Syd: The pacemaker
“I didn’t know people thought I was elusive!” exclaims Sydney Bennett. Halfway through our Zoom-facilitated interview, the California resident giggles as I attempt to explain how she seems to give off an unattainable vibe. Sat in her white Land Rover Defender truck with enviable LA sunshine streaming through the windows, Syd appears genuinely stumped: “Like, what? I met my girlfriend on Hinge! I’m just out here.”
While our definitions of ‘out here’ may somewhat differ, there’s no denying that the 28-year-old is an alternative R&B sensation. Raised around musical family members, Syd discovered her ear for music early on, and at the age of 14, she built a little studio in her family home. By the time she joined the infamous hip-hop collective Odd Future in 2008, she was an established producer, engineer and DJ. The lone woman in the group, it was her time with the self-styled hellraisers that brought her to the world’s attention. The creation of her band, The Internet, in 2011, would make sure she stayed there.
Top: Good Fight
Years of delivering moody, emotional lyrics and dulcet-toned vocals over trippy beats on tracks like Girl and Special Affair gained Syd and her Internet bandmates – Matthew Martin, Steve Lacy, Patrick Paige II, Christopher Smith, Tay Walker and Jameel Bruner – a loyal following, even earning their Ego Death album a Grammy nomination in 2016. Emboldened, the band went on to focus on their individual projects, precipitating Syd’s debut album, the soulful and slinky Fin. With so much already under her belt in just under 30 years, you’d be forgiven for mistaking her aversion to the limelight for a certain aloofness, but as it turns out, she really is very shy and very regular.
As soon as she hops onto our video call, she swings her phone around, in selfie mode, to show me where she’s just ordered her morning beverage. Once settled in her prized Defender, iced coffee in tow, she explains why her enigma status feels so far from her reality. “I live a really low-key life. I live with my parents, the same house that I grew up in from the age of two,” she shares. “I have my own wing of the house and I just chill. I’m literally dropping music from my childhood bedroom.”
She begins to ponder where this elusiveness might come from, putting it down to her Californian upbringing. “I think a lot of it is that I grew up in LA, where I’m just not surprised or impressed by a lot of things so I just go home early from the party.” Something she’s understood better over the pandemic is that she’s pretty good with solitude. “I just like being alone, maybe that’s what it is. I’ll pull up long enough to say ‘hi’ and kick it with the homies I haven’t seen in a minute but as soon as I start getting cold or sleepy, I’m going home for some me-time.” It leads me to ask her star sign, banking on her being an Earth sign. So when she says “Taurus”, for once, the math is finally mathing.
Top: Lotte.99 and Huewylewis
Perhaps the most regular thing about Syd is that, just like the rest of us, she is also prone to extreme heartbreak; the demise of a relationship towards the beginning of lockdown in May 2020 was earth-shattering. “I went through a really bad break-up, the worst break-up I’ve ever been through.” The split was so bad that she ended up buying her biggest purchase to date, a Bronco SUV, the very next day.
“I’m literally dropping music from my childhood bedroom”
Things were further compounded by the mere fact that her ex-girlfriend was the inspiration for the album she was working on. “I was writing so many songs about our relationship before the break-up and they were all really happy love songs. I was in album mode, album mode, album mode and then May hit.” She pauses to take a sip of coffee before continuing. “The album was about her and so it made me not want to finish it and start over. At first, I scrapped half of it and I was like, ‘OK, fuck those songs, I’ve got to replace them.’” Syd found herself becoming increasingly resentful as she attempted to pen lyrics. “I tried to write songs about how I was feeling and I thought it would really inspire some music but everything it inspired just sounded so bitter. That helped me actually to be like, ‘Oh, that’s not cute.’ It allowed me to see myself from the outside in and I just stopped working on my album.” Taking a break created space for introspection which proved to be an extremely critical move. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is the outlet that I want to use to get over this.’” This new approach was exemplified by her first solo track in almost four years. Released, tantalisingly, just before Valentine’s Day, Missing Out speaks to the pain of love lost, but with a great deal of reflexivity over an arrangement of synths: “Hope you findin’ what you need or what you seek ‘cause now I’m free,” she achingly croons, “and maybe in another life, you’d be mine, mine, mine.”
Top: Good Fight
Unbeknownst to Syd, the decision to take a step back would go beyond the album. It gave her the chance to start over. “For the past 10 years, all I did was music. If I wasn’t writing, I was making a beat. If I wasn’t making a beat, I was trying to learn a song on piano or practising guitar. Everything I did was music.” She needed a lull, a pause, a chance to catch her breath. “I took this as a time to find other hobbies and to figure out who I was outside of my career.”
