Hi LAN guys, LiteFlow here. So we’ve kind of been hinting towards this particular thing for a while, after going through numerous attempts sadly defeated by sudden tasks and obligations from both parts BUT… it’s finally happening! These couple past months we’ve been in contact with no other than Syze and finally, FINALLY we’re all gathered here to witness… *drumroll*… Joanna Syze’s interview for Liquid Audio Network! Following my review of Nickbee’s latest EP featuring her beautiful voice (I’m told she’s the only person who liked it!), I was so impressed with this girl, this all-round artist who basically started with just a bunch of others the whole Seattle D&B music scene. Especially after reading some things here and there about her past, about her career, her passion and inner strength; I was intrigued and I wanted to know first hand the whole story, so I and Macspider arranged this interview with her some time ago, and believe me it was no easy task! It’s finally here for you and I don’t want to spoil things, but if you’re not intrigued by now as well as I was, trust me: there’s some pretty deep stuff going on in here, and a life lesson I believe everyone should learn. Enjoy!
LiteFlow – Hello Joanna and thank you for having this interview with us. Here at Liquid Audio Network we’re always curious about artists we meet along the way, especially when they’re as talented as you are, and a multifaceted talent at that! I personally discovered you as a vocalist for the latest EP by Nickbee, but I understand you’re not only a singer; can you tell us about you and your callings?
Hi guys, and thank you for taking the time to sit and interview me. One way to sum up my almost 18 year involvement within the Drum and Bass industry is probably one that many artists are faced with these days. That being you have to wear more than one hat in this job. My calling was never fully defined when I began on this journey aka music obsession. I first began as a dj and club owner, visual artist, art directing, promoter, co-owner for Seattle’s first all ages D&B events . That lead to more dj gigs, sitting in studios with producers, starting to also dive into vocals around 2004 on my first vocal D&B track “No Evil” with Kryptic Minds and Leon Switch with my work at Defcom Records, that eventually spun into years of vocal and production work for D&B and experimental downtempo beats. Continuing onwards to more work with various labels such as Barcode, Renegade Hardware to later Lifted and so on. I was always very involved in dealing with artists so this opened the door for my company Bassline Agency in 2004, which proved to become the 2nd largest in the USA and gave grounds to a lot of great names such as Spor, Ewun, Evol Intent, Noisia and many more. I closed the agency in 2009. Realizing I had drifted far from the love of music itself, my life had become consumed by throwing events, managing artists and working with labels. Basically drowning in the business end behind the scenes for a decade… so I took a break and came back with the intent to focus less on touring and on other artists. Finally putting focus on becoming an artist both vocally, visually and musically for myself. The reason I began this whole crazy journey at age 18 in the first place… so here I am today. Who knows what the next chapter will bring.
LF – I gathered that you’re proudly Bulgarian, but you moved to North America when you were very young. What was it like, did you like it? And what drove you to the DnB scene there? In short, tell us about early-days Syze.
Very true, I’m extremely proud of my Bulgarian heritage, so much that even after 24 years in the USA, anytime someone calls me American I get very aggravated. Not that there is anything wrong with being American. For me the connection to my homeland is a very personal and spiritual part of what makes me. Moving on the other side of the world at a young age wasn’t ideal. I went through many traumas and years of poverty, but the one thing I brought with me overseas was in my soul and that’s my love for music. From a young age I was experimenting with music in various platforms. That got a bit stronger in my high school years as I was accepted in one of the country’s top music programs. I think those 3 years totally defined the rest of my life. From playing percussion in the orchestra and marching band, to the very strict vocal jazz program I was in for 3 years. I left high school with a love for beats and soul. Somehow got myself wrapped up into learning to be a turntablist and from there was introduced to Jungle and Drum and Bass. It blew me away! Everything I loved was in one place. Percussion, vocals, electronic music, urban beats ….. the transition was easy and I just started going around to the record shops. Almost living in them actually, waiting for that weekly delivery of new tunes and begging the shop keepers to let me hear some of the white labels as well. I wasn’t very good at djing in the start, in fact it was laughable. So some of the D&B guys decided to give me a break and invited me to their studio and gave me my first beat matching lessons… from that point unknowingly they unleashed the beast in me *LoL. It was self propelling, I couldn’t stop and kept going forward in this crazy scene. That start was circa 2000, half a lifetime ago.
Macspider – What is that, among all that you did in the musical scene, makes you proud the most?
