Suldusk – Pushing Through Musical Boundaries

Tuesday, 16th April 2024

Setting the underground abuzz with a potent debut back in 2019 entitled Lunar Falls, Suldusk has come a long way in the past five years. Starting off as a one-woman effort from Emily Highfield, the years following Lunar Falls saw Suldusk emerge into a full band, as well as saw them sign with Napalm Records for this second album. Anthesis takes all of the melancholy and black-ish influences and gives them a more prominent display – pushing those blurred genre lines even further. We spoke with Highfield about the changes over the last few years, genre-blurring and tags, ‘selling out,’ and much more!

Dead Rhetoric: Suldusk was initially just you. How did the decision to move to a full band come about?

Emily Highfield: I think when I started playing live. Acoustic wasn’t cutting it [laughs]. Opening for these metal bands coming to Australia, we needed some sort of evolution. I was sort of recruiting and musicians were being drawn towards me – I wanted to make the band a little bigger. I also wanted to play Lunar Falls as it was on the record, rather than just the acoustic versions of everything. That was how it kind of unfolded.

Dead Rhetoric: So you were just going around and doing acoustic shows before getting an entire band together?

Highfield: Yeah, pretty much. It was how the songs started, so it was true to the original nature. The production side of things, it was like having a skeleton of the song. Then when I went into the studio with a producer, I went to fill it out and make it real, or realized I should say. When people heard that, then they heard the acoustic show, they’d be like, “oh ok.” I wanted to not misrepresent the album anymore so it was really important to have a drummer, bass, and the tremolo guitars.

It also allowed for me to do my vocals a little bit more powerfully. It’s hard to produce those screams acoustically. I wanted the audience to feel them a bit more. It’s not as subdued. I love acoustic – I’m a sucker for folk music. Dark folk is my sweet spot, I love that. I will always go back to that. But it’s good to release the demons [laughs].

Dead Rhetoric: What did the formation of a full-band mean for Anthesis?

Highfield: I think the next progression from having a full live band was to look around and see who wanted to compose with me. I realized there were two other composers. Josh Taylor, who is the other acoustic guitarist, and Shane Mulholland, who is the other electric guitarist – they were already writing stuff. They had written a lot of their own stuff in other projects. I think the three of us brought different styles of songs or progressions and ideas, so we pulled them and looked at what we had, and started crafting things together. It was challenging for me. My ego didn’t like it [laughs]. My ego was like, “my thing is better than yours” [laughs]. But you can’t do that in songwriting. You have to serve the song.

You have to be able to go, “alright, your stuff is better than mine, or your idea is better, let’s go with that.” It’s hard. Your ego takes a hit. You are attached to some idea that you have been working on, and you have to just throw it in the fire and go ‘oh well, that didn’t work, let’s go for something that is more communal.’ That was how it worked. There’s bits in the album where I should have reined in. I listen in and think I should have reined something in, but you have to be accommodating as well. Also, again, to look at things through a different filter and ask if it’s the best thing for the song. Is this section good or is it going on too long? It’s good working with others, but it’s quite challenging.

Dead Rhetoric: I can imagine. At one point it’s like, this is mine. Now it’s everyone’s!

Highfield: It is, but I was pretty open with everyone from the start. It was a one person project initially because I didn’t want to have a band. I was a little traumatized. It was hard working with other people when I was much younger. It was all ego-driven back then. Working with people who weren’t reliable, I just didn’t want to deal with that anymore. I wanted to just do my thing. But the understanding in the band is that I am a bit of a benevolent dictator. As long as they know that [laughs], then we are all good. I have a lot of the responsibilities of running the band, so I get to make a lot of decisions. I consult with them, but it’s up to me. I need to move things along or delay them, but just being democratic, there is still that initial thing where I am still taking it in what I think is the best direction.

Dead Rhetoric: How else do you feel Suldusk has evolved since 2019’s Lunar Falls?

Highfield: I think soundwise, its a bit deeper into the atmospheric black metal side, where I get to really get into the blast beat action and I’m able to incorporate more tremolo picking and heavier sounds and rhythms. It delves deeper into the more extreme sounds. It also delves deeper into the more intricate stuff because Josh Taylor is such a gifted, classically trained guitarist. He just comes up with these progressions that to me, references Opeth. I’m not being very humble here, but it is very much a big inspiration. People that like that side of Opeth, Josh’s playing brings that out a little bit. I think that in some respects, its elevated the music by being able to work with other musicians that are in the band. Not just session musicians like with the first album. It’s a big personal investment in the project and a big expression in being able to incorporate that has elevated it overall.

Also, I think it’s changed because we have a bigger label. We have a bit more reach. I didn’t have to do a lot of the legwork and I’m don’t have to do a lot of the organizing of PR stuff. It’s an integral part of music and it’s important. It’s not something that I have to stay on top of now. They are really good at project managing, so far so good!

Dead Rhetoric: You jumped over to Napalm Records for this album, which seems a big deal for a band of your sound. What was it that made it the best fit for you?

Highfield: There’s a few projects on Napalm, like Katatonia, that for Shane, got him into music. To be on the same label is Katatonia, he was like, “What the F?” What an opportunity. Also, because they were willing to back the project. They showed real interest. I was a little skeptical and a lot of people think, ‘Suldusk, you were my little underground band!’ and they are overprotective. Signing to Napalm, which some view as this massive corporation, they were calling us ‘sellouts.’ I remember Sebastian, the A&R guy, said that to us and to be ready for it. I said that I don’t think of it as selling out when I can connect with more people through the music. It allows us to travel and tour. Being attached to a bigger label has those resources that the smaller, underground labels don’t.

