Jul 02, 2021
By Mark Moody
Photography by Suchit Upadhyay
In spite of his recent signing to Sub Pop imprint Hardly Art and relocation to Los Angeles, it’s hard to view Jess Sylvester as a newcomer in any sense of the word. Sylvester records music under the Marinero (Spanish for “sailor”) moniker as a tribute to his father and his own Marin County upbringing. His freshly released thematic album, Hella Love, seemingly appeared fully formed through a break in the San Francisco fog that appears early on in his loving goodbye letter to the Golden Gate City. But unlike Aphrodite, who suddenly sprung forth from the sea foam down on the beach, the blossoming of Sylvester’s Hella Love was a long time coming.
The album centers around Sylvester’s family heritage, but more importantly ties that history into a deeply rooted and tangible connection to San Francisco. Sylvester’s mother is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who settled in California’s Central Valley before later relocating to San Francisco’s Mission District. Sylvester’s father grew up in coastal Massachusetts and evaded the Vietnam war, ending up in Europe. “My mom came up to San Francisco when she was really young, around six years old,” Sylvester says. “My dad grew up in a little town in Massachusetts and when his birth year was called in the draft, he did everything he could to avoid that.” As fate would have it, his father signed on to sail aboard a wooden cargo ship named Fri, which made an historic and newsworthy journey from Northern Europe to San Francisco Bay. And it was there that Sylvester’s parents met, courted, and started a family. “They went on their first date to dance on the beach at Aquatic Park. So there are just these special stories that I wanted to include on the album,” says Sylvester.
Hella Love tells his parent’s story most notably on the album’s title track, but also makes a musical trek through different parts of the city including The Mission (“Nuestra Victoria”), Alcatraz (“Isle of Alcatraz”), and the Outer Richmond (“Outerlands”), where Sylvester settled in his late 20s. In speaking to the album’s theme, Sylvester jokes, “I had to do a song about Alcatraz and wondered how am I going to do that? But it all worked out.” The album is also a mix of traditional Mexican folk music, The Beach Boys’ swooning melodies and harmonies, and a myriad of other Latin influenced sounds.
Having grown up playing in rock, indie, and punk bands, now in his later ’30s, Sylvester found himself tying in traditional music his mother and aunt listened to when he was a kid and that he picked up while playing in Guadalajara. “My mom listened to music, a lot of vinyl in the house,” he remembers. “Just as much as she was turning me on to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston or The Beach Boys, there was also more traditional music being played. Linda Rondstadt had an album at the time called Canciones de Mi Padre that was very popular and there was traditional Mexican music being played as well.” Later on, Sylvester collaborated on several recordings with Mexican musician Carlos Pesina Siller, as Francisco y Madero. All of these influences coalesce into an understated patchwork quilt that envelops the city and his family’s story.
Hella Love was recorded in the days leading up to Sylvester’s departure from the Bay Area in late 2020. He relocated to L.A. at the end of last year to be in a musical environment more conducive to his budding style. Sylvester also migrated from being simply a performer on his own record to playing the role of band leader (of note is the rakish pose on Hella Love’s album cover with conductor’s baton in hand). “One day I showed up to the studio with a bunch of firefighter hats and I was trying to get the band to wear them. They weren’t down, but I was wearing one,” Sylvester shares as an example of bringing disparate musicians and styles together.
Once recorded, Sylvester realized he had something special on his hands and began showing out the album to friends and musical acquaintances. Shana Cleveland of Los Angeles’ La Luz, who are also on Hardly Art, forwarded the album to the powers that be at Sub Pop. Sylvester recalls Cleveland asking, “‘Who’s putting it out? Can I pass this on?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ Then I noticed Sub Pop was blowing up my SoundCloud, listening to like 60 earlier songs.”
Sylvester says that in reaching his high water mark to date, he had enough material for a longer album. “Basically I came at the label, and I was like, ‘We’re doing a double record.’ And they’re like, ‘Sure. No, you’re not new guy. Not a chance,’” Sylvester jokingly recalls. Two songs in particular that didn’t make the final cut, “Ixchel and Lonely Girl” and “Last Chance,” may surface in other places in the near future. Undeterred, Sylvester has brought his Marinero project to full sail on Hella Love. And with a new city, more in synch with his musical touchstones, further adventures await.