While many newlyweds spend their first few months experiencing the joys and challenges of married life, Musician Stephen Sylvester and his wife, Afton, were struggling with a surprising and potentially devastating medical diagnosis. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Stephen to chat about life, faith, and Sylvester Band’s campaign to record music borne from that difficult yet inspiring time. While the fabulous Ignitum Today posted the ready-for-his-closeup version of our interview, the following is the uncut, loosely edited “Rolling Stones” -esque (aka LONG) version of our conversation, complete with The Essential Stephen Sylvester, seen at the end. Enjoy!
RCM: Okay – so let’s get to know you – the man, the myth, the legend. Who, exactly, is Stephen Sylvester? Where do you come from, and what was your faith life like when you were growing up?
SS: (laughing) Oh, Lord … well, Stephen the Catholic musician started as an Alabama native who grew up listening to his parents sing. I’m the oldest of 10 children, and the Catholic faith and music are probably the two things that my family is most recognized for. I started playing for the youth Mass at my old parish in Mobile, Alabama when I was in high school, and by the time I graduated college and started working, I was an accomplished worship musician.
RCM: So, faith and music was a pretty strong undercurrent during your formative years, huh?
SS: For sure; it was everywhere.
RCM: And, for our readers, maybe you can share a little bit about your family life during those years. I understand you come from a line of ministry-types.
RCM: I sure do! My dad has been a youth minster and music minister for as long as I can remember. I think all of the Sylvester kids were influenced in a positive way by growing up around the Church. It was like our second home. Now that we’re older, both my sister and I work in youth ministry – the whole “apples and trees” thing.
RCM: Absolutely. Must’ve been a good tree! (laughs)
SS: I’d like to think it was. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t perfect, but as I get older, I realize how truly blessed I am to have grown up in a devout Catholic family.
RCM: It must not have been too traumatic, since you’re a) still Catholic and b) serving the Church.
SS: (laughing) I guess not!
RCM: Let’s talk about that – you’re one of those “slash” people, right? I mean, you’re a youth minister-slash-musician? How did that come to pass?
SS: It was sort of forced upon me at first – one of those, “Oh, you play guitar and sing? Here’s a youth Mass you’re now responsible for,” situations. I really enjoy doing both, although it can start to consume your weekends.
RCM: Oh, definitely! My parents were folk musicians at Mass when I was growing up, and I can’t count the hours we spent at church! (laughs) But at a certain point, Stephen, it must have become something you owned – that YOU wanted to do?
SS: It definitely was. I think the first time I really started treating the music as a prayer was while I was leading music for a Sunday night Mass. I just sort of lost myself in praising God, and I found that I could still fully concentrate on what I was doing. After that, I knew I had been given this amazing gift, and I knew it was important for me to continue to share it with everybody.
RCM: Wow, that’s amazing! When was that? Do you remember?
SS: It was during the spring of last year, actually, so not that long ago. I had been leading liturgical music for a while, but it just “clicked” at that point. It wasn’t really easy after that per se – that’s not the right word – but the music felt much more authentic. I didn’t ever feel like I was distracted from Mass by the music I was playing after that; it was more like it helped me enter into the liturgy. And, in turn, I think it helped everyone else do the same thing.
RCM: What a gift! That’s great!
SS: It was a blessing, for sure.
RCM: Well, then, it’s been a remarkable year for you, right? You got married not that long ago, too?
SS: Yeah! My wife and I got hitched on July 19th of last year, and marriage has been wonderful thus far. It’s been a crazy roller coaster, but still wonderful.
RCM: You just celebrated your first anniversary – congratulations!
SS: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Yeah; we actually went through some pretty tough stuff at the very beginning.
RCM: Tell me a little bit about that.
SS: Well, about a month after our wedding day, my wife’s parents split up, which was really hard on her, as I’m sure you can imagine. And about a week later, we found out that Afton had leukemia.
