Syd on songwriting, keeping it cool with exes, and why black artists need to stick together

Justin Carissimo
Syd performs with The Internet on March 8, 2016 in London, England: Marc Broussely/Redferns via Getty

It was an unusually warm night for the last week of February while New Yorkers walked down East 11th Street en route to The Internet’s sold out show at Webster Hall. The neo-funk band kicked off the set with familiar hits ("Special Affair," "Gabby,” and "Under Control") then disassembled for each member to showcase solo material for the first time. Normally presenting solo work onstage would definitely create serious tension within any other group—but not with The Internet. Each member contributes, reinforcing each other’s solo catalogue. When they reassemble for fan favorites, they finish the two-hour set with "Get Away." The beat slaps. And nearly everyone in the venue bounces up-and-down, singing the hook with Syd, "Roll up an L and light it, let’s go to space, be my co I’ll be the pilot, let’s get away."

At 24-years-old, Sydney "Syd" Bennett, the main vocalist and leader of the six-person group, is one of the brightest, rising stars in the music industry. Syd was about 14-years-old when she bought her first laptop and began honing her production skills from the comfort of her parents’ home in Los Angeles. She first entered into the public eye as the house engineer for the hip-hop collective Odd Future and since then has released three albums as the charismatic singer-songwriter who co-created The Internet with Matt Martians. The Webster Hall performance comes off the heels of her solo debut, Fin, 12 fresh tracks that showcase her creative songwriting abilities and magnetic personality. With self-described "baby-making anthems" like "Body" and the inspirational nod to going solo with “All About Me,” she pulls no punches for fans thirsty for a mix of throwback and contemporary R&B.

But right now, in the lobby of an East Flatbush hotel, she’s just trying to figure out what to order from Starbucks. She eventually settles for a grande iced coffee, even though there’s a half bottle of Hennessy waiting for her upstairs that she stows away to numb her pre-show jitters. The band members were afraid to perform their new material for the first time and now three have released solo projects: Matt Martians’ The Drum Chord Theory, Steve Lacy’s Demo and Syd’s Fin. Meanwhile, Jameel Bruner, Patrick Paige II, and Chris Smith also have music in the works.

I spoke to Syd the morning after the sold out show about her passion for songwriting, her advice for artists on the come up, and why it’s more important than ever for black artists to stick together.

Justin: You’re an amazing performer. Even when you weren’t performing your own songs, you were bouncing around and adding background vocals and becoming this seasoned hype-woman with tons of energy. Where does that come from? Who are some front women and men you look up to?
Syd:
"It’s weird, I don’t really know where I pull my inspiration from. I think it’s N.E.R.D. I was thinking about it like, 'what do I do when everybody else is performing? Because I don’t know what to do! Do I just walk around?' But N.E.R.D.’s dynamic is similar. Where they’ve got Pharrell, they’ve got Shea, and they just bounce off. Shea spits his verse every once in awhile and Pharrell is on the side of the stage, like, talking to the girls. So I adjusted to that.”

It’s kind of like the opposite of the band members jealous of each other’s solo work. It seems like everyone is happy to cross promote each other’s music and you all feed off each other.
"Honestly, camaraderie is really important, and, especially right now, black camaraderie is really important. Not to mention we’re all, like, best friends so it’s only right that we push each other’s stuff. And we’re all fans of each other so it’s easy!”

Let’s shift to the album: Congrats on your debut; you sounded as confident as ever. What were you trying to accomplish with it?
"Putting out a first album nowadays is really intimidating. A lot of artists feel pressure to make their first album that one. I think I see a lot of artists struggling to make their first album perfect and I’ve been there. 'This album has to be the one!' But I think I’m past that now.

"And because my path with The Internet, I’m not scared of that. I didn’t really feel any pressure at all, which is a beautiful thing. I have a great relationship with my label. I signed an amazing deal with them, I signed a deal pretty much a day after the album was done. I recorded it all for free—[Chuckles.] they just paid for the videos and the mixing and the mastering."

