The key reaction that we get is that we often receive a lot of fans and people saying how our lyrics have really connected with them and helped them through a tough time or made them feel less alone. . . When we hear people say, "This song really meant a lot to me and it made me feel less alone," then that's a sign that we're doing things right in my eyes.
After a stunning show at ArcTanGent 2023, Svalbard‘s Serena Cherry sat down with Jody Dunstan to discuss the fans’ reaction to their music, their creative process and what to expect from their upcoming album.
E&D: So, Svalbard’s music deals with some quite heavy issues, some of which can be quite taboo. What sort of reactions do you get from your music?
Serena: It’s interesting. I’d say the key reaction that we get is that we often receive a lot of fans and people saying how our lyrics have really connected with them and helped them through a tough time or made them feel less alone. They’ve identified with a particular experience I’m describing in the lyrics and how it has resonated with them. So that’s one of the most important things to me – using music as a form of communication. When we hear people say, “This song really meant a lot to me and it made me feel less alone,” then that’s a sign that we’re doing things right in my eyes. I mean, you’re always going to upset a few people if you’re outspoken and political!
E&D: It’s good that you get such a positive reaction. Do you find it somewhat exposing to talk about those things, or is it something that you’ve now moved past?
Serena: It’s so… I mean, the way I’ve described it is that anyone who reads the lyrics to our third album, When I Die, Will I Get Better or our upcoming album The Weight of the Mask they’re basically reading my diary, right? So anyone who reads my lyrics knows me in a very intimate way and knows some of the harrowing experiences I’ve gone through in the last four or five years. So it does feel very strange to release something into the wild, into the public sphere that’s so personal and cuts so deep. After we did When I Die, Will I Get Better I did promise myself, I said, “I’m not going to do that again. I’m not going to put my broken heart on my sleeve for everyone to see all the time. I’m going to be a bit more guarded with my lyrics.” But when it came to… because I don’t know how to hold back when I’m creating music. I don’t know how to not put everything into it. So I just ended up doing the same thing. So The Weight of the Mask is, if anything, lyrically even heavier and even darker and more depressing.
E&D: Are we heading down the well, then?
Serena: Yeah, yeah. There’s no light at the end of this tunnel!
E&D: How do you find it? Is it a cathartic experience to get that out there on stage?
Serena: I always liken it to writing a song about a bad experience or some mental illness that you are struggling with. It’s like taking the thing that’s hurting you and pulling it outside of yourself, turning it into a seed, planting it in the soil, and watching it grow. Then you have something transformative. You’ve taken something and turned it into something else, something that resonates with people. But at the same time, that flower that grows from that seed is a constant reminder.
E&D: I was thinking that. Is there a time when you go back and think, “Well, that goes back over some old wounds”?
Serena: Oh, definitely. God, I mean, I don’t know how Taylor Swift does it. We’ve only got one song about one ex! And I struggle through that one live every time!
E&D: So you talked about the new album. Other than what you have already told us, where is the band heading?
Serena: So, it’s an interesting one. Musically, I would say The Weight of the Mask has some of the heaviest songs we’ve ever written on it.
E&D: You played a couple tonight, right?
Serena: Yeah, and those are two of the heaviest tracks on the album, ‘Eternal Spirits’ and ‘Faking It’ But then the album also has some of the lightest and softest, most delicate songs we’ve ever written as well. So I feel like there’s a massive contrast between songs on this album. It’s less of a blend. For example, when you think of our third album, a song like ‘Open Wound’ that’s blending post-rock and ambiance with heaviness. This time it’s definitely a little bit more segregated, a little bit more compartmentalized.
But overall, in terms of the writing process, this is the hardest we’ve ever worked on any music ever. We’ve taken three years to write this album. We put every idea under the microscope. Everything was challenged and critiqued, to a point where it wasn’t the easiest writing process at times. We had a lot of arguments, but the overall result I’m really pleased with.
E&D: So do you find that your process as a band and how you create music has changed? You’ve been down this path for a few years now.
Serena: Well, we’ve actually kept our writing process pretty much the same, even though two of us live in London and two of us live in Bristol. We still haven’t progressed to emailing each other riffs yet. We’re dinosaurs. We like to do things in person. Our writing process when we started this band was everyone in a room together, having that synergy, creating off each other, bouncing ideas around, writing together collaboratively. And that is still the same thing to this day. We all get in the same room, but it’s been the same room for 11 years, and we just be in the moment and see where the vibe goes.
E&D: So the change is not deliberate, it just kind of worked its way that way, do you think?
Serena: Yeah, the change in our sound? I think it’s been a very gradual evolution. I think if you hear the first album, it’s basically us being a bit more comfortable with being a band. It’s interesting. I see people describe Svalbard as a hardcore band, and I don’t listen to hardcore music. I have never been part of that scene. So it’s really interesting to hear your own music described as something that you don’t really connect to. But now I think we’re much more confident. We’re much more confident in pursuing what we are into musically.
E&D: I’m presuming you’re a little bit more comfortable with each other to maybe push each other a little bit further?
Serena: Definitely. Yeah. We can talk to each other like there’s no one else I can talk to the way I talk to my bandmates! And yeah, we’re very used to each other’s ways and opinions, and how to word things best to really move a song forward when we’re working together.
E&D: So you’ve worked with Lewis Johns again? How does he fit into that process?
Serena: Lewis is like the fifth member of Svalbard. He really understands the emotive quality of the music that we are trying to convey on the record. He really understands the patience that’s required to allow a song to flourish. A key example of that is ‘How To Swim Down’ which is a song we just released this week. It was meant to be a bonus track, an instrumental bonus track, and then when we were in the studio, he really brought it out. He encouraged Liam to add more guitar and violin layers to the song, more vocal harmonies, more layers and lyrics. He’s really good at bringing the best out of us musically.
E&D: Does he push you as well?
Serena: Yeah. I mean, he’ll tell you when you can play something better (laughs). But we’ve got a great relationship in terms of vocals. I’m quite proud of this. I am the fastest vocalist Lewis has ever recorded! Usually, I’m a one-take wonder when it comes to vocals. Yeah, we work really well together in smashing through those vocals.
E&D: You’ve set a high standard now for yourself!
Serena: I know. That’s the thing on the next album, I’ve got to do all my vocals in 30 minutes!
E&D: (both laugh) Yeah. Well, studio time is expensive, right?
Serena: Yeah, exactly. Efficient. Yeah!
E&D: Are there any other bands you’d like to give a shout-out to? Anyone we should be listening to?
Serena: I think everyone should listen to every single band on Church Road Records. The bands they’re signing, like Mountain Caller, who are playing today, are amazing. We took them on tour with us a year ago. There’s just so much exciting, innovative, and varied stuff on their label. Burner is another great band. There’s so much stuff on there. Personally, I’d like to give a shout-out to the UK band Fellowship, a power metal band. They wrote my favourite album of last year called The Saber Light Chronicles. They’re going to blow up. They’re going to be the biggest power metal band in the UK, and they deserve to be because they are incredible musicians.
Svalbard‘s new album, The Weight of the Mask, will be released via Nuclear Blast on October 6 and can be pre-ordered HERE.