Interview with Sylvana Joyce 

by Greg Allard

Sylvana Joyce, of Sylvana Joyce and the Moment, is an award-winning singer-songwriter from Manhattan who has been trained in the piano since she was 5. Featured in a Tune Groover article called The Coolest Person I Know that she wrote about the upbringing she received from her single-parent mother, I recently got a chance to sit down and talk to her over lunch in a New York diner in order to explore her musical career and find out what her plans were for the future.

What is your day job?

By day I do office managerial work for a commercial real estate firm, which is mostly about managing all of the agents and the drama that unfolds. Real estate is very time sensitive, so there’s a lot of stress involved.

How many hours do you do that a day?

It’s 9 to 5 Monday – Friday– your run-of-the-mill job like 90 percent of the population. And like 90 percent of the population [laughing], I have a second job. Thankfully, that one’s a passion of sorts, but unfortunately it’s one that doesn’t make lots of money.

So what do you do, do you work with the circus?

Haha. We try to do everything from gigs to open mics to interviews like this and anything we feel we can get our hands on to be fruitful [toward] spreading the word about our music. If we’re not participating or performing, we’re out supporting our friends in the arts or rehearsing.

Seriously, how much do you sleep in a 24-hour period?

I used to be able to pull several all-nighters but I really can’t anymore. I have fainted on stage before. I live with my band and they make sure I get at least six hours of sleep.

How do they do that?

They lock me in my room and turn the lights off. (laughs) That’s usually a compatible environment for sleep.

I need some coffee– I just drove back late last night from Saratoga.

Coffee is an addiction to me.

Is that on the record?

On the record (laughs) I’m not proud but I’m not embarrassed either. Good coffee to me is on par with good sex. Actually, I love drinking coffee and songwriting. It helps me to get into a flow. It’s on par with songwriting.

Bob Dylan used to drink coffee and take no dose {laughter} and write for hours and hours at a time. The original lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone” were something like 10 to 20 pages long, as Dylan has put it at different times.

{Laughs} Epic poems. Several hours long.

One time he appeared all disheveled and they wouldn’t give him a hotel room. They gave Joan Baez a room but not him. So, he ended up staying with her and he wrote “When My Ship Comes In” out of anger toward the hotel clerk.

Wow. There’s definitely an element of anger in my recent songwriting. I definitely deal with the idea of power a lot in my writing. Something someone is fighting for or against. It’s present in “Comrade,” which is my longest song and the last song on the record. Lately, I deal with the idea of power a lot in my writing. Something someone is fighting for or against. It’s present in “Comrade.” My longest song and last song on the record. I used the idea of the Macbeth character in the song. The idea of selling out and being desperate to succeed at the expense of your integrity.

How would you define selling out? It’s a very loosely bandied about term.

Absolutely. And you know there are several definitions of selling out. Several that I agree with and don’t think are upsetting, and there are other ways of defining it that I think are missing the point of living. I think when someone considers the idea of selling out right now– it’s the struggle of the artist to consider the business aspect of their art. Some artists really fail to balance the two. I think the advantage and disadvantage of being an artist right now is that we have the tools to be not just the artist but the businessman, the producer and marketer. But back when we didn’t have that option, in some way it allowed artists to maintain a purist mentality about their art. They just engrossed themselves in it—they didn’t have to worry about, “Now, how are we going to take this product and make it marketable so it can sell and make money for us?” That was someone else’s job. So, it’s an advantage and disadvantage.

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Of course, in the past, when someone was a purist in terms of their art, they got ripped off a lot if they didn’t keep an eye on the business side of things.

Oh—incredibly. I see it as an advantage that we can do it all ourselves. But like the old saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I think I first heard that in “Spider Man.”

(Laughs) I’m not even sure where I heard it—probably subconsciously in some English class when I was doodling-off.

So, you went to school for journalism?

Oh, gosh no. I wish. I went to college for piano performance. There’s a music conservatory within Boston University. I was there from 2003-2007. I ended up graduating with a music education degree. I couldn’t really take the life of sitting in a practice room for eight hours a day.

I used to live in Boston back in the ‘80s.

Yeah, it’s a fun place. I like how young that city is. All the colleges and the young nightlife. Boston itself is kind of an extension of being a college student with the entire city as a university, or at least it feels that way. It’s a cool place to be to go to college.

I used to see Tracy Chapman at Harvard Square performing in the street.

