About Me

Interview with Sylvaine

Norwegian multi-instrumentalist and singer Sylvaine is releasing her 4th album on the 4th of March. After three great records that have become more and more consistent, “Nova” takes a step further, while keeping the identity – heaviness and deepness – that has always been there from the beginning. We’ve talked with Kathrine Shepard, the mastermind behind the band, to know more about Sylvaine and her new record.

M.I. - Your name is Kathrine Shepard. How did you come up with the name “Sylvaine”?

I chose the name Sylvaine because I was looking to have the name of the project to be something related to the word “sylvan”. I’ve always been very close to the forest, and I wanted that to be a part of the band name because it's been a place that's been pretty much a shelter for me. Very much a safe haven and an important place for inspiration. So, I wanted to bring that into the name and then I also thought about adding the urban side to have the duality between the two worlds, so to speak. The human world, the ethereal plane, delight, dark. And even if it's not super dark, I decided to go with the French poet Paul Verlaine because I really love his work. There's a lot of the French romantic poets that I love, and he's one of them. And basically, I just took part of his name and “sylvan” and I mashed them up together and it turned into Sylvaine. Which is also a French name and a butterfly. So that can be taken in many different 
ways. (laughter)

M.I. - How was your musical past? Did you have music lessons? Other projects?

Absolutely, yeah, I went to three different music schools because, here in Norway, we can choose what we want to do from high school. It’s like lycée in France. Basically, we can choose already what kind of direction we want to do. I chose music, because I knew already when I was 14, that I wanted to do this with my life if I could. Every choice I've made in my life so far has actually driven me to this point, so I already knew, when I went to lycée that I wanted to do music. So, I was taught drums, piano, and vocals, in addition to all the theory and the history and everything within music. From there I went to this concept called “folk high school” which is kind of between high school and the university and that was just one year. It's just like instead of taking a year off, you can do this and basically, it’s a school that focuses often on creative stuff. I chose band, so I played in a band every single day. I did that because I wanted to test my voice to see if it could stand doing this every day and see how it was and how it felt. After that I went to the University of Oslo, and I did a bachelor's degree in Musicology. So, I basically have quite a bit of wide background in music. I have the theoretical side and the historical side. Even though I never really fit into any of the boxes for the actual performing side that I was. At school, this was usually like jazz, classical… folk music was one as well. And I was never really fitting into those boxes, so it actually made me try out a whole lot of different stuff that I wouldn't have otherwise, which I think has made me into, especially, the vocalist that I am today. Before I started Sylvaine, I had several little projects, like bands and ensembles playing with just the, for example, acoustic guitar and singing and stuff like that. But they always kind of ended up going in a direction that I didn't really feel super at home in, which is not a problem. I mean, that's great, but you don't want to push your own emotions onto the others when you can feel that it's not really what's going on in the project. So, I decided that I needed to start my own thing where I could be not compromising for the artistic vision and just be authentic and true to the expression. So, that's basically what leads to Sylvaine, and that was basically what happened before Sylvaine. 

M.I. - How is your writing process? Do you always write alone? 

Absolutely, I'm basically writing everything in this project, and of course, at some point, I work with a drummer because, I do play drums, but I'm limited in my drumming, so I don't try to push myself because I know I won't reach the level that I will be happy with for the records. I usually just take my electric guitar and play it unplugged with any effects or anything and that's how I write my music. And usually, it just comes from me doing the guitarstuff, getting the main structure of the chords and everything that makes the kind of main skeleton of the song. And then, from there, basically I start adding the layers, usually the main vocals are usually quite early in the process. And, as I keep going, I will add in the drums, which I usually program myself first in software. I make like midi files with drums ideas. Sometimes it's like very specific ideas, sometimes it's just a feel, a groove that I want for this part… usually with the guitar, you know, the guitar/drum relationship, is really important for me. Of course, drums and bass as well. And then I will work with a drummer and usually I go with them in the rehearsal space and we work together and talk about stuff. For the last album I couldn't do this because of COVID, but we did the very 2020 online exchange thing, which worked fine. So, that's basically how it works. It’s usually just me in my quiet bedroom or something jamming with myself on my guitar and from there I just keep building the layers. So, it usually takes quite a bit of time because I'm doing everything on my own. 

