An Interview with Stephen Neil and Jeff Neil of Synergy Twins
By Gregg Shapiro
It’s truly remarkable how many twin musical acts exist out there. From Tegan and Sara to Will & Anthony, from Kim and Kelly Deal to Tim and Phil Hanseroth to The Watson Twins. Classical crossover act Synergy Twins also fit the bill; in case you didn’t get that from their name. Violin and viola virtuosos Stephen Neil and Jeff Neil aren’t just stringing us along either. With Hoda, Kathy Lee, and The Today Show gang among their biggest fans, the bearded brothers’ audience continues to grow in leaps and bounds. As Stephen explains it, “for several years we made a living headlining on cruise ships, but decided we did not want to become ‘cruise ship lifers.’ (During) the summer of 2017, we decided to take a huge risk and become full-time street musicians in downtown Greenville, South Carolina, where we achieved local notoriety for our street performances. We were able to pay our mortgages and bills each month for about a year off the generous donations of the public and launch our business quite literally from the ground up.” Stephen and Jeff were kind enough to answer a few additional questions about themselves and their music for OutClique.
Gregg Shapiro: By calling your duo Synergy Twins you avoid the issue of billing. With that in mind, which one of you is older?
Stephen Neil: Jeff.
Jeff Neil: Stephen was supposed to be born first naturally, and at the last moment the doctor decided to perform an emergency C-section, so I was born two minutes before.
GS: At what age did you each start to play the violin?
SN: When we were young, we found a violin in a closet of our parents’ house. It happened to be made by our great-grandfather Harry Neil. He made his living as the town blacksmith in a small mining town called Garrett, Pennsylvania. His son (our grandfather) wanted to learn the violin, but as they were living during the Great Depression they could not afford one. Our great-grandfather somehow was able to obtain a book on making violins, forged the tools he needed to make one, and made one for his son. He made five in total. Jeff and I own two. One is in a museum in Garrett, and two have been lost over the ages. We doubt we would be doing what we do today if it wasn’t for discovering the violin we found all those years ago!
GS: Do you remember the first song you learned to play on violin?
SN: I can’t remember what came first, but “Hot Cross Buns” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” were definitely among the first two we learned.
JN: I remember learning “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” first on viola.
GS: Were there other musical instruments that interested you or did the violin take precedence?
SN: From the moment we discovered the violin our great-grandfather made I knew that was the instrument I wanted to learn. I was not interested in piano, guitar, any instrument you could take in band class, or becoming a vocalist – I definitely only cared to learn the violin.
JN: For me, the viola took precedence. I did start the clarinet a year later which has the same register as viola, but stopped after a year.
GS: How did the Synergy Twins get its name?
SN: In 2009 we auditioned for America’s Got Talent for the first time and needed a stage name. We were drinking wine with our family rummaging through dictionaries at our parents’ mountain house and came across the word “synergy.” We loved the definition (the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions) as we thought we had a stronger chance of making the show as the two of us than as individuals and the name stuck. However, it’s 2021, we’ve auditioned more times than we can count, and still have not made it on the show [laughs]!
GS: Synergy Twins are purveyors of the musical genre known as “classical crossover.” What do you like best about the genre?
SN: I love the idea of taking my classical training and being able to use that to create something new on the violin that has widespread appeal. In my experience, the majority of people I meet do not understand the concept of a violin entertainer. Most are so used to thinking of the violin as purely a classical instrument meant to be played in orchestral settings and have no idea you could make it electric like a guitar. The violin/electric violin is extremely versatile. You can arrange almost any song in any style and add a little classical flair to it which is what I love most about the genre.
JN: I’m always on a quest to find the best sounds and create unique tones on the electric violin with all the different kinds of effects pedals available today. If I’m playing Led Zeppelin, I’m going to find a distortion pedal that makes my Viper (the brand of electric violin that I own) scream. Most effects pedals that have been created were intended for electric guitar players and not all sound well with an electric violin. Finding new pedals and creating new sounds that match the styles we play is definitely a passion of mine. I probably own too many pedals [laughs].
GS: In what ways do you think “classical crossover” has evolved over the years?
SN: The genre started out as arranging classical songs with techno, dance, pop, rock beats, etc. As it evolved it has come to include arranging rock songs from the ‘70s, ‘80s, American Top 40, and a host of other genres, adding a bit of classical flair to the arrangements.
GS: The Synergy Twins are known for the eclectic variety of music you perform. How do you know that a song is a good fit for the Synergy Twins?
