“It’s difficult for me to filter what I write about”: Inside Svalbard’s “painfully honest” new album
They say it’s easy to hear, but harder to actually listen. To really pay attention to what’s being said. To properly understand. The other side of this truth is: it’s easy to feel like you aren’t being listened to, even when what you’re trying to say isn’t just how you’re feeling, but that you’re not feeling right.
It’s something Serena Cherry – one half of Bristol metallers Svalbard’s guitar and vocal team – lays out in stark terms on the song Listen To Someone, an emotionally turbulent highlight from the band’s new album, When I Die, Will I Get Better?. In it, she describes in unflinching detail how she felt when a wave of depression hit her last year – “days where you don’t eat, where you don’t sleep, days where you don’t even speak to anyone” – as a series of big life changes and personal uprootings left her feeling isolated, alone and detached. The aim is to try to help people see what it’s like, a plea for people to actually take on board what their family or their mates are saying when they try to share that something’s out of place. Because, although people are starting to talk about these things now, we don’t actually do it very well.
“When you talk about the depths of depression or mental illness or anxiety, people wince, because it’s not part of our daily lexicon,” she says. “It’s quite a scary thing to talk about. It’s a hard topic, and it’s hard to sit there and say, ‘I went through this.’ And the whole point of that song is to encourage people not to just say, ‘You can talk to me,’ but actually listen and not back away or wince or tell them to cheer up. That’s the absolute worst thing you can tell someone who’s suffering with depression – ‘It’s not that bad, get some perspective.’”
Sipping tea in a warm café on a wet day in Bristol, Serena is well aware that, though she has always been open in her lyrics, both politically and personally, “Something has changed.” She says that previously when she’s revealed a lot about her life, she’s told herself that she’ll hold back a bit next time, likening the feeling of people being able to know so much about her from her music as “feeling like you’ve got the pages of your diary open for anyone and everyone to read and judge”. But then, she adds, “It’s difficult for me to filter what I write about – the passion has to be there or it doesn’t come.”
“Sometimes I regret that people can learn so much about me and what I’ve gone through just through reading Svalbard lyrics, like sexual assault at festivals,” she says. “All they need to do is read the lyrics to the new album and they can see some of the hell that I’ve been through. But every time I tell myself I’ll hold back for the next one, I don’t. It’s painfully honest, this album – there’s a lot of harsh truths.”
This is saying something. Svalbard’s 2017 album It’s Hard To Have Hope was a furious diatribe that dealt with abortion rights, sexual assault, revenge porn, gender inequality and economic imbalance over an excellent musical roar of metal, punk, post-hardcore and dreamy blackgaze. But at least, though hope was hard to come by, it was still there; these topics were sung about with defiance, an indignant middle finger, a sense of purpose and togetherness that made it a call to arms and an appeal for change. Not only that, it deservedly pushed Svalbard – Serena, fellow singer and guitarist Liam Phelan, drummer Mark Lilley, and until recently, bassist Alex Heffernan – on an upward trajectory, marking them out as one of the best sort-of-new-but-not-really bands in the UK. On When I Die, Will I Get Better?, a more prescient feeling of fragility and despondency lays atop things, a frustration; a sense, not of hope, but of hopelessness.
This was a long way from normal. Serena is, despite the anger in Svalbard’s music and her forthrightness when discussing things like misogyny and racism, also someone with an obsessive love of rollercoasters, Japanese anime and the worst European power metal you’ve ever heard. A self-confessed nerd who it’s impossible not to like, she can communicate entirely in Simpsons quotes, loves Skyrim, and once (accurately) described herself in Kerrang! as “The Minnie Mouse of metal”. Her bandmates’ nickname for her, meanwhile, is ‘The Yappy Chihuahua’ (“Small and annoying,” she grins).
But depression is a bully, it is a thief and it is a liar. Whatever the causes or triggers, the effect is the same: it will knock you down and take from you even the simplest of life’s pleasures. It will tell you that your hard-won achievements are nothing, and it will pick on you and tell you nobody cares, until you are left feeling alone in a black and white world in which you feel unable to feel or connect to anything, even those things that you didn’t think could be taken away.
“The only way I can describe it is that you are physically unable to feel anything but pain,” she shares. “Even little things. Like, I love eating – sitting in front of the TV, stuffing my face and watching anime is my favourite pastime – but even that didn’t work anymore.
“There were times when I was worried that this album wasn’t even going to get finished, because the inspiration for me just wasn’t there, because I was so depressed,” she continues. “That joy of playing my guitar, that joy of creating, all of that essence, is an amazing, all-consuming feeling. But I just wasn’t capable of it at all. The thing that I create in music is the thing that I’m most passionate about, and it just couldn’t arise in me anymore. [So] you go through the motions, you pick up your guitar and almost force yourself to do it, because you tell yourself you should and you feel this obligation to be pursuing these things, even when you’re not in the right headspace for it at all.”
