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August 2019
Vienna, Austria

The singer Syannah stands out among the young Viennese musicians for her unfiltered relationship with the audience. I sat down with the 22-year-old to speak about her new-found confidence, self-development coaching and the difficulties women face in the music industry.

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I wasn't supposed to be there.

The cafe I had planned to dine in that evening turned out to be closed for the summer, so I went to Mi Barrio instead, a latin-american restaurant in Viennas's sixth district, with a secluded little terrace at the back, varnished with warm-coloured fairy lights. Occasionally, there is live music in the background to accompany your asado negro or a cheesy quesadilla, and that night, as I was about to tuck into my arepa de pabellon, there she was: a young 22-year-old singer/songwriter named Syannah (a name composed of the first letter of her actual name Claudia (English 'Sy') + her middle name Anna = Syannah). She is barefoot, in a short black summer dress with minimal makeup. Her only accessory? A guitar and a mic that she is setting up according to her liking as she greets the audience. She inhales deeply before she speaks, and I immediately sense she has no intention of being passive on stage, so I put my dish aside. Besides, the noises of cutlery against my plate made me feel shameful. She looks you right into the eye when she speaks and takes long, unapologetic pauses as she gathers her thoughts. As I reach for the glass of my Sauvignon blanc, Syannah reveals the inspiration behind the first song she's about to perform. The audience is hooked, and so am I. When I nibble on my arepa again, the meat is already cold.

"I want to touch people with what I do and have a connection with my audience," Syannah explains as we sit on her couch in a two-room flat that she shares with her cat. It is now 9am and two weeks after her live act.

"I feel like, how can they open up if I don't open up? Sometimes people come up to me and say they can relate not only to the songs but to what I said before that, and that makes me happy. Like, recently I wrote a song called 'To my body', because when I was 15, I wasn't eating healthy, and I was convinced that I had to look skinny."

Chasing perfection is a concept that Syannah struggled with her entire life. In fact, the first song she played the night we met was "That Girl" (a song she always leads with because it "captivates the audience right from the start"), which deals with the theme of maturing into self-acceptance. She started writing it when she was 17 years old, and it took her over two years to finish it.

In the lyrics she sings:

When I was young I didn't care about my looks or what to wear. I was just lost in my own world, and that is where I met this girl. The girl who had that pretty face as if she'd come from outer space. That girl who always had a plan, who was the crush of every man.

"It's about this person that I made up in my head who was perfect. As I was a very insecure and sensitive child, I was very scared to go out there and do what I love. I was locking myself up in a room a lot, playing in my own fantasy world. In that world, I was that girl - she was pretty, she was successful, she was popular in school, she had super powers, she was everything that I wanted to be."

When Syannah was 15, the age her mother fully grasped the extent of her child's sensitivity,  she enrolled Syannah in a self-development course as a means to help her daughter make sense of her emotions.

"My mum was like, I might know someone who can help you," she laughs.

"It's never too early to work on yourself, and I'm so thankful I did [the course]. When you say, you do a 'coaching session', it doesn't mean you have any psychological problems. It just means you are willing to work on yourself and become a better person FOR yourself."

By Syannah's own admission, self-development coaching turned out to be the most eye-opening experience and a turning point in her career. At age 18 and freshly out of high school, she moved to Germany where her ex-boyfriend, a business coach, lived at the time. During one of his seminars that she was attending, the participants were asked to list their six-month goals, and Syannah struggled to find an appropriate answer.

"I was about to write down 'study psychology', which was the 'actual' plan, but I realised that I wasn't being honest with myself. So I wrote down that I wanted to do studio recordings and focus more on my singing." The weeks following the session, the pieces of the puzzle naturally started to fall into place.

"It's never too early to work on yourself."

"It's never too early to work on yourself."

The dream of pursuing a music career was an alternate reality that Syannah had carved out for herself when she was young but never dared to go after. She learned how to play the guitar when she was seven, but quit a year or two later, "probably the only thing I regret in my life". The first lyrics she put down on paper were for a song called "Question in my heart" that she penned when she was just nine. At age 14 she enrolled in singing lessons and played with a cover band for a while, but her actual wish was to sing solo on stage and tell stories with her songs on guitar. But still, she brushed the dream off quite quickly, as her doubts towards her abilities as a singer and songwriter grew.

"I think I was [blinded] by what society had told me, like that studying was important. I also compared myself to other [singers] a lot. I always saw what they were good at, but never what I was really good at. Besides, I grew up watching the Disney channel where there were these 6-10 year olds who were so good and super famous, and I always felt that I wasn't good enough."

