Three albums in, Norwegian skylark Sylvaine is hitting her proverbial stride. New album, Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone, her second for Season of Mist is a true wonder of dreamy nostalgia, fiery frustration, and mythical wonder. It’s an album that triggers the innocence of our childhood and the existential aspects of our adult life. Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone is an album of opposites and in-between. Sylvaine is ostensibly a solo artist, performing all instruments herself, but on Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone she’s brought on Alcest’s Stéphane “Neige” Paut and Stephen Shepard to assist in the drum department. Elsewhere on Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone, it’s all — from vocals, guitars, and lyrics — the Oslo-based songstress. Read on as Sylvaine expands upon her vision for her music and her new album. And certainly check out the full album stream of Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone after the interview.
Sylvaine: I always leave it up to the listeners of my music to decide what they think about this genre question. I’m not really a fan of labeling music in general, as I always felt it was against the purpose to try to make something so subjective and abstract fit into set guidelines. That seems to be more beneficial to people selling music than anything else. The main point of listening to music is to have an experience, to truly feel something, making the genre label rather uninteresting. Besides, now a days all the so called genres are mixing and morphing together anyway. That’s something I find very interesting about today’s music scene actually, that the boarders are being pushed further and seem increasingly blurred. Everything draws inspiration from everything, resulting in art that consist of “old” elements, but combined in a way that creates something new. In an era where pretty much everything has been done before, that is one of the things that keeps it interesting.
Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone is your third album. What’s different about the approach to your third? I think there’s more confidence in the approach, in the atmospheres you’re generating.
Sylvaine: The whole process of creating this album was riddled by crippling self-doubt and a lot of wonder from my side, but I did have a very precise vision of what I wanted for Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone, something that resulted in a more mature expression overall. The album is more diverse than my second album Wistful, yet more focused than both the previous albums, and the attention to detail in the production process, was higher for this record. I really wanted to make Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone an album full of opposing forces, to push the balance between the light and the dark further. Making the ambient, more atmospheric parts even more ethereal, yet keeping the darker, more harsh parts even more edgy and severe. The duality between the beautiful and the heavy or harsh always fascinated me in music, and I think all of my albums have been a quest to find the most interesting relationship between those opposing forces.
You also perform much of the instruments. What’s that like from a creation standpoint? Guitars, vocals, drums, and keyboards are all very different instruments with different requirements.
Sylvaine: When creating Sylvaine back in 2013, I knew I wanted to try and write everything myself and later record all the instruments myself, to keep the expression and the emotions as true as possible. By taking on each instrument, I put the most personal touch on each part, making for something that is 100% me in the end. No compromise, no outer interference, just purely the artistic vision I had in mind for Sylvaine. I decided to bring in my father Stephen Shepard and my dearest friend Stéphane Paut (from Alcest) on drums, as I realized my drumming skills were not enough to express what I felt the music needed. Even if keeping the personal touch was super important to me, I was not about to sacrifice the quality of the recordings just to play all the instruments on my own. I know my limits. On another side, it’s also super interesting to work with all the different instruments and their different characters, as you already mentioned. I think it’s super important for musicians to immerse themselves in a couple of different instruments, to better understand the role each one has in a band setting. It makes for an approach to song writing that seems more musical, by focusing on the whole picture, the sum of all elements working together, rather than just giving the main role to one of them and making these parts always be up front. At least that is how I like to see things in Sylvaine.
There’s a sentimental quality to Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone. Is this intended or merely the byproduct of my listening experience?
Sylvaine: Absolutely. My music is purely sentimental, driven only by strong emotions. For me, that’s the ultimate purpose of music anyway, to transmit genuine emotion. Seeing as making music functions as a therapeutic catharsis for me, like for most artists, music always comes out as a result of wonders and struggles from within, things I can’t really express with words alone. Since I use music to deal with the more difficult sides of life, it tends to come out in a rather melancholy and somber fashion. Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone is a record filled with a lot of darker moments to me. You’ll find a light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s still a grave character to the record. Probably due to the duality between my inner struggles and the outer, social struggles I couldn’t help but be inspired by this time around.