Where’s our generation’s Tracy Chapman, by the way? [laughter] Where’s our generation’s upcoming acts, I ask myself. Seems like anywhere you go, on any day of the week, you could find a struggling artist putting it all on the concrete for everyone to see. Now we’re hiding away in our rat-infested apartments [laughter] on the Internet writing tearful emails to our families in Kentucky.

You have family in Kentucky? (laughs)

No. They should probably go back to Kentucky—and not to dissuade them from making it. In fact, they’ll probably have a better chance of making it there. It’s so difficult to have a career as an emerging artist here [New York]. It would be easier to be a big fish in a small pond.  Our biggest problem for the band right now is having the funding to do the things we want to do. You need a big fan base around you and it’s much easier to grow a fan base that has an established town or community around you. Here’s it’s so anonymous and everybody’s so cutthroat that it’s really hard to grow a community of artists that will support you tooth and nail with their hearts and their time and their money.

Why do you wish you had studied journalism, for example, instead of piano?

I started playing piano at the age of 5 and the school I attended was very community oriented– Third Street Music School on the Lower East Side. Partially it was the ego of being one of the stars of the school but it was also that feeling of family and community that was a positive environment for an artist. It wasn’t about how fast you could play, it was about how many people you could make cry {laughs}, or at least it was to me, and they nurtured that. Then, I apply for college as a piano performance major despite my family pleading for me to become a doctor. My family has a long long line of doctors. I think I’m the first to rebel in hundreds of years.

Hundreds of years?

Oh yeah– I might not even be exaggerating. My mother’s side of the family is into the arts. My grandfather was a famous composer in Romania. So anyway, I applied [and thought] this will be easy—I’m just going to do my thing and it will all work out. But it was very much not that way, at least not in the piano realm. It was very isolating and my piano instructors pushed me, possibly because they saw my potential as a concert artist, but in a way that I felt was overwhelming and ultimately destructive to my relationship to the piano. I had a very intimate relationship with the piano. I had one donated to me at the age of 7 for my music school. My mother couldn’t really afford much. And I was a full-scholarship student. So that piano was like what a pet was to most kids. It was the thing that I went to to talk about my problems and that’s how songwriting happened. The piano would listen and talk back. (laughs) So, I got an education degree because that’s a degree you can use after you graduate, whereas a piano degree means pretty much absolutely nothing. I didn’t do anything with my songwriting in college. I didn’t go into the Boston scene at all as a songwriter. In fact, songwriting was this thing I did for myself and I didn’t share it—maybe with the people closest to me but that was about it.

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You were talking about before that you write while you take a walk sometimes. Could you say something about your songwriting process?

It’s completely irrational and it starts with this urge like someone would have a terrible hunger or feeling erotic. It’s this all-consuming desire to write and express that just hits me very suddenly and with full force. And when that feeling hits, when I know within an hour that I’m going to start writing, I won’t know where I am when this happens but the words will start to come and the music will start to come usually all at once.

You don’t rush to some “writing area” when you start feeling the tremors?

I try but I have to work or I’m on a break, crossing the street going to meet someone and I don’t have a piano in front of me. So, luckily I can really audiate in my head all the parts musically and as long as I have a piece of paper or pen to write with…I’ve written on napkins, gum wrappers.

Gum wrappers? How did that work out?

I’ve written with eyeliner. Thankfully now I have one of those intelligent-phones, so I can sing into it and write lyrics down on it. I carry these around with me—moleskins. I don’t like them with lines. I like scribbling all over the place. Also as a lefty, writing is a very dirty thing. You get ink everywhere on your hands and arms. By virtue of the way society is organized being a lefty makes you an intruder. We’re intruders and unfortunately we get caught– black-handed as it were.

You a hockey fan?

New Rangers’ fan. My boyfriend Chris got me into it. He’s really really into it. I love it—it’s equal parts blood and craft.

Beside “The Break,” what is your favorite song on the CD?

I guess it’s a tie between “Me for You” and “Comrade.” Comrade will probably be my favorite song that I’ve written so far. It’s also the song that no matter what audience I play to, what age group, what their music background is, what they like and dislike—and I’m fully aware that my music doesn’t appeal to everybody– but Comrade manages to bring everybody together and get them clapping and excited. We start out with tango, then we go into something a little more rock with a slight metal influence, then we go into Romanian folk and then we end with disco. So, it’s all over the place.

How long is the track?

Nine minutes. Actually, the recorded version is not the one that includes disco. It ends very epically and kind of like what you would imagine an orchestra would do at the end of a symphony.

Could you tell me something about your experience on the NBC show?

