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Svalbard’s Serena Cherry: New Album ‘The Weight Of The Mask’ Is The ‘Biggest Achievement In My Life’

5 October 2023 | 10:00 am | Mary Varvaris
Originally Appeared In

"This album means a lot to me, and I can't wait for it to finally be unleashed into the wide world."

Svalbard

Svalbard (Source: Supplied)

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Tomorrow (6 October), British heavy metal outfit Svalbard will release their magnum opus, The Weight Of The Mask. It isn’t a record for the faint of heart, nor is it an easy 44-minute listen. This is an album packed with examinations of years lived with depression, fake happiness, and grief. Throughout its runtime, Svalbard don’t let up. The Weight Of The Mask is loud, intense, and the band’s crowning achievement.

Chatting with the multi-faceted, endlessly talented vocalist and guitarist in Svalbard, Serena Cherry, from the kitchen in her home, Kill Your Stereo finds an individual primed to discuss the weighty subject matter she’s penned and screams, all while being one of the kindest people you could ever meet.

“I think it [The Weight Of The Mask] represents so much to me as an album. It represents over two years of hard work writing the music; lyrically, it represents a real battle that I've been fighting with myself mentally,” Cherry shares. “I really was in a dark place with depression when we were writing this album.

“A lot of the lyrics are about fighting against that with all you've got and summoning any tiny little ounce of strength that you have left to live through the reality of mental illness. So, yeah, this album means a lot to me, and I can't wait for it to finally be unleashed into the wide world.”

Before the album’s release, Svalbard released three singles, each as powerful as the last. Svalbard unofficially kicked off the album campaign in February, releasing the single Eternal Spirits in tribute to Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison, who died in his sleep in July 2021.

The band officially announced the album in July. Accompanying the exciting news was the follow-up track Faking It, which embodies what Cherry was aiming to achieve on The Weight Of The Mask. The third single, How To Swim Down, landed in August. It’s the most unique song in the band’s repertoire.

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On Faking It, Cherry tells us: “Until a few years ago, I worked in customer service jobs, and I would have to put on that mask [for the] happy, friendly customer facing you. Basically, you can be feeling really low and really anxious, and you have to pretend to be this confident, happy person.”

Faking It, and by extension, more ideas on The Weight Of The Mask, stems from Cherry’s learnings of sociology. In particular, acknowledging when you’re undertaking emotional labour. According to American Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, Arlie Russell Hochschild, emotional labour is defined as “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display [that is] sold for a wage.”

Cherry concurs, “That was definitely a mask – it's weird when you get so used to putting that on; you feel a disconnect from your real self because you're so used to acting. And it's similar: for me as a person, I'm really shy. So, whenever I'm around friends or in social situations, I have to wear a bit of a mask because I get quite anxious.

“I always feel like I'm never going to say the right thing. So, I definitely have to put on a bit of a mask of what I perceive people to want to hear and see from me, if you know what I mean. I'm always masking the darkness. That's my depression – it doesn't go away. It just has ups and downs, like everything. I'm always kind of hiding that, as well. But then, I think sometimes wearing the mask can almost be a relief.”

She explains, “It allows you to step into an act as another character and give you a form of strength that you don't actually have inside, but you can pretend that you do. So, there's definitely benefits to it.”

But Cherry admits that wearing a mask and Faking It for too long can become isolating. “You really struggle to actually make meaningful connections with other people because you're constantly acting happy or pretending to be okay. And then the person behind that mask is trapped and isolated in the reality of their own thoughts, not what they share with other people.”

Cherry feels the weight of the mask slip away when Svalbard perform live, she says with a grin. There’s no place she’d rather be than on a stage, screaming and singing into a microphone, connecting with the audience as she plays her Jackson Pro Series signature Monarkh guitar.

“When we play live, it's a very cathartic experience,” Cherry explains. “I can pour every single emotion into that performance. There's something really positive and transformative about writing a song about something, like a dark time that you're experiencing, and then being able to go on stage and scream it and play your guitar at full volume. It feels like a release. When we perform live, that's one of the few times in my life that I feel natural and true to myself. It’s my favourite feeling in the world. It’s the thing that I live for.”

So, fans are guaranteed an amazing experience from a Svalbard show, particularly from a song as moving as Eternal Spirits. Like everyone in the global metal scene, Cherry was absolutely devastated by the loss of Joey Jordison. “When I first started playing music at 12 years old and playing instruments, I was inspired by Slipknot. I actually learnt drums because I thought Joey was the absolute coolest, and I was so inspired to play with as much passion and integrity as he did.

