“Comrade” by Sylvana Joyce + The Moment, a track from their 2012 debut, For You, greets listeners with a Doina, the freestyle violin playing found in Klezmer music. Further, in the song, the Habanera rhythm – and yes, I do mean the one from the song that made Georges Bizet’s Opera Carmen an internationally recognized hit – will tempt a listeners’ curiosity. Let the track play further, and you will be led to a driving gypsy-like folk dance.
I started listening to Sylvana’s music after I saw her and her violinist, Sean Cunningham open for Todd Carter’s performance at the Cutting Room back in June. I covered her performance and we communicated back and forth. I mentioned how moved I was by her story of how the Romanian folklorist musician, George Sbarcea, was her grandfather. I then invited her to read some of my father’s story. We learned that both of our parents had nearly identical stories about how they left Romania during one of the worst eras of communism in Eastern Europe.
Naturally, I wanted to learn more about her background. More importantly, I was interested specifically in how she would describe her style of music, which she titled Gypsy Rock.
“It’s an interesting question. Gypsies around the world get a terrible rap. In fact, there are still rumors in the states that all Romanians are gypsies,” explained Sylvana.
“Yes!” I respond. “What do you say when someone claims “Oh, you’re Romanian, you must be a gypsy?”
She says, “Being a gypsy is an idea. It’s the idea that your home is not a place, it’s a feeling, and it’s a relationship you have with a person or an ether. I feel because our style is so diverse, we are a nomadic tribe wandering the world of genre. We fall in love with everything we come across, and we make it ours. I believe Gypsy Rock reflects the sentiment of wandering and finding our own version of an eclectic assortment of genres.
“We are all very passionate about what we do,” Sylvana claims as she focuses on the band. “We are all conservatory trained. We have all fallen in love with music and married music. I think, in the end, that is the most important thing that comes through and helps us connect with others.”
Like many, I readily observe how music can connect the artist with the public. What interest me the most is finding an artist who can describe the experience through his or her own point of view. I welcome Sylvana Joyce to do just that right here on Music Historian.
My talk with Sylvana about her music started in a model apartment within the Stuyvesant Town/ Cooper Village complex somewhere between Alphabet City and FDR Drive. Following Sylvana Joyce + The Movement’s hour-long set at the Oval, we were escorted to the apartment complex. When Sylvana, her guest, per diem bassist in The Moment, and I arrived at the apartment, we all had a look around the place and commented on the excellent space. Sylvana and I then headed to the small kitchen for a beer and then proceeded to the dining room table a few feet away to conduct our interview.
Sylvana, the singer, songwriter and pianist claims that she grew up in New York City, where she has gotten to know some of her band members from playing in a conservatory setting with them as a child. As a city-native, the bold and energetic artist reminds me how New York can be a tough scene for musicians.
“[While] I feel it’s easy to get lost in New York City, we don’t find that in smaller towns. That’s kind of been our goal – to find community-based places, play there, and go from there. One of our strengths is that we can perform to any kind of crowd.”
Although community-based places are sometimes overlooked by new music enthusiasts, these spaces enable the performer and audience members to have a better listening experience. For the musician, the sound system and the listening experience beats that of a brownstone pub. In addition, the listener can enjoy a pleasant, spacious spot on a clean lawn, sitting on a blanket with friends and breathe in an open space while experiencing the music.
Aside from discovering their love for giving community-based concerts, Sylvana Joyce + The Moment quickly learned that industry players have an interest in their music. In just six months of the band’s inception, Sylvana Joyce + The Moment were winning international competitions, and even gained a week long coverage from MTV about the band, which included a new recording of their single, “The Break.” The music video can be viewed here.
“MTV was a complete shock to me,” explained the artist. “I sent my music [to an acquaintance at the headquarters], it was this demo we recorded in somebody’s apartment. Someone [the person who listened to the song] just fell in love it with, so we were really excited.”
“That is one step though,” Sylvana continued. “You have a long way to go. We’ve been a band for four years… we’ve been moving up the ranks… it’s been a learning experience for me. I feel good.”
The group’s single, “The Break,” which has received the most attention successfully straddles the musical world of the 2 to 3-minute rock song, and the complex Eastern European-fused cabaret music. I then had two questions for Sylvana: What did she enjoy so much about Romanian folk music? Are the subjects within her songs inspired by real-life, fantasy, or the escaping into fantasy as a way to deal with real life?
