the name, to get the lowdown on his self-titled debut album, which has just been released.
Hi Brian! I guess a good place to start is how you first got into music. You started playing piano as a kid – was that something you immediately got into, or were you forced to take lessons?
Ha! I was not forced! I was about 7 years old and came home from school and announced to my parents that I wanted to play viola. They gently steered me to the piano, that we already owned, and I immediately jumped into lessons.
You didn't start writing until a tragedy took place in your life at the age of 18 (your friend's death)... can you explain a little about that, and how you realised that songwriting was a cathartic experience?
She and I weren’t close, but we grew up in a small community so her death had a pretty profound affect on everyone. I remember going to the crash site after they had taken her away and it was such an out-of-body experience. I went home and started what would be my first song. I didn’t overthink it, it felt like a natural reaction to what I was feeling. It was therapeutic. Songwriting still serves this purpose for me today.
Another aspect of your songwriting – and indeed, your stage name – was influenced by the fact that you were adopted. Why is it so important for you to incorporate that into your music?
I write about identity a lot, and being adopted was sort of the beginning to my identity. I don’t know anything about my birth parents other than that they were Welsh by blood. Regardless of how we are raised and how much we know about our families’ pasts, there is a point where we don’t know anything and it goes blank. I’m inspired by that place and the questions that come from it.
Have you spent much time in/visited Wales yet, given your background?
I have only visited Wales once, and it wasn’t nearly long enough. I’m really looking forward to going back there for my first Welsh show in a few months!
Seattle and the Pacific North-West are obviously associated with the grunge and indie scenes – how much of a bearing did that have on your formative years?
I was too young to go to rock shows when grunge was in full swing, but growing up in Seattle gave me a sense of ownership and pride because of those artists. I was a huge fan of Soundgarden, and, of course, Nirvana.
You spent time in a band, Barcelona, before SYML came into being – what were the best and worst things about being in a band, and when did you realise that you were done?
The best part was the relationships I had with those guys, we were basically brothers. The hardest part was that we were basically married to each other. Being on the same page felt like the easiest and hardest thing to maintain. We were pouring our hearts into something creative but we were also running a business. It was a beautiful and formative time of my life, and one that prepared me to eventually go solo, which was unplanned. We stopped touring because we had grown the band to what we felt was its fullest potential, and that was enough for us.
Who would you describe as your greatest influence, musically?
Probably Jeff Buckley. He basically taught me how to sing.
I know that becoming a father has influenced your songwriting, as heard on the beautiful 'Connor'. How do you think you've changed as a writer/person?
Becoming a parent is probably the largest and clearest mirror you could ever find yourself in front of. I’ve learned a lot of things about myself, and most of them aren’t positive. Really putting someone else in front of your own wishes and desires is one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. It’s beautiful and I am thankful for the privilege it is to be a parent.
'Where's My Love' has proven a huge hit for you – what do you think it is about that song that people connected with?
It was unintentional. If I had to pick one thing, I think people connect to sad music on a deep level. It’s like an itch being scratched. It’s cathartic. It also doesn’t try to answer any questions or say that everything will be ok, which is a kind of unusually peaceful.
How did that song come together?
Where’s My Love came out very fast. It was a typical rainy Seattle day and I was staring out the window while I wrote the original piano part. The vocals and lyrics felt awkward at first because of the spacing, but when they settled it felt like this mournful anthem that really matched the weather.
What's the best thing that anyone could say about your music?
That they cry uncontrollably while listening.
Finally, what do you ultimately want people to get from your album?
This album is a snapshot of the last few years of my life both lyrically and musically. I would be equally happy if someone only liked one song because of a guitar part as if they connected to each song on a deep spiritual level. I’m proud of the album.
'SYML' is out now. You can also catch him live when he plays Dublin's Button Factory on October 12th.