Dreaming of Tall Mountains

Sydney Yeo, aka Tall Mountains, is more a 21st century Romantic than a city girl. Born in Singapore and currently based in New York, the singer-songwriter pens music infused with day-dreamt nostalgia for nature and idyllic, rolling pastorals. The impeccable folk-pop tunes weave her dainty vocals through landscapes from arid deserts to green daisy fields. We speak to the 20-year-old, who released her five-track self-titled EP just last week.

How did you become a singer-songwriter?
I started playing the violin when I was 3, and I got pretty good at it, so up until I picked up the guitar when I was 15, I was primarily a classical musician. I love the violin, it’s really expressive and has a wide range of expression, but writing songs holed up in a room with just myself and my guitar feels honest, simple and good. I wrote my first song (which doesn’t appear on the EP) by accident. I was playing around with some chords, became inspired by the Absurdist play I’d been reading, and it just came out. The music was pretty folk-y right from the start. I remember it was called ‘Lover’ and I still occasionally play it at gigs.

You travel between New York City and Singapore quite frequently. How would you say this shuttling has manifested in your songwriting?
I travel the route at least once a year and have done a roundtrip 2.5 times so far — it’s terrible. I hate long flights, I can’t stand watching a tiny screen at such close proximity, and I can never get any sleep. But it also gives me the chance to ruminate about life and my goals for the period of time I’m going to spend in the city I’m heading to. Having two homes also means that I don’t feel very connected to either one, and being in New York without family can get really lonely especially during the holiday seasons.

I’ve been a city girl all my life, but while taking roadtrips around USA and in my other travels when I was younger, I find myself most amazed by natural beauty. Singapore and New York are suffocating in different ways. For the former it’s the politics, the attitudes, the fact that not many there believe in the local music scene and therefore support from the public is hard to come by. For the latter, creative-wise things are great, but silence and peace is hard to find. So I guess part of my music is the intent to transport myself and my listener to another place, one where it’s just nature and open space for miles.

What are your key influences and inspiration?
I must admit that I don’t abide by the songwriters-must-write-every-day thing because inspiration is fleeting for me. It most often comes from images I find beautiful or striking — be it the ones I see or the ones in my head — or a phrase that I find poetic. For example, the opening line of ‘Monster’ (“hold on to your gloves/put them on my cold hands/collect a cup of snow and/pour into my mouth“) came from a particularly bitter and snowy day in NYC when my hands were so cold (I’m especially susceptible to cold — go figure) that I could barely move them to put on gloves. I felt like I had swallowed the cold air and it was freezing me right down to my bones.

I really admire what Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens, and Angus & Julia Stone do with pop music and how they add a dimension of distinctive individuality through weird or quirky instrumentation. Watching gigs can also be a great source of inspiration; I saw The National at Radio City recently and they were amazing. I thought their music was brilliant on record, but they brought this fantastic energy, drive and charisma to the stage. They had some pretty mindblowing live-recorded-and-edited visuals as well. I’ve probably dreamt about that gig again since then, I think. Watching and hearing good musicians inspire me to be better and work harder at my craft.

“So I guess part of my music is the intent to transport myself and my listener to another place, one where it’s just nature and open space for miles.”

Who is one musician you’d most want to collaborate with and why?
I would probably be super down to collaborate with Yeasayer or just sit in on one of their recording/jamming sessions. I just got into them and their music is so multidimensional and powerful. Great rhythms and really weird (but awesome) melodies and countermelodies. Other thoughts: Kimbra, Kings of Convenience and Damien Rice.

Locally (i.e. in Singapore), I’m actually planning to do something with Nick Chim when I’m back for the summer. We both recorded our albums at different times at Snakeweed Studios, but I only just got in touch with him over Twitter and I’m excited to write a song or three. I’ve also collaborated in the past with These Brittle Bones and Deon Toh. I love working with other people because it shows you how much you can push your own boundaries to make something different from the usual. Singaporean musicians in the indie scene are some of the nicest, most hardworking, and sincere people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I’m very proud to say I come from that group.

What are some of Tall Mountains’ other interests?
Food is a major pursuit of mine and it’s great (but also terrible) because NYC has such a great restaurant scene. However, I just got into the habit of cooking almost daily. I couldn’t get any home-style Chinese food before I started cooking it myself, because Americans really don’t know their Chinese food.  I still stalk food blogs religiously (like the NYTimes food column and Serious Eats) and check out restaurants I find interesting. I also (engage in activities like) film photography with my reliable Ricoh SLR and reading novels and poetry. I’ve just finished (reading) Crush by Richard Siken and it blew me away. It was wildly visceral, thrilling and it reminded me of why I make art (or rather, music).

“Singaporean musicians in the indie scene are some of the nicest, most hardworking, and sincere people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I’m very proud to say I come from that group.”

Lastly, New York or Singapore?
Oh wow, what a loaded question! I dig Singapore — it obviously still feels more like home considering the fact that I’ve lived here my whole life. Also, (I prefer) Singapore because New York doesn’t know what good char kway teow or chai tow kway is. However, the creative energy in New York is unparalleled and I feel that I made the best decision of my life in choosing to study music here. My direction as a musician has evolved immensely and I doubt that would have happened had I stayed in Singapore. I have to come back eventually after I graduate to serve my bond with MDA, so yes, I’ll be coming back to Singapore and I definitely don’t hate that idea.

Will we ever get to see you perform here?
For sure! I wanted to play Baybeats 2013 but I’m not sure if I can make it back for the auditions, which I’m not happy about. I think that events like Baybeats and Mosaic bring life to the festival scene in Singapore. If not Baybeats, I’ll definitely do some gigs with the EP band at other places. The Pigeonhole has hosted me twice so far, maybe third time’s the charm?

By Zixin Lin