by Carly Schorman
Some people think that Reno is the world’s biggest little city , but that’s a lie. It’s Phoenix and anyone who’s lived here long enough can tell you that. And, for more than a decade now, YabYum has been part of the community fabric that makes up our local music & art scene – something we couldn’t be more proud of. But it can also get a little weird sometimes. Like, when your favorite intern in all of YabYum history becomes Phoenix’s Best Queer Musical Icon (according to Phoenix New Times and we totally agree). Then you find yourself schmoozing your former intern with promises of coffee hoping to score an interview. Yeah, that happened. I love this town.
Of course, not all promising upstarts in the local music scene have shown the rigor and tenacity of one Syeed DiJon Poole, also known as The Doyénne. When it comes to cultivating an aesthetic and a sound, Syeed so intimately weaves his modes of expression to his actual persona that it’s difficult to draw a divide. True fans of The Doyénne know they are witnessing more than an artist in development. They are watching a wriggling cocoon seeking its final form. Syeed/The Doyénne is approaching a new manifestation, one distinctly removed from the manifestations of all other artists that came before, and real uniqueness takes experimentation.
And that’s one of the things I’ve always admired about The Doyénne. He doesn’t let others set the parameters when it comes to gender or sexuality or the self-expression of those aspects, in music or life. As Syeed pursues new creative modes in music and art, and chases that “It” factor every artists seeks, he does so in a very personal way. His “It” is individualized and authentic so, like the emotional landscape of people, this “It” is subject to change.
“It” can mean yes to wigs, yes to boots, and no to make-up. But then, maybe, yes to make-up….. because glitter. Syeed remains diligently vocal about his thoughts and feelings in online forums – through Patreon videos and on Facebook – and, in doing so, he crafts a running narrative that accompanies his artistic creations. That honesty reflected in his music and performance helped The Doyénne achieve Icon status in Phoenix while still a coed working toward a degree in Interdisciplinary Media Arts and Performance at Arizona State University. As The Doyénne, Syeed brings his fans into his evolution and pulls back the curtains on that integral tie between Process and Performance.
I got the chance to ask Syeed some questions about songwriting, stage fright, winning awards, separating the persona from the person, and what’s next for this Phoenician. Read our Q&A here and make sure you’re following The Doyénne on Facebook (or Instagram) and supporting him through Patreon to get that insider view of this Icon in the making.
Carly Schorman: Is there a divide between The Doyénne and Syeed?
Syeed DiJon Poole: So there wasn’t supposed to be a divide but there definitely is one and I had to come to grips with that in college. While I still consider The Doyénne to be a title rather than a character, the fact is that “me” on stage is way more confident then “me “off stage. The Doyénne isn’t a character or persona. It’s my position at work. Like, with my recording imprint “House of Creation”, “The Doyénne” would be my position, rather than manager or CEO. I’ve had difficulties in the past with being confident off stage as much as I am on stage, but at the end of the day, the divide is real whether I like to admit it or not. I hope that anyone whose influenced by my work can navigate the divide better than I have!
Did winning the New Times Award help bolster that self-confidence?
It absolutely did! Not to reveal my age or anything but I’ve been writing and performing for thirteen some odd years and it was nice to be recognized for that. I won’t lie and say that it hasn’t geeked me up tremendously. The Doyénne is supposed to be a title already and now I have another one to live up to too! I’m not so arrogant to think that I’m the only up and coming queer icon around here, by the way, but hopefully that beautiful blurb inspires somebody to be all the Queen they can be.
As someone who is subject to serious stage fright, I always envision the bravado of the performer and I’m glad to hear that you struggle with feeling confident on and off stage. Has your draw to creation & performance forced you out of your shell at all?
I mentioned that I performed vocally in drag for my senior capstone project? I was nervous for six months leading up to that and the nervousness showed when I would practice with my mentors who also told me to go harder and farther with it. It got to opening night for the performance of my “One Woman Show”, which I’m claiming as a title right now for touring purposes, and I was nervous at least until I got the dress and regalia all on. It’s definitely a switch that I had to develop, like, a limit being turned off and I have no choice BUT to come out of my introverted shell.
The way I look at it is that I’m in a dress as a Black man, in America, for performances in front of real live people. I’m going to be disliked, boo’ed, stared at, and dissected regardless of the drag so the “fuck it” mentality snaps in hard when you’re on display like that. Writing and producing songs is just my excuse to flip that switch. It’s a high that won’t hurt anybody. Honestly, just doing it in spite of the stage fright helps a ton. I used to go to Karaoke for that exact reason and low key inspire others to do the same thing.
Do you consider yourself more of a performer or a musician? Do you divide those roles at all in your mind?
I consider myself more of a performer but, no, I don’t intentionally separate them in my head. It’s all art and it all requires that I create something like a sound or a visual component (which for me is usually a costume). I’d like to be better in either category, honestly, like, I envy artists who play instruments live (especially those that can sing at the same time) even if I produce all of my electronic stuff myself. Maybe I should pick up guitar again. Now you’ve got me thinking.
How would you describe your music to a stranger you just met? Everyone needs a 1- or 2- line pitch, right?
