Svalbard – Lifting the MaskTuesday, 17th October 2023
Known for their socio-politically charged lyrics in their particular version of post-metal, Svalbard is taking things a bit more personally with their latest album, The Weight of the Mask. An album that looks inwards to struggling with depression, and living through it every day. It’s an utterly bleak and raw album, yet it still manages to uplift with some impressive and uplifting instrumentation. We spoke to guitarist Serena Cherry to get her thoughts on the shifted lyrical content and what it means to her, the equally beautiful/moving video for “How to Swim Down,” a comparison of her work as a gaming writer to music, and even some talk about anime and conventions.
Dead Rhetoric: How does The Weight of the Mask compare to your previous material?
Serena Cherry: I feel like with The Weight of the Mask, a lot of the contrast has been upped. Like in Photoshop when you put the contrast up to 100%. I feel like that’s how it is with this album, compared to our previous releases. I think it’s less subtle. The heavy songs are heavier and more direct, and the soft songs are even more atmospheric and soft. It’s the first time we have released a song with no screamed vocals on it, with “How to Swim Down.” This album also sees the introduction of violin as well on that song.
I felt like we really pushed ourselves as players in terms of going out of our comfort zone with the guitar parts that we were writing. Lyrically, a huge difference on this album is that there’s no socio-political lyrics, which is what I wrote about for quite a few songs – those sociological or political issues. The Weight of the Mask is very inward looking.
Dead Rhetoric: I can read between the lines a bit, but could you spell out the meaning of the album title, The Weight of the Mask, in how it relates to the material of the album?
Cherry: The Weight of the Mask is all about the pressure to mask how you are really feeling when you are struggling with depression and the kind of intolerance you can be met with, when you are battling with your mental health. Phrases like, “Don’t be a downer,” or that sort of thing, it makes you feel like you have to pretend to be fine, just to be included or to be able to be around people. But that becomes exhausting. Masking how you are really feeling is a very draining experience, and it creates this disconnect between you and everyone else. You are so busy presenting what it is that you think they want to see that your mask becomes a barrier and it traps you behind it.
Basically, I think The Weight of The Mask is about that scene in The Simpsons where Marg tells Lisa to push her smile down into the bottom of her shoes and just to pretend everything is fine. That’s kind of the pressure we are talking about – to act happy.
Dead Rhetoric: There’s a genuine rawness to the album, at least from my standpoint. Could you dive into that in terms of the importance of destigmatizing mental health?
Cherry: I think raw honesty is really important when talking about mental illness. We talk about the positive side of mental health, we talk about going to the gym and looking after yourself…and talking with your friends. But in society, there is definitely a different attitude in talking about the reality of mental illness. That’s really what I wanted to capture with my lyrics – what it’s like to live with depression and what it’s like to live with anxiety. I wanted those lyrics to have that unflinching, raw honesty to them because that’s what helps me when I am in the darkest times of despair. I can read other lyrics that are in just as dark a place as I am. That makes me feel less alone. That’s the thing that’s really important. To strike that resonance with any listener.
I want this album to make people who are going through a bad time feel like we are there for them in some kind of way. I think it’s very deliberate and pointed as they [the lyrics] are. And as obvious as they are! I want everyone to be able to read them and know exactly what I am talking about. There’s no poetry or shrouding the meaning of the words in symbology. It can be so powerful to tell it like it is, when it comes to talking about depression and anxiety.
Dead Rhetoric: On the other hand, what’s the toughest part about writing lyrics like these? I know there is some catharsis on the positive end, but it has to be really tough to toss those feelings out there, in a very raw way. It’s not run through any metaphors, it’s just out there.
Cherry: Writing lyrics that are this open and brutally honest about my own personal experiences definitely makes me feel vulnerable, in a lot of ways. Anyone can read the lyrics to The Weight of the Mask and it’s like they read my diary from the last two years. It provides a very intimate look at some of my darkest thoughts. It’s scary. It’s scary for people to be able to so plainly see things that you have been suffering with.
Also, if you write a song about a negative experience, there is transformative power in it, in the sense of taking something from that hell that you are going through, and have turned it into a song that other people can enjoy. So that feels like growth, but at the same time, that song then serves as a reminder of that negative experience. You have to perform that song every night on tour and it’s almost like reliving a trauma every time you do.
Dead Rhetoric: That’s a brutal way of putting it. I know I’ve had conversations with musicians about putting something personal into their music and then having to go out and play it every night, but there is that aspect that you are bringing yourself back to it and if you are not comfortable with it, it can be a very slippery slope.
Cherry: Definitely. It can make you feel quite fragile I think.
Dead Rhetoric: So you have these bleak, lyrical pieces and these absolutely gorgeous pieces of instrumentation behind them. Can you talk about the opposing nature of the music and the lyrics?
Cherry: Again, it’s very deliberate. I always think of Svalbard lyrics as the tunnel at the end of the light, and our music is the light at the end of the tunnel. It has to do with that contrast on the whole of the album, of having lyrics that are kind of full of despair, and then having music that sounds hopeful. All of my guitar leads, because playing guitar is where I feel the most free, it’s the one time in my life where I’m not feeling out of place. I’m not feeling awkward or feeling socially anxious. I think you can hear that – my love of playing guitar can be heard in the leads that I write because the leads I write are quite joyful, melodic, and hopeful/uplifting. That’s where that comes from.
I think lyrically, the album is about gazing inward and dealing with depression, but it’s also about fighting and living with it – summoning the strength and even acknowledging that you have some of the strength and to be proud of that. It’s weird. It’s all about depression but it’s never wallowing. I think that the guitar leads really compliment that. They accentuate the fight, and my desire to not give in to darker thoughts.
