Ajda Snyder isn’t afraid to try something new and different. Her seven year old band Black Fortress Of Opium has been described as Gothicana, a mix of Goth and Americana music. Multi-instrumentalist Snyder hails from Texas but moved to Boston to attend Berklee College Of Music.
The singer also has a nifty solo career. Snyder performs her lone acoustic shows under the sobriquet “The Turkish Queen.” That title began as a high school feminist kick when she, the daughter of a Turkish mother, thought it’d be cool to invent something new because Turkey doesn’t have queens. “I was trying to make up something new that felt strong and not part of the patriarchy,” Snyder said.
Snyder was classically trained on flute throughout most her education, middle school to Berklee, where she received a degree in Music Business Management. Because of her classical training. Snyder was able to teach herself mandolin, guitar, voice, with some piano lessons thrown in. She plays electric guitar and mandolin at her Black Fortress gigs, favoring a 1965 Fender Mustang with a colorful custom paint job.
“I applied my formal training from school to some of the other things, like voice,” she said. “I actually teach voice lessons now. I’ve been doing that for four years. It was easy, once I got so much musical training on one thing to translate a lot of those skills to other instruments.”
Snyder’s solo act began in earnest in 2005 which she has always done concurrently with her band career. Whichever band she was in always took precedence, not to mention most of her time. “I do some solo things here and there,” she said. “Those shows help me to finish material that I often take to the band. It’s a really good thing for me as a songwriter to be able to do that on my own. I have a different kind of freedom when I’m playing by myself.”
Her band Black Fortress Of Opium came about after a year of solo performances. She had decided to put a new band together after a previous combo petered out, but she wasn’t sure who would play what in her dream band. Meanwhile, Snyder had been exploring her Turkish roots, which got her interested in many exotic instruments and sonic textures. In 2006, while her band concept was taking shape in her mind, she met her future guitarist Tony Savarino. Snyder knew of a Turkish town whose name translated to opium and the town is home to an ancient fortress whose Turkish name translates to Black Fortress Of Opium.
“In the middle of this town there is a volcanic outcropping atop which is a fortress,” she explained. “The walls are still there. I had read about this in one of my travel guides going around Turkey.” Snyder eventually got to go to the Fortress on ensuing travels. Savarino, as soon as he heard her idea, told her that has to be the band name.
“It’s been very polarizing,” she said. “People don’t quite know what to expect. They often think it’s going to be really heavy, and some of our stuff is heavy, but it’s not all like that, so.” Snyder and guitarist Savarino have been the two main core members of the band. Blessed by being in Boston’s music community, the two have been able to find plenty of bass players and drummers to fill out the sound for them in the studio and on stage. Yuri Zbitnoff has been their drummer since 2010. Joel Simches had filled in on bass over the years. Dave Yanolis, too, has played with them often.
Snyder credits their producer Martin Bisi for helping to shape their sound, saying he’s practically a fifth member of the band. He worked hard on their self-titled debut, which came out in 2008. Bisi also engineered and mixed most of the sophomore album, Stratsopherical, released in 2012. He is now working with Black Fortress Of Opium on their upcoming album too.
“He’s also recorded and mixed for this next record so far,” she said. “We’re hoping to put it out this year. At this point, we have six songs recorded, four of which have been mixed and the final two are getting mixed next month. We want to have more songs on it. I’m hoping to have nine to 11 songs. At the moment, we have seven written, six are recorded. We’re working on new material.”
Usually, Snyder writes the songs then brings them to the band. From there, the band develops them into what they eventually become on the album, and her band mates bring in their original parts that get added in. Lately, she and her band mates have been reexamining recordings of jams that they hope to cull songs from. Some of those jams were played and recorded years ago. “Some of them I have lyrics for. I just haven’t edited them yet to make them perfectly shaped sections, so to speak.”
Snyder quoted a writer who described their sound as “rootsy but ethereal.” She attributes that sound to her being from Texas and having Turkish influences while Savarino loves playing traditional Americana music. Goth also comes into it too.
“Wait until you hear some of the new stuff,” she exclaimed. “We have this one new song that we’re working on. It’s very, very heavy and very dark and moody. I think one thing we’re good at is creating and establishing a mood.”
Black Fortress Of Opium have developed and evolved over the course of two albums. “The first record was pretty dark and was a bit more gothy. The second record, Stratospherical, includes more influences from other members. We did one of Tony’s songs on the second record, ‘Cherry Blossom.’ It’s got the slide guitar. It’s kind of like southern swampy. That record came out four year later and it was recorded with different people involved, different musicians. The first record was just the four original members.” Since then, numerous bass players have passed through the Fortress. The second record had drummer Brian Viglione from the Dresden Dolls. “He wasn’t even a real member of the band. He was hired at the time because we didn’t have a drummer at that point.” Still, Snyder said it was exciting to work with Viglione, and that he brought a lot of talent to the table.
Snyder’s vocal influences include PJ Harvey, Kristin Hersh from Throwing Muses and Siouxsie Sioux, singers who can do a lot of things with their voices. “I really tend to like dynamic singers,” she said. “’I’ve been influenced by a lot of styles, having traveled in Turkey.” Snyder has traveled to many places, yet most of her influence comes from bring a huge music fan and listening to a lot of different kinds of music.
Snyder enjoyed hearing, during her Turkey visits, “the call to prayer” she heard coming from a mosque tower. “They have these amazing Melismatic voices,” she said. “I use to make field recordings when I would go to Turkey, of different sounds that I would hear there. I also like Middle Eastern singers.”
Snyder, during the 1990s, became a fan of dark bands that had female singers, The Breeders, Throwing Muses. German singer Ute Lemper became an influence over the last ten years, and, as Snyder gets more into jazz she begins to admire Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Patti Page. She also believes that she may have become a songwriter because her father used to blast Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and Leonard Cohen on a weekly basis while she was still in a kid in Texas.
Aside from Black Fortress Of Opium, Synder now sings with a Dio-Era Black Sabbath tribute band she has named AjDIO. They’ve only played once, last Halloween, but they featured her Fortress guitarist Savarino who got her interested in Ronnie James Dio by playing Dio’s music and other metal songs in his car.
“With Dio, it grabbed me right away because his singing is so powerful and soulful and bluesy,” she said. “He basically sings like Beyonce but in a rock context. All those little vocal things he does, these little bluesy licks, it’s the same sort of stuff she’s doing.” Snyder also pointed out that Dio played with three different ground breaking groups, Rainbow, Dio, and Black Sabbath. “That’s just not even mortal,” she quipped. “Everything he touched was awesome.”
As for Black Fortress Of Opium, Snyder would like to tour more on the upcoming album and have wide distribution. “We self-released all of our albums,” she said. “I don’t mind that at all. I would rather put out my own record than wait around for 15 years for someone else to put it out. I know bands that do that. They think the label thing is going to solve all their problems and get their music to everyone. I mean it would be great to get signed to a label, sure. But only if they would get us wide distribution and help us with touring. I’d really like to get on the road more. I’d love to play internationally. I’d love to play in Turkey. The town where that fortress is at the top of that outcropping, we would love to play there and record a video there like Pompeii like Pink Floyd.”