Conversations with her can be circumlocutory, laden with pensive reversals and parenthetical "Where am I with this?" self-assessments. But by the time such processing finds its way into song, live performance or onto a record, the self-editing is long gone, and what remains is spelled out in the title of her February 2007 release, Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul.
Sykes' voice is an unedited, unforced and completely un-self-conscious hallway through harrowing vulnerability, a cavern of subtle hues and the drip, drip, dripping of time and experience (time happens; life teaches). It travels through twilight corridors of natural composition (hope), decay (despair) and evolution (resignation). The closest comparable emotional exposure is found in the voice of Shannon Wright, but their music hasn't an iota in common.
Songs visit Sykes in the lonely hours, beginning with the first pot of coffee and ending when she finds herself spent in late afternoon.
"For the last three records, the process was months on end of just sitting around and being alone a lot and waiting for something to happen," she says. "It's such a self-involved thing, being an artist of any kind, because you have to be alone so much. Sometimes you just go, 'Oh my God! Enough already! Enough of me!' The freeing aspect of it all is writing these songs and performing them live."
The right words may require much sorting, but Sykes is never at a loss for source material.
"I've noticed about my life that I'm very engaged to a point where it can make life difficult, because you can't really shut things off. You're always sort of paying attention to things and feeling things; you experience a lot of empathy; you take on a lot of things that maybe aren't even your own. But those things kind of just go into this big pot and become energy. That's just the part of me that's charged."
Sykes absorbed the melancholy that shows up in her music at a pre-verbal age, listening to her parents' classical records. "It was a beautiful kind of loneliness," she says. Later, like every other teenager, she wanted to be a rock star, but that turned out to be a passing obsession. She moved on to study photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, a craft she hopes to revisit soon by taking a Super 8 camera on tour.
Always, though, she's felt impelled to express her experience of her own humanity, its joy, its horror and its ridiculousness.
In the early 1990s, Sykes returned to music in a Seattle band, Hominy, with her then-husband. When the band dissolved along with her marriage, she set aside writing for a time. Then, around 1998, she met and soon began performing with former Whiskeytown guitarist Phil Wandscher. It was when the couple released their first CD in 2002 that Sykes began to attract national attention.
The two only rarely compose together, but Sykes says her writing process now calls to mind a Ouija board with almost involuntary, psychic pulls, as if Wandscher were participating. "Phil's playing kind of blows me away," Sykes says, "and in my writing process, now, it turns out that the songs have a lot more space for him to do things, important things. They're not guitar solos for the sake of guitar solos. They're actually complex melodic structures that are almost classical at times. There are a lot of counterpoints and layering in the records. Nothing unnecessary; everything seems to be reacting to something else."
In describing the music made with her band, the Sweet Hereafter, Sykes uses terms like "weird" and "strange"--and then self-edits.
"Usually, when I mean weird, what I mean is a song structure that doesn't do what you would expect it to do. Essentially, what we're doing is kind of folk music, but the structures are complex. It's like country/folk/rock with a psychedelic bent or something."
That's certainly true as far as it goes, but Like, Love, Lust also explores some new territory, flirting with goth-y ethereality on "Spectral Beings," with '70s pop on "I Like the Sound" and with indeterminate jazz references on the sultry "LLL" and the bouncy "You Might Walk Away."
Sykes thinks she might have stolen the sensibility of "Aftermath" from Swedish singer-songwriter Nicolai Dunger. "A couple of years ago, it was magical," she says. "He was just sitting on my couch and playing a bunch of his songs, some of my favorites. He has kind of a strange, complicated style. I was so inspired, and I think 'Aftermath' came out of trying to incorporate that experience."
Sykes is looking forward to bringing her band to Tucson for their July 26 performance at Plush. "Tucson is like a second home to me," she says. "A lot of my best friends live there. I'm a huge fan of Howe Gelb and the whole Giant Sand thing. I think because we do have some friends down there, we feel comfortable, and that enables us to take a few more chances and have fun."
The band will likely be ready for that kind of break from road stress. Tucson is a midway stop on a far-flung, three-week tour culminating in a Red Rocks Amphitheater (west of Denver) performance on Aug. 3. In addition to Sykes, that bill features Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, DeVotchKa and a reconstituted Old 97's, a lineup that has the potential to add to that venue's legendary status.