The Cover Story

Svalbard: “I can’t imagine not using the band as a way to express my eternal hell”

For years Svalbard have carved a name for themselves with their biting, brutalising sociopolitical attacks. Now, on The Weight Of The Mask, Serena Cherry is looking inward, exploring her deep, dark battles with depression with unflinching honesty, coming out the other side their most pained, personal and powerful record yet…

Svalbard: “I can’t imagine not using the band as a way to express my eternal hell”
Nick Ruskell
Jenn Five
Serena styling:

“I ’m sorry,” says Serena Cherry. “That’s really depressing, isn’t it?”

For the past two hours, Serena and Kerrang! have been sat on a bench next to the River Thames in Surrey, under the sunset of a mosquito-bitten June evening. For her and Svalbard – one of the finest metal outfits in the UK – things are currently lovely. A couple of days before we meet up, she and her bandmates – fellow guitarist and singer Liam Phelan, bassist Matt Francis and drummer Mark Lilley – performed to 10,000 people in a rammed tent at Hellfest, the latest stop in a diary of festivals that have seen them criss-crossing Europe all summer.

In spring, they spent a month on the continent playing huge venues with Cult Of Luna and Russian Circles. In October, Svalbard will release their excellent fourth album, their first for German metal powerhouse Nuclear Blast (a situation Serena’s very happy about, being that it makes Svalbard colleagues with her favourite band, Nightwish). More recently, this evening she’s had dinner in wagamama.

And against this wonderful backdrop, Serena is unpacking the lyrics to their new single, Faking It.

“You could look at my social media and think I was the happiest person in the world, that I must be living on cloud nine, and that everything must be great,” she says. “The reality is, I'm probably also the loneliest and saddest I've ever been.

“My natural default is sadness. That horrible, sick feeling in the bottom of your stomach – that’s just me, 24/7. Feeling uneasy, feeling nervous all the time, feeling anxious all the time, not being able to sleep, not being able to eat – that’s just every day standard for me.”

Serena wears Magica Skater Dress by KILLSTAR

Though Serena has dealt in weighty lyrics before, she's also often fitted her own description as “metal Minnie Mouse”. Becoming something of an icon in the British underground over the past few years, to so many she's the rollercoaster-loving-anime-nerd-guitar-hero with a weakness for video games, cheesy Euro metal and Frozen.

Here, however, we find her looking back at pictures of herself in good times with difficulty. ‘I wonder, who is this? / I don't recognise that smile / How is it so convincing?’ The chorus speaks of feeling not joy, nor hope, nor love. ‘How...’ comes the question at one point, ‘ I making it seem like it’s fine?’

“[The song’s] about feeling like I'm just faking my way through everything,” Serena explains. “Faking the happiness, faking the confidence, faking connections. And when you start to worry that everything is dishonest in your life, that mental spiral gets very, very intense. It becomes really, really hard to stop yourself from questioning absolutely every aspect of yourself and your thoughts and your identity and wondering what's real any more.

“I'm just really good at pretending now. You can be really struggling with mental illness, but you can't cry all the time. You don't want to affect everyone else around you. You don't want to be a downer. So you put on a face of positivity.”

It’s descriptive of the album, unambiguously titled The Weight Of The Mask, as a whole. Nimbly dancing on the lines that sit between metal, hardcore and blackgaze, there are moments that thrash with the aggression of a fight, and others that sound as barren and lonely as a glacier. It is fantastic, building and expanding their already lush sound into an even more widescreen version.

It's into this that Serena has not so much poured her heart as taken it out and squeezed it until there’s nothing left. Likening the lyrics to “reading my diary, my most private thoughts”, they speak nakedly and in plain language of depression, self-loathing, heartbreak, fear, loneliness and the disconnection that all of the above can impose on a person.

Is that really the goal? To be so numb that I won't feel sorrow?’ reads a line in Be My Tomb. On November, she speaks of ‘My heart so dead and broken… Never feeling love, but never feeling pain,’ while on Lights Out, she offers a stark, ‘I am too depressed to show you how depressed I really am.’

"This is complete raw honesty about feeling like I’m faking my way through everything"

Hear Serena on the influence behind new song Faking It

The idea of masks is armchair psychology as old as looking in the mirror and understanding that the 'you' you are when you’re at work isn’t the same as when you’re with your family, or different groups of friends, or when you’re sinning and drinking and shagging. The Weight Of The Mask is about when those sides don’t come naturally. When depression has bullied you and lied to you so much and pulled you so low and so disconnected that you have to make your own masks, do your best to put them on and pray that everyone else enjoys the show. Because you're not going to be feeling anything.

“It definitely feels dishonest to present this kind of happy, performative kind of success story, when the reality of how you feel internally is so divorced from that,” she says, before asking a question. “Where is this mentality coming from that I can't let the pain show? Why am I beating myself up about being so depressed and being so kind of vehement about concealing that? Where does that come from? Why am I so intolerant of my own mental illness? And why do I feel this ever mounting pressure to pretend it doesn't exist?”

