The homemade CD was simply labelled “Szymon”. It listed four song titles. There was no other information, no accompanying letter, only a return address for somewhere in Newcastle, New South Wales.
As a scout for EMI, Mark Holland had to deal with the dozens of unsolicited demos that arrived at the company’s offices every week. He dutifully listened to them all, and every one inevitably received a polite thanks-but-no-thanks form letter. Not this time. What Holland heard coming out of his speakers made him rush over to Craig Hawker, EMI’s head of A&R. Both men stood transfixed by the beautiful, ethereal music. They had no idea who or what Szymon was. All that they knew was the music was amazing.
On that day in late 2008, Szymon Borzestowski was 19 years old. Sadly, he would not live much beyond his 23rd birthday. Szymon took his life in December 2012.
Next week, nearly three years after his passing, an album of Szymon’s music is being released and the world will at last be able to hear the artistry that captivated Holland and Hawker.
Though the story behind Tigersapp is a tragic one, the music on the album is positive and life-affirming. A seductive blend of folk, pop and electronica, each of Tigersapp’s 12 songs has a delicate precision that envelops the listener and draws them into a world of shimmering beauty. It’s hard to believe, but these intricate, perfectly formed songs are the first Szymon ever wrote. In the space of two years, entirely on his own, he taught himself to play guitar, write songs and record them. Tigersapp is the product of a musician touched by genius.
Szymon (pronounced “shim-on”) was the son of two Polish immigrants, Anna and Andrzej. Born in 1989, he was the third of their four children, the others being Eva, Kubush and, lastly, Dominik. The Borzestowski kids grew up in the knockabout surf culture of Newcastle, but their parents did their best to keep them bilingual and in touch with their Polish heritage. It was a musical household and as a youngster Szymon fell in love with jazz, from the orchestral swing of Glenn Miller to the bebop improvisations of Miles Davis. It made him keen to learn saxophone, but he had to content himself with the clarinet until his fingers were long enough to reach all the sax keys. Szymon’s single-minded dedication impressed everyone and it wasn’t long before he was a virtuoso on both instruments, and they feature prominently on Tigersapp. Flute is heard on the album, too: another instrument Szymon decided to learn one day. Dom had seen him do this often: “He was just able to pick something up by ear. He had an ability to find his way around [any] instrument.”
Szymon also had a wonderfully expressive voice. The vocal textures on Tigersapp are rich and varied, with gorgeous harmonies darting in and out unexpectedly, dancing around and highlighting the melodies. Whenever a single voice is multi-tracked many times, there is always the danger that it can become tedious to the listener. With Szymon’s voice, that never happens. It has a wide range of tones and, rather than detract, the layered voices complement each other.
Growing up, it was Eva who was seen as the singer of the family. Dom had been learning drums and Kubush the guitar. After Szymon taught himself bass guitar it looked as though they had the makings of a classic family band, like The Cowsills or The Jacksons, however it was not to be. The four only performed together on Sundays, as part of the band at their local evangelical church.
After finishing high school Szymon decided to devote himself entirely to music for a year. He tackled guitar, songwriting and music production for the first time and quickly became expert at all three. Dom vividly recalls one of his brother’s eureka moments: “He came out of his room one day and he said, ‘Mum, I think I have the ability to write songs.’ ”
These were not just any songs, but really great songs. Having spent my lifetime writing music, I find it mind-boggling Szymon could come up with such sophisticated melodies and arrangements on his first attempt. His brothers were thrilled when he showed them what he’d done. “I thought they were sick,” Dom says. “When we heard what he’d created we went, whoa! Like, that was our realisation… that he was amazing [and] could really do this, and do it well.” Kubush agrees: “It wasn’t like he’d spent years and years developing any of this stuff, so it was all fairly fresh and new.”
By the end of 2008 Szymon had completed four songs to his satisfaction and sent them as a demo to various people. Only one of the songs, “Brokenworld”, had lyrics; the other three were designed to remain instrumentals. There were a couple of rejection letters but he heard nothing more before taking off for a few months to Europe and Africa, a trip he’d been saving for all year. It was only after he left that Andrzej, his dad, sent the CD to EMI.
Holland picks up the story. “He was kind of like our industry secret. We didn’t want any manager to know anything about him. We always got scared that someone might found out about him. We [didn’t] want anyone to corrupt him – we just wanted him to make this fantastic record.”
Szymon was overjoyed when EMI offered him a development deal, and when he got back from his trip he set to work immediately. “He bought some good speakers, new microphone,” Holland says. “I lent him all my guitars.” Things were starting to move fast. Hawker and Holland encouraged Szymon to sing more, for which we should all be grateful, and there was constant communication back and forth between the artist and the two record company men. Hawker describes how Szymon would send them musical sketches, beat loops and melodic ideas. “You’d go back with a bit of feedback, you know, to encourage him, and then maybe by the end of the week he’d have a fully formed song.” Szymon would bury himself in his studio for days at a time, obsessing over every detail. He could lose a whole day trying to fine-tune a snare sound. Hawker and Holland got used to receiving emails at all hours of the day and night.