Fin is an interesting choice for the album title...
"I was thinking of a shark’s fin. My original title was called "Dive." I have a lot of water references on the album. I felt like this album was literally diving into something else. [
Makes swimming and nose diving motion with her hands.] At some point the title, [Dive], didn’t really fit anymore. I had this song on the album initially that didn’t make the final tracklist and once I got rid of that song, the title didn’t seem as dope. So I wanted something that was more ambiguous but still related to water. And "Fin" just popped into my head and when I googled it, it seemed to describe, symbolically my role in The Internet. Which is like, you know, the lil’ piece on top. Sometimes you see it first."

You see the shark coming toward you in the ocean.
"Yeah! You know, and I help steer. I help guide."

There are heavy Aaliyah "Can I Come Over" vibes on the track "Know." How big of an impact has Aaliyah had on your music? Who are more of your biggest influences on the record?
"I’m a big Aaliyah fan. Baby Girl, RIP. I always gravitated toward her so much and I think everybody would agree. Her voice was so light and easy to sing along with. And it’s one of them things where if she would’ve come out today, you know, people probably would’ve speculated and tried to say she couldn’t sing until they saw her live. When she was live, she brings that chest voice out and then it’s like 'oh, dang! She just be playing wit’ us with these records! Okay.' But I always looked up to singers like her and Brandy because they have softer voices like I do—and they’re stars. They made a living off it and made it look it easy."

You’ve never been shy about admitting that some subjects of your songs are exes. You sing about a toxic relationship in "Insecurities," and relationships with a time limit in others. Have any exes ever confronted you about the lyrics?
"Not confronting me. I’ve had one ex post a Snapchat with one of my songs in the back and it was a song about her and she knew. She posted a caption that said, 'when your ex writes a song about you but you actually like it.' So it’s like 'dang, that’s what’s up.' As long as no one’s complaining!"

That’s much better than receiving a bunch of angry texts.
"Yeah! I’ve been able to remain cordial with everybody I’ve been with, somehow." [
Laughs.]

Let’s take it back further, most of your work and Odd Future’s early work was published in your home studio at your parent’s house. Have your parents always been supportive of your music career?
"My parents have always been supportive of whatever I’ve wanted to do. If I was playing basketball, they had me in all the leagues, the travelling teams, driving me Santa Barbara to tournaments and stuff like that. I have really dope parents and they happen to both really love, love music—they’re huge music fans. So putting a studio into the house was nothing. My dad helped me buy my first interface and he bought me my first monitors for my birthday. It’s actually amazing, it’s like, I have three studios in my parents’ house now and one of them is, like, a live room—a rehearsal room—and it’s not soundproof at all! But it’ll be 10pm and we’ll be in there rehearsing and my mom will come in there with an iPad like, [
Pretends to record while holding an imaginary iPad.]"

Trying to capture the magic?
"Yeah! At least she’s not trying to go to sleep! It’s awesome. [
Laughs.] My mom used to want to be an [sound] engineer and my dad's brother is a reggae producer. I haven’t been over there in a long time, but, my uncle Mike has a studio compound in Kingston on Grafton Road—and it’s fire. It’s got, like, four rooms and two studios. Going there, the couple times that I did as a kid, made me want to have a studio."

What’s it been like since leaving Odd Future? Some members like Hodgy and Tyler popped up in the "All About Me" video. Are you still in frequent contact with the guys?
"Well, Odd Future still exists. And it probably always will as long as it’s lucrative. It’s a family vibe. Ultimately this was the goal of Odd Future."

For each member to kind of branch out?
"Yeah, it’s the goal of The Internet as well. We’re all doing solo albums so we all have freedom. In that regard, yeah, we’re all in contact. I’m in contact with everybody. We don’t hang out often, but we never really did. We honestly came together for music. The reason we hung out so much when we were kids was because we were [all] making music. We weren’t just kicking it. It looked like we were—we weren’t. At least the music ones weren’t. There was the skater side of things, they would kick it. But on the music side, the six, seven, eight of us were in the studio working all the time."

"It was always more of a professional kind of relationship. And it hit the fan that it was a professional thing when we actually went on tour and had to live with one another and that’s when it was like — 'let’s just make music together.' And so it allowed us all to have a foundation to release music. We all got record deals out of it. The Internet would not be where it is right now if not for me getting a record deal when I was just a DJ."