There’s this credibility to being unknown. I don’t get that. I think with music, and having said that, I started out on Soundcloud and some of my favorite artists are these raw, black metal artists who just write for themselves. They don’t give a damn about exposure or anything. I would just listen to this stuff and be moved…and the production is crap! But it’s all passion! I love what these people are doing. They are all one-person projects, and that’s what inspired me to just keep going. I’m writing for myself. I love what those bands do, because it’s pure, so I get what people are saying when they conceive it as a sellout, but if it allows the music to be heard and people to connect with it on a greater level I’m okay with being called a sellout.

Dead Rhetoric: I personally don’t grasp the whole idea of ‘sellout’ in metal, because it’s not like you are going to be the next Taylor Swift or anything.

Highfield: [Laughs] Oh god forbid! We just had her over here. That’s a massive business there, and kudos…congrats really. These people are creating an atmosphere – metal will never be at that level. There are bands that are huge, massive, and legendary, but metal will, especially in Australia, it’s not the overriding genre of popularity.

Dead Rhetoric: Suldusk has an intimate, inviting sound despite its melancholy. Is this a deliberate dynamic you try to achieve?

Highfield: Yes, definitely. For me, when you get into music, the most special moments are when I am the only one listening to it; I’m the only one with the artist. I’m having my own personal experience. Being able to feel or evoke something that is indescribable, I’m trying to use words but it’s an experience. I think that the best music has done that for me. I don’t consciously bring someone in, I’m not trying to do that. It’s just something that’s in me because I love it so much. That’s why I got into music – to create that connection. Music was my safe place. I want to invoke that as well. If that’s something that you picked up, then thank you for picking that up, because I would love to be able to offer. That’s one part of the experience for sure.

Dead Rhetoric: There’s always genre labeling. Something that Suldusk really avoids classification in. Do you feel these sorts of things help or hinder you in the process?

Highfield: I have a love/hate relationship with this and it all started with the hashtag stuff. I came to the conclusion that if I don’t label it then someone else is going to. So I’m being preemptive, and I try to think about what I’m inspired by. I’m inspired by blackgaze, which is atmospheric black metal mixed with post-metal mixed with dark folk. I have to provide some references. The label went with ‘for fans of Myrkur and Chelsea Wolfe’ and there was another female artist they referenced, and I’m kind of going ‘ehh.’ I love all those albums, and I have big respect for all of them.

But it’s more varied than that for me, I mean really my biggest inspiration is Agalloch. They have disbanded now, but a while ago they got back together, which is amazing! They got together for a festival in the summer last year and I’m like, I hope it worked! When I have been writing stuff for myself, I’m like, “who wants to hear this gloomy shit?” Obviously people have responded to it, then when I heard Agalloch and The Mantle, I knew that was my jam. That was my sweet spot. I wanted more of this – I wanted to write my version of this. That’s why Lunar Falls came out. It was basically Agalloch and Opeth – those two are my favorite kind of influences…and Black Sabbath, which is to me one of those stadium bands, even though Ozzy is getting old, he’s incredible! He was so ahead of his time and those compositions stand up now still.

Dead Rhetoric: You already mentioned the influence of the super raw black metal bands earlier. Black metal has always been a very malleable genre, and you can find some roots in it with Suldusk. Do you agree with that statement?

Highfield: I think so, and that’s where Myrkur was so fantastic. She did the raw black metal stuff and then took it in a direction that’s authentic to her. I know she got a lot of hate for doing that, becuase true/kvlt black metal-ists want it to be misanthropic. I understand that – my heart is black, for a variety of reasons. I identify very strongly with that expression point of black metal, much as I don’t want to [laughs]. I’m just a betrayed idealist really, and that’s what I think black metal is to me. It’s very much that humanity could be [good], but it’s not. It’s about consumption, it’s about destruction.

That’s why for me, as an artform, metal is such an influence. There is this despair that comes in the music, which is pretty much my version of being able to express that frustration…why do people go against being compassionate, why do they go into this drone mentality when they have capacity to do better and do more. That’s very much inspired by doing their own thing. So I thrash out a tune about some sort of hate release. It’s cathartic, and there’s real value in being able to do that. If they can do that in a musical way, then they aren’t passing it on and creating that chain of misery in real life to other people.

Dead Rhetoric: Everyone has their own taste and style, and you have to find what works for you.

Highfield: Exactly, and being honest about it. I think there is room for connection, whereas trying to manufacture something that you think other people might like. If it’s not true, than I can’t connect with it. It’s not coming from a real place, then it’s hard to connect with. Brutality is sometimes a very important expression. I read a study that people that listen to metal are more psychologically happier. People that swear too! I don’t know where the study is but yeah.

Dead Rhetoric: What plans do you have for this year?

Highfield: We are looking at booking a European tour, and Napalm has been great in all of that. Just getting the album out and touring for the album and we have nearly finished the next album. We keep writing, I think we have like two more tracks and we are done. It won’t be such a long time between albums. 2019 to 2024 – there was a lot of stuff in the middle there for everyone. But reemerging is so great! But yeah, we are trying to get things going, so there’s lots on the horizon.

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