- Fionn Reilly
Glazed with a coating of early December snow, Gwen Snyder’s brick Victorian two-story in Saugerties could almost be a gingerbread house. But instead of breadcrumbs, one follows a freshly trodden path around the back to the converted mudroom. Inside, the coal-haired nymph-princess brews up a steaming cup of chai while her fluffy-furred “children”—two boy cats, Zumi and Ollie, and Ruby Sunshine, a burly female Akita—stay close to her busy ankles. In the adjacent candle-glowing parlor Snyder has left her vintage Hammond rhythm generator running, and the machine taps out a slow, hypnotic tempo that echoes through the house like a watery heartbeat.
“Sorry,” the petite hostess says, clicking off the device and offering a spot on the davenport. “I was working on a new song. I think I’m gonna call my next album Sound Doilies. There’s also an album called Tempest in a Teacup. I recorded that one a while back but it hasn’t been released.” Somehow all of this 21st-century Lewis Carol whimsy makes perfect sense. After all, this isn’t just Snyder’s home; it’s also the magical domain of Blueberry.
Blueberry is Snyder’s ongoing “band” concept, a project that has released three albums of sultry, psychedelic pop-soul on the singer and multi-instrumentalist’s own The Shaz Records, offerings well described in her press bio as “Erykah Badu, Prince, and Donovan making sweet love to the sounds of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and Roxy Music’s Avalon. A landscape where quiet storms hover and glide over endless fields of deep, funky hooks.” A reliably shape-shifting concern, Blueberry manifests itself in incarnations that range from just the singer and her electric piano to the slamming, horn-augmented six-piece that played Chronogram’s 2006 Halloween party, a triumphant set dancers continue to rave about.
Ah, Halloween. Open season on reinventing oneself. Most leave it behind when they hit puberty to follow the die-cut trajectory of the “straight” world. But for more creative types it leaves the indelible taste of delicious possibility. “When I was a little girl growing up in Oswego, the town historian was this very austere woman who had really long hair that she usually wore in braids,” Snyder remembers. “But on Halloween, she would unbraid it, let it hang all loose and scraggly, and dress up like a witch. And instead of just handing out candy, she would attach it to the outside of her house. You would walk up and pull it off the side of the house, like the house was made of candy. She was also the local theater director and she cast me in a production of ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ which was my first play. That was a pivotal moment.”
Though Snyder was singing not long after she could open her mouth (“My dad tells me I used to sing disco songs in my high chair”), she also started playing music at a very young age, although not by choice. “My mom made me start taking piano lessons when I was five, but I hated it,” says Snyder. “She told me I had to stick with it at least until I was a teenager, which I did. But as soon I turned 13, I said ‘That’s it, I quit!’ and started playing bass instead. Of course I’m really glad I learned piano now, and I really appreciate my folks making me learn—even though I never actually learned music theory.”
By 14, Snyder was into heavy metal (“I had every Led Zeppelin album on cassette; KISS and AC/DC, too.”) and playing in a band of like-minded, mostly older high schoolers. “There was a lot of hairspray, a lot of Spandex,” she says with a laugh and a barely detectable wince. “That’s just what people were into [in Oswego]. The singer from Anthrax [Joey Belladonna] and Ronnie James Dio both lived up around there.”
But it was the footlights, not the flashpots, that led Snyder to New York in the 1990s. “There was no arts program at all in my high school, but I had written a play slamming the school administration. Kind of a utopian society story, with a minimal, all-black set,” recalls Snyder. “And I was really lucky, because someone from NYU came up to see it and they liked it enough for me to be accepted into the experimental theater program [at NYU].” While at the Manhattan college she also studied music therapy and began to immerse herself in the Lower East Side’s famously radical theater scene, providing the voice of Janis Joplin’s ghost in the Off-Broadway production “Distortion Taco,” working with illustrious composer-choreographer Meredith Monk, and starring in several experimental and indie films.