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Syd: You can’t tell her nothing, she’s grown

The cover feature from Acclaim #37 'Forward'

Words by

Acclaim Issue 37

Syd had left the band and people were shook. “Thought it was ‘the end’,” said one Twitter user. “Same,” said another. “Touched The Internet is breaking up,” said a third, also throwing in the surprise face emoji, because sometimes words just don’t cut it. Except that Syd—aka Sydney Bennett, aka formerly Syd Tha Kyd, aka omnipresent-ly the producer and DJ for Odd Future, aka currently the front woman of The Internet—didn’t actually leave the band, not this time. She just released a solo album.

“I tried to explain it first so I didn’t have to do damage control,” Syd says over the phone. But even after explaining it, she still had to do damage control—right? “Yeah. Just a tiny bit,” she concedes. “Thankfully most people understood.” False alarm.

Fin, the 24-year-old singer, producer, and engineer’s first independent record as just ‘Syd’ (she’s no longer that Kyd) was released in February. Despite being an undeniable, simmering contemplation of lust, fame, and the kind of lines you’d only allow yourself to say on a night of Patron (or something worse that you’re pretending is Patron), you can see why Fin panicked fans of The Internet. When the lead singer of a band releases a solo album, this desire for creative distance almost always means that the band is one bad tour away from splitting—and, you know, the album title means ‘end’ in French. But Syd, a producer-turned-lead singer, a queer woman not just tolerating but thriving in a hyper-masculine, not always queer-friendly space, has never exactly followed a conventional path.

I speak to Syd while she’s on a break from touring, at home in L.A. The Internet had just played in Atlanta, were soon going to perform at SXSW in Austin and then later on to sold-out shows in Paris and London. The hum of Los Angeles traffic permeates the spaces between the relaxed “ummms” she makes before every answer. Syd sounds tired. I ask if all this touring is what is making her tired. “Yeah,” she says. “But it’s cool to be doing it with my friends.”

Fin is still firmly tethered to The Internet. The album functions as an experiment within the experiment that is the band itself; a group formed by Syd and fellow Odd Future alum, Matt Martians, who she met, fittingly, on MySpace. The title Fin refers to the appendage on top of a shark, or as Syd put it in an interview with America’s Hot 97: “a component attached to a larger vessel… I help guide”. They released The Internet’s debut album Purple Naked Ladies in 2011, a year when Odd Future had solidified their reputation as one of the most volatile and—to some in the music industry clutching onto the old rules—terrifyingly radical bands in the world. (Watching the terrified journalists at Spin unsuccessfully try to interview the band as a ‘Next Big Thing Of 2011’ on YouTube is still panic sweat-inducing viewing.)

Syd and Martians left the day-to-day orbit of Odd Future, released two more albums, and have had the same band line-up since 2015: Patrick Paige II, Christopher A. Smith, and Steve Lacy. Syd and Martian’s moves seem deliberate in retrospect—as all good choices do—but in reality, some of these decisions were made out of convenience. Syd had never intended to be the lead singer of The Internet. “Honestly it kind of happened by chance and then it became like easier to keep going than to stop,” she says. “I sang on the first album because I didn’t know any female singers who could deliver what I was writing how I wanted. Then we started getting offers to do shows and it was like, ‘Ah, we might as well ride this wave as long as we can’.”

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When Syd talks about her decision to make Fin she is similarly matter-of-fact. She says that it only came about because Lacy was working on a solo project and that besides; it’s more of a “showcase” than anything, really. It was intended as a way to demonstrate the different kinds of music she could write, because due to her publishing deal she couldn’t give the songs to the artists who she wanted to sing them. “It came to a point where I was, like you know, I may as well low-key spit on my album. I don’t have anyone to give it to,” she explains.

