On Grieving Someone Before They’re Gone

SYML’s new EP is a toast to his father and the cyclical nature of life.

My parents took me to an outdoor children’s concert when I was about four. My dad loved to tell the story about how I stood and stared blankly at the stage while the other kids jumped and screamed and danced. He would tell his friends that they thought something was wrong with me, and it wasn’t until many years later that they realized I was just really focused on the music. For years, that story made me feel a sort of fucked up smugness, like I was some sort of savant showing musical prowess at an early age. I liked when my dad would tell it, almost like vicarious bragging. I’m sure within the last year of his life, he told that story, but less because he was dying of cancer during a global pandemic.

I studied classical piano from an early age, and every time we would visit my grandma in her nursing home, my parents made me play the piano for her and her friends during their happy hour. I was too young to remember what they were drinking, but they were drinking. I would play this old spinet piano surrounded by 10 or so peach-colored chairs — the room had this sort of hazy tropical vibe with a lot of palm plants, which is strange because we were in Seattle. My grandma had moved from Florida, so I’m sure this was a cozy reminder of her former home. I remember always being nervous before I played, but when I finished my first piece — which was whatever piece I had been learning with my teacher — I settled in. My grandma and her friends would always applaud as if I had just completed a proper symphony. Pride would beam from her and my parents, but I wouldn’t know how to digest that pride until much later in my life when I became a father.

The first SYML album was released the day my dad was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. It was May 2019. I was in Germany and will never forget how distant the phone call felt. In between radio stations and interviews, I would just stare out the car window and cry. The poor guy from my label in Germany must have been very concerned, but we rode in silence. I remember not wanting to tell anyone I was with, kind of like when you don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant until after a certain amount of time to make sure it’s viable — I felt like if someone knew, it would become real and somehow speed up the process. I wanted to protect this. 

Knowing how, and roughly when, you’re going to die has to be the most fucked up thing a person could have to live with. My dad handled it with strength and grace, but he wasn’t without fear and anger. If there’s one positive thing about dying this way, it’s that you can grieve someone before they are gone. My dad grieved with us.

I started writing the DIM EP after I got home from Germany. I tried to sit with my feelings as much as I sat with my family — but that usually ends up being unbalanced and my family often takes a backseat. At this point in my life, music has become a very focused and cathartic form of therapy. I write about my sadness and my loves. I write about unanswerable questions. I write songs as a form of wailing. On one hand, I do this in a very public way; Once the song leaves my head, it travels the world. I actually love this because, I think, my music might help people who might be having similar experiences or feelings. My songs are better off in someone else’s hands than trapped inside my head. 

I can also be very private and introverted, even around my family. My dad was similar, but he was raised, like many in his generation, to suppress feelings and emotions. The last headlining show he saw me play was in Seattle at the Neptune Theatre in December 2019. When I think back to his face after I got off stage, I know he was proud that his son had just performed. But I think he was also proud and truly amazed that I write and share songs about how I feel.

My son started piano lessons a few weeks ago and I can already feel what my parents and grandma must of felt so many years ago in that nursing home happy hour. I’m proud and amazed and maybe a bit sad that life is both cyclical and a finite line.

As a songwriter, I spend a lot of time thinking about metaphors. In this moment, a song is very much like a good whiskey that we can toast to a life that has ended. Grieving is also very much like a song: It requires introspection, honesty, time, and, what helps the most, making sound.

Brian Fennell is a self-taught producer, programmer and engineer as well as guitarist, percussionist and classically trained pianist with deep roots in the Pacific Northwest. SYML, Welsh for “simple” and pronounced “sim-muhl,” is Fennell’s solo project after departing from the Seattle indie-rock band Barcelona, which he started shortly after college and toured with for over a decade. He shared his self-titled debut in 2019 with the now Platinum-certified single “Where’s My Love” and the wordless EP You Knew It Was Me in November 2020. His new EP DIM is out now.