Local Alt-Pop Is Having a Moment and SYM1 Is Some1 U Should Know
But she still wishes more people would dress creatively for her live shows.
2:31 PM CDT on October 21, 2022
“I want to feel like I belong somewhere.”
When she says this, Symone Wilson, better known as SYM1 (and formerly known as Symone Smash It) is enthusing about the burgeoning underground pop community in Minneapolis, and considering her place in fostering it. In particular, she’s talking about the second installment of Swear Jar, the showcase for the label she co-founded, Placebo Records, and for the scene in general, which pops off at Icehouse tonight.
But we’re chatting in a place Symone seems to belong as well: Hunt and Gather, the museum-like oddity shop in southwest Minneapolis. “I like to get lost here,” she says, though not necessarily to shop. “This jacket”—she’s wearing a very cute puffy pink fur thing—“20 dollars from Unique, and that’s more my style.”
She laughs. Symone laughs a lot, punctuating her conversation with easy expressions of delight that range from a confident giggle to a full-on rewarding affirmation of whatever you or she just said. We’ve wended our way through the artfully cluttered shop’s vintage dresses, novelty books and used records, wooden doodads, and whatnot, to Symone’s sweet spot: a nook along the back wall where a collection of houseplants mysteriously thrives.
“I’m really obsessed with these ones—rex begonia,” Symone points at some purply flora, but her eyes quickly dart to its neighbors as well. “I love this silvery stuff. They barely need any sunlight—look at these... they look so shiny. How is that even real? I love a soft and quirky one too, I love the scraggly ones that look like aliens.”
Of course she does. Let’s just say the natural world plays a lesser role than the alien one does in Symone’s art. As SYM1, she thrives on dynamic electronic artifice, playful dress-up and experimentation with characters. Times being what they are, her latest release, the EP ALL THAT U WANT is on the moodier edge of her pop preferences, taking in “Röyksopp, Above and Beyond, a lot more progressive house,” as she says. Her live show remains as freaky ever, with SYM1 flaunting fanciful DIY fetish cyborg attire that’s always more playful than daunting. “With my outfits, I just want people to be like, ‘I can do that too.'”
That’s a dramatic flair that Symone came by honestly as a kid in St. Louis Park. “My parents are both actors—my dad’s a writer, my mom’s a gymnast—so I was sort raised to perform and be all about stories,” she says. She was a theater kid? “It comes across pretty strong, huh?” she admits, before making an even darker confession. “I was also homeschooled for a bit, so that’s partly why I’m the way that I am.”
But Symone didn’t just get encouragement at home—she got a nudge out the door to start hustling. “My dad always told me, if you’re gonna be a singer, you’ve gotta start performing places. So he just dropped the Yellow Pages in my lap and told me to start calling up different venues. I started dialing up places”—keep in mind Symone was 11 at the time—“and they were like, ‘OK, sure.’” With gumptious tween bravado, Symone devised an act to wow ’em at local community centers. “I started burning instrumentals on to CDs—Britney Spears and Les Misérables. I don’t know if I could do that again.” I should’ve asked if her parents still have video of these performances. Because you know they do.
College and the temptations of getting a real career soon intervened, but Symone had a vision of creating and performing pop music on an indie scale, and began staging guerrilla pop-up performances. “I started performing just on the street and crashing venues, taking my little Roland Cube Street with me everywhere, dressed in full space-shit attire,” she recalls. “I was crashing public events, like the Loring Art Festival, all the art things. Anything that was outside where I knew I could get away quick if I needed to.”
The elaborate costumery that’s a part of her live show was there from the start. “I wanted to just be extra constantly, but I didn’t have any money,” she recalls. “I grabbed things that were cheap, things that I could spray paint, from eBay and L.A. Express. Some people were generous enough to make costumes for me.”
