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Rachel Zylstra and the Beautiful Sadness

Singer-songwriter Rachel Zylstra grew up in the American Midwest, but now calls Edinburgh her home, and her piano-led, naturalistic folk songs feel like they carry the hallmarks of both. Often they sound like they couldn’t be performed by anyone else, with swinging cadences and such easy, conversational delivery that you’re surprised these songs didn’t just fall out of the air fully-formed. It’s the kind of sleight-of-hand you expect from Rufus Wainwright, or Regina Spektor, and it’s remarkably hard to do well: but Rachel pulls it off with charm to spare.

At the start of the year, Rachel released ‘On Faith’, a new collection of more outwardly ‘sacred’ songs, that marks her first release in a few years. We chatted to Rachel to find out more about her musical journey, and how the various turns of her life have influenced her writing and outlook.

Would there be one song that you felt best summed up your music? Can you talk us through it?

Sure! Most of my songs have one or two of the lyrical themes below, but one of my faves that immediately comes to mind, has a whole tick list of them all in one place: ‘The Pity Party’ (from Strings, 2012)

  • Wistfulness
  • Self-deprecating humor
  • Mild wallowing
  • Tough love (“Stop your quivering, you giant little mouse”)
  • Pep-talking (“You’ve got the chance to make it up again as you go along”)
  • Romantic love/Anxiety about finding love (“Shield me from the blow… of being not enough to merit the inventions of someone I could love”)
  •  God/Spiritual longing – i.e. knowing that, after all these dramatrics, it’s actually very much Not About Me (“Point me to the thing that makes me full”). 

Musically, it’s my ‘classic’ sound: ballady, classical-influenced piano and a conversational vocal delivery; a touch of theatre; added to this, the sound gets souped up as it goes along with swoopy strings and some vocal counterpoint – brushing with chaos, but coming back, much like the arc of the lyrics.

Your latest album On Faith is the first you’ve released since moving continents. How has relocation affected how you approach your art?

Over the course of a decade living in NYC, I’d grown some strong ties in Christian and arts community. I had talented and generous musician friends who came on board to make music with me in different seasons, venues I knew I could always play. When I moved to test the waters in Edinburgh, I literally knew two people, so starting from square one connection-wise was the first challenge.

But, my relocation to Scotland was kicked off by a hopeful whim and a decision to nourish my personal life. As to how it would enhance my art and art production, I was pretty sure that spending time on the wistful windswept landscape would inspire some new beautiful-sadness type lyrics, but I didn’t think far beyond that.

I tend to write from an autobiographical perspective more often than not. So when (surprise!) a bunch started changing in my personal life after I moved, my personal life became a big distraction away from my regular art-making patterns, and also changed some of the themes that I felt inspired by and equipped to write about empathetically.

On top of that, you’ve recently had your first child. I know that many artists find it very difficult to juggle their art and the responsibilities that appear on becoming a new parent. How’s it going so far?

While I love being a mom, carving out the necessary time, energy, mental and physical space to create and rehearse with a toddler in tow, especially in a lockdown, especially while lacking access to a studio or equivalent – is a plain good joke! Seriously though, since my daughter was born, we’ve lived in a small 1-bed flat. We intend to move to a 2-bed soon, and I think I’ve already hung too much hopeful expectation on an extra room in the house and how it could “solve” these mental and physical space issues!

It’s fascinating to see the way your faith interacts with your music. On Faith is certainly more upfront in its Biblical subject matter and more explicitly worshipful than previous albums. What led you in this direction and what have you learnt so far about how following Jesus and making beautiful music can go together well?

Making On Faith actually wasn’t a sudden turn in direction, but the result of the accumulation of a number of Scripture songs and hymns that I’d penned or adopted over the years, sung in churches, etc, some of which had become all-out mantras for me in my faith walk (e.g. ‘Dayenu Lord’, written by Steffon Davis). My earliest original song on On Faith, ‘World Belongs’, dates back to 2000, and the most recent to 2018. These are years through which I was writing and putting out albums of my more ‘mainstream’ heartache/hope/humour-infused singer-songwriter fare, all the while thinking, “Someday I’ll do a full-on sacred/Scripture songs album.” So, in part it came down to practicalities – I didn’t dare try to stick a bombastically worshipful song like ‘Psalm 65’ on a track list next to a song pining for an ex-boyfriend – though, I’m sure some have succeeded at this level of diversity on a record!

Making On Faith… I guess if I dig deeper to answer the “why now?” question – why not have made it 5, 10 years ago? – I am reminded of the trajectory of my faith and life circumstances. My late 20s and into my 30s I was growing in disillusionment – initially, in not achieving a commercial success with my art that I had really hoped for and pursued; then, in longing for marriage, while simply not meeting that person. My faith took a big nose dive in my early 30s and spiritual/existential doubt became a major theme in my songs then. The Tacit Turn (2015) reflects this period. I felt “held” through that season, and ultimately, brought back from the agnostic edge, but I wasn’t singing from a place of spiritual strength, rather of deep vulnerability. Granted, God meets us in deep vulnerability… 

When I came to Scotland in 2016 on a wing and a prayer and a visitor’s visa, and within the three years that followed, fell in love, got married, and had a baby – I was kind of bludgeoned by the evidence that God is there, and listens. God listened to my prayers and my heartaches and my longings, was with me through a long desert of waiting, and finally answered, “Here you go, Rachel” and showered me with all these ‘Yes’-es.

So, when my daughter was 6 months old and my new-parent feet felt more firmly planted underneath me, I asked: what’s next on the musical agenda? – and the project that has become On Faith budged its way to the top of my consciousness. I didn’t question it hugely then; I figured – hey it’s just time to get this one out. But I see now that it was a response. I had to respond explicitly to what God had just done in my life, and give all the glory where it’s due. I felt in a stronger place to do it, and to mean it with all my heart. Even if my faith-feeling still ebbs and flows at times, my life shows God’s outrageous provision and love, undeniably, in spite of me.

You can get hold of ‘On Faith’ at Rachel’s website, here, and follow Rachel on Instagram here.