Twelfth-generation Islander Siren Mayhew has the word “melancholy” tattooed across her 10 fingers.
“That’s the vibe of most of my music,” she said in a conversation with The Times. “I can’t write if I’m too happy.”
In darkness, many artists find their deepest inspirations. Think of Kurt Cobain’s famous line, “Thank you for the tragedy. I needed it for my art.”
Siren is a 25-year-old singer-songwriter from West Tisbury. She plays piano, and has been singing for as long as she can remember, and for as long as she can’t.
“I was 6 years old and sang ‘Kumbaya’ at my great-grandmother’s funeral,” she said. “I don’t remember it, but my mom put me in theater and singing camps every summer after that.” Music runs in the family — Siren’s mom, grandfather, cousins, uncles, and aunts all have a knack for it.
“My mom plays guitar, and sounds a lot like Joni Mitchell when she sings,” Siren said.
Her family has lived on-Island since the 1600s, and Siren feels connected to it on a spiritual level. “People sometimes say, ‘Well, you should leave at some point,’ and I don’t really know about that,” she said. “Maybe during winters, but for now, I like living here.”
Siren pursues music full-time and does some freelance gardening on the side. She has spent her life balancing both passions. She attended Purchase College in New York for two years, where she majored in biology and minored in music composition. She took a year off and worked at Whippoorwill Farm in West Tisbury before resuming her studies at Sterling College in Vermont, where she studied agriculture.
“I rejected music for a little while,” Siren said. “I didn’t like the performing aspect of it. I liked the writing. I was really into farming and gardening, so I pursued that for a while. Then I realized I didn’t want that to be my life every day. It’s just a lot of hard work. So I eventually got back into music.”
Since last summer, Siren has worked with the popular Island wedding band Sultans of Swing. She also rotates performing with other Island musicians like Griffin and Sean McMahon, Jon Zeeman, Hugh Burrows, and Phil DaRosa. “I’ve known Phil for a while,” she said. “He’s helping me record my album. We started it about a year ago.”
Siren is working on her first all-original album. She said it’s been a slow-going winter project, and she hopes to finish by next year. She plans to record eight or nine tracks, and wants it to include other Island musicians.
She describes her sound as symphonic, with string parts and orchestral-style percussion. She likes to add in bassy synths and a sound fusion of electro. She listens to old-time jazz music from the 1940s, and is especially into Buke and Gase, a Brooklyn-based music duo.
“It’s two people named Aron, and their sound is really unique,” Siren said. “They hybridize their own instruments. She plays baritone and ukulele, and he plays bass guitar and kick drum. They manage to make this really crazy full sound.”
She also said her music is influenced by Broadway. “I can be pretty theatrical and belting,” she said. If you ever catch Siren out performing at local venues, the first thing you’ll notice is a powerhouse of sound doing justice to songs like “Fallin’” by Alicia Keyes, and “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse. It’s true — the girl can belt.
Her original music and style is ballad-like, which is why she doesn’t picture herself performing her own stuff in bars. “You can’t really dance to it,” she said. “I write from an emotional place. I write when I’m feeling angry or sad, or in a melancholy state. It’s my emotional muse.”
Some of Siren’s songs are about people and relationships, and she described one in particular about the cycle of life and death. It’s called “The Great Collide,” and it’s a long song that she’s still working on.
“I started it at Sterling, when there was about three feet of snow on the ground,” she said. “It starts with a lynx — she’s wounded, and knows she’s going to die. She’s walking through a field of flowers, and lays herself down. She passes away and each verse is about the disintegration of her body and bones, and how it nourishes the earth and other animals.”
Speaking of the natural cycles of nourishment — Siren is really into herbal medicine. “I like to forage and make medicine,” she said. “It’s my hobby.”
She forages the Island for St. John’s wort, which is used as an antiviral. She also finds Queen Anne’s lace, which some use for its contraceptive properties. She grows echinacea, which is a general antibacterial. Siren learns through research and YouTube videos, and found an online mentor named Susun Weed. “She’s an incredible herbalist,” Siren said.
On Friday, Nov. 10, she’ll be playing with the McMahon brothers at the Ritz at 10 -12 pm. On Saturday, Nov. 11, she’ll be at Pathways at 7 pm (doors open at 6:30) also with McMahon Brothers. From Dec. 1 through 3, she’ll be on the Cape, performing a Pops Holiday concert with the Cape Symphony (afternoon and evening shows each day). On Friday Dec. 8, she will perform with the Minnesingers at the Whaling Church at 8 pm. On Saturday, Dec. 30, she’ll be at the potluck jam in Chilmark. And on New Year’s Eve, she and Griffin McMann will perform at First Night Chatham.
“We don’t really rehearse,” she said. “Mostly we just send out the setlist and everyone learns on their own. We get there, we pray, and we play.”
Looking to the future, Siren hopes to start playing more of her own stuff. But because those songs aren’t necessarily Ritz-jam-dance appropriate, she thinks she’ll try to create her own shows, where people attend simply to listen.