To fans of pop music: Go to iTunes or Amazon. Go to Spotify or SoundCloud or Tidal or Google Play. Wherever you get your music. Download a ballad called “Where Did You Go.” The song begins on a hushed note, a simple piano melody swaddled in layers of delicate, silvery instrumentation. A voice comes in on the top layer, keening, beautiful, in control. “I’ve been awake for hours / while you’re fast asleep…” It’s a song of lost love, of longing. Laying in bed, the singer thinks, fleetingly, that he sees his lover’s silhouette. The song continues in the same mode. But then, around the 48-second mark, it breaks open, achieving a new speed — a torrent of notes, glittery, synthetic, a light show for the ears. But it’s that voice again — still controlled, but more powerful now, louder, lifted on a raft of ecstatic sound. “Where did you goooo-oh,” it pleads, a new vulnerability running through it, something untamed. The song’s combination of melody and vocals is designed to penetrate the solar plexus. If you’re not moved at this moment in the track, then you have — to borrow a phrase from the great songwriter Stephen Merritt – a cactus where your heart should be.
“Where Did You Go” is written and performed by former Iolan, now Austin-based musician, Skye Strickler and is included on his recently released EP “DNA.” In December, the song won the top prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and earned Strickler an invitation to perform on the main stage at a vaunted music industry show in Los Angeles. The word is: Skye’s star is on the rise.
In the spring of 2012, when he was just 18, Strickler drove down to Dallas to visit his sister. He’d recently dropped out of Wichita State University’s musical theatre program after a seemingly random, but ultimately epiphanic, moment on campus. “I was sitting down with a professor who was helping me after-hours. I played him something of mine. After a second, he just said: ‘Listen, you understand composition — I don’t really have anything else I can teach you.’ I wasn’t anything great by any means,” recalled Strickler, who in conversation sounds at least one self-effacing note for every bit of acclaim lobbed his way. “But he told me that I needed to figure out what, as an artist, I wanted to do. So I went to my advisor and said, ‘I don’t want to do four years of musical theatre. I want to explore other types of music.’ I was thinking about pop at that point, but I wasn’t sure. ‘OK,’ he said after hearing me out, ‘don’t take this as advice to leave, necessarily, but — to do what you want to do, you don’t need a degree. What you need is experience.’”
And so with that tip ringing in his ears and with a couple of days to spare in Texas, Strickler, propelled by curiosity and by rumors of Austin’s cultural vitality, set off for the capital.
Once there, he found his way to Sixth Street, the city’s historic entertainment district, which most nights alternates between the sound of live music and caterwauling drunks. “Have you been down Dirty Sixth?” asked Strickler in an interview with the Register on Tuesday. (I said I had.) “That day was amazing. Just walking down the street, by myself, I heard six bands — on a Wednesday afternoon! Of course I wasn’t old enough to go in and enjoy any of them, so I went to a restaurant to get some food. It was a place called Bikinis, where all of the women are wearing bikinis while they’re serving you. Have you heard of it?” (I said I certainly had.) “Anyway, I made friends with one of the women there and told her I was looking for a place to stay. ‘We have an extra room,’ she said, ‘and we’re looking for somebody.’ So I went back to Kansas and got my stuff and came down to Austin. The idea was not to throw anything away as far as education or friends or family. It just didn’t seem like a choice to me. It was what I had to do to surround myself with a music culture that I could learn from and grow with.”
Whatever distance Strickler puts between himself and his home state, the roots of his musical obsessions were undoubtedly forged in Iola. “My nana, Madge Strickler, directed the town’s Vespers program,” said Strickler, “as well the local symphony orchestra. Unfortunately, she passed away when I was really young. But she handed down her vocal abilities to a lot of people in the family. I remember, growing up, when everybody would sing ‘Happy Birthday’ — the room would just fill with harmonies. And while everybody in the family could carry a tune, nobody was really ever pursuing music as their life. So, I think I always just felt that the one person that I had the opportunity to look up to in music was no longer there.”
And while a true fondness for his hometown permeates his thinking today, Strickler admits that he never quite found artistic allies in his peer groups either. “I don’t know if it was that I didn’t look hard enough. I was kind of socially awkward as a kid and didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. But that actually allowed me to focus. I mean, I left high school with the determination to really do music.”
