Published Dec 10, 2019Known for his chill avant-R&B flavoured tracks that rack up multimillion Spotify streams, Sylo Nozra is all about the zen of his bedroom studio.
"I went to so many church retreats when I was a kid," Nozra says. "We'd spend weekends up north just singing and worshiping. It was intense, but it was super motivational, spiritual and cathartic," says the singer-songwriter and producer of tracks like "Pink Towel" and "Losing Myself."
"Growing up in church, I was just surrounded by music."
Raised in Thornhill, ON, Nozra went to the same high school as artists like River Tiber, Goldchain, Scott Helman, Deanna Petcoff and more, either in or within a couple of years of the same grade. Coming from a family that was steeped in the Korean community church, he listened to only religious music from a young age, and played drums and sang for the congregation. It was his older sister who introduced him to the sounds of late '90s R&B, soul and the emerging K-pop scene at the time.
"She listened to golden era '90s R&B and hip-hop, so I was around that. I would discover MuchMusic and I'd see Slipknot or Marilyn Manson videos and wonder what it was all about," he says. "And in the late '90s, K-pop was just starting to bloom. I was just completely influenced by my sister back then. She would bring home like VHS tapes of K-pop shows from the local Korean convenience store and teach me the dance moves."
He discovered he had a knack for developing melodies and lyrics and soon wanted to record. "I just went to Long & McQuade and I bought the cheapest USB mic. From there I got into FL Studio," he says. "I was listening to purely R&B, hip-hop and pop until high school when I discovered punk, emo and indie rock. I got into the Strokes, Arctic Monkeys, Kings of Leon. When I started making my own music and picking up the guitar when I was 15 or 16, I was writing a lot of stuff that was based around indie rock and singer-songwriter stuff, like John Mayer and Jason Mraz. So when making my own stuff, the two flavours come together."
While he records in various studios in Toronto, home base for the moment is his bedroom studio in his parents' Thornhill home. It's a spartan set up — an Akai MPK49 keyboard, Ableton Live, a couple of guitars and a mic —and the self-taught magic happens from there.
It's an intimate bedroom space that enables his artistic freedom, he says. "You're definitely meditating in here," he says. A typical studio session might involve bouts of yoga and bringing up the energy by lighting incense and making use of the various salt candles around the space. "When it gets dark, I have the whole ritual that I go through. I do some stretches and just bring the vibes up. I definitely feel the vibrations."
In terms of plug-ins, he uses Omnisphere a lot. "I'm really trying to create my own sound in terms of making heavy indie rock. As a songwriter, what's really important is the story, the message. If you can make anything sound good on a guitar and vocals first, then whatever you do after, it's just a no brainer," he says.
"I do program most of my drums and play with the MIDI keyboard just to capture the feeling. But a lot of times I'll just punch it in, but I still try to capture the natural feel of how a human drummer would play. I think a huge influence of that would be Kaytranada; the way he produces, it just sounds so natural and bouncy. Even if it's simple four-to-the-floor, he definitely doesn't play to the grid. I tried to study a lot of that," Nozra says. "So I usually just make my own beat. But then when it comes to weird rhythmic things, even like sounds of glass breaking, I can make that more rhythmic by chopping up some loops."
He produces and mixes his own stuff and has been on a regular release schedule, dropping singles and EPs (including 2016's this_era, 2017's Fervor and 2018's Mud Mask).
In terms of that whole 10,000 hours to mastery thing, he says he's been singing since he was a toddler; at the moment, it's about levelling up the production skills. "I can sing melodies all day long, but when it comes to production, it's about being able to think structurally about arrangements — what instruments fit and where the frequencies they reside in are and how to make it all work and glue together.
"Production-wise, I have a certain way of how I want the vocals and harmonies to sound, how far to pan left and right, how distorted or clean I want things to sound. When it comes to mixing, I don't have to think out of the box, 'cause I have to with production. I just have to find balance. I just have to find a place for each instrument to live in its own frequencies," he says.
Right now to spends time between here and Los Angeles as he grows his career. But this bedroom setup is always home.
"I find it very zen. I do like to tie everything back to spirituality. I just love finding balance. My mantra of life is do everything in moderation, do everything from a peaceful, highly aware and clear state," he says.
"It's like in any craft, you're always pushing to get to that next level."