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On Being a Musician in Oslo vs. Paris

La Seine in Paris. All Photos by Katherine Shepard
La Seine in Paris.
All Photos by Katherine Shepard

Katherine Shepard is Sylvaine. Her new album, Wistful, will be released on May 13 via Season of Mist. We will stream the entire album on Thursday, May 5. Katherine became a musician, and a metalhead, in both Paris, France and Oslo, Norway. These are her recollections of the similarities and differences between those two cities.

Oslo vs. Paris – The bond between creativity and the surroundings

Different places create different impulses in ones mind, leading to different emotions rising within, and art being made as a result of those emotions. As a recording artist with my own solo project, switching my home base between Oslo, Norway and Paris, France, my life has been full of new experiences and unexpected situations these past couple of years. New places, familiar faces, the customs of your upbringing, a brilliant gastronomy, nature, the Haussmann style, a culture of skepticism, a conservative—but modern—society; A rich marriage, full of different inspirations and experiences, between two different places that I am calling my homes.

In 1991, I was born in San Diego, California, in the United States of America, just as my father was, many years before me. My father had met my mother on a European tour he was on several years before this and they quickly decided to be together. Just a few years after my birth, my parents decided to move back to Norway, my mother’s homeland, which became the place that would partially shape me as the person I am today.

Oslo - Backyard of my house

Oslo, Norway; a small city, yet still the capital of Norway. A city full of contrast, where nature plays a very important part in the dynamic of the town, something you won’t necessarily find as easily in other places. Even though it’s the capital, it still has an intimate feeling, lacking the “big city” or “metropolis” vibe of other capitals around the world, which I think has a certain effect on the mindset of the people living there.

Growing up in Oslo definitely connected me to nature from a very early age, making me turn to the different forests around my house when I needed a place for contemplation, meditation, comfort or just peace. It would turn out to be one of the places that always would inspire me to write music and that eventually led to a lot of the music I have created for my solo project, Sylvaine.

“Even if Norway used to be a very important place for metal […] it still lingers between commercial and underground today.“

When I became a teenager, my interest for music started to fire up on a more serious level. Seeing as both my mother and father were into music, as a musician and on the business end, I was introduced to this way of life early on. I didn’t start finding my own voice in music though before I was about 14. At this time, I started to realize that music would allow me to express myself in many ways I couldn’t otherwise. Not only would the music itself become the ultimate way to deal with conflicts and issues within myself, but even on a visual level, it allowed me to express my belonging to something else then “the norm”. As I got older and more into heavy music and darker stuff, I became part of a sub-culture, one that was quite well known to the public in Norway, yet I was labeled an outsider. Somewhere between a goth, shoegazer and a metal head, I never had a problem with not fitting in.

The forest in Oslo where the first Sylvaine promo photographs were taken.
The forest in Oslo where the first Sylvaine promo photographs were taken.

The amount of musicians in Oslo these days is extremely high, resulting in a thriving music scene. Working as a musician in Norway, you’ll find that people in society are open-minded, yet not fully understanding of your choice of occupation. Not many people understand how much time, energy, work and resources go into the whole process that is having a band, so they tend to not consider it as a serious livelihood, but instead more of a passionate hobby or something of the like. This is nothing specific for Oslo, as I’m sure you’ll find this type of attitude in many places. This might also be intensified by the fact of not practicing a more commercially accepted type of music, such as pop, indie rock, classical or jazz, but instead belonging to a more underground scene. Even if Norway used to be a very important place for metal, in particular the black metal scene during the ’90s, making metal a well-known genre in Norway, its still lingers between commercial and underground today.

“Even if France has a lot of amazing bands in this scene, some of the most internationally famous of the country as well, there’s an unspoken rule that metal will never have a commercial place in the society”

As a musician creating music that is partially linked to the metal scene, as well as the whole post-metal/post-rock/shoegaze scene, I knew right away that Norway wouldn’t be my main area of interest, as even though you can find anything from electro-pop, to stoner, to indie rock and black metal in Oslo, there isn’t a huge audience for the whole atmospheric metal sound. Nevertheless, the city is inspiring and a quite good place to be as a musician. A lot of the Norwegian bands will be able to tour around the country, put out their EP’s and records, even though they never make it beyond the boarders of the country. This is something I would definitely say it has in common with my other home; France.

The Grand Fountain in Paris
The Grand Fountain in Paris

Paris, France; a capital full of warmth and creative spirit, featuring a cityscape with a lot of historical buildings, beautiful architecture, as well as modern contraptions. The city bares contrasts, with it’s people that tend to have a more decadent mindset, enjoying the pleasurable sides of life, such as good food, wine, art, going out and fashion, but at the same time you can come across a lot of the darker sides of society as well. When I first encountered Paris back in 2013, I was very overwhelmed by the fast pace of the city, the contrast, as well as the intensity of the people inhabiting it, especially coming from such a small place as Oslo. I fell in love with the city though, as it has so much beauty and inspiration to offer, something I started taping into shortly after arriving there. The two cities are so different, showcasing a wide range of emotions, impulses, visual impressions, mindsets and atmospheres. The Parisian society is riddled with freelance workers, be it graphic designers, fashion stylists, painters and musicians, yet somehow the government seems to look down on this type of work and make it extremely hard to survive with this status in France. Being a musician is very hard work to begin with, even if it is completely a labor of love and passion, but to survive as a professional one in France is even harder.

Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

I think we can all agree on the fact that France has never been a good country for music. Even less so when you are practicing a type of music that belongs to the underground. Because that is what metal or anything similar is considered as in France; underground. Even if France has a lot of amazing bands in this scene, some of the most internationally famous of the country as well, there’s an unspoken rule that metal will never have a commercial place in the society, meaning it’s not a genre that seems to be globally accepted and not considered a respected field to be a part of by the general public.
Quite recently, there were several debates around this topic in the national medias of France, about how strange it is to pigeonhole metal as a lesser genre somehow and to perceive it as a scene less worth for the public to have knowledge about. You will never find a metal band in the charts in France, nor will you hear it played on the radio or ever read articles about metal news in the national medias. This was a bit surprising to me, coming from a country like Norway, where the metal scene is more or less integrated into society and accepted for what it is.

As people seem to be addressing the issue more openly now, I hope the attitude towards the underground and metal scene will change in France in the future. Time will tell if the tradition will adjust to a more modern version, something I’m very interested in, being a part of these scenes as a musician myself.

Dusk as seen from Shepard's back yard in Oslo
Dusk as seen from Shepard’s back yard in Oslo

For the past couple of years, I have been switching my home base from Oslo, Norway, to Paris, France. Not only are the backdrops of the cities highly different, but also the culture and people differ way more than one would initially think. All of these differences have made an impact on me as a person, but also on my art, inspiring me to create. In 2013 I created my own solo project Sylvaine and decided to have a very hands on approach to everything involving the project. I wanted to do everything myself, unlike what I had done in other bands of the past, and therefore decided to be the sole member of the studio band.
My first album “Silent Chamber, Noisy Heart”, was written solely in Oslo, mostly during late 2012/spring 2013. The album showcases a wide range of expressions, as it includes songs that were written many years prior to the rest, but they all were a result of the impulses and feelings I was having while spending my days in the nature and city landscapes of Oslo. As a result of being surrounded by everything I had always known, I think one can feel the sense of serenity and hope that lies within a lot of the songs on this album, yet there’s a strong sense of longing for something else, something more than the known, that gives the album a constant, somber outline. The vibe in Oslo gave me a chance to connect with those conflicts in me, but at the same time, being so close to nature gave me a place where I would feel comforted from all of it. Most of this album was written and recorded during the night, as the feel in Oslo during those early morning hours seemed to evoke specific things within me that translated well into audio. In Paris however, the method has not been exactly the same.

Winter at night in Oslo
Winter at night in Oslo

When I was making my second album “Wistful”, I was in Paris for most of that process, something when thinking about it in hindsight, might have resulted in a darker album than the first one. In Paris, the feeling is purely city life and nature isn’t present at all, making for new issues arising that never were there before. The conflicts, which could sometimes be hushed in the woods by my childhood home, were now roaring inside me and the feeling of being misplaced was higher than ever. Going to a place where you not only are a part of a slightly unaccepted subculture, but you also do not speak the language or know the social norms, makes for an even stronger sense of loneliness than I ever had before coming to Paris. I think you can definitely feel this on “Wistful” and sense that it inspired me to write more about the feeling of being trapped in this place, stuck in a human vessel that is somewhat restricted by it’s senses, than I had on my previous album.

Aeroplane contrails in Paris
Aeroplane contrails in Paris

On a personal level, I found my kindred spirit in this city, something that elevated me to new heights emotionally, opening for a way stronger flood of emotions than ever before. This might also be why the expression on “Wistful” came out in a more extreme way, in this case more somber, aggressive and darker, than what was channeled on the first album.

A big difference when coming to Paris, was that I was free to spend 100% of my time writing and experimenting with my music, something that was a newfound luxury to me as I had gone to school and worked on my bachelor’s degree in musicology up until that point and therefore couldn’t focus on it fully. This also affected the whole writing process, giving me more time to evolve my songs, yet taking shorter time to finalize them as I could work on them at any time. Between this and the fact that the new surroundings gave me new impulses to draw stimulation from, it resulted in a very good and motivating situation for writing music.

Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

When all is said and done though, both Oslo and Paris have inspired me a lot as a musician, due to good and bad sides of the cities and the situations I was in at the time, and both have different things to offer someone who happens to be a part of the underground community. I’m very thankful to be able to experience life in both these places and to tap into the inspirations that grow from inhabiting these two cities and am curious to see what the future holds in terms of inspiration.

—Katherine Shepard

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