White Eagle Hall Interviews: Sylvana Joyce

Sylvana Joyce & the Moment: Gypsy Rock Returns to White Eagle Hall

By Timothy Herrick

Sylvana Joyce & the Moment bring their fusion of progressive rock and Balkan rhythms back to White Eagle Hall, for the not-to-be-missed Friggin Fabulous Productions Presents: Nick Ciavatta’s Birthday Bash on April 6th when Joyce and crew co-headlines with Sea of Otters on an extraordinary local bill that includes: Chrissy Roberts, Twiddlin’ Thumbs, Keith Kenny, Terry Haman, Plastiq Passion and Michael Lally. The award winning, accolade-earning (“singer and keyboardist Sylvana is basically a human carnival” –Huffington Post) and uniquely exhilarating Sylvana Joyce & The Moment blend multiple genres into a unique concoction Sylvana calls gypsy rock. Besides Sylvana, who is lead vocalist, songwriter and keyboard player extraordinaire, The Moment features: Sean-David Cunningham – violin; Jack Breslin – electric bass; Chris Smith – electric guitar and Jeremy Sauber – drums. How did she discover her original sound? Her remarkable journey includes a Queens childhood, a famous Romanian composer grandfather, classic musical training, Tori Amos obsessions and a foray into acting as a child. In this White Eagle Hall interviews, besides touching on a variety of subjects, Sylvana attempted to explain the specific brew of multiple and often disparate experiences and influences that formed one of Jersey City’s most beloved, and original musical artists.

Timothy: If you knew you were dying tomorrow, what would be your last wish?

Sylvana: I have a lot of wishes, so if that was true trying to piece it down into one thing is difficult. I would just like to complete my work and ideas and bring it to my friends and say see if you can do anything with this, put it out into the world if you can understand it and think you can do it.

Timothy: Why ‘The Moment’ instead of ‘The Moments’?

Sylvana: Moments plural is, being able to see a timeline that is kind of a linear way of thinking about time. The moment is very renewing, being inside of it means it is eternal, not linear. The artist wants to be active, be truly emotionally present and dive into what is a deep sense of presence. You want to tap into the universe.

Timothy: What was the last song you remembered hearing before speaking with me?

Sylvana: You Really Got Me Now. My morning gig is to perform with little kids, like toddlers and play piano and we had to perform this morning.

Timothy: The kids played the Kinks song, You Really Got Me Now.

Sylvana: Yes, that was my morning and the last song I heard.

Timothy: What do you remember most about playing White Eagle Hall?

Sylvana: White Eagle Hall is the dream venue, for so many reasons. It’s so damn beautiful to look at, whether you are in the audience or from the stage. You are entranced by it and the beautiful mood lighting, the beautiful stained glass. It’s such a huge space! It really lets your music reverberate. It’s a huge stage. It’s also a very attentive crew, from the sound crew to the stage hands, I really felt pampered. Just a lot of wonderful people who made us feel respected. So many times you arrived at a gig and it’s really thankless, but from the moment we came to White Eagle Hall, we were treated well.

Timothy: What about the sound system?

Sylvana: It’s perfect because as a performer, you can really hear yourself and the band. You can hear what the audience is hearing. 

Timothy: As a performer now based in Jersey City, what does White Eagle Hall signify for musicians?

Sylvana: White Eagle Hall has the opportunity to put us on the map. Yes, Hoboken has places to play but nothing like this. Jersey City is its own jewel.

Timothy: What is the hardest thing about trying to build a career in today’s music industry?

Sylvana: Even if you meet any of your favorite artists, it doesn’t happen where they got to where they are in the music industry because the industry has changed 10 times since they did it. It is so much in flux, it is really hard and it is so individual too. It really depends on so many kinds of different things… what kind of instrumentation you use, how marketable your music is on a commercial level. There are so many nuances to being a working musician and a working songwriter, it’s hard to wrap your head around it all.

Timothy: When you want to be alone with your thoughts in Jersey City, where do you go?

Sylvana: I like going to Riverview Park in the Heights. It has a really nice view of the city from there and there is usually not a lot of people around. It is quiet, well as quiet as you can get in the Heights in Jersey City.

Timothy: You grew up in New York?

Sylvana: I grew up in Queens, which is really the best of New York City. You get everyone from all over the world there. There was and still is a great population of Greeks in Astoria. I grew up in a Romanian household, my heritage is Romanian, and there’s a bunch of Romanians in Queens, but there were also Iranians, Brazilians, people from Bangladesh, a large Polish community. It is really so much a melting pot.

