While many newlyweds spend their first few months experiencing the joys and challenges of married life, Musician Stephen Sylvester and his wife, Afton, were struggling with a surprising and potentially devastating medical diagnosis. Recently, Ignitum Today Columnist Heather Renshaw sat down with Stephen to chat about life, faith, and Sylvester Band’s campaign to record music borne from that difficult yet inspiring time. Parts of this interview was edited for space and clarity.
Ignitum Today: Okay—so let’s get to know Stephen Sylvester—the man, the myth, the legend. Where do you come from, and what was your faith life like when you were growing up?
Stephen Sylvester: (laughing) Oh, Lord…well, Stephen the Catholic musician began as an Alabama native who grew up listening to his parents sing. I’m the oldest of 10 children, and the Catholic faith and music are probably the two things that my family is most recognized for. I started playing for the youth Mass at my old parish in Mobile, Alabama when I was in high school, and by the time I graduated college and started working, I was an accomplished worship musician.
IT: You’re one of those “slash” people, right? I mean, you’re a youth minister-slash-musician. How did that happen?
SS: It was sort of forced upon me at first: one of those, “Oh, you play guitar and sing? Here’s a youth Mass you’re now responsible for” situations. I really enjoy doing both, although it can start to consume your weekends.
IT: But at a certain point, it became something you owned—that you wanted to do?
SS: It definitely was. I think the first time I really started treating the music as a prayer was while I was leading music for a Sunday night Mass. I just sort of lost myself in praising God, and I found that I could still fully concentrate on what I was doing. After that, I knew I had been given this amazing gift, and I knew it was important for me to continue to share it with everybody.
IT: Wow, that’s amazing! When did that happen?
SS: It was during the spring of last year, actually, so not that long ago. I had been leading liturgical music for a while, but it just “clicked” at that point. It wasn’t really easy after that per se—that’s not the right word—but the music felt much more authentic. I didn’t ever feel like I was distracted from Mass by the music I was playing after that; it was more like it helped me enter into the liturgy. And, in turn, I think it helped everyone else do the same thing.
IT: Awesome. So you just celebrated your first wedding anniversary, right? Congratulations!
SS: Oh, thank you! Yeah; we actually went through some pretty tough stuff at the very beginning. About a month after our wedding day, my wife’s parents split up, which was really hard on her, and about a week later, we found out that Afton had leukemia.
IT: Oh, Lord, have mercy! That’s a whole lot to handle on top of getting used to married life! How did you cope? And … is Afton okay now?
SS: I know, right? I’d like to say we prayed a lot, but honestly, it was just a lot of nights comforting each other as we got used to the new normal. Afton cleaned the house from top to bottom when we got home, because that’s her de-stress method, and I wrote songs, which is mine. And now she’s just fine!
She’s actually due to have our first baby at the end of October, and her doctors think that there’s a very good chance that she will make basically a full recovery. So, even if she doesn’t go into total remission, she will still have a normal length and quality of life.
IT: Praise the Lord! That is incredible! You must have had a bunch of prayer warriors going to bat for y’all.
SS: I know for a fact we had, like, a prayer army! We’ve actually heard from a lot of folks that the way we handled the whole situation inspired some people to return to their faith. I didn’t think at the time we were doing anything spectacular, but I guess God was working through us the whole time.
IT: Amen! So, you said that when all this craziness was happening, you turned to music as a stress reliever. Is this when you started to write your own stuff?
SS: Yeah, that was my coping mechanism. Writing down what I was feeling became how I would figure out what I was feeling. I’d tried my hand at writing songs before, and they all sucked (laughs). But what was coming out of this really difficult experience was actually pretty beautiful. I wanted to look back on it and not remember how awful it was, but how much Afton and I have changed for the better since then.
IT: So, I heard a rumor that you’re hoping to do something pretty big with those songs.
SS: (laughs) Well, over the summer, I felt really compelled to record the songs I had written. And almost as if to confirm that I should, some friends of mine who are amazing musicians jumped on board to help make it happen. I sort of asked God to let me know if now was a good time. On paper, it really doesn’t seem like it, but everything falling into place so quickly seemed to me to be a pretty clear sign.
IT: When do you begin recording, or have you already?
SS: Not yet; we have to raise some money first. We wanted to do this thing right, so we’re going to a legit studio in Fairhope, Alabama, and we’re going to have everything professionally mixed and mastered. The total cost is going to be about $7,000. We started a crowdfunding campaign to help, though. And it seems like a lot of people want to help.
IT: Very cool! Please tell our readers more about the campaign.
SS: If you go to kickstarter.com and search for Sylvester Band it’s the first thing that come up. The incentives range from a digital single to stickers to a copy of the finished album to a house concert; it just depends on how much you want to donate. And the campaign is only going until October 1st, so we have to raise the full 7K before then, or else the project gets halted for awhile.
IT: Ooh! So people need to get on it, then, yeah?
SS: Please! I’ve been bombarding social media all week asking for folks to share the link to the Kickstarter [campaign]. That’s what will really help us, getting the word out. And, of course, prayers! Those help!
IT: Awesome! What do you think listeners have to look forward to? How would you describe Sylvester Band’s sound?
SS: Well, I think we have a message of truth and beauty that is not explicitly Christian, so we have the potential to reach a much broader audience than just Christian music listeners, although I’m sure everyone will enjoy our sound. We’re a mix of roots rock, bluegrass, folk, and 60’s R & B, plus some blues influence. We actually have a demo up on soundcloud that is a hint of what we sound like. You can check it out here: https://soundcloud.com/sylvesterbandofficial
We’re planning some local concerts for now. If we suddenly explode into popularity, then we will definitely tour the parts of the U.S. where folks want us to come. One of the potential extra things we will do if we raise more than our 7K goal is to do a release party here in Fairhope [Alabama].
The main thing is that we will make the EP available on formats like iTunes and Spotify so everybody can hear us. We really want everybody to hear us! I hope people decide to support us both because they like the message and they dig the music.
IT: Amen. Music with a message. I like it. Let’s get everybody over to Kickstarter and make this puppy happen!
SS: Let’s do it!
IT: Thank you so much for your time, Stephen, and for what you’re doing to build up the Kingdom of God. Blessings to you and your family!
SS: It was a pleasure talking to you, and may God bless your family as well.
Columnist’s Note: For the “Rolling Stone” (aka uncut) version of this interview plus some fun facts about Sylvester Band’s frontman, please head over to RealCatholicMom.com. -HR