By Jason Keil, January 2021 issue
When Sydney Sprague wrote the song “steve,” she was feeling unhappy. Because of troubled feelings about her relationships, job, and the direction of her life, she was attracting negativity.
“I was wallowing a lot,” she says. “I realized if I didn’t start surrounding myself with more positive things that made me happy, I would drown.”
The lyrics of the jangly alternative single pose the question: “Can I get what I want only once?” So, the 28-year-old local singer-songwriter tried to figure out what she wanted. She reassessed her whole life and cut out the pessimism around her. Then she began to save whatever she could to commit the songs she was writing to tape.
This inspirational story sounds like something you might hear a Tony Robbins wannabe say to a crowd of desperate salesmen inside a hotel conference room. But in this case, the power of positive thinking did radically alter the direction of Sprague’s life. And that album she was saving her money to record? The aptly titled maybe i will see you at the end of the world, her first full-length record, drops February 26 on Rude Records.
Sprague accomplished all this by sticking to those resolutions she made as 2020 began, back when the world was more optimistic about the new year. It was the first time she resolved to get her “shit together,” but the road to realizing her dreams wasn’t smooth.
“I wouldn’t say [COVID] has dampened things, but it’s changed the experience,” she says. “It doesn’t feel real because it’s just been me sitting in my apartment all year getting emails and doing Zoom calls. I can’t go play shows and see the growth of what’s happening, but it’s just as exciting.”
Concerts and festivals hadn’t been canceled yet, including South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Sprague was set to be included in the influential music conference’s official lineup for the first time. Before she came to the Valley, she lived in the Lone Star State’s capital city until the age of 11. She started performing when she was 14 and returned to the live music mecca when she turned 18 to pursue a career in the industry. The experience motivated her in unexpected ways.
“Growing up [in Austin], there’s music everywhere,” she recalls. “Being around that got me going. There are so many musicians. Even with so many places to play, it’s still competitive. It was pretty eye-opening for me at that age. You have to be really good to make it in the door.”
Sprague eventually moved back to Phoenix, performing cover gigs for several years. She was also writing and performing original music and graduated to playing shows at Crescent Ballroom and The Rebel Lounge. In 2018 and 2019, Sprague penned the bulk of the songs on maybe i will see you at the end of the world and demoed them at home.
She recorded the album in early 2020 at The Hall of Justice, a Seattle studio, just as the novel coronavirus was about to devastate the northwestern city. Chris Walla, formerly of the band Death Cab for Cutie, currently owns the historic studio where Nirvana recorded Bleach, the grunge band’s debut album. maybe i will see you at the end of the world was produced by Sam Rosson, who is also behind the boards of fellow Phoenician Danielle Durack’s upcoming record, and mixed by Mike Pepe, who also worked with Valley band Sundressed on their latest album.
But according to Sprague, Pepe did more than help put Sprague’s record together. He shared it with the team at the independent label Rude Records, the home of bands such as Saves the Day and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Sprague was surprised to receive an email from the label in June saying they wanted to talk about releasing the record, just a short time after her single “I Refuse to Die” was self-released. She also has the honor of becoming the label’s first female solo artist.
“From the people around me that are successful, they always say you never want to chase an opportunity,” she says. “You want one to fall in your lap with people that love what you’re doing. It really shocked me because I thought you had to have a good track record of streaming and a following to back it up. There are still labels that exist that make shit they’re passionate about.”
And despite the pandemic, Sprague did get to perform her music in front of a live audience last October, only it wasn’t at Crescent Ballroom. It was opening for Cher as part of a Biden-Harris campaign rally. She describes the experience as “absolutely insane” and a “super jarring experience.” Several days later, she performed for the then vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and Alicia Keys at an event.
“I didn’t even have time to process it because it all happened so fast,” says Sprague.
But despite the good fortune that has come the artist’s way, Sprague is still waiting for something bad to happen to help balance things out.
“I’ve always felt like the end of the world is coming,” she says. “I’m deeply paranoid and anxious. When I go on a trip, I’m afraid the plane is going to crash. I’m a worst-case-scenario person. This album was me trying to work through that.”
Speaking with Echo in early December, the self-described doom-scroller hasn’t even thought about making resolutions for 2021 because “things are so uncertain.” But she’s been spending her time in quarantine writing new music and shooting the video for her song “I Refuse to Die” on her iPhone, spending weeks on YouTube to learn how to insert the special effects. And despite her album’s title, she’s starting to feel a little optimistic about 2021. That feeling permeates throughout the bright-sounding record.
“A lot of my songs have been doom and gloom,” she describes. “Now, there’s a little hope in there.”