As I asked the first question, I brought up George Sbarcea again. Sylvana laughed, “Oh my God, I have not heard his last name said correctly in forever!”
She continues, “Something that is really interesting… a lot of Eastern European folk music is minor. Romanian music is upbeat and major. It [might include] a few interesting minor melodies, but it has a very major and happy-sounding basis.
“We are almost putting a certain genre of music… rock ‘n’ roll on a pedestal. I want the next generation of musicians to start thinking outside the box a little bit. I may be involved in projects that put together rock bands of completely crazy assortments of instruments. I want anyone who plays any instrument to feel like they can be in a rock band because it’s true!
“I hope I can contribute in my own way, both as a performer and instructor. I’m happy I am going to teach music while playing. I think being an example and giving back is important in life.”
In addition to serving as a tool that can help artists reciprocate to the communities that fostered the musical development all each band member; songwriting has also become a form of therapy for Sylvana.
“I kind of had a tough childhood. My father left when I was young, and my mom struggled to make ends meet. It [songwriting] was a way of expressing all of those difficult, sometimes ineffable situations. What I couldn’t put into words, the music would take over.
“I’ve actually been writing music since I was a little kid… around the age of 4 or 5, just as silly and imaginative play. I just got very interested in the fact that musicians would put thought into what words went well with the music. I thought the marriage of the two was very interesting.
“I only shared my music with my closest friends, but I would usually feel so embarrassed that I did, I would regret it later, and then have nightmares. When I put a band together 4 years ago, that’s when I started to take it seriously, and I thought I could do something with it, and when I was the crowd respond, I then said to myself, it was a possibility.”
Songwriting serves as a form of therapy for many musicians. A listener most quickly detects this in the lyrics, especially if they directly speak of a delicate situation that one hears of commonly. However, many artists will not address a story involving an issue or a personal problem directly. Instead, they might create an allegory or an allusion. Sylvana accomplishes this in “Comrade.”
“All the songs I have written have some application to my life, but then I will always put in a little bit of allegory and allusion. “Comrade” is loosely based on the story of MacBeth, and how he was so power hungry. He wanted to be adored [so much] that he didn’t listen to reason, became swayed and seduced by magic, and skipped the process of gaining power with integrity. He chose the quick route [to power] and then lost the ability to choose his own fate.”
As Sylvana helped me recall the Shakespearian story which I read many years ago, I was then reminded of the character Morgan from a recent flop-of-a-series about King Arthur produced by Starz called Camelot. I explained to Sylvana that like MacBeth, Morgan – who is Arthur’s half-sister – is so hungry for the throne, she depends on black magic to help her devise a plan that will kill her half-brother. The anti-heroine though has difficulty controlling her powers and depends on the help of her mentor, a nun who has been banished from her own convent. The nun reminds her that the best way to gain power is through earning the trust of her people, the commoners. Adding an adjacent story seemed to interest Sylvana. She then went on to apply another recent (non-fictional) story to the song “Comrade.” This story is about a malicious historical figure many Romanians know too well, Romania’s last communist dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu.
“You know,” Sylvana begins, “Comrade” also reminds me of the stories my mom told me about Ceausescu. Ceausescu’s right hand, his entourage, would try to shield him from the truth of what his regime really created in the country. When he would visit the places of peasant’s, his entourage would arrive early and put nice things in people’s homes to make it seem like they were not living in squalor.
“I feel like, as responsible as he was for his fate, he just wanted to be loved, and this kind of fueled his decision making and it ended in a tragic way. He was such a purist, and idealist that it all went horribly wrong. So, “Comrade” for me, the song, is about bringing something humanist to that fatal flaw of wanting to be loved and going to lengths, and how this desperation distorts everything.”
The lyrics within the chorus of “Comrade” are – Could it be/ that you’ve been made a fool/ by you, yourself?/Turn back now/ it’s better for your pride/ to bruise than lose your soul. This is followed by the second verse, Memories, of all the people who made fun of you/ would creep into your consciousness/ and keep you up at night/ now they have become/ the people who will work for you/ they are on their knees smiling/ and reciting popular poetry/ through their teeth.