M.I. - That’s interesting, because one of great things of your music is the production part. I mean, all the effects added on the guitar, the treatment of the vocals and drums, etc… But you start only with the basics: vocals and unplugged guitar.

Yeah, I always said… I mean not that all my songs work without the production necessarily in the same way, it won't create the same emotion. But I always said to myself that I would like all of my songs to be playable with just an acoustic guitar and myself singing. Obviously they will sound different, but I just feel like the song deserves to have a structure, like chords and a vocal melody that's strong enough to exist on itself without all the effects and everything going on. So of course, that works some of the time. That doesn't always work, like when you have songs that are 9 or 10 minutes long, you're going to have some parts that if you play them unplugged, it's just like “OK, you're just playing a tremolo on acoustic guitar. It's not very cool anymore.” (laughter) Again, being able to strip it down and just have the bare necessities, have the main melody and it still works, it still communicates the message that I want to give to the listeners. When I'm recording, even though I wasn't playing like this - and I start recording my demos because I'm always recording as I find some ideas and stuff - I start thinking about what kind of effects. Because it goes hand in hand with the emotion that you're trying to give to the listener. But even so, I still like sometimes to just have absolutely nothing stripped down and just see how it sounds, like, sonically what I get from it on a melodic point of view.

M.I. - In your second album, “Wistful” there's a song called “Saudade”, a Portuguese word that can’t be translated and means “to miss someone or something”. Tell us about it. 

It kind of became a concept on my records. It wasn't something that I consciously chose before. It happened with “Saudade” and it became a tradition after that and then I just continued with my previous album [“Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone”]. Basically, the idea is to have words or sentences that are not easily translatable into English. They can mean many different things. They have like layers of meaning and something that you can't really just go“that's what it means” in English. It's always “it means something like”, that's usually what I do when people ask about it. When I was recording it with my dad, we called it the “Dirge”, basically because I feel like that's what it is. It's a funeral march, the song itself. It folds like that. The lyrics speak about that. I was a little bit afraid, when I released that song, that people would take the lyrics being a little suicidal or anything, which was not the case at all. But I just felt that this word, the Portuguese word that I will not murder (laughter) basically fit really well with the ambience on the track and it's the same with all the other songs that have those, like - I'm going to keep murdering languages - the Russian song on the first album called “тоска” which also has this kind of layered meaning. Everything from little feeling of missing something to full blown like crisis of there's a hole inside of me and I can't fill it. And then on the last record it was “L’appel du Vide” in French, which is basically translated to the “call of the void”. I wanted to call the song that because I felt it really pictured this feeling of standing on a cliff and just looking down and you're going “I wonder how it would feel to jump”, which once again sounds very serious suicidal, but it’s not the idea. It's more like how we, as humans, tend to be attracted to the dark side and attracted to things that are destructive for us. Which was what I wanted to show with this song. And then on my last album, “Nova”, it's “Mono No Aware”, which is a Japanese saying, that also just fits so perfectly with everything I was trying to send the record. So, it became a concept. I love language, I love the written word, I've always been connected to it. And sometimes I just read about words in other languages that just inspire me because the meaning is so deep anyway, so that's why I chose to use, I'm going to say it again, “Saudade”. (laughter)

M.I. - You mentioned “L’appel du vide”, which, at least in Spotify, is your most successful song ever, with a huge difference to the others. Can you explain why?

