Q&A: Songwriting comes into focus for Sly Joe, leader of Fox Valley's Smooth Operators

Joe Slyzelia was once a curious toddler pounding on a piano.

It marked the beginning of a love of music that hasn’t waned since for the free-spirited Neenah musician who fronts the popular Fox Valley band Sly Joe and the Smooth Operators.

As an adolescent, Slyzelia practiced standard piano and guitar parts for band class, but it was during an instrumental rendition of “November Rain” at a school-sanctioned event that he decided music would have to be in his future. He remembers the positive crowd reaction with a smile, and says he’s “never looked back.”

Slyzelia later graduated with a music-related bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, then spent a year in San Francisco working in the music business. But the cost of living and Slyzelia’s desire to be an artist instead of a music engineer sent him back to the Fox Valley. It was a transition period for the aspiring musician — he was moving home and his first serious band, Something Phonic, was coming to an end.

In 2006, a new music project, which eventually became Sly Joe and the Smooth Operators, was born. Still his bread-and-butter band, the Smooth Operators have carved out a local niche with their earthy, funky, soulful tunes. And though Slyzelia still averages 150 gigs a year, he’s embraced a recent shift in his focus from performing to songwriting.

Slyzelia says he’s written 333 songs with a multitude of instruments, and, according to him, his mom thinks they’re all good. Apparently, mom isn’t the only one as his songs have been featured on NBC shows such as “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood.” After that brief taste of mainstream exposure, Slyzelia is hopeful his newfound dedication to songwriting opens more doors. Performances and other aspects of the music business are temporarily moving aside. It’s time to get back to the art.

P-C: Tell me about the challenges of surviving in the local music scene.

Slyzelia: It depends on what your definition of survival is. By being a full-time musician and such a varied one at that, I get to love my job every day. Now I’m by no means financially rich and there may be things that I don’t know I’m missing out on because I can’t afford them, but who cares? None of that really matters. If in your heart and soul you have happiness and contentment because you’re doing what you love to do, that makes you richer than anything else I could imagine.

I do have a family to support, which is the reason I do some of the things I do, but even in that, they’re things I still enjoy. Teaching students and playing gigs are the most job-like because you have to be there at a certain time for a certain time. Songwriting is more variable because you never know how that’s going to compensate you in the future. Basically, you’re sending out several fishing lines and hoping something catches on.

I think as long as I find richness in that, it’s easy for me to be a full-time musician, and fortunately my wife feels the same way. … Neither of us have the nine-to-five job with health insurance and pensions or any of that, but it’s OK because we’ve got something in our lives that is more important to us than a big paycheck.

P-C: Tell me about your songwriting process. What inspires your music?

Slyzelia: It can be anything. Let’s say it’s a phrase I heard in a conversation or a movie that triggers something that agrees with my personality and subconscious. I’ll take that phrase or idea and develop it into lyrics. I take a lot of time with lyrics now because for so long I had neglected lyrics. I was so music-based that I never really paid attention. … My inspiration can also come from playing an instrument — maybe a guitar, ukulele, piano — and just sitting down and clearing my mind and sort of drift along to whatever the mood is at that moment. Usually that’s how I approach the musical side when starting from scratch. You have to put yourself into this state of mind where you’re riding that fine line between working and dreaming, conscious and unconscious, and somewhere in that gray area between, there are beautiful melodies floating around.

P-C: How does it feel to sing an original song to an audience for the first time?

Slyzelia: It’s very exciting, but I try not to put any expectations on the songs because you just never know how it’s going to be received. There are so many variables you can’t control. On a particular night you want to play it, the audience might be filled with people who are preoccupied or with people who are tuned in and ready to hear what you have to say. Usually, with any song I write, I put it on a trial basis anyway. We’ll give it at least two or three tries and see how it feels with the band and by then we’ll know if it’s going to stay in the lineup or get sent back to the minor leagues. Every show is exciting though because even though we’re living in the Fox Valley, which is a tight, little community, there are still tens of thousands of people who live here who are finding out about us for the first time. We’ve been playing here for seven years, but new people are introduced to us every time at every show.

P-C:When you first started performing originals, were you ever concerned that your material wasn’t good enough?

Slyzelia: Fortunately, I started playing my own music in bands when I was in high school. In that situation, you have your friends around you that are supportive and they have such enthusiasm and excitement. Even in college they’re the same way. They’re so excited and supportive when they see their friend up there playing a song they wrote. Because of that support, it always felt natural to keep playing music. Even recently, we had done a long three-hour bar gig where we played a little more than half originals and less than half covers and a lady came up to me afterward and said, “You can just stop playing covers. That’s not what we’re interested in. We want to hear your originals. That’s really what matters.” And when she said it, I told her I totally agreed with her. I don’t know if the majority of the other people going out to a bar on a Friday night feel the same way, but it’s good to know there are still people like her. People who want more than anything just to share in your creative spirit and nurture that, rather than recycling what’s already been done.

P-C: What is your ultimate goal with music?

Slyzelia: I’m doing what I love, so I feel like I’m almost there in that regard. The ultimate goal is to really build my own catalog of songs and improve them to the point where they find a home with a wider audience, whether it’s because they’re placed in a pivotal movie scene or television program or a fantastic artist wants to record one of them. I want to keep improving my songs to the point where they truly bring happiness and positivity into people’s lives. That seems like a pretty reasonable goal.

Sometimes, it feels like I’m right on the precipice of it and I’ve already gotten a little taste of it. I’ve heard my songs played in prime time shows on NBC and I’ve heard my songs covered by other people. My songs have been requested at some people’s major life events and every one of those times made me feel validated. So I feel it’s more about the songs being so meaningful or strong that they take on their own life after I send them out. Songs are like your children. You’ve created your child and hopefully raised them as well as you can and shaped them and then you send them off into the world and hopefully they do good things and have lives that are also meaningful to other people.

It’s all about the songs. If somebody else can take it and make it something appealing on a massive scale, awesome, but it feels really close; like it’s right at the end of my fingertips.

— Mike Thiel: 920-993-1000, ext. 526, or Follow him on Twitter: @foxcitieshub