Interview: Ethereal Folk Songwriter Jessye DeSilva Talks New Single ‘Siren Song’, Upcoming Record, & More

Authenticity is a large part of what makes an artist relatable to listeners.

So “Siren Song”, the newest single from alt-Americana artist Jessye DeSilva, energetically tells the authentic experience of dealing with anxiety and depression as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. 

“Siren Song” was released on February 22nd, DeSilva’s first single after being named by American Songwriter as one of the “10 LGBTQ+ Artists You Should Know” in 2021. It will be featured on their upcoming full-length album, Landscapes, which is expected to be available on April 12th. 

The Boston musician is largely inspired by the trauma of growing up queer in a Baptist household, a large part of why their music is so deeply introspective. Having grown up taking piano lessons and singing in their father’s church, DeSilva has been enamored with music for as long as they can remember, eventually leading them to be an Assistant Professor of Voice at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee College of Music.

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DeSilva was able to answer some questions about their new single, the upcoming album, and much more. 

So who or what inspired you most to dedicate your life to music?

SO many people… I grew up in a fairly musical family. My Aunt sang classical music and was a private voice teacher, my Mom and her mother (my Grammie) both played piano and sang a lot around the house. My other Grammom loved Italian opera and had the most gorgeous voice, despite never having had a lesson. I think that as a teenager though, it was the space that music gave me to explore who I was in terms of my gender and sexuality, and just all of the FEELINGS I had in adolescence. Artists like Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos really sharing their intimate experiences through the CD player, helped me to feel seen and less alone in the world.

Was there a defining moment in your life that made you realize songwriting was your calling?

I wrote a lot as a teenager, sort of organically, by ear and without a real sense of “form” (i.e. verse-chorus-bridge structure). Then in college, I studied classical music and really got away from my writing. I got away from MYSELF really during that time… and I also think when music became this structured, rigid thing for me, I felt like my perspective wasn’t valuable in the face of old dead white men like Beethoven and Bach… However many years later, I became a voice teacher, and I began to feel like I was teaching other folks how to be artists, but didn’t have an artistic practice of my own that was just for ME. When I got back into writing and slowly built up the nerve to play open mics, I realized that maybe my songs were good enough to be heard… and I started to get feedback from folks who felt seen through my songs, and that was pretty much it for me!

I see you just dropped your new single, “Siren Song.” What is the story and influence behind the track?

I wrote “Siren Song” with one of my best friends, Alex Calabrese (he has a band called Old Tom & The Lookouts). He and I really bonded early on in our collaboration over mental health issues… anxiety and depression are things we both live with and are passionate about shining a light on in our music. In that particular session, we sort of got on this tangent about Odysseus and Greek mythology, and so somehow that image of your inner “voice” as the Siren song made its way into this song that’s really about feeling unmoored and lost in the throes of anxiety.

Is there a recurring theme in your music that you typically write about, and what does your songwriting process usually look like?

Apart from mental health, I tend to write a lot about gender identity and religious trauma and how those two things intertwine. Taking a page from the books of Joni and Tori and even Stevie Nicks, I feel like the more I share my own experience, hopefully the more it will help others feel seen.

My “process” has changed a lot over the years… I think I used to have this need to “finish” a song in one sitting, and if I couldn’t I would just throw it away. These days, I tend to type little ideas, metaphors, lyric seeds, etc into my notes app on my phone and at some point, when it feels like there are enough that might work together, I’ll sort of puzzle them together. That’s when I’m writing alone. When I co-write with Alex (which we do weekly), I’ll often bring one of these little idea fragments in and we will really work to sort of come up with something that feels like a full song in a couple of hours… that doesn’t mean we won’t go back and edit it, but we try to sort of see the idea through as completely as we can in that one day.

What was it like for you to be mentioned in American Songwriter in 2021 as one of “10 LGBTQ+ Artists You Should Know”?

It was kind of a dream, to be honest. American Songwriter has always been a bit of a dream publication for me, and when I released the last EP, Hover, in January 2021, I wasn’t able to get a placement there. However, I woke up one morning in June to a bunch of Twitter notifications that Jason Scott had written up this piece for Pride month. What’s really beautiful is that Jason has this blog called B-Sides and Badlands where they write about horror films and independent music, and they were the FIRST person to review one of my songs back in 2019. They’ve kept up with my music and were kind enough to include me in the American Songwriter piece and I will be forever grateful!

What advice might you give to young up and coming LGBTQ+ artists who are trying to establish their own path in the industry?

Well, I feel like I’m still trying to establish my own path myself, so I’m not sure if folks want to take advice from me! BUT I would say that it should be just that. YOUR OWN path. I think that the industry can be less-than-welcoming for folks of marginalized identities, and something that one of my favorite artists D’Orjay The Singing Shaman once said really stuck with me.

During a conversation about LGBTQ and BIPOC artists in country music, she said that she was done with begging for a seat at the table, and that instead she was interested in building a NEW table. I think for me, it’s important that no matter how invested I might be in my own success, that HAS to happen as part of a community. I want to make sure I’m continuing to uplift others in the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC musical communities as much as, if not more than, promoting myself.

What does success as a musician and songwriter mean to you?

I think success means different things at different times for me. I think that capital S success would be just being able to make music without going into debt! But I also think that success in a more meaningful sense is having my music matter to someone… yeah sure, it would be awesome to have this huge following, where the audience sings all of the lyrics to my songs at shows, and maybe I’ll achieve that, but I’ve already been told by individuals that a song of mine helped them feel seen, and as cliche as it sounds, I really mean it when I say that that feels like real success to me.

One of my songs “Queen of the Backyard,” which was on my last EP, is about my memories of what it felt like to just be my Queer little childhood self, when I was too young to realize that the world thought I was “different.” It’s a song that explores this sort of innocent, unadulterated joy of childhood. Someone friended me on Facebook last year and messaged to tell me that their young child who is Nonbinary and Autistic had begun asking to hear, “That song about the kid like me…” every night before bed. Honestly, I think that may still be my greatest achievement.

What else can we expect to see or hear from Jessye DeSilva in the near future?

Well my next single “Hibernate” comes out on March 22nd… And the album, Landscapes, will be out in April. I’m REALLY proud of this record because it was made with lots of love, with musicians who are also great friends, tracking live as a band in the studio. I think it’s the most “me” record I’ve put out, and I think not coincidentally, also the most collaborative record as well.

I’ll be heading to Nashville and Knoxville in a couple of weeks for a mini-tour… it’s my first time there, and I’ll be playing at The Bowery Vault, Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge (both in Nashville), and The Bird and the Book in Knoxville. Then my album release show will be back home in Boston at the Boston Harbor Distillery on April 21st! It’s gonna be a great night!

Photo by Jenny Bergman The Secret Bureau of Art & Design

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