Sylvia Tyson: On Our Mind

The first song that Sylvia Tyson wrote became a huge hit, though not for her. “You Were on My Mind” was a Top 40 fixture for the California group We Five in the fall of 1965, a year after it was first recorded by the author and her musical partner and soon-to-be husband, Ian Tyson.

But other songs by the Canadian duo, billed as Ian & Sylvia, fared better for them. “Someday Soon” and “Four Strong Winds” were sizable hits and became widely performed folk standards. The couple went on to enjoy a decade-long career, during which they released a dozen albums, including one as the early country-rock group Great Speckled Bird.

Today, long separated from Ian and living in Toronto, Sylvia continues to perform and write, lately in a whole new direction. Her first novel, Joyner’s Dream, was published in 2011, and she is now “about halfway through the second one,” she tells the Bohemian.

Still, the new medium required some adjustments. “The essence of songwriting is to put some complicated ideas into very simple language in the space of three to four minutes,” she says. “And the opportunity to expand that was kind of daunting for me. In fact, I kind of overdid it. My first draft was about 400 pages!” It was trimmed by a quarter before publication.

Her novel, a multigenerational family history spanning more than two centuries, then presented Tyson with another challenge. “When I was writing the book, I blithely put in original titles everywhere music appeared, and at the end, I realized I had all these titles and no music.” So she set about creating some, ultimately recording and releasing a companion CD to go with the book.

But distracting her from the sequel, at least temporarily, is a short concert tour that will see her doing a handful of dates in California. In her first visit to the Golden State in some 30 years, Tyson will share the stage with violinist Scarlet Rivera, best known for her work with Bob Dylan, and steel guitar–dobro ace Cindy Cashdollar.

The match was suggested by the agent Rivera and Cashdollar share; the three have never played together before. “This is kind of a trial run,” Tyson admits.

Their shows will rely on Tyson’s songs, both old and new, in arrangements she, Rivera and Cashdollar began working out a few days before rehearsals.

They’ve only booked five shows, but Tyson says more are a possibility, adding, “I think I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it.”