A clearance bin find led Stephen Sylvester to discover a part of his voice that has led him on an incredible journey thus far. One that has included making it to Hollywood on ‘American Idol.’ We talked about the moment the judges gave him that infamous golden ticket, the way he can bring a crowd to tears (in the best way), his latest release, ‘‘Let Me Be Strong,’ and more in this back and forth exchange.
Kendra: Your mama taught you to be humble, but your daddy seemed to be the one with the musical lessons. Were you always one to take his word when it came to music or did you rebel just a little?
Stephen Sylvester: My Dad definitely brought music and singing into our lives in a big way, but I pushed back against his efforts to teach me to play guitar as a teenager for sure. To his credit, I think I just wasn’t ready yet, and the way I sing today was influenced in a massive way by my dad’s voice. So I’d say half rebellion, half genetic predisposition.
Kendra: You eventually found your voice but you did lean more towards the songwriting side of things for a minute. When did you decide to start singing what you wrote?
Stephen Sylvester: You know, I sang covers at the top of my lungs from a young age, and that kind of performing came naturally to me. The songwriting thing started when my wife was going through treatment for leukemia – before then I didn’t have much to say to be quite honest. Writing songs gave me an outlet for those huge feelings I hadn’t experienced before, and performing my own work felt a lot more right than any cover song ever did. I still enjoy playing music by other artists, but I’m definitely a singer/songwriter if that makes sense.
Kendra: But again, you found that voice and in the title track – Stephen…the soul! It gave me Garth Brooks when he did the influences box set and had the ‘Blue-Eyed Soul’ disc. Are there any soul and R&B artists from the past or even today that you draw inspiration from in your performances?
Stephen Sylvester: Thank you! Wow, that’s really flattering to be compared to Garth. My first experience listening to non-kids music was a Motown compilation CD I found in the clearance bin – classic songs by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and my all-time favorite singer to this day: Sam Cooke. I owe a lot to those artists for helping me find a unique, soulful way of doing country music.
Kendra: We’re going back and forth here because I do want to talk about your way with words. You’re like the ‘This Is Us’ of songwriters right now with your ability to get the waterworks going in a crowd. Is there any secret formula to writing a song that’s guaranteed to make people cry?
Stephen Sylvester: Well shucks, I don’t know about that but I’ll take the compliment anyway! The first time I made an audience cry with an original song still feels like it happened last week. That was the moment I knew I wasn’t a local bar singer anymore. And as far as a songwriting secret I don’t think there’s one that works for everybody, but I find that the more vulnerable the story in the song is, the more the audience can connect with it. And you can feel it in the air when that happens – it’s like real, actual magic.
Kendra: Speaking of crying and TV, there are always a lot of tears when it comes to ‘American Idol.’ Whether as a viewer or someone who’s made it on the show, I’d love to know what was your initial thought when you heard the famous, “You’re going to Hollywood?”
Stephen Sylvester: Oh my goodness it was INCREDIBLE. Although the moment is sort of a blur – that whole day still feels like it might have been a dream. My wife did all of the crying for both of us. I think she was more excited than I was when I got the golden ticket.
Kendra: Was this your first time trying out, and would you try again on maybe…’The Voice’ or ‘America’s Got Talent?’
Stephen Sylvester: I actually got invited to be on ‘The Voice’ as well, but I, unfortunately, couldn’t make the time commitment and keep my day job. And now I’m too old to go back to ‘American Idol’, believe it or not, but a bunch of folks who were on the show with me have gone back. I might have to see about ‘America’s Got Talent,’ but in all seriousness, I’ve always wanted to get roasted by Simon. Honesty is the best criticism!
Kendra: Okay, time for a side note – with this month being Easter…my favorite holiday only because the candy game is on point, I want to ask if you could have the perfect holiday basket filled with your favorite treat and an album that you cannot live without, what would be in your basket?
Stephen Sylvester: Oof that’s tough to pick just one, but I’ll have to go with Kinder Bueno Eggs. They’re just the perfect easter candy, in my opinion, 10 out of 10. As for an album, I can’t get enough of ‘Continuum’ by John Mayer. I know every word and I’m still not tired of it!
Kendra: Lastly, with ‘Let Me Be Strong’ out now, what’s next for you as spring continues to roll into summer?
Stephen Sylvester: For now it’s back to the regular grind of playing shows and writing songs – but Chris Keaton (my manager) and I are constantly pitching the songs to artists and labels. Hopefully, someone will be interested in the near future, and you might see me at some songwriting festivals in the Fall.