Aside from “The Break,” most of Sylvana Joyce + The Moment’s songs are not the 2 to 3-minute tracks that many artists try to reproduce in the rock genre. While some bands have written great songs within this play-length, I have read comments from a handful of listeners who stream this type of rock music for free on Youtube, who often say, they want the songs to be longer. Sylvana’s music helps fulfill that wish with her 6 to 8-minute tracks, and “Comrade” serves as an example. Further, this length allows for so many different compositional movements, that it almost seems to be an eclectic circus of styles and genres facilitated by a classical music backdrop. I wondered whether Sylvana finds herself traveling throughout different genres in one song.
“I grew up listening to classical music, not rock music. That came later in life, and also through the band introducing me. I think that classical influence, especially with Sean and I having played chamber music as kids, comes into play as we are creating the music together,” explains Sylvana.
Now that we have landed on the subject of creating music, I had to ask Sylvana the following question, “When you come in with a song, do you present a basic idea, and then all of this improvisation happens, which eventually turns into a solid song?”
“It is that way for many songs,” she begins. “Sometimes, I have specific parts that I write for players, but [really] many influences come together to create something really special.
“This act can lend itself to being very folk-based. The harder rock sound, [produced by] Chris’s guitar playing, is influenced a lot by metal. Then, Pete’s bass playing is very funk influenced. Our drummer, he went to school for contemporary jazz. Sometimes, I want to reign it in, but other times, I want to let it loose and make room for something eclectic.”
Sylvana claims the entire group contributes the final sound within all the songs. “I will come up with a script of the song, let’s say, and we’ll have our own characters which we play in our performances – a grand opening of its own kind, like a movie, play or story.”
She then adds, “I think something special about the group, is that I found musicians who I trust creatively.” This sense of security is critical to all musicians, and any ensemble working creatively together. Further, one must have trust especially if they want to be successful in their future endeavors. Sylvana Joyce + The Moment currently have a few immediate projects. One includes a new record, which does not yet have a title.
“I think us as a recording band, and live artists are two different experiences. I’m trying to converge that into one cohesive sound in this upcoming record,” claims Sylvana.
An additional creative endeavor that will serve more as a Public Relations tool is Sylvana Joyce + The Moment’s appearance in a South Korean indie film, produced by an independent agency TreeFilms. Sylvana talks more about how the film and how the band became involved.
“The violinist of the band, Sean, performs in train stations every other day. A filmmaker visiting from South Korea one day noticed him, and Sean invited him to come see our set at the Brooklyn Bowl later that night. [This happened a few months ago]. He [the filmmaker] was so taken by our theatrics and music that he wanted to make a movie about us.
“In the film, Sean is a musician who is dealing with the death of a friend. I am the friend he loses, and I am actually a ghost. The story in the film is about loss and grief, and how a musician deals with it. I show up wherever he [Sean’s character] goes. He [The director] actually just finished filming.”
At this period in our interview, we have come back to another allegory. This film has a fictional subject, but the theme can be applied to a situation very many experience – loss. Then, there is also the topic of fear, the kind that is brought about by a corrupt political idealist with a desperate wish – wanting to be adored by the masses, but not loving yourself first – like “Comrade” might suggest. Aside from the allegories and allusions, Sylvana also hopes to help people overcome fear through music. She explains:
“I feel that music is one of the most powerful antidotes to fear. It reminds us that we cannot always worry about [fear]. I also feel like success for me will come when I have given everything I can do creatively.” In my view, I believe Sylvana will feel successful when she knows her music will impact somebody positively.
Based on what I see from this artist, the wider the performance space, the better. Sylvana can make her theatrics, dramatic character and boldness visible to all, which is why this band works well in a community-based space. In addition, the absence of walls makes it easy for that sound to travel and bring in passing audience members at their own volition.
On the subject of performances, the band will have a concert, celebrating the release of their new single, “Rosie.” The show will be on August 24th at Rockwood Music Hall at 8pm.
In addition to unrestricted physical space for her shows, as a songwriter, Sylvana exercises little control over others, yet enough control of herself. She embraces freedom enough to welcome to new ideas and accept other players’ roles within her music. For the community of classical, Eastern European, traditional Romanian and Gypsy music lovers, and fans of eclecticism; Sylvana Joyce + The Moment is a force to be reckoned with.