But Strickler is insistent on one point. While he may have lacked the camaraderie of likeminded teens in Iola, he wasn’t without sanctuary. “The Bowlus Fine Arts Center provided me a safe space when I was younger, and so did Iola’s Community Theatre. Those places gave me a home during my high school years. To sit around and play the piano and write after hours. That really afforded me the path I’ve gone down in life. Truthfully, I owe where I am today to the opportunities I had at the Bowlus when I was younger.”
iv. Fat & Sparkly
Strickler arrived in Austin with his bags and boxes on his 19th birthday. “I was still writing music when I first moved here, but for those first few years I got caught up in bartending and making friends and learning how to socialize. I realized that that was a valuable skill set that I didn’t have.”
But then, in early 2015, Strickler burst onto the Austin music scene with a joyous, brass-heavy pop anthem called “Dance the Night Away,” which earned the former Iola farm boy reams of critical praise and secured him a partnership with the Guadalajara-based producer, Ofo Barher, and set in motion his debut EP.
Strickler — who in his promo photos sports an impressive tower of caramel-colored hair and a deadpan stare — wears, in his everyday life, a huge, infectious smile and exudes a puppyish lovability that is impossible to resist. But he’s unflinchingly serious about his music. He spent all of February 2015 working on a single sticking point in the melody for “Dance the Night Away.” “That was the first true pop song that I’d ever written,” recalled Strickler. “I wanted to get it right. I didn’t want to bring in a whole bunch of writers; I wanted to see what I could do myself. The main thing is that I want all of my music to be happy and to make people feel good when they listen to it.”
This idea of happiness is not, for Strickler, an afterthought; it’s something like a life philosophy. “I really want people to walk away from one of my shows empowered to spread good vibes in the world. You never know who needs a smile. You never know who is stopping you in the coffee shop to compliment your shoes not because they like your shoes but because they need the social interaction. I’ve been there. I feel like the people who need love the most are the ones who don’t know how to show their love. It’s easy, as we get older, to surround ourselves with the same routines and the same people and keep our circles small. But it was stepping outside of my box and moving to Austin without knowing anybody that changed my life. If I can have an impact on somebody — whether it’s a major change like that or whether it’s just empowering a person to go out and meet somebody new today — that’s what I want to do with my music.”
Strickler, who has a number of new projects in the works, isn’t wedded to the idea of being a performer all his life. His talents — writing, producing, performing — are capacious. “I just love the craft and hard work that goes into creating a song. Even if I don’t sing it, I’m sharing my message of happiness and positivity with the world. … I mean, if Beyonce runs up to me and says, ‘Hey, I love that thing you did — will you write a song with me?’” Strickler laughs: “I’m going to be like, ‘Hell yeah!’ Basically, I just want make the best pop song possible.”
Language is a pretty dismal instrument when it comes to conveying what moves us in music. When it’s good, it bypasses analysis, effecting its subtler adjustments to our limbic system. But a few years ago Mikkel Eriksen, one of the great pop composers of the last decade — think Rhianna, think Beyonce — was asked what separates a great pop song from a mediocre one.
“It’s a fat sound,” Eriksen said, “and there’s a sparkle around the edges of the words.”
“I guess one of my main influences is Oscar Peterson,” said Strickler, evoking the great mid-20th century jazz pianist who Duke Ellington once called the “Maharaja of the keyboard.” “Have you heard of him? I just love, when you watch a video of him, how he’s completely encapsulated in the music. Because he knows so much about his instrument and because he’s studied so rigorously to understand it, when he puts his fingers on the keys, he doesn’t have to think at all. All he has to do is interpret the music. His body does the rest. It’s cool to see a video of him performing. He goes to another world and he transports you there with him. And it’s not just that he’s so technically proficient; it’s that he’s literally translating this language of music into a sound that we can understand.”
But how does a person find his way to the thing he is meant to do? How did Oscar? How did Skye? It’s just a sense, said Strickler, an idea that when you meet it, you’ll know.
In 2008, during his sophomore year of high school, Strickler was helping out with sound on the Iola Community Theatre’s production of “The Spitfire Grill.” “An older friend of mine, who had actually been my elementary school music teacher, was playing the piano during one of the breaks in rehearsal. I sat down next to her and said, ‘What are you playing?’ And she said, ‘I’m just creating; I didn’t write anything. I’m playing whatever comes to my heart and mind.’ I said, ‘How do you do that?’ She said, ‘It’s easy.’ And then she had me sit next to her and she put my hands on the piano.”
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