“Literally on my death bed…”: How Joanna Syze battled chronic health issues and wrote her new LP Surrender

In her 20+ years in drum and bass, Joanna Syze has had her fair share of amazing experiences. But she’s also had more than her fair share of adversity… And her struggle to come up in the scene in the early 00s was nothing compared to the fight she would face when her body began to give out on her due to multiple neurological issues stemming from Neurological Lyme Disease.

Syze began with music and singing as a child and then came to DJ in clubs around 1999 in Seattle. She started the Kaos Theory club nights in Seattle with the late great Jeff Dowlz before starting her own booking agency called Bassline Music in 2004, all the while taking more and more DJ gigs out of state and even out of the US. By the time her first album Rodina dropped in 2011, Syze was a respected name in the UK, EU and stateside. She worked hard. She partied hard… Until her health problems caught up with her,

Even as she battled for her life and was undiagnosed for many years, Joanna kept making music and managing talent. She managed Renegade Hardware from 2015-2017 and plugged away at her album when she had the strength. In the depths of her illness she even found love with fellow D&B producer Luke Bugden from Mob Tactics. Even as Joanna is still housebound, the couple have built a life together based on bass, with both of them releasing lots of well-loved music in 2017 and 2018. They even collaborated on a Mob Tactics Viper release in 2017, with Syze lending her extraordinary voice to the track Fatal Attraction.

Many artists talk about music as being healing for them and the undertaking of a long-play album being a major journey, but Syze’s forthcoming album Surrender was quite literally a healing journey. She began in the darkest days of her illness, simply using music for the comfort and vibrational healing it provided. There is no doubt in Syze’s mind that she wouldn’t be as strong as she is now if she hadn’t used her own music to help heal her.

We were lucky enough to sit down with the once embattled and now stronger-than-ever artist. Hearing what she’s gone through, what she’s learned and how her sound has evolved will truly change anyone reading.

This LP was about three years in the making, right? What was the inspiration for doing it originally?

I had always intended to do a second album after my Rodina LP in 2011. Unfortunately my life took a twist health-wise that didn’t allow me to focus on music for a long time. It was somewhere in the midst of this ongoing health crisis that I started feeling the need to express myself again and use music really as a form of healing.

That must have been a challenge in itself…

When I began to first work on the project I hadn’t still yet fully regained my voice or lung power and I was battling a lot of neurologic mobility issues. I was 90 pounds and bedridden. Yet the need to create, the need to connect to who I’ve always been within music was pulling really hard at me. Some good friends, Ivan Shopov (Cooh) and Zardonic talked to me at that point and just gave me the courage to work on music in whatever state I was in. Ivan told me to record any way I could, even if it didn’t sound like the usual me. That in itself would be interesting to experiment with and see how to develop and use sound to heal the central nervous system and brain neurons; mind, body and soul.

So I just decided then and there that I had to start working on a new album project and any other music to help in my healing process. My goal was to create a time capsule of this moment in my life that turned into years, to get part of myself back and to also connect with people who shared my vision. I never intended it to chart, although that’s been fun, or to get bookings because also I can’t travel still. I purely embarked back on music for the love and healing.

So when your voice and lungs weren’t where you wanted them, did you feel that affected your sound?

Absolutely! The vocals for the title track Surrender were some of the first vocals recorded in that time period. When I listen back to it now, it absolutely sounds like a different person and the lyrics talk about this battle I got wrapped up in. It brings up a lot of emotions. You can feel that in some of the songs, a sort of despair and a melancholic vibe in the music and vocals as it was a very uncertain time medically for me. Other songs have a much more vibrant and strong vocal; those were the moments I was starting to win and regain more strength in my body and lungs. When I listen to those songs it brings me so much joy. They seem more playful, and while the lyrics always tend to be sort of on the dark side, for me personally I find a lot of happiness and memories from working on those pieces with the guys. The whole process of working on this album has made me grow as an artist in ways I didn’t know I had in me. It’s great to have a sound capsule of these years to listen back.

If you’re willing to discuss it, what kind of health issues were you battling? 

I’ve spent a long time connecting now to many people who struggle with chronic health issues and illness. Some are terminal and many are not. One common ground I tend to find in a lot of our stories is the very turbulent journey people have to endure before even getting a proper diagnosis. It’s not uncommon for it to take up to 10 years for people to get the right answers, as was the case with me and many others. Along the way you get diagnosed with just about everything.

I was going through this daily pain but I could still live a normal life and travel and looked “healthy”. But,  behind closed doors, I was collapsing in hotel rooms after gigs and living in pain and fatigue. Sometimes I would be in the hospital hooked to IV’s and hours later would be throwing or DJing big events with the bandages still on me.

I didn’t make any of my health struggles public until 2014 when I was in a really dire situation and fighting for my life. Many people are fortunate and find answers out fast but for me it took over 10 years and a constant deterioration of my body and health. We didn’t finally find my diagnosis for Chronic Neurological Lyme Disease until I was literally on a death bed at 83 pounds and paralyzed. We were told there was nothing they could do; that I was losing my life with no clear answers. It was my idea around then to ask my doctor to test me for Lyme. When the diagnosis came back we also figured out that some of the symptoms I had were due to the Lyme disease damaging my nervous system and that’s what led to seizures and me developing epilepsy.

