Calgary-based country singer/songwriter Sykamore is one of those artists who after a single conversation and one listen to their artistic outpouring, you instantly recognize there is something special and potentially special in the offing.
With the release of her EP Self + Medicine on Jan. 5, the talented musician, vocalist and composer is poised at the precipice of great success and creative fulfillment.
Much like artists from other genres have adopted a nom de plume or character name, such as Prince, Pink, Lady Gaga and others, Sykamore is both a brand and a representation of the creative and performing part of Jordan Ostrom. Much like the entirety of her career thus far, it is a rational and judicious way to separate her public and private lives.
“My real name is not a secret but I decided to take on another name mostly because I feel that my real name is not that memorable. And I am also kind of a sucker for getting to name things and getting to name projects using a title to kind of encapsulate everything that goes on within a brand. When I first started I decided, okay, I don’t want to use my real name so what would be an appropriate moniker to use,” Sykamore explained from her family’s farm just outside Calgary.
“I started thinking about titles that would reflect my music and I was thinking about how I would describe it and it was all very rootsy and tenacious and organic and it all lent itself to this sort of tree flavour and I thought, well maybe there’s a tree name that would help us with titling this thing. And, honestly, sycamore was one of the first that I looked at and thought it was cool.
“I changed the spelling a bit to Sykamore. The entire process was probably about five years ago and I am still here. And like what you were saying about Prince and Pink and artists like that, I think I play into that a little bit too. I think it helps when you are an artist to be able to take that hat off when you need to and put it on when you need to. It maybe even helps keep you sane a little bit. When I need to be Jordan I can just be Jordan and when it’s time to be Sykamore, I can slide back into that guise. So it’s great.”
A songwriter of extraordinary depth, talent and possessing a genre defying voice that is darkly sweet and powerfully emotive, it is little wonder that Sykamore caught the attention of not only fans of quality music on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, but also the music industry establishment in Nashville. Shortly before announcing the release of Self + Medicine, Sykamore inked a publishing deal with Home Team Publishing, the new company formed by prolific hit maker Rhett Akins, with an affiliation with Warner Chappell Music Publishing.
This is a big deal.
“I followed Rhett on Twitter a couple of years ago and he ended up following me back and then sent me a message and told me that he had checked out my music and was a fan and would like to help in some way. He didn’t know if I had a record deal or anything like that. So I told my manager about it and we flew down to meet him. And he said he was starting his own publishing company and that he wanted to sign me,” she said.
“It’s definitely very validating. I feel really flattered and really lucky that I was found that way because Twitter and the internet is such an oversaturated thing and it’s so hard to get noticed in that way. This sort of just happened and fell into my lap and I am very grateful.”
It means many trips from Alberta to Nashville for songwriting sessions, but Sykamore is loving every minute of it. A creative soul at heart, but with an impressive head for the business of the music industry and an uncommon drive and focus, she understands that there are both logical career reasons to cultivate a reputation and build a repertoire as a songwriter, as well as the inherent artistic expression that it allows.
“I innately like to express myself through the medium of music. But becoming a professional songwriter and having this publishing deal is a great way to network and a great way to get your foot in the door in terms of getting to know other songwriters and other collaborators. I think for career longevity it is the way to go. You can be a songwriter for a long time and it’s not really limiting in any capacity. It’s great to be able to get to a point where you can flex that creative muscle whenever you need to,” she explained.
“And, obviously, I just love being able to have a creative hand in everything that I do and working to create signature style and sound that is always going to be authentically Sykamore.”
With a voice and an approach to music that could see Sykamore easily dabble in a host of genres, it isn’t surprising to learn that two of her musical inspirations are artists who charted their own course, broke down barriers and continue to live lives and create music that is undeniably their own.
“The Dixie Chicks were a big influence of mine growing up, and Shania Twain was also important. She’s Canadian, which is great, but she was also one of the pioneer artists in terms of crossing over genre wise. She was respected in pop and was respected in country and she kind of created her own little sub-genre at the time, which now has become a staple of the music industry. And I really admire her for that. And I love that she always stayed true to what she wanted to do. She wanted to include her pop influences but she wanted to be a country artist and it was unheard of at the time, but she forged that path for the rest of us,” she said.
“Kacey Musgraves is another one. She is this spitfire personality and does whatever she wants and people really admire her for it. And on top of that she is a beautiful singer and such a clever songwriter. She has all the tools. She takes what she is good at and works it to her advantage and at the same time she is very uncompromising and does what she wants as an artist and doesn’t bend too much. I love seeing artists who have that kind of backbone and just make music that they actually like and they actually like to play.