RCM: Oh, Lord, have mercy! That’s a whoooole lot for newlyweds to handle on top of getting used to married life! How did you cope? And … is Afton okay now?
SS: I know, right? I’d like to say we prayed a lot, but honestly, it was just a lot of nights comforting each other as we got used to the new normal. Afton cleaned the house from top to bottom when we got home, because that’s her de-stress method, and I wrote songs, which is mine. And now she’s just fine!
SS: She’s actually due to have our first baby at the end of October, and her doctors think that there’s a very good chance that she will make basically a full recovery. So, even if she doesn’t go into total remission, she will still have a normal length and quality of life.
RCM: Praise the Lord! That is incredible! You must have had a bunch of prayer warriors going to bat for y’all on the regular, man!
SS: I know for a fact we had, like, a prayer army! We’ve actually heard from a lot of folks that the way we handled the whole situation inspired some people to return to their faith. I didn’t think at the time we were doing anything spectacular, but I guess God was working through us the whole time.
RCM: Amen. Sometimes just walking with one foot in front of the other can be so inspiring to someone else. You just never know.
SS: It’s true!
RCM: So, you said that when all this craziness was happening, you turned to music as a stress reliever. Were you playing, like, Metallica, or Lamentations, or the Book of Job, or what?
SS: (laughs) It was a lot of folk rock and really sad, melancholic stuff at first. That was a literal translation of what I was feeling, which really isn’t a good way to write a song. Then I sort of moved into more of an “honest confessional” style of lyrics, which is what I’ve been sticking with ever since. As far as what I was listening to, it was Mumford and Sons on repeat, pretty much.
RCM: Oh – so you actually starting writing your own stuff at that point? And, Mumford and Sons is rad, by the way. Love them.
SS: Yeah, that was my coping mechanism. And – I know, right? Afton and I went to see them in concert while we were dating. BEST. CONCERT. EVER. (beams)
But yes, writing down what I was feeling became how I would figure out what I was feeling. I’d tried my hand at writing songs before, and they all sucked. But what was coming out of this really difficult experience was actually pretty beautiful.
RCM: Wow – like, God was turning a nightmare situation into something that was beautiful and could glorify Him?
SS: Probably. I wasn’t writing lyrics that were explicitly Christian, but there was definitely a desire in me to communicate hope and beauty with the words.
RCM: Maybe you were clinging to the hope that something beautiful was gonna come out of this whole painful process in the end.
SS: That’s it! I wanted to look back on it and not remember how awful it was, but how much Afton and I have changed for the better since then.
RCM: Well, again, praise God, and you’re even a Dad, too! Congrats, man!
SS: Thank you!
RCM: But … whatever shall become of those songs? I heard a rumor that you’re doing something, like, BIG with them.
SS: (laughs) Well, over the summer, I felt really compelled to record the songs I had written. And almost as if to confirm that I should, some friends of mine who are amazing musicians jumped on board to help make it happen.
RCM: That is so cool! Did it almost feel like a Holy Spirit thing? I mean, with everyone being on board so quickly?
SS: It really did, and I sort of asked God to let me know if now was a good time. On paper, it really doesn’t seem like it, but everything falling into place so quickly seemed to me to be a pretty clear sign.
RCM: As a busy person with lots of distractions, I love it when the signs are clear. Love it. So, when do you begin recording, or have you already?
SS: Not yet; we have to raise some money first. We wanted to do this thing right, so we’re going to a legit studio in Fairhope, Alabama, and we’re going to have everything professionally mixed and mastered. The total cost is going to be about $7,000.
RCM: Aha. Yes. It does take money, doesn’t it? (laughs)
SS: Yup; that’s the catch. We started a crowdfunding campaign to help, though. And it seems like a lot of people want to help.
RCM: Very cool! Maybe you can tell our readers about some of the incentives – and do you have a deadline? What’s the website? Man – I am just full of questions – I am excited for this album!
