A few minutes after walking through the door of Greenwich Village’s The Bitter End, it became clear that Syvia would not be playing for one of its usual crowds. The members of the dark, Scandinavian-inspired electronic rock band stood to the side of the stage as a singer-songwriter finished his set with a string of covers.
If a Taylor Swift jam and Marc Cohen’s “Walking in Memphis” were the kind of tunes that got the crowd leaping out of their seats, throwing high-fives in every direction, and screaming with pleasure, what chance did Syvia have at capturing the attention of the room?
Fortunately, Ruthy Mirsky (vocals and keyboard), Frank Banisi (guitar), Sheldon Chow (bass and keyboard), and Richard Moyle Jr. (drums) came to play, and their brooding songs (including the just released new single “Soon“) soon won over the cover-loving crowd.
The band comes fully stocked with some impressive music biz credentials, starting foremost with frontwoman Ruthy’s past stints touring with The Drums and as a member of the now defunct What What Where.
We had a chance to catch up with the Norwegian-American Ruthy after the show, and we made sure to find out her opinion on performing covers…
Punchland – Was it a different crowd than what you were expecting [tonight]? They were really into “Walking in Memphis!”
Ruthy: Yeah, definitely into Taylor Swift and “Walking in Memphis.” But, to be fair, country music and acoustic singer-songwriters are all about emotion. Our band is all about emotion. I don’t stand there and just sing because that’s not music to me. I’m not a waif standing behind the keyboard. I can’t stand still. When I get on stage I’m in another world. Definitely there were some people in that audience who didn’t expect what we were giving them, but I also think there were others who were into it because they could see that the songs were about emotion. It’s the same thing. Just dressed in a different costume.
Punchland: And they weren’t covers.
Ruthy: Right. I’ve never played a cover live. It’s gonna happen soon, but I just haven’t found the right one.
Punchland: Is it going to be “Walking in Memphis?” (laughing)
Ruthy: I will seriously consider that! And… probably not do it!
Punchland: What cover would you play?
Ruthy: I don’t know. It would have to be something unexpected. We’ve gone through some, but really I do just like performing my own music. When I sing someone else’s stuff it feels like karaoke. I have a reference point of the singer’s voice and delivery and it’s hard to get away from that.
Punchland: What influenced FWD, the upcoming record?
Ruthy: My influences really run the gamut. It’s kind of my mood. I can tell you bands, but it’s really the songs.
Punchland: What songs then?
Ruthy: “Help I’m Alive” by Metric. I love Metric. I think they are a great band. I really like Janis Joplin. Gimme “Piece of My Heart” any day. And I really love Lykki Li . I like that kind of intimate, pretty, dark Scandinavian stuff, and all of that comes into play with how I write. And at the end of the day, I just want to make good music. That’s why I consider [our music] a version of pop: the hooks, the choruses, the verses… I know a lot of it is unexpected. A lot of it is grittier. It’s not mainstream. I know that. And it’s not trendy. I know that too, and I’m kind of okay with that.
Punchland: Well, you want to make the music you want to make. And if you believe in it enough, hopefully other people will believe in it too.
Ruthy: I do. I think there is a place for strong female singers who have a bluesy tone to their voice.
Punchland: While throwing something electronic in there.
Ruthy: Yeah, but as much as I love [electronics] in the studio, I just wanted to get away from relying on them [live]. I wanted songs that could be played with a full band. I wanted to get away from the perfection of studio music. There’s a beauty to that, but it’s not my beauty.
Punchland: You wanted a bit of life.
Ruthy: I just want to feel. Every time I perform and sing a song, it’s a little bit different. I never sing it the same way because it’s never the same thing. I’m always coming in with a different mindset, different emotions, the venue is different, the crowd is different! You never know what you’re going to get.
Punchland: What’s your songwriting process like?
Ruthy: I write a lot. Usually the song lyrics come with the melody. I know what the song’s about from the melody. But it’s always referential to my life. Every song is about someone or something.
Punchland: In “Soon” there was a reference to being 16.
Ruthy: Well, “wishing I was 16.” That song is about my brother. It’s about being very helpless, seeing someone get bullied and not being able to do anything about it. It was very painful. I end up writing about things that are quite painful because it’s sort of therapy.
Punchland: And maybe you can help someone?
Ruthy: Yeah, and also at the end of the story, it’s actually great. Everything, all the crap he went through, now he’s amazing. He’s this successful, wonderful person. It’s an ode to my brother.
Punchland: What’s next for Syvia?
Ruthy: FWD, the album, is coming out [in a couple months], and we’ve already started writing new songs. I think we’re just going to keep writing till we’ve exhausted it, and that’s the best you can ask for. If people want us, we’ll play. At this point in life, I don’t anticipate anything. I just focus on doing the best I can in the present moment and making music that I care about, that I’m proud of. If I don’t do this seriously, it will just be a hobby, and it can’t just be a hobby. I don’t want it to just be a hobby. [Being a singer is] a different way of identifying yourself, and I never wanted to identify myself as anything other than [that].
Punchland: A lot of people will never find themselves. They’re looking, and they’re annoyed with their desk jobs, and that’s all there is. They blink, and then it’s been 50 years, and they’re still annoyed.
Ruthy: And angry.
Punchland: Most people are like this. The majority.
Ruthy: I know. I feel very lucky. I just quit my last full-time job, and I was visiting my parents. My mom had out a bunch of papers that she was going to throw away, and she wanted me to go through them to see if there was something I wanted to keep. One paper had my favorite color, favorite food, and also what I wanted to be when I grew up, and in third grade I wrote, “singer.” I knew all along what I wanted to do.