This does Fin a disservice. Here Syd’s laidback, sleepy vocals are complemented with irresistibly dreamy, Aailyah-esque ’90s beats—when she’s not triumphantly flexing about being “the one your girl been posting tweets ’bout”. It’s the type of album that you want to listen to when you’re drunk and you’re not ready to go home yet, that fools you into thinking that you have game that you probably don’t have. It does demonstrate Syd’s nimble writing skills, but it also positions her as incomparable.

It’s crazy to think they should have been sung by anyone else. For the record, Pharrell Williams agrees. “Syd’s tone is amazing… it feels like clouds,” he says on Twitter, a priceless endorsement from the ethereal patron saint of weird, DIY musicians who defy the categories with which they’re pigeonholed.

As a young teenager Syd had her own studio in her family home, where at 16 she produced some of Odd Future’s early tracks. “I was hearing music that I was like, ‘Damn, I wish I could say I wrote that. I wish that I could take credit for it’,” she says. Unlike many other female producers, songwriters and engineers, Syd has never had trouble with people believing a man was behind her work. “I think I’ve been pretty lucky in that I came up in the industry in a group of people who were all about doing things yourself,” she says. “I came up as a behind-the-scenes person first and then someone who was behind-the-scenes coming into the light.”

Those years behind-the-scenes with Odd Future, before she came into the light, taught Syd the practicalities of the music industry early on, particularly how important it was to be part of “the business structure” of your music. It also showed her that sometimes, in a noisy, preoccupied band, if you’re not careful, relationships can crumble very quickly. “I definitely learned a lot when it came to team leadership,” she says. “So it made creating The Internet and holding that together way easier, because I learnt from a lot of mistakes that we made as a group when Odd Future was touring together.” What mistakes does Syd think Odd Future made back then? “I think just lack of communication mostly,” she says. “We didn’t talk much about business, we just ran with it, let things take its course. And I feel like had we sat down and spoken more frankly about things early on, that things could have transitioned smoother.”

It’s easy to see how communication wouldn’t have been one of Odd Future’s priorities. Their early recorded videos are like fascinating cultural artifacts now: Tyler trying to derail the interviewer to amuse his buddies, it often devolving into a group punch-on. In some of these interviews, Syd is laughing and often only chimes in to clarify what Tyler is saying. “Is there anything you won’t touch, lyrically?” asks an MTV reporter. “Sudan,” Tyler says. “He’s just kidding,” Syd says, once she has stopped laughing. Other times she looks bored and barely engages; slouching, looking down, and running her hand over her mohawk (particularly in that a aforementioned Spin interview, when Tyler threatens to “fuck up” the interviewer). Syd has spoken before about suffering depression while on tour with Odd Future and that she couldn’t talk to her band mates about it—except Matt Martians— because she didn’t think they cared.

There’s no lingering resentment between Odd Future and Syd; at the time of writing this, Odd Future’s Twitter profile photo is the cover of Fin. Syd tells me that, “Over all, we’re all happy with how things ended up”. While promoting the solo album on Hot 97, Syd was asked if she’d ever reunite with Odd Future. She said she wouldn’t mind it if the offer was “lucrative”. Things have changed a lot for her though. “I’m not a DJ anymore,” she says with finality.

Both Odd Future and The Internet benefited from the shift in the music industry model, but The Internet have still attracted approval from the traditional gatekeepers. In 2016 they were nominated for a Grammy for their last album, Ego Death, which Syd says she appreciated. At this year’s Grammys, one artist made a point of telling Syd that she enjoyed her music. It was Beyoncé. Syd is reluctant to tell the story and laughs in an embarrassed sort of way. How do you compose yourself when Beyoncé not only knows who you are, but likes your work? “Thankfully I was sitting down,” Syd says. “I just sort of said, ‘Thank you!’ That was crazy. That feels like a dream.” I tell her that she’s been touched by God now. “I know,” she says, forgetting to be embarrassed.

