Sylvaine – On Nature and DualitySunday, 28th April 2019
Sylvaine, the one-woman project of Kathrine Shepard, has been making leaps and bounds with each successive release. Her most recent release, 2018’s Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone continues to expand what she has been doing since the beginning – crafting music that is soft and enchanting in tone, though still with a sharper and heavier contrast. It’s post-black in tone at times, but never succumbs to being one-note. Instead different influences allow the music to stretch into new territories, some of which feel nothing less than ethereal. Shepard gave us a few minutes of her time recently one morning, to discuss everything from music to spirituality and beyond.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel that Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone compares to your previous works?
Kathrine Shepard: I think it’s kind of a natural progression from Wistful. Wistful was also a progression from Silent Chamber, Noisy Heart. I’m getting further and further into the sound that I was creating for Sylvaine when I started the project. So with Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone, I’m happy to say in hindsight that it came out pretty much the way I wanted it to. I feels a bit more mature, which I hope I can say without being too pretentious, but it’s a step up from Wistful in a way but it has the same universe – the same duality between sounds in the music and the same meaning behind it all.
Dead Rhetoric: With three albums in, do you feel more initially confident in what you do when you sit down and start writing – knowing there’s an audience for it?
Shepard: Absolutely not [laughs]! It’s the other way around. After Wistful, I was so amazed by how kind people were and the feedback I got. I wasn’t expecting it. I was really happy and humbled by the whole thing. So when it became time to write Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone, I think I might have been afraid to let people down in a way. It sounds pretty stupid because in the end I’m doing this to express something for myself, but yeah – when I sat down to write the record, it was extremely difficult. I struggled a lot. I remember having several down periods of depression when I felt that anything I did was absolute shit. So I don’t really think [having an audience] made a difference in that way. I’m so happy that people are there and have been supportive of the albums so far, but I think it actually made me more neurotic [laughs] than usual.
Dead Rhetoric: Could you discuss the artwork and the details that are inside of it? It seems like there’s a lot you can analyze and get some meaning from.
Shepard: It’s an illustration made by two very good friends of mine in Paris, an illustration duo called Førtifem. I knew right away that I wanted to work with them for this album. They designed a t-shirt for a previous record, and I knew right away when I had the songs for this album that it needed something more graphic but still very vast and quite somber-looking. I have this clear memory of walking through the woods and listening to the title track and just picturing a winter landscape and this character fighting his way through slowly and becoming one with the snow. I kind of felt that I would like to have something monochrome and severe or strict in a way.
I was shown this painting by Caspar David Friedrich called The Sea of Ice, and it depicts a landscape with a body of water with huge shards sticking out of it. I thought it was extremely interesting. I really liked the different textures of the picture and the meaning of it. But I didn’t feel a connection to the winter landscape, which I know is ironic since I’m Norwegian and all, so I decided on using crystals. It has the same effect as ice – it looks super beautiful and ethereal and vast, but at the same time its sharp, pointy, and harsh. It became a cool depiction of what I thought the music held. When talking to Førtifem, they really liked the idea and were really inspired by that so we decided to try to make an illustration based on this crystal structure in this winter-ish landscape with this human figure in the middle. I felt the music had this bleak feeling to it, and it’s more harsh, so I wanted the music to depict that.
Dead Rhetoric: How important is the dualism between beauty and extremity in the music?
Shepard: I kind of feel that’s what my sound is built on. If you take that away, you will have the melodies, but that’s what I wanted to build my sound on. That’s what attracted me and inspired me when creating music. I think in the end, life is full of dualities – femininity/masculinity, nature/urbanity, and I found that to use it in music too. I also think it’s interesting because it mixes a lot of different impulses from a number of different genres. It makes it more alive to me. So it’s a vital part of my sound, and it has been for all of my previous records. I have a feeling it will continue that way, at least for the next one. It sounds like it is going in that direction as well.
Dead Rhetoric: Likewise, emotions are always on display in the band – do you feel this is an open format for you to deal with things in your life?