Yes! An elevator pitch! I’ve been playing around with this term “Afro-Pop” in my head for a couple of years now so I’d probably start with that and expand to say that it’s somewhere nestled between electronica and soul music. I would stay away from claiming R&B because most people think of a very specific thing when I reference that genre even if the history and style are a huge influence to my vocal work. So, yeah, Afro-Pop Idol would be fitting. I’m a Black Hatsune Miku with a Dirty Mouth!
It seems to me like you’re approaching a much bigger notion that just creating “an album” or a “live performance” and it speaks to what we’re seeing from a lot of young artists: the cultivation of a brand or an aesthetic. Is that something you’re doing with House of Creation or have I got the kids all wrong here?
The kids are safe! You’re totally right. I want to do a lot. Right now the plan is a new album, then I really, really want to tour even if it’s just throughout the city. I love to direct and write so it would be fantastic to write something and see it get produced for the stage. House of Creation represents experimentation, I think, before all else. It’s just an imprint but the mentality to create even if you have to do it yourself is something I’d love to share with more people. I still need a logo for the brand too, now that we’re talking about. That’s a cue for a designer to get in touch.
Tell me about your approach to songwriting. Do you have a set approach? A ritual? Or are you more of a strike-when-the-iron-is-hot type and waiting for the right inspiration?
I’m that last thing when it comes to the overall theme and aesthetic. I don’t have a set approach or ritual at all. It all has to come from the gut. There is a process for getting it on paper – make a beat, notate sheet music, create MIDI file, see if the musical ideas matches my initial idea which is a phrase, a lyric, or a melody, make a demo, then listen to it a trillion times until I record a version for the Master. I’ve been fortunate to have enough ideas for the next album, for example, but the faucet is still running and the iron is still hot.
Is it empowering or cathartic for you to address personal matters on stage through your music or does it make you feel vulnerable? Or both / all things?
Both. I think that the vulnerability has a lot to do with the truth. I have a tendency to keep the deep mental doors closed but when they’re open, yeah, stuff just happens creatively and especially lyrically for me. I’m not a musical genius and I can barely read music notation (I get by on ear alone), but being vulnerable, on stage and on display, feels extremely empowering. So if it were math, for me, it’d be Vulnerability X Art = Empowerment of Self and Others.
You recently completed your degree at ASU, correct? It might be too soon to call, but how do you feel your formal education helped inform your music/performance?
I finished my classes at Arizona State proper but I still need to take one more back at community college (math, ugh) for my degree. But I’ve certainly learned a lot, thankfully! I found out that I’m a decent director for the stage so that’ll likely manifest itself into my own performance work. I took a lot of classes on Music Business then later on Interdisciplinary Art so I’m much more confident with regards to collaboration or using mediums that I don’t naturally gravitate towards. The link between what I did in college versus what I do now, artistically, is a short one.
Like, my capstone project was a musical performance of four songs and all of those will be on my next album. You’re right that it’s still pretty soon to tell as to what part of my education that I draw from the most, but I’m excited about even the possibility of being a working artist / performer. I still have YabYum to thank for my internship which was what got me my associate’s degree! I hope I can say that on the record!
And, if you don’t mind me saying so, you were my all time favorite intern. I feel we should just call out that association right here, in the middle of the interview, for all to see. It was an awkward transitional time for us at YabYum and I’m glad you were a part of it. Did you learn anything useful from our submissions pile?
Brief story but I had one of my 27th birthdays with YabYum! You all were and are so great and were a big, bright reason that I got my associate’s degree. The submissions pile, though? That taught me how to trust my gut. Like, you know if a song is good, and while there was some good there was a lot of… underdeveloped pieces. And that’s okay, because a thousand no’s and a yes is still a yes, and that even if your submission was… questionable… you at least could learn from the rejection. I did with my own material. And I got some Yes. But only after a ton of No’s.
Alright, let’s get into some of the nitty gritty. What’s your set up like? Like, what do you use to make music?
I’m a plug and play artist so, while live performing, it’s generally a DJ controller, a laptop and a cord into the sound system. With recording, It’s just my laptop – whose been in loyal service for the last ten years – and a microphone. I use an Audio Technica ATR2500-USB which skips my lack of a proper input to plug straight into an USB port. As far as DAW’s / Digital Audio Workstation, I use FL Studio most of the time but I also have used Finale, Logic Pro X, Audacity, Pro-Tools when available, and Ableton.
How do you think the PHX music scene has responded to The Doyénne? Do you feel like your able to carve out a place for yourself musically here?
I feel, for the most part, appreciated! Like, I run into people who recognize me in or out of a wig and that’s pretty cool. I’m sure there’s negativity somewhere but I don’t think I’ve ever been confronted with any of it in a way that would leave any impression (except for maybe that instructor at ASU who said that I couldn’t rap well). In general, I think the scene has a niche with my name on it and I’ll keep carving that out. I’m slowly performing in venues with scenes that I’m not usually a part of, and I’m excited to get out of Glendale and perform as much as I can.