Dead Rhetoric: I wanted to talk specifically about the video for “How to Swim Down.” It was beautiful, but very tough to watch. Could you go into how the concept for the video came to be in relation to the song?
Cherry: I’ve only watched that video once, and I don’t think I could watch it again because it made me cry so hard [laughs]. It is a very emotionally weighty video. We always wanted to do an animated video, but we were really selective about the song we would pick. I feel the song has to have the right kind of journey and narrative to it. The majority of our other songs didn’t have that same atmosphere. When we wrote “How to Swim Down,” we knew that it would be it. The song that gets the animated video. I was personally super excited because I am very into animation. I’m into Japanese anime and Western animation, Disney, Dreamworks – I’m a big animation nerd [laughs]! I was really excited for the opportunity to work with an animator.
I storyboarded the video, with the general idea of the beats we wanted to hit, and sent it over to the animator and gave him a few examples of music videos that had that same kind of sorrowful feeling. They were videos that weren’t even metal. There’s a folk band called The Unthanks, and they have a music video that has a similar, heartbreaking vibe to it. Some of Steve Wilson’s animated videos have that real emotional heaviness too. Those were the examples I sent to the animator. I said it doesn’t matter how it looks, so much as how it feels. The animator, whose name is Boy Tillekens, did a fantastic job. We are so proud of it, even though I can’t watch it [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: I felt the same way after watching it. It was amazing, but I don’t know if I want to subject myself to it again, which is a huge compliment to the song and video in that it can illicit such a reaction.
Cherry: Definitely! It was amazing to see the reactions to that video, to be honest.
Dead Rhetoric: You write for PC Gamer and GamesRadar, outside of the band. Do you feel that has affected the way that you view content written about the band?
Cherry: That’s a really interesting question, because before I wrote for PC Gamer and Gamesradar, I used to write for music magazines. There’s a magazine in the UK called Terrorizer, and I was a staff writer there for a while. I wrote for Metal Hammer and a few other places until it reached a place where Svalbard was prominent enough for it to be a conflict of interest for me to write for music magazines. That was why I don’t do that anymore.
As someone who has written about music, to read what people have written about you, it’s interesting. But also, the games industry is so, so different from the music industry. It’s really interesting to see how we would construct a story on PC Gamer or Gamesradar compared to how people write about music, even though they are both really creative industries. The differences are huge in terms of how they are written. So I think it’s always going to be hard to see stuff that is written about you. It’s just a weird feeling [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned something I think is interesting. You talked about how it’s different to set up a story in writing for the gaming industry. How does that type of writing differ than say, writing lyrics?
Cherry: Writing about games, it’s similar to guitar. It’s one of my happy, safe spaces where I just feel free to really let my passion shine through for gaming. It’s so stimulating. I love when I am absorbed in writing for a game or creating social content for the brands. It’s super rewarding, and I feel quite empowered in the position that I’m in. Whereas writing lyrics, it’s almost like tearing yourself apart and sort of exposing all of the rawness. It’s quite a harrowing process at times. Most often when I write lyrics and when I record them, I end up crying. In some ways it’s cathartic; I think there must be a reason why I keep doing it, but at the same time, it comes with a pain that my day job absolutely does not have [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: What do you get from being creative – be it music, video games, watching animation, etc?
Cherry: Being immersed in the creative process is the most magical feeling for me. I get so tunnel-visioned in it. If I’m writing music, I’m not thinking about anything else. I liken it to being possessed, because it is like there is an otherworld voice telling you what to do, like what note to go to next. When I am writing about something I love, starting with a blank word document and then seeing it pour out and seeing it take shape – then going back through and editing/refining it, it’s a really comforting experience for me.
With the band, when we write music together, I like that synergy. It’s my favorite part. Many people in bands say that touring and playing live is their favorite part, but mine is actually writing music together. I love being in a room with my three friends, just playing our instruments loudly and having that synergy and playfulness with each other’s ideas. I think the creative process is the most magical thing in the world.
Dead Rhetoric: I was looking at the interview you had done with Decibel recently that was all about video games and all that side of you. One piece that really hit home with me was when you mentioned going to conventions – there’s a lot of stimulation around at all times, but feeling comfortable in that space, even when you don’t feel that way in a metal show. So what is it about going to a convention that makes it feel more comfortable to you? I can tell you from my own experience that I feel the same way when I go to anime conventions!
Cherry: That’s amazing to hear! Going to a con for me, there’s so much diversity there. It feels like such a welcoming place. It feels like a place where I don’t have to hide certain aspects of myself. It feels very liberating. Every time I get into conversations and meet people – that’s the other thing – I’m really very socially awkward in real life. But at cons, I find myself talking to people! I wouldn’t find myself talking to people at a metal show the way I strike up a conversation with people at cons. There’s just a really LGBTQIA-friendly atmosphere at all of the cons that I have been to, which I think is super important. I feel very at home there, and I have met a lot of people there who feel very similar to me, which makes me feel more relaxed and confident.
Dead Rhetoric: You had mentioned anime, so what are a few of your favorites?
Cherry: I am a Shonen Jump girl: Hunter x Hunter, One Piece, Dragonball Z…especially, weirdly, Dragonball Super, 7 Deadly Sins. My main two are definitely One Piece and Hunter x Hunter.
Dead Rhetoric: This year is reaching its end, what are your plans for next year?
Cherry: We are in the process of getting things locked down for next year. We have some exciting tours to be announced. We are also hoping to get out and play in some countries that we haven’t played in before! All things permitting that is, so hopefully we will be performing live in some new places next year. If we can afford the visas [laughs].