After the epiphany at the coaching session, she realised it was her responsibility to go after the life that she wanted, and the timing seemed more appropriate than ever: her relationship had just crumbled, so she came back to Vienna and prepared herself for the take off - "it felt like a complete new start."

She began taking guitar lessons again, and to gain more experience in performing, she would busk on the streets of Vienna, sing in various cafes across the city and participate in open mic nights. Today, two years later, the young singer is performing almost every week and recording her debut album due to come out early next year.

 

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"Women in the music industry believe they will never make it after they're 30."

"Women in the music industry believe they will never make it after they're 30."

After coming into her own and embracing her creative power, Syannah's musical journey wasn't the only aspect in her life that's changed.

"I started to take care of who I'm spending my time with. Because there are people who give you energy and there are people who rob your energy. I realised I wanted to only spend time with people I feel comfortable and home with."

That's what she seeks on stage too: positivity and acceptance on both parts.

"I want to let people close to me: I want to build a connection to my audience. The feeling that I have when I'm performing, this feeling of healing, that's something that I want to share."

Tracing down the last few decades of the music industry, it's been proven on multiple occasions that the concept of honesty and sharing intimate details of your life through music resonates with listeners. Think Sara Bareilles or Taylor Swift. In fact, Syannah's songwriting technique is very similar to how the "Shake it off" pop star approaches a writing session (see voice memos from 1989).

"I hardly ever sit down and think 'I'm gonna write a song now,' Syannah explains. "It hardly ever works. I have to experience things to be able to write lyrics. Something has to touch me; it can be a journey or a talk. Right before you came, I thought of writing a song about a talk I had with a friend yesterday. Sometimes I walk around, and there is a melody in my head, and I take out my mobile phone and record it, so I don't forget it. Sometimes it takes me ten minutes to write a song, and sometimes it takes me two or three weeks or a year."

One of Syannah's heroes is Rachel Platten, who she admires not only for her musical genius, but the unwavering perseverance, with which she pursued her career.

"I love her power. She is the living proof that you can still be successful if you're [over] 30."

Platten's 2014 motivational anthem 'Fight Song' was her breakthrough moment after a 15-year struggle to be noticed music industry. In her 2015 interview with The Daily Telegraph she reveals how she had made peace with the fact that her time has passed. Though when the 'Fight Song' came out, Platten's life took a completely different turn, with three labels rushing to sign her within 72 hours.

"I admire her because she never gave up," says Syannah. "Even I, when I was 19, I thought  that when I'm finally good enough [to be famous], it would be too late."

It is no secret that women in the music industry, or any industry for that matter, face unrealistic expectations - defying gravity is one among many, but Syannah feels the change is on our doorstep, especially since women in the public eye have taken a stand against discrimination and belittlement and embraced empowerment and self-growth.

Frustrated with the way the educational system is currently in place, she is determined to become part of the solution. She strives to make it more accessible to all types of personalities and is constantly aware of her responsibility to make it happen.

"Teachers have always had a big influence on me - be it good or bad. As a student, you spend most of your day at school, so the teachers are the people you interact with other than your parents," she explains. "We have a really big educational responsibility. [As a teacher], you're basically building characters. These are words that people easily say, and sometimes we don’t realise how big of an effect we have on people [as teachers], or as human beings in general."

Through an empathetic educational approach, Hebah is hoping to guide students on their journey of unveiling their potential and becoming "the best version of themselves."

"As a teacher, you have to help others to find what’s right for them, not what you think is right. That’s something I am missing in education everywhere."

 

"I hope that one day I'll be able to reach people and show them how much is possible when they just believe."

"I hope that one day I'll be able to reach people and show them how much is possible when they just believe."

The most valuable thing for Syannah as a young woman in the music industry is authenticity and refusing to play a part of someone she's not. Ultimately, that's what 'home' means to her, a notion that derives from the deepest areas of her soul, her well of inspiration. Authenticity ignites vulnerability, which leads to compassion - an indispensable ability to connect with the audience.

"Home is feeling that I can be completely myself with every single part of me, and that every part of me is okay. That's why I love music so much and writing my own songs and performing them, because on stage I feel more at home than anywhere else. By listening, the audience gives me the feeling that it's okay and that you're loved, " she says, pauses for a while, then continues.

"That's what I want to be remembered for: an artist that is completely honest. I hope that one day I'll be able to reach people and show them how much is possible when they just believe."

Photo credits: Tobias Dellit.

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What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.

What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.