But getting her face out there was one thing, while the work of making the music she loved was still a bit of a riddle. “In 2012, that’s when I was like, I didn’t even know what words to use to talk about what I was looking for,” she says. “At that time I didn’t know how the type of music I wanted to do was even made. But I got in touch with people who did.”
Among those were the people at Daddy MPLS, the scene-dominating queer local performance showcase of that moment, which gathered DJs, fashion, drag, burlesque—whatever kinds of performances you could present on a stage, Daddy done it. “They really skyrocketed things to me,” Symone says. “They were very LGBT leaning, and that was my audience mostly already.”
But around 2018, her performing life and daily life clashed, leading her to ditch the Symone Smash It persona and take a look inside. “I realized I was being uh, ungrateful … maybe that’s not the right word—I was being selfish I think in working with people,” she says. “I was not great at communicating what I was going through because I had a lot of ego stuff wrapped up in Symone Smash It that I needed to get out of. It didn’t feel good to be a character onstage and then in real life not having that high you get when you perform. I realized I just needed to do things in a different way, and be more honest with myself offstage. At the end of 2018, that was me trying to be more of a genuine person, even though I still like to play with lots of characters.”
Symone’s focus has changed along with her stage name. “I’m in a world now where I’m not solely into my own endeavors,” she says. “I’ve been paying more attention to the community that exists here, because the whole thing that keeps me going is that there’s a community to support. That’s why I do what I do with Placebo Records, and with my two co-directors, Kelsey Jo Geiger and Aaron Jacobson.”
As she steers herself toward the business side of music, she’s attended conferences looking for workable financial strategies and found... well, none. “They just say things like, ‘We’re all pivoting. We all need to… pivot,'” she jokes. “I was reassured by finding that nobody has any idea what they’re doing.” And as she looks to expand her label’s reach, she’s turned to non-traditional sources of funding pop music, such as grant-writing. “I’m trying to build things here, but funds do need to be here. Best Buy, Target, you’re based here, cough it up!”
How to get people to listen to the music itself is a whole ‘nother topic. And so talk turns, at it usually does at some point in every discussion with a musician, to outwitting the machines that determine who pays attention to us. Like any ambitious artist, Symone has theories. “Whatever way you can get the algorithm to think that you’re releasing something new is the way to go,” she says. As for Facebook ads, “they’re pay to play—and unfortunately it’s always worth it.” (Racket can confirm.)
And TikTok? It’s simply the best outlet “by a large margin” for getting listeners to buy. But it’s also a second (or third, or fourth) job for a musicians. “It sucks that we have to move into always creating videos in that space,” Symone says, echoing a lot of what I’ve heard from women and femme performers. “I’m so nervous, constantly, I’m like, but I don’t want to be doing a video right now, but I have to apparently. And it’s all about humor. I only have so many jokes. I can only be funny so much of the time.”
She’s more at ease discussing future SYM1 tracks, which she suggests will dig back into the obsessions of her youth. “Hyperpop, electronic pop with chaotic energy is stuff that I love,” she says. “Early MySpace hardcore electronic stuff like Millionaires, I love a girl group that’s doing something crazy, I love MSI. That’s where I’m out now—I’m going back to my teenager days listening to nightcore and lots of anime themed openings.”
But for now her focus in on the second installment of Swear Jar. “We really want it to feel like... hmmm, it’s a future dystopia cyberpunk dreamscape—whatever any of that means. Just lush, moody lighting—purple, blue, pink—go-go dancing, industrial, darkwave aesthetics…
“The atmosphere we’re going for is best cyberpunk dystopia that could ever exist, which probably already exists, but we’re bringing it here in a single space," she says.
So Symone has a very optimistic view of dystopia?
“At least at Swear Jar! Everything may be burning all around us, but here we’re going to dance.”
Who: SYM1, shadingthesun, Palmbutta
Where: Icehouse, 2528 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
When: Friday, October 21, 9 p.m.
Tickets: $15 advance/$20 doors; more info here
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