Sylvana Joyce has been hypnotizing audiences along the Northeast with her drama rock for quite a while now. One would not expect such a grand human carnival to emanate from her petite Eastern-European exterior, that is until the house lights dim. Sylvana’s persona, a Greta Garbo meets Alice Cooper circus leader of epic proportions, gallivants and taunts the audience with her cheeky, grandiose, and expertly divined performances of her original music.
Influenced by everything from Rachmaninoff to film noir, her brand of rock touches on many genres, having equally delighted audiences for soul songstress Nikka Costa, internationally touring rock-jazz trio The Aristocrats, and funk-dance Moon Hooch. Sylvana’s palpable talent has also garnered significant press, and has played various festivals in the U.S. including CMJ and Musikfest.
Sylvana Joyce is a native New Yorker, former child actress with credits on Broadway; conservatory pianist turned rock and roll songwriter. Her grandfather was a prominent songwriter/musicologist in Romania (Claude Romano/George Sbarcea) who blended the Argentinian Tango and Romanian Folk musical textures.
Her band, comprised of Chris Smith on guitar (an Eatontown, NJ native), Sean-David Cunningham (who Asbury fans may recognize as the fiddle player for Tony Tedesco & Full Fathom Five), Jack Breslin (who played upright bass on the upcoming record; he shares bass duties with Jaime DeJesus, who played the electric bass) and drummer Jeremy Sauber (Philly native), are a plethora of talent, each pulling from varied musical tastes from metal to jazz.
Sylvana’s bio tells us that the record, Heavyhead, is an exploration on the weight of responsibility for an artist (especially a female) to delve into the darker world of creation and emerge victorious; seizing inspiration and devouring it whole.
Helping bring her live performances to the next level, she has enlisted the help of Broadway Lighting Designer Christopher Robinson, who currently runs lights for the Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton. Christopher helped choreograph a live taping of her album in a film studio and will also light her album release party at Maxwell’s Tavern on September 8.
I spoke with Sylvana who told me that she spent a decent amount of time on pre-production (you can hear it) writing horn and string parts before they recorded the record on Lake Hopatcong at Barbershop Studios. They stayed on the lake in a cottage right next to the studio, and it allowed them to concentrate on what they were doing without distractions.
Sylvana sent me the tracks for Heavyhead, and I wanted to jump into them and describe to our readers, the complexities of Sylvana Joyce as a songwriter and performer.
The first song on Heavyhead is called “I Am Disease.” Sylvana takes command from the start, laying an almost Kate Bush meets Amy Lee from Evanescence style as she leads pianos, violin, guitar, drums, and bass across the musical plain. You could call Sylvana a serious crooner as her vocal range is in the untouchable range. It’s also suitable that she describes the players on this disc as having backgrounds that go from jazz to metal, as they provide top-notch skills when it comes to playing for the song. The song in this case also reminds me of something that might have been done by Annie Haslam and Renaissance had they thought of it. Smooth and well-paced, Sylvana and the band slip from movement to movement as the tempo changes and the instrumentation shifts to meet the demanding vocal of one of the area’s best singers.
“Vultures” is up next and features upright bass work by Jack Breslin as well as guitar work from Chris Smith. Once again Sylvana brings recollections of Kate Bush as well as PJ Harvey. Construction-wise, “Vultures,” is fluid and immediately catchy. More progressive than any mainstream pop, the song builds gradually, adding just enough instrumentation on each pass to work exclusively for the song’s benefit. The beginning riff comes back around on each bridge and verse and acts as a hook for the song. Drum work by Jeremy Sauber is intricate and thick, and it holds everything together quite well. Sylvana shifts through harmonic stratospheres as she moves from breathy whispers to flat-out full voice roars. When it comes to lyrical content, Joyce leaves no stone unturned in her adamant statement of being “one of them.” The band shifts into high gear at around 3:13 in the song, featuring a blistering lead guitar by Chris Smith as Sylvana soars over the top of the tune before the band brings it all back home.
