Grammy-nominated songwriter and performer Sylvia (born Sylvia Jane Kirby) wants people to look inside the next time they think they need help. The tendency, of course, is to look outward for answers. Can someone help me out of this? Who can save me? These are the questions we ask ourselves in our dark hours. But, Sylvia says, we may find better answers if we look to our instincts and our most distilled judgment. These aren’t easy lessons to learn, however. Sylvia, who rose to fame in the ’80s while in her 20s, has now learned from experience.
She’s figured out what to shed and what to keep. Today, she says, she lives in the moment, listening to her own ideas as guidance. The result is the record she’s always wanted to make. An album that offers its listeners a path forward that’s also a path internal. And it begins with a song that American Songwriter is premiering today, “Avalon,” which is the first track from her forthcoming LP, Nature Child, due out on February 22.
“I think what I’ve learned after all these years of life so far,” Sylvia tells American Songwriter. “I live more and more in the moment. I look more and more into myself for guidance rather than looking out there for it.”
Sylvia says she looks to her own “inner-muse.” Too often, she says, many in the world have gotten themselves into trouble by looking outward. She remembers a question a vocal coach posed to her: What wants to happen? Meaning, what voice is speaking up inside you offering a path ahead. That could be going to the post office or it could be recording an album meant to inspire others.
“This music is inviting people into their subconscious,” she says.
Thinking back, Sylvia says her first memory is of singing. In fact, she says her mother long joked that when she was an infant, she’d always be humming. That wasn’t the case with her siblings. Her uncle would record her singing songs when she was just a few years old. At three-and-a-half years old, Sylvia sang in front of a small church congregation. At that moment, though, a little voice spoke up. She remembers it like it was yesterday.
“I heard a voice that said, ‘This is what you do,’” she says. “From then on, it was just real clear.”
Sylvia remembers locking herself in her parents’ bedroom and turning their clock radio on and singing along with it, watching her movements in the mirror. She remembers watching Dick Clark and American Bandstand on a tiny black-and-white television in the trailer park where she grew up in Kokomo, Indiana. She remembers telling her mother that she’d be on the show one day (and she was in 1982). In Kokomo, most people worked in factories for General Motors. That or the steel mill. Sylvia knew she didn’t want that for herself. Both her parents worked those blue-collar jobs and she saw what it could do to a spirit. In high school, telling everyone she would be a professional singer, Sylvia took business classes, preparing for the world. Then when school ended, she moved to Nashville.
“I parked my little green [Ford] Maverick on 16th Avenue and started knocking on doors, introducing myself,” Sylvia says.
She met a number of people in the industry, despite the fact she was “scared to death,” out of shyness. She remembers sitting in her car and telling herself that she’d never be able to convince anyone to let her sing in front of thousands of people if she couldn’t knock on a few front doors. Not long after, she got the job that would sustain her for nearly five years and take her from office assistant right to producer Tom Collins at a major publishing house to a Billboard chart-topping singer. Eventually, after lots of vacuuming and lunch orders and telephone calls answered, Sylvia recorded songs like “Tumbleweed,” “The Matador” and “Nobody” and was a major success, a proto-Taylor Swift, who bridged pop and country. And one of few women even to appear on the country charts, let alone atop them.
“I hold [that time] fondly,” Sylvia says. “Yes, there were challenges. I was chomping at the bit for a record deal for four and a half years as I sat answering phones and doing all kinds of publishing-type duties at the company. But things work out actually like they need to.”
For Sylvia, the key to her success was her sense of clarity throughout her career and even leading up to it. Ever since those days singing to the clock radio in her parents’ bedroom, she knew what she wanted. She manifested. Like attracts like, she says. So, in a strange way, she wasn’t flabbergasted or even all that surprised when good things began to happen—thanks to Collins, who was nudged by country star Charley Pride to bring Sylvia into the studio. But when things began to hit in the early ’80s, Sylvia got very busy. One year she only slept six nights at home in her own bed. But what goes up must eventually come down. In 1987, RCA declined to renew her deal and her career halted. Sylvia says she had planned to dive more into writing then anyway; still, the lack of a deal felt jarring.
“What happened at the end of ’87,” she says, “was I had a chance to process all those years on the road. I was so busy all the time.”
She says seeing a therapist helped her to clarify her self-understanding. The therapist helped Sylvia open her eyes to the idea that she is not her work. Her work is an aspect of what she does, but it is not her identity in full. She also helped Sylvia lean into new writing avenues, including writing songs for families and for kids. At some point in her career in the ’80s, young people began flocking to her shows. So, she started writing for those minds. That began in 1988. But then her life took another change. She got married and followed her heart. She still wrote, but more sparingly. She put out an album in 1996. Then three more albums in the 2000s (the latest in 2018). Now, with Nature Child, she has done what she’s always wanted.
“For me,” Sylvia says, “this is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
The new 12-track album is for dreamers. And “Avalon” is an entreaty. It’s meant to inspire people to follow their own wishes—to sing the songs they want to sing with the voices they have that day. Sylvia, who also works as a certified life coach when she’s not recording or writing music, knows that change is difficult, but it’s navigable if one has the internal tools. Music remains one of those tools for her and that’s most clear on her latest LP.
“I love how music opens your heart,” Sylvia says. “It has that power. It lets you explore and lets you feel and go places you might not go otherwise.”
Photo courtesy Sound Artist Support and Waldmania