Syd took full advantage of the lockdown and being stuck in one place – a rare occurrence for any artist. From giving herself over to her love of fixing up and driving trucks (“I always put Broncos in all my music videos”) to wrapping her mind around crypto-currency (“it’s only a matter of time before people start catching on and realise that it’s nice that there’s no government controlling this”), the Internet frontwoman threw herself into all manner of interests.
There’s a new partnership with a Napa Valley sparkling wine brand because she’s a “champagne campaign kind of person”. There’s work taking place on a t-shirt brand because she couldn’t find white tees that would fit the way she wanted while showing off her belt collection. There’s a potential film on the cards as well as a separate mysterious music project with a friend. She’s been making time to – safely – reconnect with regular collaborators and friends from Odd Future, too. “I see Tyler [the Creator] probably once a week, he was picnicking at my house every Sunday. I’ve seen Lionel [‘L-Boy’ Boyce] and Jasper [Dolphin]. Frank [Ocean] pulled up a few times. The pandemic brought some of us a lot closer together.”
She’s even in a new relationship, something that I refuse to let slide because, as a lesbian, I’m pretty adept at spotting painfully on-the-nose lesbian activity. “Wait, so you had a break-up in May 2020,” I say slowly, gathering my thoughts, “and it’s now March 2021 and you’re already settled in a new relationship? Two lockdown relationships?” The songwriter doubles over with laughter, sheepishly caught in the act of falling prey to the all-too-familiar archetype. “The girl I’m with now also went through a break-up in lockdown and we kind of just bounced back together so it works.”
“I just like being alone. I’ll pull up long enough to say ‘hi’ and kick it with the homies but as soon as I start getting cold or sleepy, I’m going home for some me-time”
It’s hard to believe that ahead of our call, I had felt somewhat nervous to bring up sexuality to Syd, especially considering that she had been accused of being a “misogynistic lesbian” only a few years back. A result of her association with Odd Future and their frequent use of homophobic slurs, as well as a controversial music video for The Internet track Cocaine, which included feeding her girlfriend drugs and abandoning her by the roadside, Syd faced a wave of backlash from LGBTQ+ commentators. In interviews she seemed reticent to talk about her identity at length, but on our call, instead of deflecting or avoiding, she welcomes my question about whether her feelings on talking about her sexuality, and queerness in general, have shifted since then.
“Yes, in some ways. I feel like I did what I set out to do early on which was to just normalise the queerness. Why does it have to be the main topic of discussion in every interview?” she asks. “I’m just gay, can we leave it at that? I had nothing to do with misogyny or shame, obviously,” Syd says, gesturing at herself and her well-known androgynous style which, on this call, features an oversized Lil’ Bow Wow t-shirt. “Nobody had ever gone about it that way so it was misunderstood and understandably so. I don’t blame anybody for misunderstanding me but I think now that I’ve done that, I’m in a better position now to – I don’t know – be a role model if anyone wants me to be that.”
Trousers: Ben Davis
That better position also means she feels more like she’s part of a queer community – something she couldn’t attest to before. “A lot of what I was going through then was just the fact that I didn’t have a whole lot of gay women friends. Like most of my friends were dudes or straight women so I just felt kind of alone in that.” But now, feeling more comfortable with talking about her sexuality in the public eye, Syd’s ready to be a queer point of reference for anyone who needs it: “I feel like now I can be that denominator in my community where it’s like, maybe you didn’t relate to those women over there or those dudes over there but maybe you will relate to me being right here.”
What becomes clear over our call is that Syd is allowing herself the grace to grow, to experiment, to rethink and to restart. Her self-awareness, which seems to have only been heightened across lockdown, is tangible as she continues to ask difficult questions of herself, while, simultaneously, not beating herself up if she gets things wrong. She seems to be decentralising her music career, opting instead to find joy in other pockets. While Syd’s by no means abandoning the writing and producing that has propelled her to where she is, she’s realised that it can’t be her everything, and frankly, she doesn’t want it to be. “The beauty of where I’m at now is that if I’m putting out a song, it’s because I genuinely just want to put it out. It’s for no other reason. It’s been interesting to just release music just to release music and to see how people respond to that.”
“For the past ten years, all I did was music. I took this as a time to find other hobbies and to figure out who I was outside of my career”
Before our time together draws to an end, which Syd marks by attempting to capture my London accent with a near-unrecognisable Australian-English hybrid, I ask her what the rest of 2021 holds for her. “I don’t know,” she says very simply. “I’m trying to take it day by day. There will be some singles because I don’t really care to hold onto this music, you know. I want to release it, even if it’s not in the form of an album.” She finishes with a promise: “It’ll come out one way or another.”