INTERVIEW WITH SYLVAINE BY ERICA VINCENT
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARIA ENDRESEN
Norway’s multi-instrumental, bandleader, and composer Sylvaine, born Kathrine Shepard, is releasing her fourth album, Nova, on Season of Mist and is preparing for extensive tours throughout the US and Europe. We spoke with her about the music and intensity of creating Nova, family, live performances, and what is next. Sylvaine’s kind demeanor and bubbly nature are quite the contrast to her music, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Can you introduce yourself and your music to those that may not be familiar?
I play music that is well…I’m always really bad about categorizing my music, but it is something along the lines of atmospheric with a bit of metal present. It could be called alternative rock, post-rock, atmospheric metal, doomgaze, that kind of thing.
Both of your parents were very involved in music. Tell us about your upbringing. What took you from San Diego to Norway?
Yeah, that’s pretty much polar opposites in terms of where the countries are placed in the world, as well as societal systems and climate, isn’t it? My dad, he’s from San Diego; he was born there. And my mom is from Norway. They met while my dad was on tour as a drummer. He was touring here in Scandinavia, he met my mom backstage, and that was it. They went back and forth between the counties a couple of times, with my mom moving to California and my dad moving to Oslo, before they decided to settle in Norway. I was born in San Diego, California, and then moved to Norway in the first year of my life. I consider myself Norwegian because I grew up here, even if I’m technically both American and Norwegian. My dad played drums professionally for 30–35 years, whereas my mom was more on the organization side of things, working with labels and concert promoters, which is how they met. I suppose you could say music is the reason I exist! Music has always been a part of my life, growing up in such a family. It’s rather strange to think of my life being any other way, because I’ve always had it like that, with music being at the center of it. Even in our family discussions, music is almost always the topic. It’s always been there and has always been something that’s really made us very close-knit as a family.
“I WAS TOO BUSY WORKING SO HARD TO MAKE SURE EVERY ASPECT OF THIS RELEASE WAS GOOD ENOUGH, WORKING TO THE POINT OF ACTUALLY GETTING PHYSICALLY SICK”
How has the fans’ reaction been to the singles from Nova so far?
I’m always saying that I’ll never get used to such kind feedback from the outside world. Artists create something very intimate for selfish reasons in a way, but it’s always nice to share it with others in the end and hear that it can bring something to them. The response the three premiere tracks have gotten has been super heartwarming. It has been such a hard record to make for me. It was a real fight in every aspect, but I mean, it was so worth it! To finally be able to share the tracks, I didn’t even realize what was happening when the first one hit and the music video came out. I was too busy working so hard to make sure every aspect of this release was good enough, working to the point of actually getting physically sick, that when it came time to start releasing songs from the album, my mind wasn’t prepared. It wasn’t very healthy looking back at that, but it was all more than worth it. Having that very positive feedback and warm response from my established fans, and then new fans that are, “I just discovered you and the songs. I can’t describe how much that means.” Well, it means pretty much everything to me and has been really humbling and cool. The response has been extremely kind, and I’m very grateful for that.
How would you describe Nova? What sets it apart from other albums you’ve released?
Nova is a really personal record for me. I mean, every record is personal, of course, because Sylvaine is a solo project and the music functions as an audio diary for me. Every album is a witness of who I was and what I was going through in the years it was created. Nova is no exception. Nova happens to be my catharsis for something very specific that was going on in my life in 2019–2020. It’s still kind of ongoing now, but it was something that more or less started back then and was unfolding at the time. It was some of the hardest things I’ve gone through so far. I know that I come from a point of privilege when I say that, because I’m living in a Western country where the systems are really supportive and protective, and I have good people around me, so I know that it could be way worse.
“NOVA IS A RECORD THAT SPEAKS ABOUT LOSS. IT SPEAKS ABOUT TRANSITIONS. IT SPEAKS ABOUT MORE THAN ANYTHING THE TRANSIENCE OF LIFE”
At the same time, what I was going through was extremely difficult to process, so I was using this album as a way to channel it all. Nova is a record that speaks about loss. It speaks about transitions. It speaks about more than anything the transience of life, like how you can’t hang on to anything. No matter what you do, everything will always come to an end. It seems extremely pessimistic when I say it like that, but it’s a fact of life. The only constant in our life is change. That’s just how it is, and it is hard to accept that. We’re not wired to be able to accept that easily. We get attached to things. We get attached to people. We get attached to habits and situations. It’s really heartbreaking to have to see things go. Nova speaks about this, and also that there is a kind of beauty to it as well. Every time a door closes, there’s another one opening somewhere. Every time something is coming to an end, you will have a new beginning. You always have a chance to start something new. It was hard for me to see that part when I was creating the album, even if I intellectually knew this to be the truth. It’s more about what mindset you have rather than what you’re actually being dealt in life.
You’ve been the composer of the music, lyrics, and instruments on albums past, and you’ve stated you enjoy the freedom of not having to compromise. Is Nova the same?