Yeah, I saw that “L’appel du vide” has way more streams than some of the other tracks and I was like “wow!”. I've always felt extremely connected to the song and I played it live at my solo shows, and every show I try my best but I always end up in tears. Because this song is just one of these songs that every time you play it or listen to it, it really connects you right back to the moment that you created it and the reason why you created the emotions that wanted to come out into the song. And it's just too much and it just becomes overwhelming. So, I always believed in this song a lot and I remember having a person that was really close to me at the time and I showed him “L’appel du vide”, which I don't usually do. And he told me some really bad things about the song. He said like “oh, you shouldn't do this, you shouldn't do that”. It was quite harsh, and I was a bit shocked by what he told me. And that was the only time I think that I've ever shown someone and that's happened, and I actually told him “You’re wrong”. And it's not really like me. Usually, I would be very much like “oh, you know…” because I don't have a very strong self confidence in music. But that time I was like “no, you're wrong. Just wait and see.” So, I thought it was really funny when I did see it on Spotify that “L’appel du vide” is doing so well and I don't know why it's doing so well. The only thing I can think about is that people really can connect to the emotions that are very direct in that song. Maybe more direct than in some other songs because it's more stripped down. I don't know, for me when I hear it and when I play it myself, I feel it's very overwhelming. So maybe other people also can tap into that emotion, and hopefully that's why they're listening to it over and over again. 

M.I. - Well, coming back to the Portuguese stuff, your new album is called “Nova”, which is also a Portuguese word.

It was not intentional, but that's very cool that I'm just continuing the Portuguese flow. (laughter)

M.I. - Oh, if it’s a coincidence, then why did you call it “Nova”?

I was aware that “Nova” meant “New” in Portuguese and in some other languages. In Spanish is “Nueva” and in Italian it’s something similar, so a lot of words are similar to “Nova”or they’re literally “Nova”, that means “New”. Which I loved because I thought that was a very cool connection with the fact that the whole album marks like a transition between one state to another. But the reason I chose “Nova” is that the title track on this record, the first song has a made up language, so it's not something that's actual lyrics. It's just improvised. I did eventually write down the lyrics, but it's just like “so”, “ya”, “mi”, “voo”, it’s just sounds, it's not actual real language. And the syllables “no” and “va” kept repeating, so I kept saying “nova, nova” in my song and I really like the sound of the word, I like the way it's written, these 4 letters - I'm very visual - and I like the way it looks, I like the way that it sounds. And then I like the connection with the languages where it means “new”. Also, the celestial thing with the supernova and what that means. It all just kind of went towards the same thing, meaning this transition, meaning of rebirth, something new. When I had this word coming out of this title track, I just knew that that had to be the title of the album. So that's why, and it's just coincidence that it's a Portuguese word as well, but that's very cool and the meaning aligns perfectly with the record. 

M.I. - The new single “Nova” is an extremely beautiful and ethereal choral piece. What does this song represent to you? How did you come up with this idea?