Szymon would only ever work on one song at a time, constantly experimenting with arrangements and parts, honing each part until he was completely happy. It was a meticulous process and what his methods produced was remarkable. Sometimes there are four or five guitar parts interweaving, each one adding finely wrought detail and nuance, yet somehow it never sounds cluttered. Szymon’s sense of space and dynamics is truly extraordinary. The more I listen to what he achieved in his bedroom studio the more I am awestruck, particularly knowing the primitive conditions under which he worked. He stuck mattresses up against the wall for acoustic dampening and made the entire album using an antiquated computer and two freeware music editing programs, one for sampling and the other for recording.
As the album took shape, Hawker and Holland started planning the release. They’d already chosen a single, “Golden”, which, to that point, was only the second time Szymon had written a vocal melody. Towards the end of 2009 they’d mixed it and had been back and forth to Newcastle to discuss the album release. “We sat with him and the family quite a few times, presented a plan of how we were gonna work with him… It was quite detailed actually,” Hawker says. “And then the last time we were up there was the time … when we could sense that something wasn’t quite right.”
That was March, 2010. Szymon had recently moved out of his parents’ house and rented a flat near Nobbys Beach. Now Szymon seemed uncertain about releasing Tigersapp. “He was talking about going back to university to study piano and making that his focus for now,” remembers Holland. “And that’s where we’d kinda just left it: ‘Well, whenever you’re ready we’d love to put out your record.’ ”
What Holland and Hawker did not know was two months earlier, Szymon had been hospitalised for the first time for depression. He had been put on medication. His family had noticed Szymon withdrawing for quite some time and, looking back, Dom wonders whether making the album might have contributed to his fragile emotional state. “He was, in a way, isolating himself. He spent a lot of time in his room creating and thinking and, yeah, he was a perfectionist as well, so the amount of time he spent on his own may not have helped.”
It wasn’t until the intervention of a family friend that things really came to a head. In fact, it was a personal friend of Szymon’s who first sounded the alarm. After recounting to her parents a worrying conversation she’d had with Szymon, they decided to speak with him themselves. They both worked in mental health and afterwards they strongly recommended that Szymon be confined to hospital and assessed. Though it was only for a few days, the experience traumatised Szymon. Kubush says it changed the way they thought about Szymon’s mental state, too. “He wasn’t in a terrible way before that, but I think that experience, of seeing him like that and then him being sort of anxious over that… as well, made it a bit more real.”
There were more hospitalisations and psychiatrists tried different combinations of medication but nothing helped. In fact, Szymon’s mental state was deteriorating. Sometimes he attempted to create new music but would immediately erase the files out of rage and frustration. Later, he started destroying his hard drives. Kubush and the rest of the family were bewildered. “We thought, you know, he’s not like this – this isn’t who Szymon is. He loved his music.”
Dom secretly tried to save files for a time when Szymon might be well again. “I did my best to … take what I could. It was hard because … at the end of his life he did start to destroy things, and got rid of his guitars… Giving things away.” Whenever Dom tried to back up Szymon’s hard drive, it froze before completing the operation. Much has been lost forever. “He had a lot of ideas and a lot of songs on his computer [but it] was very slow and just didn’t work properly.”
After abandoning work on Tigersapp in early 2010, Szymon finished no more songs. The version of the album being released next week is exactly the same as Mark Holland and Craig Hawker wanted to release then, in exactly the same arrangements as Szymon completed – he’d sent EMI all the individual WAV audio files, ready for mixing. Though the album was scrapped, Holland kept the files, hoping Szymon would eventually give EMI the go-ahead to release his masterpiece.
“We always hoped and prayed that he would get better and … because we lost him it doesn’t mean we lost our hope…” Kubush says. “It just looks different to what we imagine.” As I listen on the phone, he is struggling to get out his words. “We haven’t been ruined by this. It’s brought us all closer together and it’s just been an incredibly special process to have this finished for him in this way.”
The closing track on Tigersapp was one of the only complete songs rescued by Dom towards the end of Szymon’s life. “Polen” is a haunting instrumental, performed on acoustic guitar and flute, named after the German word for his parents’ homeland. “Polen” exists only as an MP3, already mixed by Szymon. It makes a perfect close to a beautiful album.
I believe people will be listening to Tigersapp for decades to come. There is a timeless quality to the music that puts it beyond current trends, and it will likely remain that way. Szymon’s tragic genius created a perfect, complete world in itself. •
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 15, 2015 as "Burning Bright".
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