“Encore” is up next and features Sylvana’s keen piano skills. Vocally she immediately gives off vibes of Joni Mitchell. Touching the tormented topic of a ruined romance, Sylvana rises and falls in tempo and tone to match each next piece of the song. This is a beautiful song, and the production values are impeccable. Sean-David Cunningham dazzles with a salvo of violin charges in the chorus, adding brilliance to an already fabulous piece. I love Sylvana’s melodic attack on this song, especially in the choruses which are extremely well thought out. The middle-eight horn work by Ben Krupitdillz is both luxurious and well-placed before disappearing back under bass, drums, guitars, and keys. As Sylvana winds things down, there is more legato-based horn work in the ending from Krupitdillz. A sort of ritornello if you will. The playing is priceless and fitting.
Moving around the record, I came to a song called “Bones.” Sean-David Cunningham is immediately featured in the opening, Cunningham is one of New York’s top violinists and his work with Sylvana and others such as Tony Tedesco & Full Fathom Five is some of the finest I’ve ever heard. Cunningham mixes perfectly with this band, and he sits well within the framework of the song next to guitarist Chris Smith. Sylvana moves around quite a bit on this song. Starting things off with her high, clear bell-like quality, she morphs into a huge charged chorus with her soprano tone. The band moves as one behind Joyce and swatches of guitar brilliance slam into violin riffs, bass and drums aplenty as Joyce modulates in the bridge. Coming out of the bridge, Joyce revs things up as Cunningham gleefully leaps and splits the air with his four-string wizardry. Uplifting and compositionally smart, “Bones” has plenty of complexities and energy that just can’t be stopped.
Another great song is called “Clean.” Written by Chris Smith, “Clean” sees Sylvana get topically dark and stormy. Guitars start things off with a somber tone as Joyce rolls up from behind to tell her tale of dedication and self-sacrifice. Sean-David is back with a mournful violin passage before verse two. Sylvana’s vocals are flawless here, and she rises to her chorus with passion and true focus as the band surges behind her. Cunningham’s violin work is beautifully sad and triumphant when he lets loose in the middle-eight. Pianos sparkle in the back as Sauber and bassist Jaime Dejesus (this guy gets around) nail the tempo to the floor of this exquisite piece. Minimal accompaniment follows Joyce till the end when both she and the band come full circle to create great big expansive sounds. Cunningham takes them out alongside Joyce, who cracks emotionally in the most heartfelt way possible. One of my favorite songs on the disc.
The last song on the disc is called “Gavel.” Joyce told me that this song was from a place of self-hatred and feeling worthless. Almost ready to be castrated and ridiculed. Written with her father in mind (he died quite young) Joyce let the tape roll in the studio as she imagined her dad sitting there with her fighting for life. Topically dark? You bet. Does it work? It certainly does. Joyce hits the piano with all the panache of Tori Amos. Chris Smith comes in with single string accompaniment before the band crashes in with all the fury of The Decemberists. This is not a feel-good song by any means, but it is amazingly beautiful in all ways. Smith comes back with some fiery guitar work throughout the song, but the fascinating thing about this song is its arrangement. This is not pop music; this is real sound for the aficionado. Joyce doesn’t play around when she writes music, and this song is as serious as you can get. Smoking hot arrangements, hooky choruses, fantastic vocal performances (Joyce recreates angelic choruses at the end of this song wonderfully) and time signature changes that would make Rush jealous puts “Gavel” on the podium of greatness.
I wish I had time to describe the entire album but we’re out of space and time. Sylvana Joyce has struck original gold with Heavyhead, and I know it’s going to do great things for her shortly. Joyce has been fighting the good fight for several years now, and this may be her long-awaited break into the big time.
The album comes out on September 8 and will be celebrated at Maxwell’s Tavern in Hoboken on that date. For more information on Sylvana Joyce and Heavyhead, go to Sylvana’s site at sjandthemoment.com.