This article was originally published on Ampersand
Music streaming has normalized experimentation and blurred the lines between genres. Though this has surely enriched the craft, music that pushes boundaries can at times be tough to adjust to. Fresh takes are great, but for many listeners, there is an undeniable comfort in the familiar.
California-based singer-songwriter Jack Symes is, at his core, a folk musician. But by no means does this mean he is a traditionalist. Over the past seven years, Symes has released three albums that exhibit his growth both as a lyricist and as an artist crafting a distinct sound.
In 2016, as he was concluding his final year studying energy and climate policy at UC Berkeley, Symes recorded his debut EP, “Gargoyles.” Its purpose was to have something to show event managers for a postgraduate tour he was planning throughout his last semester in college. This brief, guitar-oriented collection of folk songs was the blueprint for his later work. “Gargoyles” gave listeners a preview of what they could expect to hear live.
That summer, Symes drove along the West Coast with Berkeley musician, videographer, and graphic designer Nat Lefkoff, a collaborator Symes has kept to this day. Over two and a half months, he played at a variety of small venues, from breweries to college bars to house parties. Across the 40 to 50 shows they worked, Symes & Co. slept on couches and traveled in a minivan. The tour gave Symes a taste of what it takes to build a following.
After college, Symes worked a series of odd jobs in the Bay Area that left him unfulfilled and yearning to be back on the road. He then did something he had never done before: fantasized about a future as a professional musician. By 2019, Symes had moved back home to Los Angeles, committed himself to a music career, and recorded his first full-length album.
"Songs for Moms" marked a sonic shift for Symes: once a man and his guitar against the world, now a man and a band. Symes never abandoned folk, but instead added more layers to give his music a fuller sound. He started bringing in other musicians and playing more instruments himself.
“I think since ‘Gargoyles,’ there’s been an outward expansion of wanting collaboration,” Symes says, and so his music and brand took on a stronger presence. "Songs for Moms," as a package, wasn’t written for Symes’ mother; rather, it was his way of showing her what he’d been working on over his formative years, during which he had been very uncommunicative, rarely seeing his parents.
“The songs were kind of like answers for whatever questions my mom might have had for me … like ‘what have you been up to for four years? Five years?’” Symes explains. “So, there you go — here’s some heartbreak and religious introspection.” In that sense, the songs were for her, but more as an explanation for his absence. And he certainly needed something to soothe her, because he moved to the East Coast almost right after he was done recording the album.
While visiting New York City to play a few shows, Symes met his now-girlfriend at an afterparty. The two hit it off immediately, and their mutual distaste for long-distance relationships prompted his decision to relocate across the country. He moved into her apartment in the East Village right opposite the iconic Tompkins Square Park, which inspired the title for his next and most recent album. Many songs on it were written during this phase of his life — he was once again dealing with the uncertainty that comes with moving to a new city without a secure job.
“New York is fucking terrifying,” he says. “It was just a lot of plug and play. I’d have to go to like a thousand spots before I was like, ‘yep, I got my three (gigs).’” But 2021’s "Tompkins Park" turned out elegant and wholesome, bringing him to where he is today — clear-headed and positioned to continue expanding his sound. These 12 songs span genres and integrate modern and digitalsounds: “just a lot of sitting around and tweaking different knobs, looking up YouTube tutorials on keyboards, then coming in the next day with some idea of how to manipulate the sound a little bit.”
Still, there’s a warmth to his songs that makes them easy to engage with. Symes adorns his songwriting with a familiar tenderness that listeners are inclined to welcome with open arms. He is privy to the fact that a lot of people attending his performances have never heard his music before, and so he designs it for first-time listeners to digest with ease.
“I think the idea of the musical element feeling already warm and inviting, or not demanding, creates more room for the lyrics to really take the focus,” he says. It is apparent from his songs that his words are carefully thought out, even if the subject matter of a song isn’t particularly serious. He makes it a point to “create a platform for the lyrics to sit in front” while finding new sounds to season them with.
Symes also oversees the instrumentation and production in the collaborative spaces he now operates in. His last album had about ten other contributors, all of whom have played an important role in his artistic maturation. Unlike his earlier sets, he now performs with a drummer and bassist while holding on to the unprocessed emotion that initially set him on his path. From the very beginning, he took all the help he could get, but essentially got this far off his own volition.
He moved back to LA this past October and is now working on his third album. In the seven years since his first EP, his sound has grown a great deal; now, it’s time for it to travel. This March, Symes embarks on his 32-date tour across the United States. He will circle back to LA at the end of April for a co-headlining show at Zebulon with singer/songwriter Eva B. Ross to conclude the tour.
Jack Symes’ music is familiar, and while it may not be unlike something you’ve heard or seen before, it satiates an inexhaustible demand: comfort.