To speak to Sylvaine, the one-woman multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, and composer born Kathrine Shepard, is to speak to some spirit that exists beyond the veil of convention and stereotypes. This is not a woman playing to the vogue dark melodic folklorist trope that has become so prevalent in the metal scene but rather, this is a woman who is a serious and classically trained composer and arranger whose songs, that originate on unplugged electric guitars in lavender and black bedrooms, end up exploding against the unlimited conventions of what modern music can accomplish.
For some time, Kathrine Shepard has been seen as the petite pixie of the Norwegian black gaze scene but her small eleven features and lightheartedness belie the woman warrior behind Nova, her complex and personal fourth release. Following her 2018 Atoms Aligned Coming Undone release, Sylvaine (a play on the name of one of her beloved French poets, Paul Verlaine) gives us Nova, an album that is both a musical and personal reawakening of a singer/composer finding her way in this world.
The Lord of the Rings type choir arrangement heralds in the opening of her latest release as we the entranced listeners follow her to the realm of Lothlorien. The creation of this ambitious release began in 2019, before the world changed before all of our eyes. Experiencing a personal loss in a time the world was suffering a collective loss, Sylvaine composed on her guitar and wrote in her notebooks, eventually leading her into the small rooms of Drudenhaus in early 2021. Sequestered away in the countryside of France, the Norwegian native and her musical cohorts would all contract Covid. Asthmatic since birth, our heroine isolated herself in a small room to score out the different soprano and alto melodies of an actual choir to make her vision for the opening track “Nova,” come to life. Sung in an imagined language, the syllables of NO-VA continued to emerge, suggesting to the singer something linguistically symbolic and important.
“I’ve been wanting to write a choir piece since my ‘Wistful’ days,” she says, “Just a purely vocal piece. I love harmonies and the most personal instrument you have is yourself, your voice. I wanted to really show who I am this time around.”
Naked on the cover, which may raise some eyebrows, Sylvaine insists to her fans that this is a symbol of her own vulnerability and personal rebirth that transpired over these years of creating Nova. “Nova” in terms of language is connected to words such as nuova (Italian) or nueva (Spanish), meaning ‘new’ and speaks to a rebirth, to loss, the temporality of life, grieving as nothing lasting forever, but looking forward as new doors are forever opening.
Album tracks “Mono No Aware” and “Fortapt” are compositions in the 10-minute range, showing the progressive skills of the multi-instrumentalist’s musical mastery and magic. Taking the loud and quiet back-and-forth of the ‘90s a step farther, she manages to haunt every note with primal sincerity. “Fortapt” is a particularly unique track, paying homage to Sylvaine’s Norwegian roots. And while critics may want to pin a song like “Nowhere, Still Somewhere” in the shoegaze or dreampop category, her mysterious resonance adds something to the composition that makes Sylvaine’s work defy categorization.
Much like Joan of Arc, Sylvaine is not a one-woman army without her legionaries. Instead of enlisting members of the folk metal glitterati, she has been a bit more selective about her surprise guests on her album, choosing Scottish violinist Lambert Segura of SAOR and cellist Nostarion aka Patrik Urban, whom she met while performing a very special acoustic show in Belgium in 2019. For Sylvaine, it felt emotionally appropriate to weave classically trained instrumentalists into her work, demonstrated on the last track on the album, “Everything Must Come to an End.”
Unlike so many of the pixie dream girls haunting the American metal landscape right now, Sylvaine sings but also screams from the very depths. There is absolutely no one in the metal game right now who can match her vocal range, which traverses from the elvish sounds of Enya and Lisa Gerard to the black metal Ericthro screeches of her kvlt counterparts of the land of ice and snow.
In the U.S., we have a tendency to clarify bedroom pop as music that is composed in the feminine space of one’s bedroom confines. Although orchestral and incredibly composed, Sylvaine does not shy away from admitting her songs always start bare bones—almost all of her compositions begin with an unplugged electric guitar. “A melody and a chord progression should be able to stand on its own without any effects whatsoever. The song will go on to manifest itself in different ways but that main guitar part has to be solid enough to emotionally work just by itself, “ she says.
But to this lover of Verlaine and the French Romantic poets (as well as a diehard Type O Negative fan), the written word is still paramount to her heart. After all, she explains, “Music is an attempt to avoid the words we can’t always express in life.”
Sylvaine – vocals/guitars/bass/synths/arrangements
Dorian Mansiaux – session drums
Sylvaine – Main vocals/guitar
Dorian Mansiaux – Drums
Florian Ehrenberg – Guitar/backing vocals
Maxime Mouquet – Bass/background vocals
– Lambert Segura (SAOR) – violins on “Everything Must Come To An End”
– Patrick Urban – cellos on “Everything Must Come To An End”
Recording Studio: Drudenhaus Studio, Issé, France
Producer, mixer, sound engineer: Benoît Roux
Mastering Studio + engineer: Karl Daniel Lidén at Karl Daniel Lidén Productions
Cover Art: Photo by Andy Julia, post-production/digital illustration by Daria Endrese
Biography: Veronika Lee