When Syrhea Conaway begins her monthly residency at the Contemporary Art Museum on Friday, February 1, she'll have no small amount of gear with her. Conaway, who performs and records as the one-woman band Syna So Pro, will truck in the usual implements of rock music — guitar, bass, keys — alongside her arsenal of effects pedals and, perhaps most crucially, her looper for recording, layering and manipulating all of her sounds.
It's a format that local music fans have come to expect from Conaway's live shows, but the space itself and the nature of her performance will present a new challenge for the veteran musician.
"I said, 'You know that I'm not a DJ!'" Conaway recalls telling the venue staff. She notes that she didn't want to snipe a gig away from another performer and initially was unsure how her style of performance — oftentimes a build-as-you-go affair built around her jacknife looping skills — would blend into the curated space of CAM.
"There was a little bit of imposter syndrome," she says, "but after reading over the literature and understanding there's an educational aspect to it as well, where I have to teach workshops with some high schoolers, I understand that. Not everyone has experience teaching, which I dove into because I quit my day job a year and a half ago to be a full-time artist and musician."
Taking that plunge — leaving the comfort and security of regular employment to dedicate her time to music — has led Conaway into new venues, CAM included. In the past two years Conaway has taught classes through St. Louis Public Library and COCA, acted and consulted for local theater companies and continued to play in a handful of diverse local bands. That access to a host of arts and education organizations underlined the city's seldom-interconnected scenes. It's something Conaway hopes to change with her monthly CAM shows.
"People are coming for the exhibition, and it's a good way for me to try to interconnect a lot of scenes," she says. "I don't know why St. Louis is so siloed — so siloed! You don't see a lot of the same people in these spaces."
Conaway recounts her own moments of stepping into new spaces — going to watch improv comedy or digging into her acting debut as part of Metro Theater Company's Wonderland: Alice's Rock & Roll Adventure — and she says that she recognized at once a vibrant but segmented arts scene.
"Why have I never met any of you guys before? Because I'm not going out and getting myself in these spaces — all of these worlds are so disconnected," Conaway says. "I don't know if this is a St. Louis thing or a human-nature thing."
Conaway recognizes that her monthly sets will serve as background music for many as they tour the gallery, though keen-eyed patrons will have the chance to watch her create her art largely from scratch.
"It's not like you're gonna come here and get a Syna So Pro show," she says of her sets. "I will be playing my songs, but I don't really plan on singing very many words. This is an opportunity for me to put out all the instrumental tracks I've been writing since even before Vox [her previous record] and just play them, loop over them."
She currently doesn't have any plans to release a new Syna So Pro album this year, but preparing for this residency and challenging herself to create new songs every month should lead to a trove of tracks.
"I'm pretty pleased with what I've accomplished and where I am, but there's so much more to do. This challenge with CAM will give me that kick in the butt that I need; I've been sitting on so much material it's not even fucking funny."
Conaway's transition to full-time artist, performer and educator has had its challenges, but she speaks with a gleam of evangelism about the experience of working with young students and helping them embrace some of the creativity, theory and do-it-yourself ethos that she has built into the infrastructure of her workflow.
"I'm just talking from my own personal experience — I never thought as a child that I could make a career out of this," Conaway says. "No one was supporting me in that. But if somebody like me came to my school and did this shit ..." She trails off, making a brain-exploding noise.
"I just want to be that person for this generation. Don't listen to those naysayers — you got it."