TO DO… I’ve done a lot and could probably do 10000% more if I hadn’t have gotten sick in late 2012. For me “Rodina” – Joanna Syze and Zardonic – to this day remains as my best achievement. Not for the nearly 1 million plays it’s had, because trust me when I say myself nor Zardonic saw a penny for that release. It was an achievement on a soul level. “Rodina” means homeland in Bulgarian, the song was a tribute to my homeland. A mix between Bulgarian folk elements, Venezuelan percussions and, of course, my vocals being my first ever attempt at singing in Bulgarian. I see the joy it brings people nearly 6 years after its release; a sense of pride as well. That fills my soul. The true purpose of music is to make us feel and I know this song has made me and many others feel and connect. Maybe the second thing I’d be proud of is having had the chance to act as A&R label co-manger for Renegade Hardware the last year. I grew up with Renegade Hardware as many of us have and to be part of its last year and release. Helping put out the projects and working with artists has been an honor.
MS – If you had to name an artist that changed your life forever, who would it be?
That’s like asking someone to name their favorite child *haha. Honestly if I had to think about it, the answer always comes back to Beth Gibbons from Portishead. The way she can tell stories and evoke such emotion lyrically and melodically is not something one learns but is born with. I’ve tried to crack her code by listening with a magnifying glass since 1999 but she still reigns queen in my books. The day I get compared to her in my vocal work is probably the day my head will explode from happiness.
LF – So you sing, compose and also used to DJ. Can you guide us through your creative process?
There is not much of a difference between my process in these 3 formats of expression. First and foremost is emotion. If it lacks the ability to connect to me or the listeners then it’s not going to get done. I haven’t been djing for a few years now but in the past for me I saw playing a show as one long 1 hour song. You want to bring the crowd a feeling of storytelling, all at the same time keeping an eye on their reaction and tweaking tracks where needs be to get them more hyped up with energy. I’d always been known for playing fairly dark D&B since day one. So for me djing was like taking on a character, a sense of power in a small body and the strength of the music: my arms to touch everyone. When it comes to creating music, I always work in a collab layout. I’ve always been very open to my level of engineering abilities and I don’t pretend to go passed what I know. Where I can’t follow through I have friends who step in and help create that vision with me. For this I am truly blessed and I thank each and single one of them. Sometimes I can send chords with some melody, or various stems of ideas. On my last album I did a lot of the vocal engineering and sequencing, melody and EQ works etc. But when it comes to just doing vocals for someone usually I will come at them with vocals I have and see what we can do with them, or the best situation of all is they come to me with wips of ideas. I usually know within 20 seconds of hearing a clip if I connect to it or not. If there is lack of emotional connection, there is absolutely no way I can write or sing on the track. Emotional content is everything for me. A song can write itself in a matter of minutes sometimes, or as I like to say “they are meant to be born when they are meant to, I often feel I don’t control the full creation process“.
LF – In relation to the last question, how is it like when you team up with other producers and how does it affect your creative process?
I made the mistake early on to work with everyone and anyone. Learned my lesson fast. There has to be a lot of compromise and letting go of ego when artists come together. You can’t connect with everyone and my work ethic isn’t always the same as others’. Many songs have been started to never be done or see the light of day. Or I’ve taken on too much and haven’t been able to deliver. Taking on too much eventually drains your creativity; myself and many others I know usually then fall into long spells of writers block. That horrible feeling you won’t ever be creative again and demonic anxiety dreams that some dark fairy has eaten your artistic brains. So most important for me is to connect with who I work with on a musical level, personal level of respect and to generally just don’t be a shit human and we get on really well! *:)
LF – I read that you like to travel: do you do it? After listening to many works of yours I feel like your music is sometimes kind of a figurative travel, do you identify with this?
To travel is to find yourself, or however that proverb goes. Travel was my life from a very young age. Sadly, as I’m still battling to recover, I’m not able to travel currently and yes, it’s driving me insane. I love to explore other cultures and dive into their ways of life. I’ve often wanted to express that in projects. If I think about it vocally and melodically I do tend to travel outside myself, especially when writing lyrics. But that’s something you have to do in order to paint a story. There was even a song called “Abducted” we did with Cooh and Zardonic years ago, where I went into a mental outer space with the samples and vocals. So much so that to this day people think the vocals are from some horrific Sci-Fi movie … but alas it is me and my crazy mind. I’d like to think of my songs giving myself and the listener that feeling I got as a young girl reading Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”.
LF – OK, this is a dangerous one! What’s your attitude towards Europe and Bulgaria, do you plan to come home? If so, since Trump won the election do you fear you’ll be hindered to do it in any way?