Basically I've been wanting to write a pure like choir piece for many years. I kind of started and tried a little bit with “Wistful”, at the very end of that song. The title track “Wistful” has that big choir piece because it's something I've always really loved - voices. I think it's nice, like harmonies and stuff, but it's something that is extremely personal because you are the instrument yourself, so it just has another layer that other instruments maybe don't. They can't really reach the same level and I just wanted to make a choir piece because I really appreciate voices. I appreciate the emotions that it can bring out. I was working on the main vocals for the 4th track on my new record and I was just improvising. There's a kind of long intro with chords. There used to be no vocals there before, so, I just use it as a way to improvise. This is how I write vocals, a lot vocal layers. I like to play the song and improvise over it and something that repeats will stay because it means that it's here for reason. And I was just working on that, and this melody kept popping into my head. So, I started to write out in sheet music the initial melody that I have found, and then I wanted to compose a choir around that, based on what I've learned in my school years. So, I made a 5-voice choir in my notation program, having a Bass, two Alto voices and the Soprano voices, even though I'm an Alto myself, and then the Super High pitched one that I really pushed myself to do, it's the highest that I got. So, I came back upstairs and over the next few days or weeks I started writing out this choir piece. I remember so well the first time I pressed “play” and I just listened to it with like the shitty MIDI choir voices. (laughter) But it still gives an idea and I remember trying to start making the demo for the song and it was so complicated to record, because there's no click track, there's no instruments to follow. You have to do one voice, making sure that it's perfect, and then record everything to that, and there's no tempo. So, every time a syllable changes and you have like a “ma” or “fa” or something, it has to happen at the exact same moment, or it would sound like pure chaos. So, it was a real challenge to record the demo. It was even more of a challenge to record the real thing. And I remember so well listening to it the first time when I had recorded the demo. That was a special moment. I don't know, I can't say, I even have like a little bit goosebumps thinking about it. It's so strange because it doesn't say anything. There's no lyrics in the song, but without saying anything at all is just…I can't even say, I have a hard time describing the song. For me, it holds all the emotions that are on that record. Everything that I wanted to say in this record, but even in Sylvaine project on its own, it holds this in the song. It's really vast. Really fragile, it's really intimate, but at the same time super ethereal and wide. It just has a little bit of everything of this project. Every time I listen to it, it just hits me so hard. The cover was completely inspired by this and also the video. I remember listening to this song on repeat like a million times while looking at images from this photoshoot, that I did with Andy Julia, to choose the cover and this image popped up and I was like “that's the one!” And Daria, my best friend, Daria Anderson started doing the postproduction on the image, to make this kind of cosmic vibe for the cover. And that song was the meaning of the record. It was something that I knew from the beginning exactly what I wanted to look like and they managed to capture it. And then “Nova” was the song that I was always listening to check that the visuals were right, even with the promo  pictures I was listening to the song, I was like… It's hard to describe in words. You make music to try to not have to talk about or like put things into words and “Nova” is one of those tracks that I can't really put my finger on it but it just means really a lot to me. That's all I can say.

M.I. - Well, in your music, you really explore the contrast between the Black Metal moments and the highly melodic, but equally deep, moments. Do you feel like you've managed to find that balance?

Well, I think that every single record is kind a different chapter of that balance. They all have the opposing forces happening. Kind of the light and dark, the harsh, the melodic, the heavy, the lights and ethereal. I think all the records have that but it's just different sides of that, and, of course, every album represents different years of my life. Sylvaine is like my audio diary. So, it's always kind of a witness of who I was and what I was going through at the moment that I was creating the record. So that makes the sound happen in different ways. “Wistful” is a very, very sad and lonely record, because that's exactly what I was going through when I first moved to France, and I was isolated; “Atoms Aligned…” was very much inspired about outside world, like watching the world and you're like “why is it burning to pieces?” (laughter) “Why is everyone so horrible with each other?”. And “Nova”, once again, kind of combining the two. Just dealing with loss. It definitely called for more extreme balance between the two, like more heavy things that really just drive home the frustration and then more ethereal things that really give you that intimate feel that you're getting a little peek into someone's soul. Basically, everything in my music all comes down to the emotions. What do the emotions need? Sometimes you can't explain things with a clean voice, for example. It doesn't resonate in the way that it shows the emotions and how severe the emotions are enough. Anger isn't something I usually deal with in my music very much, it's more like frustration and when the clean voice can't express how frustrated or how intense the emotions are, the screams will do that. It's something that happens very organically based on what the songs call for. Based on the emotions that's gone into creating the songs and what I want to communicate to the listeners of the record basically. 

M.I. - You said in an interview that you try to be as much productive as you can when you're inspired, because you know that your inspiration will disappear somehow. How does inspiration work for you? Do you get anxious when you have no ideas? How do you manage this? 

Sylvaine: I think that's also part of the process that, the older you get, the more you do this. I think you also start accepting those periods where you have no inspiration and you're just feel like you're never going to write a single song again, and you're just like “well, shit!” (laughter)

M.I. - Don't you have the temptation to push it?