Shepard: I always say that Sylvaine is like my audio diary. It’s basically a way for me to process things that I just find difficult to deal with in any other way. It’s the same for many other artists – using that as an outlet for things they can’t get into in any other way. Sylvaine is purely just my emotions and based on my conflicts and wonders that I am processing while writing music. For me, music is all about emotion and I’ve said it in many interview so I know I keep repeating it [laughs], so when I made Sylvaine it was going to be driven by that. Technically, I’m not the best guitar player or the best songwriter, but I try to be as true as possible in expressing whatever I feel I need to express. That is what I think makes the band work.
Dead Rhetoric: Especially with this sort of music, people are pretty good about having an ear for things that sound genuine. It’s not always about presenting the best songwriting or what have you, it’s more about it feeling truthful.
Shepard: In the end, just expressing something that is pure instead of doing something because it will make you more popular or because people like/dislike it – it’s hard not to be influenced by those things but try to just be true to yourself and stay in that space. Whether it’s your bedroom or house, be an introvert and just use that art as a way to deal with your personal problems, well maybe not problems [laughs], depending on what music you are making.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel that Sylvaine allows you to do, creatively?
Shepard: Because it has had a lot of different kinds of impulses and inspirational sources from the very beginning, I feel it allows me to explore several different territories in sound landscapes. It’s never really been defined 100%, genre-wise. I can venture into more heavy stuff or completely ambient stuff if I want. I feel it’s quite open. As a listener of music, I’m quite open when it comes to genres and stuff like that. I think it’s cool that my project can reflect that as well. You can find little pieces of different things in it. I guess it allows me to explore a lot of stuff, learn about myself, it allows me to vent, and allows me to deal with things. I think without this project, I would be much less of a productive human, because I wouldn’t have an outlet for all of this.
Dead Rhetoric: As the only composer, do you feel that it gives the music the ability to be without compromise? What are some of the problems you face at the same time?
Shepard: That’s why I wanted to keep the band as a solo project because I when I first wanted to put in my most personal emotions that I hadn’t spoken to anyone about – I kept it to myself. I decided that I really didn’t want to have to change things, or alter the way they would be said or communicated to an audience because there was another person trying to put their personal stuff into the project. I know that makes it sound like I am a control freak, which is totally true [laughs]. But I think, in the end, it’s been so liberating for me to express exactly what I wanted and needed to at any moment. Of course, that being said, it can be a heavy burden to bear on your shoulders to be the only one. If something is wrong or criticized, or something bad happens in relation to the project, it will always be your fault. You are the only one in the band. Some days, you can really feel it weighing heavily and you are like, “Jesus! What the hell?” But most of the time, at least for me so far – being only three albums in – I’ve felt it as something really, really positive.
Dead Rhetoric: Even though you are the songwriter, you assembled a live band – what type of a process did that entail?
Shepard: In general, I think it’s hard to find members for an already existing project. It’s even more difficult to find more musicians for a project when you aren’t offering them any creative freedom. I myself often think about that and think it may not be the most attractive offer you could ever get. But I have been collecting people through friends or people that I knew. It was a long process. Who knows – maybe the three guys that I have on stage now, I really love them. They’ve done a great job of bringing my music to life on stage for people. But who knows if they will stay around forever because the offer isn’t the most attractive.
But yeah, after I got them together we tried to play together like a normal band – we jammed and played the songs and saw how it felt. It clicked with these three guys. Obviously, when I am handing over my parts to three other people, they are going to bring a different version of those parts to the plate, which is actually quite cool. It makes the live setting a different beast than the records. I always liked live shows when the songs aren’t identical. It’s kind of pointless if the live shows aren’t a little bit different or bring you something new.
Dead Rhetoric: I read an interview where you discussed working on some acoustic material – do you feel that’s a natural stepping point for what you have been doing?