What a national, or should I say global, tragedy that has been. However I’ll keep politics and my insane conspiracy theories out of this interview and just try to manifest the greater good to be an outcome for this planet. I personally won’t be affected in going to Europe since I am both an American and European citizen, unless he hits the nuclear bombs… then the trip gets a bit more difficult *lol. I personally feel Europe is in a very fragile state. But is it just Europe? It’s a worldwide issue. We’ve allowed evil, greed, corporations, banking systems, big pharma and so on to dictate our every move and reality. We live in a very pivotal point in human history. Where we can heal our wounds as a collective or hit the self destruct button. I send nothing but my love and best wishes to Europe and Bulgaria and hope we all join globally to stop the corruption.
LF/MS – You’ve had a rough past, and we’re sorry you’re going through health issues. But you prove to be very strong and positive: do you feel like talking about it?
I don’t tend to talk about it in great detail these days. There is such a thing as “compassionate burnout” people can only feel for you so much before they shut off. Mainly I also don’t speak in great detail as I’m waiting to fully recover so that I can feel comfortable enough to open this huge wound and share it with the world properly. I want my story to be one of inspiration and a testimony to how strong the human mind, body and spirit can be. In short to quench the readers curiosity, I suffer from chronic neuro Lyme disease. It took years to properly get diagnosed and it all came crashing down on me like a ton of bricks in the summer of 2012. I suffered my first major stroke and reopened an aggressive form of epilepsy. In the process of saving my life the Dr’s also almost killed me many times and caused addiction to hardcore seizure-preventing medications, of which the damage to my brain and central nervous system I still struggle to recover from everyday. At my lowest, 2 years ago I was 84 pounds and dying, bedridden, paralyzed and with daily grand mal seizures. I was told to go home and die; the medical system that ruined my life also walked away in my hour of need. I told myself I had to fight, breath by breath, minute by minute. Here I am today at 117 pounds, still dealing with some epilepsy and still partially in a wheelchair, but I am lucky. I am lucky to have been given the chance to fight a battle not many could ever understand. In this process I lost many friends, some family, my marriage ended and thank god, as it showed me how apathetic and selfish some humans can be. In its wake it also let the door open for my true soulmate to find me. At my worst he loved and still loves me. Love and music are healing. I’m happier today than I’ve ever been. Because I see all this suffering as the greatest gift given to help me learn and grow. To help me clean out those who were bad entities in my life. To find the love of my life and marry the most amazing man I’ve ever met: Luke or as some of you know him as half of Mob Tactics. To become fully awake and work daily on being the best human I can be. I still have much to work on learning to fully walk again and fight through the epilepsy, and kill the Lyme. But my determination is strong and maybe that’s the stubborn Bulgarian in me. When all is done and stable, I will share everything. For now all I can say is: no matter what happens to you in life, fight. Because life is the most wonderful gift and we are lucky to be here, even if it hurts… never give up on life. Life will let you know when it’s time to go, it’s not your place to tell life what lessons it needs to teach you. As Hippocrates once said “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” I hope I can be given the opportunity to fully heal.
LF/MS – Have you had any moment when you thought that it was over with music? Or has it been a way to express yourself and exorcise the darker periods of your life?
I think it’s only natural for every artist to have periods where they want to quit music. But it’s in these moments that we eventually emerge again, reborn with new energy and ideas. I’ve passed through that state countless times. Sometimes you get fucked over, sometimes things don’t happen as you wanted them to, or you just fall into depression; a thing that happens to many who create. But true artists need to express themselves as if they hungered for air. The few years I was paralyzed from the mini strokes and central nervous system damage were torture for my soul. In that moment I had so much to express of my current situation lyrically, but I wasn’t able to speak or create… at this moment I thought not only was death very possible but that I’d never feel music again. As I gained back more health and some strength it was Cooh aka Balkansky who told me over one very emotional skype conversation “Ioanna don’t stop creating, it is your soul, it is who you are. Your friends support you and even if you get 20 mins a week of strength use that time to open Ableton and your mic and rec anything, even if it’s just whispering“. To this day in my healing process I work from my bed and I don’t see this as a sad situation but one that gives me such happiness and power. I have a part of me back and I can hear the music again.
LF – I’m glad to hear that! I enjoyed your Rodina album very much, and particularly the title song, and one thing struck me the most: how did you manage to seamlessly merge D&B and a 3/4 rhythm?