For sure, sometimes, yeah! Sometimes you force it, sometimes you push it. Sometimes it works… most of the time it pushes you further away from what you're trying to do. (laughter) That's what I found anyways. That's why, for example, when I was making “Nova” my fourth album, I took three months or something in 2020 where I didn't touch my guitar. I didn't do anything because I just felt I had gotten to a point with this record that if I kept pushing, I'm going to really take steps more and more further away from what I want to do with this album, and I needed to let it rest. Thisrecord was so intense and so personal that it was too many things to deal with, so I was overwhelmed and I just couldn't get it into the songs. So, it's really important to know when to take a step back, and it's never like a failure to say “I'm not inspired now. I'm useless when it comes to this specific thing, but I can do other things.” And it's really important, I think. And it's something that you learn to accept more. I think every single artist no matter what they do, they get terrified when those periods happen, but it's important to try to remember that it's normal. It's most likely will come back and in the absolute worst case, if it doesn't come back, then it's because you don't have anything to say, and it's an honest thing to say “I don't want to waste your time with things that are fabricated because it's not real, it's not something I wanted to communicate.” So, I've been lucky that my inspiration has always come back for now. But it's something that's difficult, and I think the only way to feel inspired, for me, is to experience, being like out in the world, doing things, meeting people, seeing places, going to museums, going out into nature. Living. You know, you need something. When you want to talk about something in your life, you need to experience, to be able to feel that. So, there’s no specific thing that's like “I need that for inspiration”, but it's just like being alive and being open to take in the impressions from your life basically and process that and put it out into some kind of art form.

M.I. - When you play live, you usually play with a band, but you also do some solo shows. What's the difference for you in terms of the experience? 

I love both sides. It's funny because I remember having this discussion with my parents. My dad played drums on the first three albums, and my mom used to work at a record label and worked for the biggest promoters in Norway like back in the day and did some like festivals and shows. So, both come from music and music has always been a huge part of my life and it's always been like a big thing of discussion. And I remember sitting with my parents and saying that I really want to be in a band, I don't want to do the solo thing, because I like the energy of being with other people and sharing the experience together. And they were always like “you’re going to end up as a solo act”. And I was like “why?” “Because you're too strong willed.” (laughter) They were right, they know me, of course. Yeah, I do love playing with my 3 live guys, Florian, Dorian, and Maxime that I have with me on stage. They're wonderful people. On a 
personal level they're so great and as a band we worked together so well like musically as well.It's just lovely when you have this feeling of this little family, you're on stage and you look at each other like “yeeeeah”. It's so cool. It's the best thing ever to share the experience because in the end, art comes from a place of very introvert and authentic, intimate emotions. But it's something that's made to share with other people, so being able to do that with the band is fantastic. I love that. I love to see people being moved by the drive that's behind being in a band. What I love about the solo show is that it's a whole other beast. It's absolutely terrifying (laughter) but I love it at the same time because it's really personal. It's like, if the band is communicating a certain message to the audience, we still have like this kind of heavy thing that the message is wrapped in, whereas the solo is like completely bare. Just like “yeah, this is me. These are all of my most intimate feelings. There you go.” It's just so direct. The message you're trying to communicate is so direct when it's just you looking at your audience and giving your heart to them. The solo shows are really intense for me usually, which is why I haven't done them a whole lot. I want to keep it like something that's I don't do like every single day, and it's also emotionally quite challenging for me to do. When you're alone, also, it lets you go into the universe much more on the feelings and it can take you and overwhelm you way easier than when you're with the band. Because you can always look at one of the other guys and you get the support like “Oh ok, I'm grounding myself” but in the solo gig, you don't get that. So, I think as an audience member it's probably more intense, actually, the solo gigs for the emotional side, but obviously in terms of energy and sound and everything, the band is definitely also intense, but in a different way. So, I love both, but they're really different and they give a very different experience to the people that are receiving it. 

M.I. - Thank you very much! Please leave a final message to Metal Imperium readers. 

Well, thank you so much to all the readers of Metal imperium. If you got this far, I applaud you because I talked so much. (laughter) So thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts and I really hope to see you guys out there on tour one of these days. And in the meantime, just please take good care of yourself, the world is still a weird place at the moment. So, take good care of yourself, take good care of each other and just stay respectful, mindful and hope to see you soon.

For Portuguese version, click here

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Interview by Francisco Gomes