In the past you’ve said that the gay community gave you a lot of shit for running with Odd Future. Was there a specific moment that you knew it was time to move on?
"You know, when you’re a kid and you first start releasing things, you’re not thinking about how everyone else is going to react all the time or interpret things. So we do a "Cocaine" video where, like, people think I’m promoting drugs but the video had a bad ending… That was the point of the bad ending. Initially they were like, 'How do we end it?' And I was like… 'Let’s end it terribly,' because, you know, we can’t be out here having happy endings after, like, doing drugs in music videos. It’s not realistic. But they took it as like, 'ugh, Syd’s promoting drug use and misogyny!' It’s like 'dang, like, I’m not trying to!'”

"I did a few interviews where, you know, quotes were posted out of context and everybody thought I hated certain artists for not standing up for me. I never said that. Thankfully—nowadays, I mean—I’ve always tried to not play on my sexuality when it comes to marketing because I personally don’t like it when gay artists call themselves "gay artists." A "lesbian rapper" or a "lesbian singer" sounds really stupid to me. I wanted people to like me and like us because the music is fire and not because "she’s gay and I can relate!" I think everybody can kind of relate to relationship issues and friendship stories."

I feel like that’s more of a media thing, too. Oh, "they came out." "The lesbian rapper this," "the lesbian rapper that," and kind of attach that label onto a person after that initial statement.
"Yeah, and I get it, people need to categorize things."

So we now have three out of six projects out from you and your bandmates. When can fans expect the new The Internet album? Is it supposed to drop this year?
"We would like to drop it this year but honestly our motive behind trying to drop it this year has changed a little bit. [
Smiles.] I don’t even wanna get that deep into it but we’re just going to take our time. We have a studio for the day here in New York and we’re going to hang out and see what happens. But yeah, we just gotta take our time. We tried to start working on it some months back in October and it didn’t work because we were all in such different places musically. I was doing R&B. Steve’s doing like, I don’t know… Folk R&B. You know, like, and Matt’s doing electronic experimental progressive stuff. It wasn’t blending very well, back in October. But then we recorded "Dent Jusay" for Matt’s album and that was really refreshing because it gave us a taste of how we can start to approach the next album. So far we’ve approached every Internet album differently. Out of necessity because I know after "Feel Good" we tried to make a bunch of songs like "Dontcha" for Ego Death and it just didn’t work, we tried to redo the same formula and we were all different people by then. We realized that with every album we kinda just have to come at it like it is an empty canvas ‘cause it is. We just have to say, "You know what, let’s figure out how we’re going to do this one!"

Speaking of Ego Death, the album was amazing. Congrats on the Grammy nomination. What do you make of the controversy behind the Grammys and the whitewashing accusations?
"Well, you know, the Grammys at the end of the day is a voting process, [
Laughs.] or so they say. As of right now, most of the people voting resemble the people winning. It’s hard. It sucks because we wanna be upset but the vote was cast… and for me, I have respect for the Grammys as an entity but it’s never been a goal of mine to win one and I think that keeps me free-spirited and light-hearted."

Syd performs with The Internet in 2015 at Madiba Harlem in New York City. Courtesy of Garrett Clare

And onto your writing, have you changed your mind about cursing in the music or are you still trying to avoid it as much as possible?
"I try to avoid it, but if it fits, it fits now. In the beginning it was mostly because I was making music for like, my mom… You know? My second album was catered toward my mom’s demographic. And my mom doesn’t like cuss around me like that. Well, at least as a kid she didn’t. So I didn’t wanna cuss. I didn’t wanna be vulgar. I still cussed here and there when it was appropriate but I really tried not to be vulgar. Nowadays though, whatever feels right ends up there and thankfully, because it’s authentic, my mom respects it. My mom’s favorite song on the album is "Dollar Bills." [
Pauses.] Why? [Laughs.] I have no idea. But yes, my mom’s favorite album is "Dollar Bills," which is a song about strippers. [Makes it rain with imaginary money.] It’s awesome. I’m happy that she accepts me in every shape and form."

When did you decide moms could handle a song like "Dollar Bills?"
“Well, honestly, I wrote “Dollar Bills” for a male artist initially. No one in particular but I wrote it and wanted to give it to a guy to sing but I’m not there yet in the songwriting world. And it was one of Matt’s favorite songs that I’ve been playing around at the time. So I was like, “I’ll throw it on there, shit!” I had my voice pitch down and everything the whole song is pitched down so that I could give it to a guy in actual pitches of him singing it. I write for my register most of the time and a lot of guys don't sing in the same register.”

