Sydney Wayser and I spoke periodically over the past two years about what kind of record she would make next. Her third release needed to be a clear step forward, a departure. I knew what record I wanted to hear: focus on your voice, I said, a supple instrument that can sound whimsical or tinged with tristesse; take the broom to the toys and sound effects that appeared on earlier records, push your piano forward; make a Sydney record, not a band record, maybe in a setting as austere as a piano trio.
Bell Choir Coast is not that record. Thank God.
Sydney is winsome and blonde, with eyes and cheekbones that cameras adore, a trained musician with a musical heritage, an easy cosmopolitan manner born of Paris cobblestones and L.A. beaches, all steeled with determination and experience. In every way, the kind of complete young artist whose obvious promise draws attention, advice and roadmaps to success from music pros. Sydney had no shortage of advisors and opportunities. She spent much of the last two years writing, recording demos, wedging her voice into musical settings from lo-fi indie-rock to keyboard-driven near-techno to classic singer-songwriter supported by some of New York's best sidemen and producers. At the end of it all, Sydney walked away. And in a long, gray winter of doubt, she walked to Bell Choir Coast.
In winter, we may dream of warm, caressing water lapping onto a place that soothes and rejuvenates. Sydney escaped to such a place in her imagination and decorated it with songs. Bell Choir Coast exudes sunshine and hipsways, a pastel-hued landscape. But there are deeper currents under the sun. "Dream It Up" sets the stage and the stance: a strong, independent woman charting her course to a land of her own devising. "Wolf Eyes" presents the theme in animal terms, woman as predator; "Dirty Work" presents a cooly competent killer willing to shoulder the burden of guilt for deeds that must be done. There's reckoning with relationships: "Wake Up" (written with friend Craig Brodhead, who plays a gently-picked guitar on the track) presents an escape for two as a duet with Mat Davidson and it gets steamy with desire and for a place away. "Come Aboard" is a sexy come-hither, a Caribbean moonlight beach dance on deserted sands.
This is a new voice. Sydney's first recordings, released on Silent Parade, used her Parisian roots as backdrop and shorthand for identity. Picture Jean Seberg scampering through Breathless: carousels, 3/4 time and Frenchmen exhaling smoke abound, and Sydney still lyrically looks to her father's response. The Colorful paints the soundscapes in childhood tones: toy instruments and whimsical sounds counterpoint Sydney's bell-clear voice; titles such as "Lullaby," "La Di Da," "Whistles And Kazoos," "Wrap Me In A Blanket," and the explicitly Seuss-ish "Oh The Places You'll Go" locate us firmly in the past. Beguiling, but songs from someone who just wants to cuddle. Bell Choir Coast establishes a mature artist with strong feelings, living in an adult present -- even if it's all in her head.
Sydney describes the record's sound as "... warm, inviting and tribal... the opposite of New York city in February" and it's of a piece with the concept. Her piano often sets the scene but is just one voice of many in arrangements that may include old-school synths and Melotrons, a harmonium, a ukelele, woodwinds, back-up vocals of various size and timbre, and a range of guitar textures from a classic-rock electric to woody acoustic picking -- often in the same song ("Wolf Eyes," for example, which has an irresistible riff under the verses). Percussion and drums (played by Zach Mangan) take a prominent role with sneaky beats and accents.
I heard Sydney play "Atlas" the week it was written, just her voice and piano, and it's the reason I hoped to hear more like it (you can hear it, too; Sydney played it during an interview for Smoke Music -- Part 3 of the interview video). As it evolved from a soulful fledgling into the first full track on Bell Choir Coast, "Atlas" became something quite different, a full-throated, full-band arrangement that subsumes her voice into a swirl. Do I treasure that solo version, captured just as it emerged? Sure, but that would be a different record. Bell Choir Coast is charmingly, confidently all Sydney's.
Sydney portrait by Peter Larson.