I did a songwriting competition this January, which was a last minute entry. I didn’t make top three during the semi-final round but I was chosen as a wild card. So, I somehow snuck my way into finals and I won the whole damn thing.

Congratulations.

Thank you. I snuck my way and won the whole songwriting competition. Jimmy Lloyd was one of the judges and out of several hundred people who applied I somehow snuck my way in.

Then what happened?

He friended me on Facebook. I saw the friend request and all I saw was the peacock and I was freaking out. He was very friendly and personable and I kept bugging him about wanting to be on his show and eventually he succumbed to the pressure.

How can you see it?

It’s on the main NBC channel. I believe it’s on NBC HD—one of NBC’s additional channels—it’s also on Comcast on demand. It only plays in select cities.

How many people are in your band?

Five– at times six. Sometimes we have a percussionist come in—in addition to our drummer. When we first started out we didn’t have a drummer, we only had a percussionist. He played on a bowl-drum with his hands…bowl—like a real bowl called a calabash. It’s the most ridiculous thing: rock music with electric guitar and bass and then there’s this guy playing the bowl in the back (laughs). And Ross, our drummer, he’s number nine—we’ve had a bit of bad luck.

He’s number nine?

Yeah—our ninth drummer.

Oh—I thought you we’re into numerology or something for a second. “He’s a nine.”

Haha. No, he’s our ninth drummer. I am into Mayan astrology and Kundalini—the chakras.

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Really? Do you use the chakras when you’re singing?

Being in this band has been a huge process of opening up my throat chakra and healing my heart and accepting love, and feeling I have the voice that I need to express myself authentically. That was the reason I probably didn’t share my music until now. I was terrified that people would think my voice was awful. I still feel like I don’t quite have the voice that I envisioned. But I read my own tarot cards and one of my question was “How do I get the voice of my dreams?” And the cards answered me back in the form of a message that said “answered prayer,” which I took to mean, “Believe that you have it—that you already have the voice that you want,” which comes back to the greater idea that this entire universe is a universe of belief—belief systems. And what you believe has the essence and the materials to manifest its reality.

So, it has everything you need and want?

Mm hmm. You have to believe it…to get a little hokey and Peter Pan about it. I think that when it comes to fighting for your dreams it’s a war between doubt and faith or belief. And that you can only be successful because the belief or faith won. That doubt, that darkness is absolutely necessary to fuel you and kick you back into believing in yourself but it shouldn’t win or it can’t.

I totally understand what you’re saying and agree with you but I think there’s a difference between believing in something and—I mean you could believe in China but do you want to go there?

Belief is not just an idea but it’s an action.

OK.

Just like this world is not just an idea but it’s a physical thing. You don’t believe something until you act on that belief. Before that, it’s just an idea. It becomes a belief when you act on it. I guess that’s what magic’s about. I feel like music is the most potent form of magic that exists.

Are you amazed when music comes out of you?

Absolutely, It’s the best feeling in the world. Whether I’m alone or sharing that with someone else. It’s heart-breakingly beautiful. It makes me feel powerful and that idea of possibility and creation that we all have.

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How would you define gypsy rock?

Oh boy—first off I don’t like defining the genre of the music I create. I just write and I hope that other people define it for me. But the two words we hear the most from fans and listeners are “gypsy” and “rock” — so we decided to combine it and make it a genre. I like it because to me the idea of gypsy is free-spirited, and I feel that’s the essence of our band and our music—not too firmly stuck in one genre or one idea. It’s traveling the genres and the scope of music. I do have Balkan influences, but I also have Spanish influences, French influences, Irish, folk, classical.

So, what’s your plan to try to go national?

My big goal is to create an empire and be an international presence. But that’s more of a result of how many people I intend to touch with my music. It’s the ends not the means, in other words.

And what are the means?

Spreading my music as far as it can go and playing for as many people as possible. I feel like performing music becomes a craft when magic is involved, and I’m trying to get good at that. And if I share that with every audience then I feel like I’ll be sharing something for the human race to experience.

Who are your artistic influences?

Not current. I don’t know if I’m specifically influenced by certain artists musically, but I do know that all the things I grew up listening to developed my musical taste. So everything from classical music to opera, to the Doors, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. For instance, I don’t know if it was Bruce Springsteen’s music that made me fall in love with him. We was a wizard of sorts, I felt. It was that his performance was so magical and that he found some secret stash and trapped it in a hat and unleashed it every time.

Thank you so much for your time, Sylvana.

Thank you, Gargs.

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