Okay, real talk here, do you ever feel like a song is complete? I’m not giving you side-eye here really, but as a regular listener of The Doyénne, I’ve noticed that some of the tracks you release get revisited or revamped. Is that because your body of work is always a body in progress? Or do you feel like you want to keep honing each track until you’ve achieved your vision? What’s the deal?
This is a creative intervention and I love it! That’s been a habit of mine, to change set lists and update music with newer versions of the track, for a very, very long time. My poor debut album “Body of Work” has been completely changed on more than once occasion. In fact, bearing that idea in mind, I’ve been intentionally leaving my songs the hell alone until I’ve had some time to let the track breath and get tested out during a live performance.
I really want this [new] album, The Gestalt, to be fresh, exciting, and yeah, complete. Like, I need to have a better relationship with myself and stop self criticizing especially when I know that a song is worthy of official induction into my public catalog. God, this sounds just like the majority of my musician friends. They’re going to gag profusely when they see that you asked this. That’s probably for the best, though. I really need to stop doing this.
I don’t see it as a problem, I see it as a process. Because your performance and your music are so integrally tied – and yet not synonymous – they are going to inform each other; change each other. However, I get that there should be a finished stamp that goes on an album and then the performance arena is where you continue to experiment with previously released material. But I can imagine you learn a lot as you go through the process of making an album. What did you take away as a learning experience from Body of Work that really stands out for you?
That’s a really good point about the process! I used to have a tendency to jump the gun and think that quantity, with regards to songs, equals quality and if there’s one thing I learned from Body of Work, it’s definitely how to better curate for quality. Honestly, it took two more albums – QUEEN and DARKWORLD – to really get the ear for putting together a setlist that wasn’t flooded with filler. I think this new album is going to be a really good exhibition for what I’ve learned.
So, I know this question gets too much air time, but I think it’s important here. What musicians or performers inspired YOU? I know that as a kid it was difficult for me to find adults that I identified with and could look up to, in my town and on TV. What was that like for you? Who broke through to young Syeed and helped give shape to The Doyénne?
I didn’t have any heroes while growing up, at least none that I saw myself in as a little Black Queer kid. I have plenty of influences now though; Prince, Beyoncé, Utada Hikaru, Francis Farewell Starlite, Janelle Monae, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and quite a few black queer lyricists like Cakes Da Killa, Mykki Blanco, Le1f, and Zebra Katz. My childhood was bereft of anything that would have made me feel not so alone even when I played with other children. Who broke through to me, though? Probably Missy Elliott. She rapped, she sang, she had a sense of humor, her performances were lit. Honestly, I would have never recorded myself doing raps if it wasn’t for her and me sneakily buying the uncensored version of her first album Supa Dupa Fly at thirteen.
I love that Missy Elliott got through to you as a kid. She’s amazing. And now you’re a Queer Icon right here in Phoenix giving that real life example of fabulous for younger people who might not check the usual boxes. What advice would you give to those younger people or something that you wish someone would have said to you at that age?
It’s cliché but I’d tell them to be themselves. Your name is the one on the album, on the tour, on the marquee, on the merch and so on so be yourself, be memorable, own your brand, and own your aesthetic. I’m still coming to grips with all of this so it’d be weird to give someone else advice but it’s important to me that the next generation be a lot more bold and creative then I ever was.
So, tell me about The Gestalt? Are you writing material for it? Have you started recording it? Are you planning to work with other folx on it? If so, who? Give me those details!
Ah, yes. The Gestalt. All of the songs have demos with vocals I recorded myself so right now I’m working on listening to what I’ve got and making some firm decisions on what songs to feature or what mixing I want to do. I haven’t told anyone else this but I was planning to release it in October. Though honestly, with everything falling into place so quickly, it might be a lot sooner.
I did ask some art friends to listen to what I’ve got and give me feedback but, no, I don’t think I’m going to work with someone else for this particular project. There’s something very pure about doing everything yourself so I want to go back to that. I do, however, want to collaborate especially with local creators on a project that isn’t this album, but if I have my way then that might be a long time from now as I shift modes to making a tour happen.
And, just for kicks… What city would you most like to perform in?
Right now? San Francisco! It’s just so delightfully gay.
Dream collab partner?
Francis Farewell Starlite from Francis and the Lights. The man’s a genius. I have a different list for my local musician friends that I was to work with.
Mixtapes or playlists?
Playlists! I’m a Google Play Music faithful and I like to sort my favorites. It’s rare for me to listen to an album or mixtape all the way through anymore.
What do you tell touring musicians they have to visit when they’re passing through town?
I’m terrible at this. I get out and about, as you already know, but I wouldn’t know what to suggest. I CAN locate a gay bar with my eyes closed, apparently, so if that were the question then I’d give at least three suggestions.
Any upcoming performance dates (through the end of the year) where folx can catch The Doyénne live?
[Currently] I’m available for booking and I’m on Patreon with the intent of doing live video concerts as soon as there are more Patrons! If there are no stages then I’ll make one, damn it!
Keep up with The Doyénne and all his forthcoming musical endeavors with a like/follow or by tossing out some support on Patreon.