“The audience can sense that. They can sense that honesty and that’s the level of artist I always strive to be – someone who likes the music that they make and believes in it and wants to share it with people. The audience is smart and they can sense when your heart is not in it and it’s going to reflect on how they relate to the music as well.”
Literate and articulate both musically and lyrically Sykamore’s songs are born as much out of inspiration as from a desire to keep honing her craft.
“The thing that always comes first is a definitive idea. Sometimes just a cool word will inspire something, or a concept that someone else has said or that I have been thinking about for a while. And I always have a notepad or the ‘notes’ app open on my iPhone so if an idea comes to me I will just write it down really quick and when I have time to sit down and work I will go back to that little list of inspiration and see what I feel like writing about,” Sykamore said.
“It starts like that and honestly the rest of it, I always tell people, is that I don’t really know how the songs get written. It sort of seems like a lump of clay and you say ‘I don’t know how to start this.’ But you take it step by step and work through it and find things that you like and build on them. I can’t really say if music comes first or lyrics come first; I feel like by the time I get to that point they just come out together. Sometimes the lyrics do come first and sometimes the music comes first, but so much of the process is intangible and you just go by feel and at the end of a couple of hours, you hopefully have a song.”
In anticipation of the release of Self + Medicine on Jan. 5, Sykamore released a couple of well-regarded singles: Houseboat and Better Half.
“A lot of the songs on this record are at least three years old and Houseboat is one of them. I felt like I wanted, sonically, the kind of song that when you play it live it can be swayed to and can be anthemic which, honestly, I felt was something missing from my set. The word houseboat was kind of the trigger word for me and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if anybody has a song called Houseboat.’ I just started playing around with it. I love storytelling and trying to convey cool little situations in songs, and it was like that for this one,” she said.
“I started thinking about this couple who was maybe on the rocks and they were thinking it was over so the girl decided to blow off steam and go on a houseboat to escape. It’s a place to have some catharsis and have some rebound if you need to. The whole culture of houseboating fascinated me and it’s something that a lot of people do and the notion of escaping on the water and isolating yourself in a houseboat is something a lot of people could relate to. I messed around the with tempo a bit and it ended up being a mid-tempo, rock-back-and-forth kind of feel. It turned out so well we made it the first single.”
Better Half is the opposite of a break-up tune or the stereotypical country ‘hurtin’ song,’ in that it celebrates the power of love between two people.
“I wrote that in Nashville with Jason Massey and April Geesbreght. We were in a writers’ room together and I had just met the two of them and I played them a couple of my songs to give them an idea of what my sound was like. And April said she had something that kind of reminded her of me and started playing something and we ended up building on it and turned out to be what became Better Half,” Sykamore explained. It is the only one of the six songs on the Self + Medicine EP that wasn’t penned solely by her.
“We just started talking about how being in a relationship is about holding each other up and having that balance and lifting one when they need to be lifted and vice versa and helping maintain each other and having it be this effort of balance. And there really aren’t that many songs about healthy relationships. It actually started a little slower tempo but we ended up kicking it up and making it a little more like a Mumford and Sons kind of sonic style. It turned out to be this really fun song, really uplifting and ethereal. We got Jason, who is also a producer, to spruce it up a bit. He has worked with Kelsea Ballerini and a couple of other big names in Nashville and did a great job. The whole experience was amazing.”
One of the more recently composed tracks on the EP, and one that truly represents Sykamore’s ever-evolving talent and diversity as a songwriter is the wonderfully ebullient Playing the Fool.
“I wrote it this past summer and I was listening to the new Dierks Bentley album Black and found it to be very inspiring. When I was writing what was coming out was sort of a sound that had a tinge of darkness to it. The funny thing about Playing the Fool was I wrote it by myself on an acoustic guitar and I didn’t actually want it to be a country song. I wanted it to be a really pop-oriented song and maybe give it to another artist to sing. I took it to a friend of mine who produces a lot of EDM and we made this kind of dub step pop version. I liked it so much that I said I wanted the song for my own record. We broke it down and tried to make it a little more accessible for country fans and I am really proud of how it turned out. I think it’s my favourite song on the record,” she said.
“I love the freshness of it and the fact that we have a lot of bright, delayed electric guitar and we have a synth on it – but there is also a really prominent steel guitar part that comes up at the beginning. The song is a really good representation of all my influences in one song. I think it’s more representative of what’s going on and what’s coming out of me now as a songwriter.”
With the release of Self + Medicine, Sykamore will be performing live as much as possible, ramping it up for the summer festival season in both Canada and the United States. In the interim, she will continue to shuttle back and forth between Alberta and Nashville, broadening her creative horizons and undoubtedly continuing to dazzle he collaborators with her talent, work ethic and continual inspiration as a songwriting force.
For more information, visit http://www.sykamoreproject.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.