Definitely. And I’m not saying that if a band of five individuals creates a song, that isn’t pure. That’s not what I mean at all. I know that I’ve been in bands and different projects, and it always ended up taking a turn in a way that I didn’t really feel deeply within myself. At the same time, you don’t want to push your own emotions onto people when you can tell they’re not feeling it either. That’s why I made Sylvaine a solo project. I didn’t want to compromise artistically and desired to be free to express all of those really personal things without weirding anyone else out in the band and have them be, “I don’t know what this means?” (laughs) Even though it’s a whole lot of work and you have to sacrifice a lot, I knew what I wanted to do and the path I was to take.
“IT TOOK ME A LOT OF YEARS TO BELIEVE THAT I COULD DO THIS BECAUSE I WAS VERY SELF‑CONSCIOUS AND VERY HARD ON MYSELF WHEN IT CAME TO MUSIC, WHICH I STILL AM TODAY.”
Music was the only thing I wanted to do since I was 14, and every choice I’ve made so far in my life has been trying to reach the point I’m at now. Even though what I’m doing is still very humble and I hope to keep growing within my field, everything that I’ve done in my life so far has brought me to this point. There’s definitely been a lot of sacrifices. I wasn’t the teenager that was out hanging around and having parties and stuff like that. That wasn’t my life at all. I’ve been working towards this right here. It took me a lot of years to believe that I could do this because I was very self‑conscious and very hard on myself when it came to music, which I still am today. Self-esteem seems like a lifelong struggle for most of us, in one way or another. It’s definitely been a hard road to take, but I haven’t been doing all this alone. I’m lucky to have people around me that are supportive, with a good family and very good friends. As far as composing and everything, it’s a heavy burden to bear to do it all on your own, but at the same time, it allows you to create freely without compromise, which so far has eclipsed the fact of being completely overworked.
Being a solo artist has advantages and disadvantages compared to a full band. How do you handle it all?
One thing that’s really important is to shut down social media and stuff like that for a while. Even though I’m not the most active person on social media anyway, I still find it’s essential to shut down all electronics and to take a break every now and then. I also use my yoga practice to reconnect, ground, and center myself. I love to go out in nature. I love to walk in general. It’s like one of the most peaceful moments I have. My mind is constantly spinning. Taking moments where you slow things down is important, so you don’t get to a point where it’s too late to recover. I did get sick during the making of this record because of not taking care of myself. I didn’t have a chance to shut things down until it was too late. But right afterwards, I was, “Okay, we’re doing this differently from now on, otherwise I’m not going to be able to fulfill this album in the way I want to.” And that wasn’t going to be an option. So, yeah, for me, yoga, nature, taking time off from screens, maybe cooking something, doing something that’s not related to work, that usually does the trick.
“TAKING MOMENTS WHERE YOU SLOW THINGS DOWN IS IMPORTANT, SO YOU DON’T GET TO A POINT WHERE IT’S TOO LATE TO RECOVER”
Is your writing process methodical or spontaneous?
I would say both. The writing process is spontaneous in its roots. Every idea comes out of something spontaneous, and I try not to overanalyze or start picking on it too much initially, but rather try to let a stream of consciousness flow out naturally. Then, of course, comes the methodical part. When you start adding the layers and stuff like that, I always try to tap into the original emotion that went into creating that specific idea, but it takes a lot of hard work to finish a track. Especially because when you have pieces that are a bit longer and they’re not typically structured, they have non‑repeating parts, and it’s more like a piece than a song. It takes a lot of work to put that together and find the structure that really tells a story in the way you want to. Those kinds of songs can take months to finish. The original idea is always spontaneous, trying not to filter myself, worry or think too much, but rather just let the idea do its thing and then work to get the song into its final shape.
How did the pandemic influence and affect you?
It’s sad to see how many people have exited the business as the years have unfolded during this pandemic. A lot of people in the crew part of the business, as well as artists, exited because it was too hard to continue under the conditions COVID set. It’s already a business that’s extremely hard to stay alive in, and then having to navigate COVID didn’t exactly help. For me, I didn’t have a choice. Music has always been my love, so even if the going got tough, I wasn’t about to abandon ship.
“I DO BELIEVE IT IS OKAY TO ADMIT WHEN YOU ARE NOT OKAY AND WE SHOULD ALWAYS LET OURSELVES FEEL ALL OF OUR EMOTIONS.”
I had already started writing Nova in 2019 and continued working on it as the pandemic hit. I did take a big break in the middle of 2020 because I was too overwhelmed between my personal life and the global situation. Even so, I didn’t question leaving music, as it was rather a question of throwing myself into what has always been my haven during such a challenging time. I had two choices with everything that was going on personally and globally in 2020. I could either sit down in my puddle of tears and admit defeat, which would have been a totally valid option, as I do believe it is okay to admit when you are not okay and we should always let ourselves feel all of our emotions. Or, I had the choice to create something positive out of this situation and create something positive for other people. That’s pretty much what makes me the happiest in life is making other people happy.