The song’s inspiration, and what helped Serena to unpick the knots depression puts in your mind, was speaking to friends about how she was feeling, realising that the minutiae of the experience wasn’t hers alone. This is what’s at the heart of Listen To Someone, and it’s far closer to a way of healing from these things than telling someone, ‘It’s not that bad.’
“Something that really, really helped was speaking to people who would talk about the really minuscule details,” she says. “Like, you become really forgetful. People will tell you things and you’ll feel really rude because you keep forgetting everything. All it would take is to have a conversation with another person who was suffering with depression and they’d say, ‘Yeah, you become really forgetful.’ The power, that resonance, of knowing that someone else is going through these things that aren’t talked about, that side of mental illness, it makes you feel so much less alone in it. There’s comfort.
“There’s nothing more powerful than when someone says something you already think or feel, and you realise they feel it too.”
The rest of the album is just as powerful and invigorating, if notably more pessimistic when dealing with the ‘usual’ Svalbard topics. “What I was going through tainted everything I was doing, and I couldn’t write a political song without the black clouds seeping in,” Serena admits. Case in point: Click Bait, probably the angriest song on the album. Centred around websites that use supposed representation of female musicians to goad haters as a way of getting clicks, it’s an explosion of frustration at bits of a problem dressing themselves up as part of the solution. Becoming known as someone who has something to say on issues like gender imbalance in music, say, is a good thing. But on the other hand, as the acid lyrics declare: ‘I am sick of being a stick for all the misogynistic bears you poke.’ Because, knowing what this band are about, what’s not to get about why this is wrong?
“When I yell ‘Fuck off’ in that song, you can hear how pissed off I am at being pissed off,” she sighs. “It’s very hard for certain metal outlets to write about women in metal without turning it into this gender war or stoke the comments. They’ll always make it sound like it’s boys vs. girls, like girls are pissed off with the men in the metal world, when that’s not the case at all. You feel like you’re their fodder to generate clicks and comments, and they don’t actually care about all the abuse you’re going to get. And it’s not proper representation because it’s done to provoke, rather than to represent. I’m not going to be your spokesperson for when you want to start a gender war.”
One example of Serena using her voice and her platform to speak out about such things is on What Was She Wearing?, in which she takes to task the notion that a woman needs to be judged on appearance before competence, or that sexual assault victims’ stories are invalid based on their clothes. It is, unsurprisingly, an idea she finds to be horse shit.
“That song was specifically about Tracy Brabin, the Labour MP, who wore the off-the-shoulder dress,” she explains. “There’s always really minuscule things that inspire the lyrics, and that one was about her being diminished as a politician for wearing a dress that exposed a bit of shoulder. It happened the same week that Shakira and J‑Lo did the Super Bowl and played this amazing show. It was really inspiring, I thought, but the only thing people had to say was that they were showing too much skin. I thought, ‘Wow, a woman can’t do anything without being judged on what she’s wearing.’”
As she puts it herself, Serena has been “painfully honest” in making When I Die, Will I get Better?. But for all of the depths she is willing to share about the hardships that have gone into the album, it doesn’t give the complete picture of who she is. Across our conversation, she is happy to explain the meanings behind all of what she says – like how The Currency Of Beauty deals with the depressing, shallow values online dating promotes – but she also gives an almost bashful laugh at the idea that some people may have the impression of her as a constantly-angry no-fun-zone, and reveals she’s started a black metal band in which to put her love of “Warhammer and RPGs”.
It is churlish to say everything is fine now – that’s not how depression works – but this chapter of the story does end with a happy bit of serendipity. As Svalbard were heading to the studio to record, something happened that would find that small glimmer of hope as a full stop.
“There wasn’t some big moment, but there was just a small time one day when I felt like myself again, and a large part of that was down to finding someone who really understands and who loves and supports me,” she smiles. “So I ended up writing the soppiest love song this side of Celine Dion about that [Pearlescent, the album’s closing track]. It’s one of the songs I’m really proud of on the album, because it represents that breakthrough moment of coming out of the other side of that dark tunnel.
“I think this album represents a kind of healing process,” she concludes. “I was in a very bad place when we were writing it, but then as you come towards the end of the album it’s like the light at the end of the tunnel. It reminds me of where I was and where I’ve come from that.”
There is a lot to unpack in When I Die, Will I Get Better?, and not all of it pleasant. But importantly, all of it is relatable to someone. And when asked how she’d like this reflected back on her, Serena takes a moment, hums for a second, sips her tea, and gives a simple, but wholly appropriate answer.
“I just want to be seen as someone who cares,” she smiles. “Just someone who cares.”
When I Die, Will I Get Better? is released September 25 via Church Road Records.
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