That’s something you’re trying to do more of, writing for other artists?
"Yeah! That was actually the goal behind the whole solo album, to showcase my different writing styles. I really do wanna write for other artists.”

How is New York City compared to home? What do y’all like doing around the city?
"Honestly, just getting food. New York has a lot of food options. It’s cool ‘cause at home it doesn’t feel that way. [
Laughs.] We have a lot of friends in New York so we just catch up with all the homies. I’ve been eating these Jamaican patties from the store around the corner but they aight. They’re nothing to write home about. But they have some great chipotle chicken over there!"

Any advice for younger artists coming up in the music scene?
"Lately I’ve been telling younger artists to just stay focused. I have a few artists friends who are coming up and it goes back to the question about feeling pressure on my first album—I have a lot of artists friends, man, they drop an album, right, it’s fire. They get a cool 10,000 fans, 20,000 followers and they feel like that’s not enough and then they go and try something else… like, bruh… People’s expectations are too high these days. Artists' expectations are way too high these days. You can’t skip steps. I mean, you can, [
Laughs.] but, it doesn’t usually work out in the long run that way.

"You've got to build a foundation. We’ve released three albums on a major label and people are just now starting to hear our names. And that’s just natural progression. The game has changed where you would be discovered by somebody with a label and they would spend all this money developing you with voice lessons, dance lessons, studio time, rehearsals. Those artists eventually got fucked because they didn’t realize it was coming out of their pockets for all that, which is you know, common sense. But it’s not black and white until you sign the contract so it can be confusing."

"Now we’re in a day and age where labels aren’t paying to develop artists because there are too many artists who have developed themselves already. 'Let’s just find them and half of our job is already done!’ With technology I think that’s why everybody’s expectations are so high. Like, 'If I put it on Twitter, well, the whole world is on Twitter!' Yeah but, ain’t nobody looking at your Twitter page! That takes time…"

You can't expect everything to go viral.
"Exactly! Even then you have people who go viral and then a month later you're wondering what happened to them and they're wondering what happened to them. [
Laughs.] They're mad because they never got credit or they never got paid for going viral. And I understand it because there are a lot of people out here who, you know, like, there’s the girl who did the eyebrows on fleek video [Kayla Newman a.k.a. Peaches Monroe] who’s asking for, you know, she did a Kickstarter."

She just made that right?
"Yeah! I
feel it because there’s people with t-shirts… that say on fleek on 'em! [You can tell she’s very passionate about this.] She’s not getting the cut off of that. It sucks because it’s real grey right now. It’s like being a photographer: you take a picture, people just steal it, post it with no credit!”

It’s on everyone’s Instagram…
"Yeah! Nobody knows who took it! It’s hard out here but the key is make yo next album. Drop an album. Make another! Drop it. Make another one. That’s how Future got here. That’s his formula. [
Does her best Future impression.] 'I dropped the mixtape so I got like 40,000 fans. I got like another 50-60,000 and then I dropped another one.' It’s common sense but it’s genius!"

That was a bomb Future impression.
[
Laughs.] "Shout out to Future, man!"


Earlier you said it’s important for black artists to stay together and develop camaraderie. How is The Internet trying to make that happen?

"This tour is really important because I've never seen anything like it in black music and the closest thing is maybe like Soulquarius and even then it was usually just one set a night. It wasn’t just, you know, 'Hey we're going to do these D'Angelo songs and then these Roots songs.' It was like, 'The Roots g'on back D’Angelo and everybody.'"

"I think what’s so fun and also so hard about it is that we’re making it up as we go. There’s no reference to go on. The base of it is our friendship and our camaraderie and the fact that we’re all friends with one another and we can be because like I said, Steve’s album don’t sound like mine, it’s fire! It don’t sound nothing like mine. Why not? Why not stick together?"

Any final words?
"Go get the
Drum Chord Theory by Matt Martians. Go get Steve Lacy's Demo."

Syd and The Internet will perform at The Scala in London for three nights next month — on April 9, 10, and 11.

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