SN: First and foremost, for a song to translate well and be adapted to the violin it needs to have a strong and interesting melody. I’ll try to provide an example of this. Taylor Swift is an incredible songwriter, extremely popular, and writes in many styles. The melody to her song “Look What You Made Me Do” stays on the same note a lot and does not have a lot of melodic variety which would sound boring and plain on a violin as opposed to her song “Love Story” which has a melodic line that translates beautifully on the violin. We try to pick songs from artists that we can arrange that we know will keep the audience engaged throughout the entire performance.
JN: We play for so many different audiences and are continuing to learn more and more music to expand our set lists and keep fresh. Sometimes we learn new songs that we think will go over well, and don’t, so we retire them. Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” sadly, was removed years ago.
GS: Is there a style of music your fans would be surprised to learn that you personally enjoy but have never performed?
SN: What I listen to in the comfort of my own home and what I play tend to be polar-opposites. I love listening to Enya, Owl City, and other artists with relaxing qualities, but I would never perform their songs in a show. I actually toyed with the idea of performing Symphonie Espagnole by Lalo (a violin concerto) for a show, but the first movement alone is around seven minutes and I didn’t think it would go over well. I am still searching for the right classical violin showpiece to perform, so if anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears [laughs]!
JN: We play a few classical tunes but accompanied by tracks that give the music a rock feel, with drums and electric guitar. I believe our fans know we came from a classical background, but I bet they’d be surprised if I came out playing Bach’s Chaconne unaccompanied by any track, as it was originally intended when it was written.
GS: Some of the coolest musicians are twins, such as Tegan and Sara, Tim and Phil Hanseroth (who write and perform with Brandi Carlile), and Kim and Kelley Deal (of The Breeders). Have the Synergy Twins ever performed songs by other sets of twins? If not, is that something you’d consider adding to your repertoire?
SN: To my knowledge, we have never performed songs by other sets of twins, but it is definitely an intriguing idea [laughs]! We are always looking for new musical ideas to influence our shows and I think you stumbled upon one we can use!
JN: That thought honestly never crossed my mind. Now that you mention it, I’m going to do some listening and find a song to cover that I think would work well on violin.
GS: The Synergy Twins have performed at Pride festivals in Lexington (KY, 2016 2017) and in Augusta (GA 2017), as well as at Wicked Manors in Wilton Manors. Please say something about your awareness of a following in the LGBTQ+ community, and what such a following means to you.
SN: I, for one, love performing for LGBTQ+ audiences. I absolutely love the energy you get from them and they are very forgiving if you make a mistake on stage [laughs]. They just want to have a great time! One thing I’ve discovered from living part-time in Wilton Manors is that the entertainment community is so supportive of each other. I have had the pleasure of working with Dee Dee Van Carter, Antonio Edwards, LeNora Jaye, Jennifer McClain, Nicolette, Velvet Lenore – I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting, but we all go to each other’s shows to show support and it’s an incredible feeling.
GS: Do you have any kooky performance stories you’d like to share?
SN: This is a fun cruise ship story. If you know us, or have ever been to one of our shows, you know that we love to have fun! In the summer of 2019, we were sailing out of Quebec City, Canada, on a cruise ship and had the great, cocktail-inspired idea of recreating the iconic scene from Titanic where Jack and Rose are on the bow of the ship with their arms spread out looking into the distance. We had to go through two airlock doors to make it to the bow, knowing it probably wasn’t something we were supposed to do, but did it anyway! We took our violins and amp and recorded the song “My Heart Will Go On” during the sail away at sunset. Technically we could have been thrown off the ship, but the captain found the stunt hilarious and we were allowed to finish our three week contract aboard Holland America’s Zaandam.
GS: Once performance venues start to reopen in a post-pandemic world, what are you most looking forward to about live performance?
SN: One of the greatest gifts being a live performer has given me is the gift of travel. We have been blessed to travel and perform all over the world and have many “homes away from home” in the Caribbean, Alaska, places up and down the east coast of the U.S., and I look forward to being able to travel to these places and see our friends in each area as well as travel to new places and create more of these destinations.
JN: I found a home performing in the virtual world when the pandemic hit. After performing live for 100% of our income for years, my goals changed and I wanted to switch gears to become a content creator for social media apps. Lindsay Stirling, The Piano Guys, and 2Cellos are probably the best examples of where I want to go. We were swamped with non-stop live performances pre-pandemic and achieving this goal was next to impossible. For me, I look forward to booking the high-paying events to be able to make ends meet, while having the time to focus on the content creation side of things at home.