Timothy: Why the keyboard?

Sylvana: My mom put me in front of a keyboard and a guitar around the age of 4. I gravitated towards the easy learning curve of the piano and started music lessons. I was just always weighted towards the piano at a very early age.

Timothy: What piano players inspired you the most?

Sylvana: My biggest influences as a songwriter are Tori Amos and Billy Joel, especially Tori Amos. She seems like a force of nature on stage. She commands such a presence, she kind of gyrates like a sex sorceress. I kind of like how wonderfully unhinged she is. She has a classical music background like me, and seeing her next to a grand piano, that changed my way of thinking as a performer and musician. Billy Joel is so prolific. I’ve moved on, but when I gravitated towards more pop oriented music I listened to a lot of Billy Joel. I still have an appreciation of his songwriting. His music was important in my beginning as a pianist and songwriter.

Timothy: You call the music of Sylvana Joyce & The Moment gypsy rock, why? Where does it come from, how do you tap into it and are there other gypsy rock musicians that you have been influenced by?

Sylvana: It’s a difficult question to answer. I can hear my mother now screaming now: ‘you don’t have any gypsy blood!’ She is pretty sore about that issue and it is somewhat of a problem in Europe. I use the term loosely, and maybe I need to rethink how I use the word. We are in an age where have to be more careful about how and where we define each other. When I’ve had to explain how we get our sound, it’s the mixing of my grandfather’s music, George Sbarcea, with other genres. He was a composer and he combined Romanian folk music with the Argentinian Tango. I listened to his music all the time, it was the thing we listened to the most at home. His music is romantic, danceable and sensual, combined with great melodic lines and chord progressions. I want to continue that tradition, taking his influence, taking the Romanian Folk Music with its danceable and romantic vibe and bring it to hard-edged rock music. There’s such a refined sound to Balkan music and getting that tangled up with a background of metal and rock fascinates me. Gogol Bordello, who is a gypsy punk rock troubadour has been an inspiration, he has an extroverted presence, and combines rock with the more refined sound of chamber music.

Timothy: Are you influenced by progressive rock?

Sylvana: Funny enough, I’m not influenced by prog rock, but it has inspired me. I think the closest to what we are doing is to Queen, or Meatloaf, which has that similar sonic texture. Freddy Mercury uses his voice in a way that bends genre and sounds operatic. I definitely feel we are similar, and people have pointed that out a lot, the progressive rock connection, especially Queen. I love Queen’s music, but I did didn’t grow up listening to Queen.

Timothy: What role does the violin play in The Moment?

Sylvana: The violin is what most defines our sound. I would like to lie and say that how I use the violin is because of my grandfather and the influence of Balkan music, but the truth is that I have been playing classical music with Sean (Sean-David Cunningham) since we were 10 years old, and when I was putting the band together I said hey Sean, why don’t you come to a rehearsal. We started having all these great ideas. He had only played classical music before then. It is the hidden element to our sound.

Timothy: You were in such great voice when you played White Eagle Hall last. Are there any special exercises you do for your voice or is it affected by things beyond your control?

Sylvana: I don’t think it is beyond one’s control, but my biggest journey in music is to improve as a vocalist. I made a lot of mistakes starting out, I had to gain my footing as a front-woman of a band, and a rock singer. The demand on your voice is very difficult, and we play very difficult music to learn to be vocalist by. I feel that his year that I’ve been more confident about doing whatever I can to get the sound I want when I open my mouth. It’s not common to hear yourself well when you are in the places we play, with the exception being Maxwell’s, which had great sound, or White Eagle Hall of course. I think it’s incredibly important for musicians to hear themselves in the context of who is playing around them. The voice is an instrument, and when your body is your instrument, you tend to strain to be heard, and that can lead to permanent discomfort.

Timothy: Your music is so theatrical. Is theater an influence on you? Are there musicals that you particularly love?