Shepard: I’m not sure if you would say it’s a natural thing, but for me it is natural because I consider my main instrument to be my voice. It’s what I have been working on the longest and I’m always defaulting back to it, because it’s a natural way for me to express myself. I felt like on the previous records, it wasn’t really the place to use it as much as I have in the past with other things. So I really wanted to make an EP that was more based on the vocal aspects.
It’s funny in the end. I made a full EP, and then I ended up making two of the songs that were acoustic into normal Sylvaine tracks. I kept layering – I’ve realized that’s my thing [laughs]. I just can’t stop myself. So they will be on the next album, and I have two other tracks that are semi-acoustic. They are as acoustic as I can get I guess [laughs]. I’m going to do a split EP with those tracks in the future – more information will be out about that quite soon. It’s been fun to work in a little bit of a different manner, but in the end I seem to default back into something I feel is “me.”
Dead Rhetoric: So we talked about the duality piece already, but what do you think defines Sylvaine then?
Shepard: I guess opposing forces defines what I am doing, more or less. I think there’s an ethereal and spiritual side to the band too. Part of the reason I created the project was based on existential wonders and things like that. I guess if I had to define what I think the band is about, it’s opposing forces, trying to mix different impressions from wildly different [musical] places, and expressing spirituality, in a way.
Dead Rhetoric: You were talking about how you were wandering through the woods listening to your demos before. Is this part of your creative process?
Shepard: It is one of my favorite things to do – I’ve done it for every album, and demo even. I’ll always take them out and have a nice long walk in the woods. I like to do it in the place behind my house. It’s where I grew up and it’s been my safe haven. I always like to go there and take a long hike and listen to the songs a few different times. That usually puts things into perspective. If there was something I was doubting, I get some sort of answer at some point about what I need to do. It also quickly tells me if things are good enough or not, to me at least. It’s an important part of the process when I look back on it. It’s very simple – you are in a different setting. You have all of the sounds of the forest mixed in with the demos. It brings a different perspective that I find very useful in my creative process.
Dead Rhetoric: I’ve seen this come up in several interviews with you in the past, but what are the restrictions of the human body that you have discussed?
Shepard: When I’m talking about spiritualism and existential wonders, this is usually what I’m referring to. As I have been working with this project, I’ve realized that this is what I’ve created the band around. In the beginning, I was trying to find out why I have this sense of longing and feeling of not belonging here. Please don’t take that in a pretentious way, I don’t really mean to sound like, “Oh, I’m so special” [laughs]. But I have always had the feeling like something is off. I think through my first record, as I was writing I began to realize that it was related to something that was before this.
I always believed that the soul is a separate entity. The soul is driving the human body, which is a vessel for us to explore this world – for us to learn and gain knowledge from before we go back to where we came from. I think that some of us, probably a lot of us out there have this longing because they feel detached from what they really are. Their original being, which is way beyond our dimensions and senses. When I say that I feel restricted by the human form, it’s exactly that – we don’t have the tools here to reach this plain that we are all from in a way. It’s so awkward to talk about, because it’s a really weird thing. That’s why I like to put it into music instead of words [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: Lastly, what’s next for Sylvaine in 2019?
Shepard: We have a couple of shows, and we are working on a European tour for the end of the year. We are working on the EP as I told you about, which will probably be released at the end of this year – that’s the plan but more announcements will be made shortly. We are also working on the next record – those two songs that were supposed to be on the EP have been converted into songs for the next record. They felt like they belonged there, so I’m working on those as well. I have a lot of other ideas for that album. I feel like it’s going to take longer for the next record, but I already have two songs and ideas to work on. Since we aren’t doing as many shows this summer, I am trying to focus my energy into the creative process and making new stuff.
Dead Rhetoric: I’m guessing that getting you over to play in the US would be more of a problem, but are you open to something more like a 1-off festival type thing?
Shepard: Absolutely – I’m waiting for the moment and opportunity to arise. I’m being asked this almost every other day. I would really love to do that, and since I was born in California, for me at least, it would be easy to come over. So I’m hoping it will be sooner than later.