I decided to continue working on my album to try to give every little piece of myself to this record, and I also decided to start teaching vocal lessons online, as well as yoga classes. I hoped that some people that were stuck at home could enjoy doing something that maybe they wanted to try, but they never had the time to. By offering vocal lessons, as well as free yoga streams on YouTube, I was hoping to be able to help people both mentally and physically when they were trapped in their own home. I decided to throw myself into my art and passions, all while being more in touch with the people enjoying my art and trying to be a positive force for them as well. Even if I was falling apart on my own, I was, “I still want to try to give to the people that are out there that have given a lot to me.” I think it was a win‑win thing. I’m really grateful for 2020 and 2021 and everything those years taught me.
Sylvaine has US dates coming up with Amorphis, and you announced your European tour. How are you preparing?
I’m so excited! Because of the pandemic, there obviously hasn’t been a whole lot of shows for anyone. Last year we were lucky enough to do two shows and they were the best shows I ever had in my life. My music is quite dark in its nature, but I was jumping around everywhere on stage, because I was so happy about the situation! So yeah, we’re extremely excited! I think what people have been missing the most in this pandemic is the energy exchange with other humans in the same place as them. It doesn’t have to be any specific situation, but just being able to tap into other people’s energy turns out to be the most valuable thing ever. Maybe that wasn’t quite as apparent before the pandemic, but the pandemic really made us face that.
Having all of these shows planned for 2022 feels absolutely incredible. Let’s see what actually happens, as the pandemic is far from over, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed. We are going to do all the shows in a safe way for everyone, so we will be able to go out there and share these moments all together again, finally! As I said, art comes out of something that’s very introverted and selfish, but in the end, those moments when you’re communicating this to someone else and can look them in the eyes, it’s the most magical thing ever. We can’t wait to be in North America. It will be our first time there. We’ve wanted to go there for a long time, so we truly can’t wait to meet our North American fans. Same in Europe, as we’re doing a lot of shows in new places this year. It’s going to be a year of a lot of firsts, and I’m incredibly grateful that we get the opportunity to do that.
What can your audience expect from a live Sylvaine performance?
With the music being a very cathartic experience for me, the live shows are pretty intense as well. We have a lot of movement in the music. That’s something I could have said in the introduction too, that my music is held up of opposites, in a balancing act of opposing forces, such as the duality between light and dark, harsh and serene, melodic and heavy. It’s the same on stage. It is like a roller coaster—very dynamic and emotionally intense. My one wish when I do concerts is to take the audience on a journey and let them travel away from our existence for a little while, to let them escape and forget about everyday life for a few moments. That’s what goes into one of our shows—a lot of opposing forces, a lot of emotions, all in the hope that we can give everyone out there a little break from this place that can be quite heavy to bear sometimes.
“MY MUSIC IS HELD UP OF OPPOSITES, IN A BALANCING ACT OF OPPOSING FORCES, SUCH AS THE DUALITY BETWEEN LIGHT AND DARK, HARSH AND SERENE, MELODIC AND HEAVY.”
What’s next, after the release of Nova and touring?
That’s a good question. I’m not done with what’s happening now for the moment, as I’m trying to enjoy the release of Nova and everything that comes with it. It’s imperative to stay flexible when dealing with something so abstract and fleeting as inspiration and art. You really have to take advantage of the present moment and enjoy the journey while it is here. I always remind myself that I don’t have guarantees of how long I’ll be able to keep doing this, so I really want to soak up every moment I can. I would like to start working on the next album, maybe next year, because this year will be all about touring and trying to do the shows that we have planned. 2023 will hopefully bring more touring, and maybe by the end of 2023 I’ll have some new material to work with. We’ll see how it goes. I’m not the kind of person that feels too pressured by time when it comes to releasing albums. I would much rather take many years making a record to make sure that it is worthy of being released, rather than having it pumped out every two years. I do already have some new ideas for the fifth album, but I haven’t taken the time to sit down and develop them yet. For now, everything is focused around Nova, and hopefully, the future will bring more.
How can fans support you? Any final thoughts?
First and foremost, thank you so much to those of you who took the time to read this. Your support means everything to me! The best way to support music in today’s world is buying merchandise from the artists you love, go to their shows, and spread the word when you find something you really enjoy. Tell your friends, share stuff on social media, and know that even though streaming services are very convenient, they really are not much in terms of supporting the actual artists behind the music. Otherwise, I’m always saying this and I still think it is very relevant in a world where the pandemic is still not over, even if things are going the right way, just take care of yourselves out there, please. Take care of each other. Be kind to each other, no matter what opinions you may have on things. I really hope to see you guys when we are over there in the States. Please come say hello to us after our shows, and until then take good care of yourselves.