Don’t be thinking that The Weight Of The Mask is a drag, though. It is vital, verdant, full of life, energy that comes from truly staring something in the eye. If it seems intrusively open (Serena does laugh when she says, “I wouldn’t ever want my mum to read any of our lyrics”), it’s because it’s one of the few vessels into which she feels she can put these feelings. She points to a line from Nightwish keyboardist and main-brain Tuomas Holopainen: “Sing what you can’t say.” By doing so, she and Svalbard have made one of the most powerful and best albums you will hear in 2023.

“Music has always been my escape,” Serena says. “When I'm playing music, when I'm onstage, or when or even just when I'm going for a walk with my headphones on, that’s when I truly am in my element. That’s when I’m truly confident and relaxed in myself.

“Music’s where I’m actually happy.”

Music, for Serena, started early. She can’t really remember a time when it wasn’t a central thing in her life. There’s video somewhere of her, aged two, singing and dancing to Crazy Crazy Nights by KISS in her mum’s kitchen. Instead of watching TV, as kids she and her sister would sit around the piano while their mater played Queen songs. After dinner, they could pick a record from her massive collection (popular Serena choice: Cool For Cats by Squeeze) and dance round the kitchen table.

Later, she’d become obsessed with the Spice Girls (“I would videotape every performance on Top Of The Pops and watch it in slow motion and learn every single dance move to every single song. I’d note all the lyrics and stupid facts about what Posh Spice’s favourite food was”), before eventually discovering metal after hearing Fear Factory on the soundtrack to the game MTV Sports: Snowboarding.

“That was the first time I heard screaming in a song ,” she remembers. “I was kind of scared of it, but also really fascinated.”

Quickly, through Kerrang!, Serena discovered Slipknot, and something even bigger clicked.

“They’re the reason I started playing instruments. They're the reason I write the lyrics that I write,” she says. “Being a weird, obsessive, socially awkward kid, and then discovering Slipknot, it was like I’d finally found my home.”

Her own forays into music included, aged 13, writing a love song for Joey Jordison and playing it on acoustic guitar at a school concert. While studying GCSE music, meanwhile, an assignment to do a composition resulted in writing a load of dungeon synth on “a crappy Yamaha keyboard”, and telling the teacher it was a film score.

After putting together “an unmentioned, unnamed black metal band”, Svalbard were eventually formed with other heads from Bristol. Liam had previously played in the excellent hardcore band Burning Skies, while Mark came from “more of a thrash, death metal background”. It was actually quite a liberating mixed bag.

“We never got together and described what type of music we were going to play,” Serena says. “We kind of approached it with a sort of hippy mentality of, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ We never had a list of boxes to tick off: ‘Oh, want to be a hardcore band, we want to be a metal band, we want to be a political band.’ We just let it take shape of its own accord.”

It was at a headline show at The Dome in London support of their second album, 2018’s brilliant It’s Hard To Have Hope, that Serena realised that Svalbard had legs, that it meant something to people who weren’t in the band.

“It was the first time I ever saw people singing the words back at me. And that just hit me like a truck,” she says. “I cried – obviously – happy tears, because it was just such a moving moment. I remember it dawning on me that, ‘Wow, okay, people care about us enough and listened to us enough to know the words.’”

At the time, those words featured a lot of the grazed honesty seen in The Weight Of The Mask. But it frequently rubbed up with things more social, more political, like religious interference with abortion rights (Pro Life?), the shrinking number of opportunities in employment (Unpaid Intern), being told to pipe down as a woman daring to speak up against sexism (Feminazi?!).

This sort of thing is notable by its absence on The Weight Of The Mask. It’s one way the album illustrates its own point: what you see of a person isn’t always quite right.

“I've had a lot of people who perceive that I'm very angry, outspoken, loud, confident,” Serena says. “But writing political lyrics takes a lot of strength. I've just felt very worn down over the political situation in the UK, over the last three years, to a point where it's almost impossible for me to have the energy to sing about it anymore. I'm almost too consumed by frustration. I don't feel this kind of empowering spark of rage to go and write a song and scream my head off about women's rights anymore. Because I'm too concerned about women's rights to sing about it at the moment.

“You are talking to someone who is completely drained. I am drained. And I'm worn out. And I'm fighting for any ounce of spark, or energy or fire. One of the lyrics on this album is: ‘No-one can tell the light in me is out / I'm screaming for help / I'm muting myself.’ If I could sum up the album with one lyric, it’s that. It’s sheer desperation.”

