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Sara Syms Explores The Human Spirit In Sounds And Stories On New Album, The Darkest Light

Marcelo Krasilcic
Sara Syms

After a break from the music industry, Sara Syms is back with a soul-stirring ten song collection that brings her longtime struggle with anxiety and depression front and center, and the opportunity to reconnect with her spirit. The Darkest Light was recorded at New Orleans’ Esplanade Studios supported by several well-known New Orleans musicians. With elements of jazz, soul, gospel and blues under the guidance of producer Ari Teitel, The Darkest Light blends elegant soundscapes with Syms’ stories of survival, growth and love. I’ll play a track from the album this Sunday at 8am on The Local Brew Hour and again Monday at 7pm.

AnaLee: Hi Sara, congratulations on releasing The Darkest Light today. You’re a multi-instrumentalist that’s been playing for most of your life. Can you tell us about some of your earliest musical memories, where did you grow up and what was your first instrument?
Sara: Absolutely! Music has been in my life for as long as I can remember. My mom was a folk singer and huge music advocate, especially introducing me to and lifting up female musicians. Her favorite artists were Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell and Carole King to name a few. I started playing piano at age 5 and picked up the violin shortly thereafter. I was classically trained in piano through college and played violin in high school and on and off in various bands throughout the years. I grew up in Western suburbs of Chicago but spent a good deal of my childhood in Boston. Didn’t pick up guitar until later in my adult life. I have a cello at home and absolutely love playing around on it, such a beautiful instrument. I am also a huge fan of the clarinet, (even more so after hearing New Orleans musician Nick Ellman’s performance on my song “The Game”) and would love to be able to play someday.

AnaLee: After performing for years in bands in New York, starting a solo career and moving to Nashville, you decided to step back from music for a while. Can you tell us how your own journey of self-discovery inspired you to tell these stories through the sounds you’ve created?
Sara: I took a needed step back from the industry to re-evaluate how music fit into my life. The pressure I was putting on myself as an artist paired with the highly competitive nature of the business, was starting to take a toxic toll on my spirit and psyche. It was also a time for focus on family, a geographic move to be closer to my partner’s two beautiful daughters, helping become a stable pillar in their lives. During this hiatus, I began working on a cathartic collection of songs that would become my upcoming album, The Darkest Light. Though this album was helping me work through my struggles with depression and anxiety over the years, there were eerie parallels to what the human collective was experiencing through the pandemic, political polarization, and everyday unknowns. The past few years have been uniquely challenging for all of us. And for me, the process of working through all this, landed me in residential treatment for the first time in my life. I was in an incredibly dark and scary place, and it takes a lot of courage to ask for help when you need it and to face things head-on you’ve been running from for a lifetime. This album is about being brave enough to face the darkness and find your inner light in the darkest of places. For the darkest parts of us, the ones hiding in the shadows, have the most beautiful teachings to offer us if we are willing to go there.

AnaLee: Tell us about your experience recording with Detroit-born, New Orleans-based Grammy-nominated guitarist, Ari Teitel at Esplanade Studios in New Orleans, and about the array of New Orleans talent that supports you on this album.
Sara: Outside of Nashville, New Orleans has been our home away from home for quite some time now and the spiritual pull to record this album here was strong. The musical traditions of New Orleans are among the most joyous, passionate, and influential sounds to be found in America. The city of New Orleans simply creeps up inside your heart almost without you noticing, and once it’s there, it’s something you simply just can’t shake. The world will soon know about Ari Teitel. He is an incredible talent. Not only on his instrument, but as a producer. We were such a musical dichotomy and that’s why I think we worked so well together. We come from such different worlds. Me from the singer-songwriter, folk, Americana world and him from the funk and soul stratosphere. The album was recorded at 2 studios in the epicenter of New Orleans. Esplanade Studios is a 1920s church located in the heart of the Treme, and has captured such greats as Jon Batiste, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, John Legend, Daniel Lanois, T-Bone Burnett, Ani Difranco, Amos Lee, The Revivalists, and many more. Neutral Sound is a vintage inspired house studio based on the smaller recording rooms of the 60s, such as the famous ones run by Motown and Sun Records. Both studios allowed us to capture the various sound textures we were chasing after. Working with such amazing talent on this album, supported by musicians from Sweet Crude, Snarky Puppy, The Rumble, The Dirty Dozen, People Museum and Naughty Professor was a dream come true. The music network that opened for me as a result of recording this album in New Orleans, is something I hold near and dear to my heart. Even led to me signing with Musos, a New Orleans based Sync/Licensing boutique under the partnership of John Culbreth (Naughty Professor) and “Bassy” Bob Brockmann (Grammy-winning Producer).

The Darkest Light album art_photo by Laura Schneider
Laura Schneider
The Darkest Light album art_photo by Laura Schneider

AnaLee: Even though we live in a world of short attention spans, streaming on demand, single releases, etc., I love that you’ve made an album that is something you can put on from beginning to end weaving in and out of themes of fear, love and survival. Tell us what you love about creating collections of songs as albums.
Sara: All my albums have a story to tell. A journey from beginning to end. How records used to be. Even though it has become a single and streaming world, I will continue to create experiences and collections of songs, intended to be listened to in the order they unfold on the album. The Darkest Light is definitely a journey. I spent countless hours working and reworking the order of how each song unfolds and leads into the next. It begins in darkness. Haunting, ethereal, nothingness. Moves through questioning our purpose in this life, directionally where to go, battling our inner shadows, confronting grief and a feeling of hope and rebirth with the last song, “Change in the Air”.

AnaLee: The song “Unknown Road” has an infectious, sort of southern gothic vibe. “Shadow Hunters” feels almost otherworldly. Can you tell us a little about these two songs?
Sara: Both these songs are good representations of my dual musical styles/influences and how they ebb and flow with each other. There is the atmospheric and ethereal vibe and the grit and grind of roots/Americana. “Unknown Road” is about our connection to self-discovery. We are always searching outside ourselves for what we’ve had all along. We just need to take the time to tune in and connect to our inner compass. It is also a nod to the 4 directions of the medicine wheel in spiritual practices and what each direction represents in our journey back to self. In the end, not all who wander are necessarily lost. We all eventually find what our heart is searching for. “Shadow Hunters” refers to the external and internal shadows in our lives. There is undeniable corruption and unbalanced power at play in this world and this song is a rally cry to unite in love. No matter how much fear and hate, the light will always win over darkness. The world needs more warriors of love and light.

AnaLee: Your album release show is tomorrow! Fill us in, and will you be touring as well?
Sara: I can’t wait!! This release has been years in the making. Come on down to the 5 Spot, Saturday, August 6th from 6-8pm. The Coal Men will be opening the evening from 6-7 and then we will be playing the record down and sharing stories behind all the creations. I have a ton of great merch and it will be a memorable night of music at one of my favorite music venues. I will be supporting the album with regional shows and a big release show with Ari and musicians from the album down in New Orleans, September 1st (9-midnight) at D.B.A.s on Frenchman St. Hope everyone enjoys the album and I look forward to sharing its intimate songs with you all at future performances. You can stay connected and learn more at sarasyms.com.

“Unknown Road”

“Shadow Hunters”

Ana Lee is the host and producer of "The Local Brew," a weekly radio show plus a live showcase for Nashville based artists. She hosts mid-days on 89.5 WMOT Roots Radio, Nashville, is a voice over artist and curator of musical experiences for events.
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