SS: Okay – if you go to kickstarter.com and search for Sylvester Band it’s the first thing that come up. The incentives range from a digital single to stickers to a copy of the finished album to a house concert; it just depends on how much you want to donate. And the campaign is only going until October 1st, so we have to raise the full 7K before then, or else the project gets halted for awhile.
RCM: Ooh! So people need to get on it, then, yeah?
SS: Please! I’ve been bombarding social media all week asking for folks to share the link to the Kickstarter [campaign]. That’s what will really help us, getting the word out. And, of course, prayers! Those help!
RCM: Awesome! What do you think listeners have to look forward to? How would you describe Sylvester Band’s sound?
SS: Well, I think we have a message of truth and beauty that is not explicitly Christian, so we have the potential to reach a much broader audience than just Christian music listeners, although I’m sure everyone will enjoy our sound. We’re a mix of roots rock, bluegrass, folk, and 60’s R & B, plus some blues influence. We actually have a demo up on soundcloud that is a hint of what we sound like. You can check it out here: https://soundcloud.com/sylvesterbandofficial
RCM: Okay, when the record is done, what are the plans? A concert? A tour? World domination?
SS: World domination, but don’t blow our cover!
RCM: Crud. Sorry! (laughing)
SS: (Laughs) We’re planning some local concerts for now. If we suddenly explode into popularity, then we will definitely tour the parts of the U.S. where folks want us to come. One of the potential extra things we will do if we raise more than our 7K goal is to do a release party here in Fairhope.
RCM: That sounds like fun. For those who don’t know, where, exactly, is Fairhope?
SS: It’s nearly the southernmost part of Alabama, on the Eastern side of Mobile Bay. My whole family lives there.
SS: The main thing is that we will make the EP available on formats like iTunes and Spotify so everybody can hear us. We really want everybody to hear us!
RCM: Well, I think everybody should hear you, too, for what it’s worth.
SS: Thank you! I really appreciate that. I hope people decide to support us both because they like the message and they dig the music
RCM: Amen. Music with a message. I like it. Will folks be able to dance to it? Or play spoons to the beat? (laughs)
SS: Ha! Well, we’ve got some variety. It’s about half dance songs and half folky, bluesy numbers. It’s definitely like nothing anyone’s heard before.
RCM: Let’s get everybody over to the Kickstarter to make this puppy happen!
SS: Let’s do it!
RCM: Thank you so much for your time, Stephen, and for what you’re doing to build up the Kingdom of God. Blessings to you and your family!
SS: And thank you for interviewing me, Heather! It was a pleasure talking to you, and may God bless your family as well.
THE ESSENTIAL STEPHEN SYLVESTER
Occupation: Youth Minister / Sylvester Band frontman.
Favorite Color: Green.
Favorite Sports Team: Crimson Tide football – RTR, baby!
What is your quest? To seek the Holy Grail.
What are you listening to right now? Right now, Gungor. It’s kind of spacey for my taste, but I enjoy it. Wait, did you mean right this second?
Like, what is on your ipod? Ooh. Well I dig this band called Jamestown Revival. They’re modern poets, and great performers to boot
What’s your favorite dessert? Single Malt Scotch. Just kidding, just kidding. Butter Pecan Ice Cream.
Is that Blue Bell or something else? There is only one ice cream brand worth my time, and that’s Blue Bell.
What’s the best part about being from / living in the South? The food! The food is better here than anywhere else I’ve lived or visited, in my opinion. My wife is an amazing cook!
What was the last good movie you saw? The Railway Man with Colin Firth. [It] made me cry.
If you could see any performer, past or present, LIVE, who would it be and why? Guns ‘n’ Roses original lineup. They were the last stadium-filling American rock band, and it would be amazing.
Wow! Didn’t see that coming. (Laughs) I have a reaaalllly wide range of musical tastes.
Best way to relax? Playing my guitar at the beach with a cold one and good friends.
And, finally, who’s your go-to Saint when times get tough? St. John Vianney. He’s my confirmation saint and was a huge part of my spiritual formation when I was a teenager.