Sycco: 19-year-old “COVID-baby artist” making sense of the world through effervescent indie pop

Every month in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’d have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite act. Ahead of her debut ‘Sycco’s First EP’, Sasha McLeod talks the surprising success of her single ‘Dribble’ and reconnecting with her Torres Strait Islander heritage

Sycco still isn’t quite sure what life as a full-fledged musician is like. Sure, she’s amassed over 17million streams across major platforms, made an appearance – albeit virtually – at this year’s South By Southwest, and sold out her first national headline tour, but some of the bigger pieces of the puzzle are missing.

“I feel like a bit of a COVID-baby artist,” she tells NME one morning over Zoom, sitting cross-legged on the floor with her roommate’s cat circling. “Things started happening during the pandemic. No one really knows how to navigate it or like, how to be aware of people [going into] lockdown…”

Sycco acknowledges the undeniable success she’s had so far, particularly with breakout single ‘Dribble’. But she also speaks wistfully of things seasoned pros have done time and time again that she’s yet to experience: playing huge touring festivals, having an uncapped audience all to herself, travelling to America and the rest of the world.

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“Really, that’s the dream,” she adds. Sycco fumbles with her words a little as she tries to explain how much more performing and touring mean to her now that a global pandemic has gotten in the way. “It is exciting because, you can’t really… it’s not set in stone, but the dream is like, you can kind of see it. You can do it, but you don’t know how to get there because there’s so many barriers. But one day we’ll get there.”

Sycco – pronounced ‘psycho’ – is 19-year-old Sasha McLeod, whose project finally gained nationwide attention in March last year, after years of songwriting away from the public eye. 2020 single ‘Nicotine’ instantly captured the attention of triple j, widening Sycco’s audience and paving the way for her brand of malleable pop to shine: one that draws from psychedelic rock, neo-soul and Australian dance, inspired by the likes of Radiohead and Pharrell.

In the following months, McLeod gave airwaves a one-two punch with ‘Germs’ and ‘Dribble’, the latter of which resonated more than she ever thought possible. The track, to date, has clocked over 4million streams on Spotify alone, and was in the top 30 of triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2020. “I thought that ‘Germs’ would be the ‘Dribble’, if anything was going to be more of a hit!” she exclaims. “I didn’t think it was anything too out of the ordinary [and] I didn’t think the lyrics would resonate so much with people. But… it was a really happy surprise.”

Sycco has since been sitting on a mountain of new material she proudly claims is “better than that”. She’s also taken opportunities to expand her technical skillset and push her songwriting into new places by working with other producers. Golden Vessel, aka fellow Brisbane musician Maxwell Byrne, produced ‘Happy You’re Here’ – a glistening new track on ‘Sycco’s First EP’, out next week – along with approximately four other unnamed songs. “He gets out my vulnerable side,” she says, pausing to reflect.

“I remember my girlfriend was telling me about this author, Trent Dalton, who she saw [in conversation] one day. He was saying that as a writer, you write about everything around you: you dog, your mom, your sister… and then as you get better at writing, you start to write more about yourself.” It resonated with McLeod, who’s always found it hard to make sense of her emotions. Bit by bit, she’s learning to get her thoughts out of her head and into songs.

“It’s a bit all over the place because that’s what Sycco is”

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McLeod still working out who she is as a young adult, her musical career as Sycco, and how they intersect. She recently picked up three nominations in the 2021 National Indigenous Music Awards (Artist of the Year, Song of the Year for ‘Dribble’ and Film Clip of the Year for ‘My Ways’), all acknowledging her achievements as a woman of Torres Strait Islander descent.

“I’ve only really recently connected to it,” she admits of her heritage. Growing up in Brisbane, McLeod was somewhat detached from her grandparents’ ancestry on Erub, an island situated just north of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, in the Eastern part of Torres Strait. “I really want to go to country, like Erub, and visit it because I feel like that will connect me so much. It has a lot of healing.”

“I feel like because of the way I’ve grown up, it’s been really hard to connect with it and… understand the culture,” she continues. “So, I feel like the music industry has been really helpful in advancing my knowledge and [helping me realise] that it’s something that I should really learn about and be proud of.”

A helping hand came from Ziggy Ramo, another rising star whose Indigenous heritage runs deep and passionately through his 2020 debut album ‘Black Thoughts’. McLeod had the opportunity to link up with the rapper, which she says helped her feel supported in undertaking her own journey into her heritage and developing her own understanding of “how things have got to be the way they are”.

Whilst she wouldn’t say her music has been directly affected by her cultural heritage (“but maybe it will in the future”), ‘Sycco’s First EP’ displays Sasha McLeod in her musical multitudes: from the effervescent, loosely Flume-inspired opener ‘Best Before’ to sharp break-up track ‘Time’s Up’, which boldly states “you don’t want to fuck with me.” Sycco is a work-in-progress, constantly evolving as McLeod does, which the EP echoes. As she excitedly says: “it’s a bit all over the place because that’s what Sycco is.”

‘Sycco’s First EP’ is out July 30

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