Coming up online may allow for a greater level of artistic experimentation, but there’s also a greater expectation that you owe fans a certain level of engagement; something even Beyoncé has to grapple with. In her first single, ‘All About Me’, Syd admits to finding fame a “nuisance”. When we talk about the expectations of performing fame online, Syd is the most firm she has been in our conversation. “I’ve definitely felt pressure,” she says. “It’s like weird when fans say like, ‘How come you ignored me when I yelled your name?’ or ‘How come you haven’t tweeted me back? How come you haven’t responded to my messages?’ I feel bad but at the same time it’s, you know, what am I supposed to do? Should I respond to everybody? I don’t know. Sometimes in the back of my head I think if I respond to everybody it won’t be special anymore. It’s very conflicting.” (For the record Syd is very accommodating with her fans, to the point where when someone on Twitter asked her why it’s so hard to illegally download her album, she replied: “lol damn idk, major label problems I guess. Keep trying”.)

The conundrum for modern musicians on social media is how much access is too much access. On Fin, Syd sings with great intimacy about the girls she wants to seduce, the girls she did seduce, and the times that they’ve fucked it up (and yes: it’s still exciting to hear a woman sing about another woman in a way that’s usually reserved for men). Do internet sleuths try to figure out who her songs are about? Even worse—do her exes try to figure out who her songs are about?

“Thankfully it’s rare that a girl asks me about a song,” Syd says, laughing. (She says this in a way that makes me absolutely certain that a girl has asked her if they were the subject of a song before.) “But I usually don’t—I try to make them ambiguous and to not have to handle that. Every so often I’ll write something where I’ll think like, okay I might not be able to ever play this for so-and-so because they’ll know immediately, but that’s super rare.”

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Listening to Syd it’s obvious that she thinks a lot about the practicalities of The Internet as a business, but also treats it with care, like it’s a living, breathing organism. Part of being real is admitting that even if sometimes you wake up anxious about keeping it together, at the end of the day you know you’ve still got this—the first line Syd sings on Fin is “I’m drowning in doubt and frustration,” and then in the same track assures the listener, “You can’t tell me nothing, I’m grown”. It’s this ability to be both vulnerable but focused that makes Syd—as an artist, as a band member—a good leader. She’s comfortable being multiple things at once.

When I ask Syd if it feels like The Internet is her anchor, I’m surprised when she answers no. She says that she and the team feel “very fortunate” that they get to experiment with different genres on their solo records, because most artists don’t get the opportunity to do that. “It was kind of like getting to put out a first album all over again,” she says. This was kind of confusing—isn’t it a comfort that they all know that The Internet will always be there waiting for them? But really, the band doesn’t actually operate as an anchor, holding them all in one place. It’s more like a bungee cord allowing these musicians to go off, explore and experiment, still connected to something but encouraged to push further because of it not despite it.

Syd’s solo album was never about distancing herself from her band; on Fin she quite literally advocates for taking care of “the family that you came with”. The Internet may release a new album before the end of the year, but they don’t want to rush it. This year, every member of the band is releasing solo material. Matt Martians released The Drum Chord Theory just before Fin and afterwards Steve Lacy put out an EP called Steve Lacy’s Demo. While Syd talks about her band, I remember a video from 2015 in which The Internet performed a jubilant Tiny Desk concert for NPR. Between songs, Syd says that the track ‘Under Control’ from Ego Death is about making a pledge to her band that she’s solid, that she’s going to look after things. “I need them to know, it’s under control, I got it,” she sings, changing the lyrics and smiling.

“I promise I’m on it”. She’s steering the vessel and she knows where they’re going. “We’re all really good friends,” Syd says, when I ask about the band’s tight support of each other. “I started out my career touring with a group of dudes who weren’t that close. I was rarely like, hanging out with all of them. The guys that I’m in a band with now, we’ve all gotten really close. We hang out when we don’t have to be. We all have each other’s best interests at heart.” I tell Syd that as a fan, this is nice to hear. Those kinds of relationships are rare. “I mean,” she says, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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