Sylvana: I am definitely and thoroughly in love with musicals, musical theater and theatre. I had a stint as a professional actor, when I was a kid. I had a few gigs on and off Broadway. That itch never left me. I wanted to get on stage at an early age and have that be a part of my life. As for musical theater, I love the sweeping large orchestral vibe of Andrew Lloyd Webber even when it is really cheesy. I especially like his older work, like Evita and Phantom of the Opera. My favorite musical is a small one She Loves Me, which has the same story line for You Got Mail. I was in an after school musical theater program when I was sevem, in first grade. My teacher noticed I was naturally talented and she got me an audition for a Tony Kushner play, The Slavs. The monologue I had to memorize was two and a half pages long. I played a hospital patient, a radiation victim of Chernobyl. I initially got the role, but Tony Kushner wanted permission to shave my head and my mother was queasy about that at first and when she finally agreed, the role had already went to Mischa Barton, who went on to star in the O.C.

Timothy: What is your favorite mammal and why?

Sylvana: Most people had teddy bears, but I had stuffed tiger named Jake. I love felines. I probably have to say felines.

Timothy: Do you have a cat?

Sylvana: I used to have cats, but the place I live in now doesn’t allow pets. It’s very sad.

Timothy: Then let’s move on to another animal question. If a reptile or amphibian was your spirit animal, which one would you want to be your guide?

Sylvana: I think I am in the phase that I like Amphibians and like most women in the 20s, I would like to be that peace and love frog that you’re going to lick and get high.

Timothy: What is your favorite month of the year?

Sylvana: Ironically, it would have to be July. I say ironically because I lost my father in July of 1996. It’s one of the hardest months for me, yet that’s when it’s full-on summer. I love the sweltering heat, I thrive in July weather.

Timothy: Did you always want to be a musician?

Sylvana: Want is a strange word. I always was a musician. All I really want out of life is to share and help foster a sense of community and togetherness and compassion with music and art.

Timothy: Songwriting, singing, playing keyboards, performing – what comes the easiest?

Sylvana: I don’t know. They’re all in one lump in my brain. If I have to say, I can sit down, any time of day or night at the piano, it is the one thing that any time I can do well. You can find me have an off day as vocalist or songwriting, but sit me down in front of the piano, I have something do, something I feel very comfortable doing.

Timothy: Do you have any pre-show rituals?

Sylvana: I used to really, and still try, though I get distracted, to isolate myself a little bit and give myself a chance to relax, and get into the mood of performance.

Timothy: Complete this sentence, after a show I always. ..?

Sylvana: … get in the comfiest clothes possible.

Timothy: What is your favorite flower?

Sylvana: I notice a trend, here. This answer is kind of depressing too. But in the context of my life, I love tulips but it’s depressing because my earliest memories, when visiting my grandmother’s grave, we would always bring tulips. I love the smell of them, their colors… the shape of them is so unique.

Timothy: What is your favorite movie?

Sylvana. Oh, I’m so jealous because I am not good at favorites. There’s so much to appreciate in films, from different story telling techniques to cinematography. But, I love Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, with Julie Delpy, it’s just a really long conversation, but so much underneath, so much subtle meaning. That is kind of what songwriting is.

Timothy: Do you have a favorite writer?

Sylvana: John Irving. My favorite book of his is Widow for One Year. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a close second

Timothy: What records do you remember hearing growing up?

Sylvana: To be honest, I grew up loving Mozart, Beethoven and eventually discovering Rachmaninoff and Brahms. I didn’t really discover of the American tradition until college, and then I was inhaling music, every day… Nina Simone, Tori Amos, The Doors. I was feeling all this stuff I was exposed to.

Timothy: What was the first record you bought?

Sylvana: This is going to be embarrassing, but in my childhood it was not LPs but cassettes. It was Ace of Base, The Sign. It’s like Swedish Reggae.

Timothy: Do you miss Cassettes?

Sylvana: I do! There was a warmth to the texture of sound with tape. To be honest, the sound quality on a cassette is not much worse than a crappy MP3 file. Also, I miss the ritual of turning around the cassette, the two worlds of sides an A and sides B. You had to choose which side to play, and it was hard to rewind. You had to make a commitment to listen to at least one side.

Timothy: River, Ocean, Lake – if you can be—

Sylvana: Ocean!

Timothy: — on the shore of any of body of water, which one would you chose.

Sylvana: Still Ocean. I love the majestic nature of a large body of water, it is so powerful. I have fond memories of the ocean and going to the beach growing up.

Timothy: What beach did your family go to?

Sylvana: Jones Beach, out on Long Island.

See Sylvana Joyce & The Moment at  Friggin Fabulous Productions Presents: Nick Ciavatta’s Birthday Bash, April 6, White Eagle Hall (Doors 7:30/Show: 8:00)

Find out more about Sylvana Joyce & The Moment. Visit: sjandthemoment.com