“When he passed away… I've always been a massive fan – I had the privilege of meeting him several times, and he was so kind and lovely,” Cherry says with a smile. “He made all the time in the world for his fans. I remember showing him a clip of me drumming and him being like, ‘Don't give up’ and stuff like that. He was so great.

“To hear the news that he passed away… it just broke my heart. He was gone way, way, way too soon. He had so much more to give. This guy was a creative genius – he wrote some of Slipknot’s best songs and best lyrics, and then to think, he had all these amazing other projects as well… to think that he won't get to make music again is absolutely devastating.”

Cherry put all that grief she and her bandmates felt into Eternal Spirits. “I really wanted to light a candle for him in musical form and to really pay tribute to the musical legacy and inspiration he's left behind because I'm just one person who was inspired to play because of him. How many other bands were inspired to play music because of Joey? Think of that legacy and the power in that. I almost wish you could tell them what an impact he's had as a musician.”

Eternal Spirits stands in stark contrast to How To Swim Down, a romantic song about unrequited love and the vulnerability of love, with some Pokémon inspiration sprinkled in for good measure.

“I really wanted the song to have that kind of vulnerability of when you have feelings for someone, and it all feels very tender,” Cherry shares, reminding us that while it’s a vulnerable love song, it’s still unrequited. “This is super nerdy; I've not said this in any other interview. But there used to be a Pokémon album called Pokémon 2.B.A. Master. There was a song on it called Misty’s Song, where Misty confesses her love for Ash in secret.”

She adds, “That was actually one of the songs that inspired How To Swim Down because it has that vulnerability. In terms of adding the violin – adding violin to a song was something we've wanted to do. Liam [Phelan, guitar, vocals, violin] plays violin in a band called Morrow, and I saw him play with them, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, you need to do that for us as well’.”

With the band’s third album, When I Die, Will I Get Better? Svalbard considered adding violin to some songs, but it didn’t work out. “We're all about serving the song in Svalbard; we're never going to stick violin on it just for the sake of it,” Cherry says.

But everything fell into place for How To Swim Down, a song that was initially slated to be a bonus instrumental track on the album that grew into a shoegaze-inspired, layered number that’s officially the first song Cherry has sung with only clean vocals. It’s so monumental for the band that Cherry admits, “It's actually my favourite Svalbard song we've ever written.”

Svalbard have come a long way from their first two albums, 2015’s One Day All This Will End and 2018’s It's Hard To Have Hope; she blew her voice out during the making of, Cherry shares.

“It's really difficult. Having that [vocal] control to go from screaming at maximum impact to – I think my clean vocals are quite soft – I'm not Christina Aguilera; I'm not belting it out. Like, there's a meant to be a fragility to my clean singing; it's meant to represent when you're in a house on your own singing to yourself quietly. It’s meant to have that vulnerability.”

What helped Cherry improve her vocal technique was following a learning process that included running and swimming as regularly as possible. “Those have really enabled me to get that lung power and that control, which I then apply when I'm doing vocals – also doing vocals and playing guitar live,” she says. Playing guitar and singing live? “Very difficult. You always have to separate what your head is doing from what your hands are doing. It’s a very weird feeling!”

Svalbard pushed themselves hard to create The Weight Of The Mask, a cohesive, reflective, unapologetically heavy album. “We worked the hardest we've ever worked on this album,” Cherry shares. “Sometimes I can't believe it, like, ‘Oh, this is us!’ We gave this album absolutely everything. We took a really long time writing it, and we really laboured over each song.

“We were very deliberate with what was making the album and what wasn't. It wasn't the easiest process in the world to write like that, and to put your music under the microscope so intensely isn't that easy. But I think the final result is totally worth it. This album is probably my biggest achievement in my life.”

With a new album coming this week and tour dates on the way, Australian fans might be wondering: is it finally our turn to see Svalbard play live? Cherry can’t reveal plans ahead of time, but she has this to share: “I can't announce anything yet, but we are in the process of getting everything sorted for future tours.

“We are going to be playing in countries that we've not played in yet, so hopefully, we will. We would absolutely love to come over to Australia; it's somewhere we've wanted to go for a long time. So, hopefully, that's not too far away in the future now.”

The Weight Of The Mask will be released via Nuclear Blast Records on Friday, 6 October. You can pre-save/pre-order the album here.

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or other mental-related illness, we implore you to get in contact with Beyondblue or Lifeline:

Beyondblue: 1300 224 636

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Suicide Call-Back Service: 1300 659 467

Beyondblue and Lifeline both also offer online chat/counsel. Check their respective websites for operational hours and details.