Indeed, this sort of thing doesn’t come to the surface under the normal run of things spending time with Serena. She isn’t a downer. She’s endlessly kind, silly, funny, someone who energises people around them. You will never have a better guide should you ever find yourself in a theme park with her. She laughs a lot, and frequently deploys an encyclopaedic knowledge of Alan Partridge – at one point during this interview, she breaks a moment of silence by bursting out laughing and blurting out, in full Coogan voice, “Don’t be blue, Peter.”

But that’s why so much goes into the lyrics. Because it’s a place to, as she puts it, "not put up the walls". She says that she often wonders if she’s let in too much, but also that she can’t help going so deep. Sharing the singing duties with Liam, she says she's aware she's showing a side that he might not normally see, but also that he's like a brother, she trusts him with her words, and that "he's one of the few people I don't feel I need the mask around." Having it all read by strangers, though, is a different feeling.

“I'm definitely not comfortable with my lyrics being out there,” Serena admits with a chuckle. “And sometimes it's like I'm torturing myself by putting my heart on my sleeve so openly and making my depression and the things I suffer so clear to anyone who reads Svalbard lyrics. But as much as I feel vulnerable, I can't imagine not having that release of those lyrics. I can't imagine not using Svalbard as a way to express my eternal hell. But yeah, sometimes it's like they're seeing you on your worst day, in your dressing gown crying on the sofa in the dark.”

There is, though, something to this. Talking in such a straightforward manner may make it slightly harder than normal chat between two friends on a bench, but if you need to hear it, you don't have to scratch around for something to hold on to.

"The reason I write as plainly as I do lyrically, is to try and strike that resonance with anyone else who might be going through similar things," she agrees. "I want it to be as though I'm there talking to them, not using metaphors about dragons or vampires or the usual metal tropes. I think there's something really, really powerful in being completely honest and open and down to earth, about depression and the reality of depression, rather than dressing it up in in a poetic manner. Hopefully, in being so direct about it, I can make others feel like they're not alone with what they're going through."

"There's something really powerful in being completely honest and open about depression"

Hear Serena on the impact of not hiding behind metaphor in her lyrics

Serena says she can pinpoint exactly where she was when she thought of every lyric, what she was feeling, what had happened. She likens it to planting “a very black, dark horrible seed and watching it grow into something creative that connects with other people”. Hence the flowers on its cover.

“It makes you feel like all that pain wasn't for nothing. But then at the same time, I feel the same level of pain performing these songs live that I did when I wrote them,” she says. “A lot of the time I well up onstage when I'm screaming certain lines. I'm tearing myself open to get to that deep place every single time we perform the songs.”

It's in the aftermath of the storm, as with so many things that require an effort, that this all becomes much more positive than it may sound here.

“After performing live is always the calmest I ever feel in my life,” she says. “That moment just after coming offstage and you're drenched in sweat, and you've spent 40 minutes screaming your heart out, there's definitely an elation that follows afterwards, in a similar way of, you've taken something dark and depressing, and got it all out in a creative manner. Performing live is like art therapy.

“It's the one time where I feel truly alive in the moment. And that's why no matter what happens in Svalbard, no matter how difficult it gets, no matter how much pressure I feel, I will always persevere with it.”

"You've taken something dark and depressing, and got it all out in a creative manner"

Hear Serena on the catharsis of performing live

One other thing about talking to Serena about this sort of thing: at no point is she moaning, or ungrateful for what Svalbard have built, or doing anything other than honestly and clearly telling you how she’s feeling.

And in this, even though she says she’s still got a mask on in some ways, it’s a mark of how much music means to Serena that it’s where she reveals herself. She says that she’s “my own worst bully, nobody can hurt me like I can hurt myself” and that “I can tear myself down so meticulously, I’m scarily good at it”. But there’s a defiance in putting all this to music – and very, very good music – that stops these things from winning, no matter how dark they can be.

“This album is the sound of the screaming match in your head where one voice is telling you to give everything up because you're not good enough and you never will be,” she says, “and then there's another voice that's like, ‘Come on, like you've got to try.’”

The Weight Of The Mask is also, then, inadvertently an album with a strange joy to it. There is a sense of hope from more than just Serena’s sky-high lead guitar melodies (“I base them on Disney progressions – that’s the hopefulness,” she laughs). It’s in a sense of there still being something to hold on to, where you can actually be alive. As she sings on Defiance: ‘This battle is not insignificant / All I can do is carry on.’

“Music has always been my escape,” she continues. “It takes me out of the lack of confidence that I feel in everyday life and the walls within my own brain. It feels like having a shot of adrenaline pumped into you. With depression, there’s the numbness and not being able to feel anything, and not being able to connect with anything. But even in those times, if I pick up my guitar, I can still feel, I can still get lost in writing a riff.

“At the worst points in my life,” she says with a smile, a big, genuine, no-faking, happy one, “that means everything to me.”

Depressing? Not at all. Quite the opposite.

The Weight Of The Mask is out October 6 via Nuclear Blast – pre-order your copy now.

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