First of all thank you, and *hahaha. Yes this made me laugh because we didn’t do such a good job at merging much of anything. The intro itself is mostly like a statement art piece, we never created it with the intent for dj’s to play the track and honestly we never thought anyone would like the song. In hindsight we should have probably thought it out better, since no one can mix the song. Really when it comes to percussions, merging of rhythms comes easy with how you arrange it… what doesn’t translate well however is it being transcribed into a D&B song layout. But this being said, a few months ago I had Barbarix Remix the song and the result is epic. He did with the remix I think what we wanted the original to be like. It’s mixable, current and yet it still retains it’s emotional aspect. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it and it will be out on my next LP coming this May on Othercide Records. Barbarix is one of those amazing humans and artists. Thank you Steven. *:)
LF – You said Rodina was a special album for you, a way to reconnect with your Bulgarian roots. Can you tell us something about it?
Well, since I’d been in the USA for so long, with frequent 1-month long visits to Europe and Bulgaria, I sort of had a nervous breakdown in 2008 when my little sister was born in Bulgaria. I realized not only I was detached from my homeland but I also didn’t know much of my own culture. This new little life I went to meet and was holding made me realize eveything I’d been taken away from. I sat at the airport on my way back crying and not wanting to leave. Usually I couldn’t wait to get back home to Seattle but that trip did something to me. So 7 months later I packed my home, put everything in storage and moved to Bulgaria. I was literally an immigrant in my own country. I was there off and on mostly until the summer of 2012. The cover art for Rodina was actually a self portrait. I went on the hunt for an all-black folk outfit. Something rare to find, but I found it and photographed myself in the snow painted in white. The symbolism really for that image was the death in me of who I was meant to be, and from my hands emerges a light, the new me I found there and hold on to. I am very happy I took such a leap and spent time in Bulgaria, it was soul healing and inspires me to this day creatively.
LF – Looking at the “here and now”: tell us all about you’re current projects and coming releases. When will we be able to listen to them?
I did have 4 relases in 2016. First was two songs with Freqax for his LP on Othercide Records, the other was alongside NickBee on Eatbrain for the “The Gears” EP 2017 is looking a lot more busy. First off with the release of Renegade Hardware’s “Final Chapter” LP, on which I have a few featured tracks, including the massive remix of “Rodina” that the brilliant Barbarix has done for us. That release is special for myself and many others. We grew up on Renegade Hardware and it’s the last as we close the label and maybe even a huge part of ourselves. Not to mention I was co-A&R manager for the label the last year and put lots of work personally into making sure the label closes out with a bang. After that, the “Final Chapter” drops in March. Next to come around May will be my collaborative larger project – Joanna Syze and Various Artists – for Othercide Records “Surrender” it’s been in the works for a while. As I just mentioned, most of 2016 I was working as A&R co-manager for Renegade Hardware in getting the Volatile Cycle EP out and the upcoming Final Chapter LP plus some other secret art directing for a big label artists comeback. I do have a collab or two with Mob Tactics that’s hopefully going to be out soon as well for Viper Recordings. Did some secret work for Joe Ford but can’t talk about that too much yet for Shogun Audio and just sang on a few tracks for Hospital Records artist Ownglow. Possibly will collab with NickBee again for his album for Noisia’s Invisible Records. I’d like to finish my downtempo album alongside Balkansky for his label ABCD, it’s been sitting on our hard drives for a year and a half and needs to see the light of day soon. As you can see that’s just the start of 2017, we will see what else gets thrown in the mix as the year progresses and I ultimately go fucking insane *haha. Most of all I’m excited to finally get my LP out, it’s been long overdue and I’m very thankful to Othercide Records for seeing my vision and helping it come to life.
MS – Name one famous (current, historical or fictional) character that you’d like to have been.
This is a hard one and it may throw me into some personality disorder syndrome, as I imagine myself to be like 100 people who are too brilliant to just pick one. So I’ll just answer this question with – I’d like to be a cat. Lay around all day and lick myself. With the occasional bouts of psychotic episodes towards humans. Wait… I may have just actually described my current self! *:D
MS – Besides music, what does Joanna do in her free time, if there is any?
See answer above. *Hah, really I just enjoy spending time with family, cats and my brilliant husband. Reading all I can about medicine, both western and eastern. Grow my esoteric and philosophy brain cells. Dive into quantum physics, this planet. Obviously always on my quest to research all I can about my condition and how to continue healing. Oh, and post too much on Facebook! *LoL
MS – Final weird question, I ask this to anyone I interview, you make no exception: what is the weirdest thing you find yourself doing while no-one’s around looking?
Polishing my huge collection of vintage medieval gigantic swords that I use to fight off the dragons. *;)
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