Once I knew what was going on then the fight could really begin. I began to work with a good team plus emotional counseling and reiki, slowly I began to turn things around day by day. It’s been grueling. My husband Luke also helped save my life in ways I cannot even explain and still helps me to this day, he is my soulmate and just a wonderful man.

How are you feeling now?

So here I am today 120 pounds, much more functional, still mostly in a wheelchair and with lots more physical rehabilitation in front of me but I’m a lot better than four years ago! Most importantly I am still here and so thankful to keep fighting! I haven’t beat Lyme yet as it’s a complex illness but I know I will someday. With chronic illness you have to fight every day that you are given on this earth. It is your responsibility to not give up. That’s also why I named the album Surrender in a twisted metaphor (laughs).

That’s true with any form of art: you have to give in a little to get better and get what you want, but for you it was also quite literal with your physical issues.

I really had to be patient. That’s why it took three years to see the light of day. There were many times I was hard on myself because I couldn’t fully give 100% like I’d done with my last album. Physically that just wasn’t possible. I literally worked on the project from my bed, edited on the computer in my bed, recorded vocals from my bed, managing the project with all of the other artists from my bed. I had to work around my body. On my better days, I was in full work mode and had those amazing moments of creativity that are just so addictive. I’ve absolutely felt the healing power or music over the last two years. I wasn’t going to let my nervous system issues, Lyme or Epilepsy take my music and soul away from me so I pushed through even on days where I wanted to pass out after just a few minutes of recording.

That must have been especially tough with all the collabs?

I think it helped actually, if anything. This album would not have been at all possible if it weren’t for the many many artists who agreed to be part of it and understood my vision, my health situation and my need for this album. I am just in debt to all of the guys who worked on the album; words can’t express my deepest gratitude to you all. The thing about this drum and bass community, I quickly learned, is that we really are a global family! The support I received via GoFundMe from people all over the world for medical funds shocked me. The support I got for making music again has equally shocked and humbled me. I am so proud to call D&B part of my life. The fans have also helped me keep fighting and I absolutely love them all!

How did you come to work with all these producers on the album?

I made a promise to myself that I wanted to work with good human beings. I picked people on that human connection level. Music is an intimate and vulnerable sort of relationship you build with someone, especially when they get to hear your bare unpolished voice (laughs)! I first began with asking long-time friends like Zardonic very early on. Others like Ben and Dave from The Sect and Ivan Shopov who were all part of my last album, I just felt had to be part the continuation of this story. I hooked up with Maxime aka Neks who runs Othercide Records and was a friend via my DJ days because I liked what he was doing with his label. He wasn’t scared to put out something different and his belief and support in me has been amazing!

I was helping manage another big label as I started to really get into the production and it was great timing because I met a lot of the current artists making big waves. Naturally being the pushy person I am, I just started to ask a bunch of them if they would want to work with me and I felt so lucky to get so many people saying yes: Akov, Volatile Cycle, Barbarix, Mizo, Sam Harris, B-Complex, Altex, Hidden, Neks, B-Complex, Coman Dante and Redpill are all such a creative group of hard working producers and awesome people. I just feel so lucky they decided to trust me and my crazy vision. I was also absolutely over the moon when Chris.SU agreed to work with me! He is just such an incredible human. DJ Hidden also was a huge help in this project and I really got to see the depth of his knowledge in so many areas of music.

When you look at the album as a whole now, how do you feel about it as a piece of work representing your journey?

I feel like it’s absolutely a much stronger album than my last one. But as artists you’re always growing and evolving so now when I look back I’m starting to get a more clear picture of who Joanna Syze is becoming in the future. The project really is like a timeline of the old me vs the new me. The new Joanna Syze is more accessible as an artist and vocalist and this album made me discover a part of myself I was very closed off to before in exploring different sounds. The album definitely represents a birth and a letting go.

The cover artwork implies that journey as well. My friend who is a really amazing high fashion photographer in Bulgaria, Antonia Glaskova, shot the image and no, unfortunately that is not me naked on the cover! Maxime’s designer Kuldar did a wonderful job with the post graphics of the image as well. I felt like my health battle had taken me hostage and the cover art for me represents an Akira type of escape.

It sounds like you learned about your sound’s evolution sort of backwards then, since your circumstance forced it somewhat.

Yes definitely! I absolutely grew in the process and also my husband opened my eyes to a lot more areas in D&B that I wasn’t really focusing on before. I have obviously heard each song on this album now about 1000 times so the way I hear it is going to be much different than how everyone else will. I can step aside now and judge what makes me feel happier to work on and what I’d like to create in the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the whole project… But when the album began in 2014 I had one vision for it. Then by 2016 with 10 songs already written I felt it was all wrong and literally trashed them all; just took out a few stems and vocals and started the project all over again with a new team of brilliant producers and label. From there it just evolved naturally; talk about “surrender”! Half the time I felt I was a guest on it not the one controlling it. Even the song titles are a storyline for exactly how life was happening at the time in order. I didn’t even realize the connection until recently. The LP continues to speak to me and teaches me lessons even now it’s done. It’s so personal for me, and it’s incredible what the response has been so far, that so many fans and critics alike are enjoying it as well. It’s more than I could ever have asked for.

Joanna Syze – Surrender is out February 8 on Othercide Records

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