What are some of the things informing your music at this stage? Besides music, actually.
Sylvaine: There are a lot of things that influence my creative work, that I find inspiring and that both directly and indirectly influence my creative process. Most of it comes from very introspective emotions, spiritual conflict and existential wonder. Inspiration can also come from almost anything; a specific feeling, a specific place, other art, other music, a person, a book, a movie, society, a sentence, poetry, buildings, a game, a situation, a concert, an art exhibition….. I like to stay as attentive as possible while on this planet, really taking in all the small details of everyday life. Next to my inner divergences, I would say my main source of inspiration has probably been nature. I have spent a lot of hours in the woods just next to my house in Oslo. That became a sort of safe haven to me, where I could go to reconnect with my true self and ponder.
Is there anything intrinsically Norwegian about your music? Hidden folk melodies or homages to painters, or musicalization of landscape, or culture like Jante Law?
Sylvaine: Nothing conscious, other than drawing inspiration from nature, as mentioned above. In some tracks I can really feel this Nordic coldness if I can call it that, but that’s something that has occurred naturally. The only track I have made that I really feel was directly inspired by Norway and the Nordic vibe is “Mørklagt”. Here I deliberately wanted to make an homage to my home country, to bring in this icy, vast feeling that the Norwegian landscapes can inspire and also tip my hat to the great Norwegian black metal scene as well. This direction might be something I will explore further in my next records.
Is there anything you want people to understand on Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone? A message or a life lesson or merely the encounter?
Sylvaine: As Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone actually drew some inspiration from the outer world for once, as opposed to my usual audio diary/purely introvert approach, there’s definitely a certain critique of how our human society is working these days, or rather not working. It’s perhaps a cry for help, in the sense of asking people to open their eyes and take in reality as it currently stands. We keep repeating all of our mistakes, like moths drawn to a flame. Even if it might be too late already, if we don’t start taking responsibility for everything we have brought upon this planet, and all our fellow humans, things look incredibly bleak for our future. Even if I absolutely don’t consider Sylvaine to be a project taking any kind of political stance or being socially commentative, as this wasn’t my intentions with Sylvaine, Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone still holds a bit of outer influence, conveying a plead for people to stop all the destruction, in every sense of the word. Don’t get me wrong; I am also a part of the problems here, but I merely ask people to really look at what is happening and perhaps prioritize differently in their future. The severance found in this social observation is linked directly to the most important subject matter of the album; the feeling of being trapped while in our human form, always longing for something, without knowing what or why. The depiction of our pure origins being tainted by our human form and our society’s rules, is in fact a parallel to the problems I find in society today.
How did Jack Shirley get involved as the mastering engineer? He’s done a lot of mastering work for bands that are normally a wall of sound.
Sylvaine: During the mix of Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone, the recording and mixing engineer, Benoît Roux of Drudenhaus Studio in France, and I decided that we wanted to work with someone that had a bit of experience working on music that was directly linked to mine in terms of sound. The two previous albums had a bit more of a softer touch to the production, making the mastering by Ray Staff at Air Mastering a great match. Since my third album was rougher and more edgy, Benoît and I figured we wanted to work with someone that had a bit more of a modern touch for the mastering. I have known about Jack and his work for quite some time already and really liked a lot of records he previously worked on, so we both figured it could be the perfect match for my new album. One day I just got in touch with him and he was very interested in being a part of it all. He was a real pleasure to work with, and did an excellent job on this album. Jack did exactly what was needed from the master, so I feel very lucky to have worked with him!
What’s next for Sylvaine?
Sylvaine: We have a couple of shows coming up for the release of the album in November, amongst other a release show with Emma Ruth Rundle in Paris on the release day. Can’t wait to share the stage with such an amazing artist. Then next year the plan is to embark on a European tour during spring, before doing a couple of summer festivals. I’m also currently working on an EP that is a bit more stripped than my usual music for Sylvaine, just to keep things fresh and inspiring. Not sure what will be done with this EP, but it’s been fun to work on either way. I also have several ideas for the 4th record, and can’t wait to start the proper work on that soon as well.