Interview with Silent Skies – “We make the best art when we are ‘baring our souls’ in music”

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Music and emotions are intertwined to such a high degree that it’s almost impossible not to feel something (either positive or negative) when listening to a song or piece of music. In this in-depth interview with multi-instrumentalist Vikram Shankar, we talk not only about all things SILENT SKIES, but also about the intrinsic relationship between emotions and music and what it means for the artist to put so much of themselves into what they create.  

Hello, Vikram! How are you doing today?

Doing very well here, thank you! Busy, perhaps too busy, but to be challenged is to be fulfilled, so no complaints here.

Tell me a bit about yourself. How and when did you start making music?

I’ve been playing piano since I was around 5 years old. I had a natural affinity for the instrument, and I suppose have always felt that communication through music was perhaps easier than through conventional language. I studied piano on a formal level, first classical and then jazz, for a total of around 15 years, culminating in a conservatory musical education in film scoring/composition and jazz piano. Simultaneously, I’ve been diving headfirst into the world of progressive rock, metal, and many other types of music, and I haven’t looked back since!

Before diving into the music, can you give us a little background on when you and Tom Englund met, and how you decided to form this project together?

Tom and I connected via the magic of the internet in 2017. I had been doing piano arrangements of metal music for many years at that point, and Tom saw some videos of me performing songs from his band, EVERGREY – I suppose he saw in these videos a musical kinship, the fact that I understood and expressed emotion and phrasing in a similar way to him and that we shared a similar sense of aesthetics and atmosphere. He reached out suggesting some sort of collaboration, I immediately agreed, and we dove into the writing process for our first album, “Satellites, in which we gradually discovered who we are as a musical entity – and that we had something too special to relegate to a one-off project!

The album will be released on February 4th. If you could describe “Nectar” in a few keywords, what would those be?

I would say “Nectar” is an atmospheric album, presenting Scandinavian melancholy in a dynamic, ambient manner, calm and reflective, but with the brooding dark energy of metal music, transmuted into a more relaxing format.

It is said that you have all the time in the world to write your debut album, but it’s the second one that defines and cements a band’s status. Did you feel any pressure writing “Nectar” or did things go smoothly?

No pressure really, instead, a profound sense of excitement and “the possible” that we were eager to dive into. By the time “Satellites” was released, we were full of ideas and ambitions of what we could do to make our second record even stronger, and so “Nectar” was completed in a fraction of the time, with the marvels of the internet and modern connective technology aiding our process.

What did you learn from writing “Satellites” that really became helpful when putting this record together?

On a broad level, Tom and I both learned a great deal about who we are as artists from working on “Satellites.” At the beginning of our work together, we had to develop together an understanding of what it meant to create cinematic piano-driven music with strong vocal melodies and song structures – something that is absent from much cinematic and soundtrack music. Having a stylistic foundation together helped us dive into “Nectar” with more abandon and more freedom to explore new horizons.

On a personal level, I taught myself a great many things about writing, arranging, and recording when doing “Satellites” – it was especially a trial by fire for the arranging and programming of synth textures, which I had done before but never to that degree of sophistication and intricacy. By the time “Nectar” was underway, I was as comfortable working with synth parts, electronics, and programming as I was with my trusty piano, a fact that is self-evident when listening to the album.

While listening to the album, a range of emotions and moods from melancholy to daydreaming took over me. Do these feelings mirror what you experienced when creating “Nectar”?

It is beautiful that “Nectar” inspires you to think, feel, and dream. “Nectar” is, we hope, music for reflection, music that listeners can put on to help them stop and take a breather in today’s hectic, cluttered world – perhaps even music that can help them delve within and understand themselves better.

For us, these feelings are in some way a mirror of what we experience and put into our art, simply because our art is a direct reflection of what we experience as artists and also simply as human beings. Our art is therefore an unconscious mirror of feelings, since it is a direct and honest representation of who we are.

Are there any other feelings or moods buried within the music or in the lyrics? Maybe pain, vulnerability, or even catharsis?

These are all aspects of our music – I believe that catharsis is an experience facilitated by engagement in what one is feeling, a true understanding, and confrontation of whatever is causing inner turmoil. The only way out is through, so to speak, and brushing things under the rug, in the long run, is futile compared to the growth and healing that can come from directly facing your demons. Tom and I, as people who struggle with mental health issues of our own, know this well and we endeavor to practice this in our daily lives, but hopefully can also inspire listeners to do the same by facilitating self-reflection and introspection. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but in most cases, it does require some work to get there.

What feeling gives you more creative energy – love, sorrow, or pain?

I think all potent feelings can give some degree of creative energy. For me personally, not to speak for Tom, I draw on emotions and experiences when writing, but to write in the direct throes of feeling – any given feeling – is often simply not as effective for me, as when I’m experiencing a depressive episode, it can be extremely difficult to find the strength to be productive, and forcing oneself to work in times of crisis is a sure path to burnout.

If you’re reading this interview and are struggling with a compulsion to work harder and more obsessively while dealing with mental health episodes and negative thoughts, do your best to not drive yourself deeper into that hole, as that is an extremely dangerous road to walk! In my case, I try to cope with the immediate feelings associated with depression with activities like walking in nature and meditation – unplugging, unwinding, and creating some space that is (relatively) free from the stressors of daily life. But I do draw heavily upon these feelings and experiences when it comes time to create and find a productive way to channel these experiences into art in the hopes that the artistic manifestation of these experiences can lead to healing and inspiration for others.

Do you take your lyrical inspiration from a more personal spot, or for you is music an escape where you can use other subject matter outside of who you really are?

Lyrics, like music, are purely personal for us. It is an amazing talent for artists who are able to convincingly convey emotion about lyrics that are unrelated to who they really are – for us, we make the best art when we are “baring our souls” in music, so to speak.

By creating such emotional music, I feel like you’re giving so much of yourselves to the public. Is this intentional, or is it a side effect of who you are as individuals?

It’s intentional insofar as we believe the best way for us to make great art is to be radically authentic and honest, but it’s a side effect of who we are in that doing so comes naturally to us. It’s much easier for us to create great art this way than to create great art about subject matters we have no personal familiarity with. For us, emotional and personal honesty brings out the best in what we do.

Do you also listen to such emotional music yourselves, or do you prefer other types of songs?

We both love emotional music and listen to it often because we share a belief that through emotional, dark music, one can often find a lot more strength, inspiration, and healing than things that are cheerier and more upbeat. That being said, I listen to everything, and there’s a lot of music on my playlists that is a far cry emotionally, tonally, and aesthetically from what I do with SILENT SKIES or any other band.

When it comes to writing slower songs (not necessarily just ballads) it can easily become cheesy, but I’m curious if there is a certain way to avoid those clichés?

I can’t pinpoint anything we do on a literal songwriting and production level to consciously avoid being cheesy or cliché, but I would say that one of the defining hallmarks of music we perceive as being cheesy is that it’s in some way contrived (usually contrived to be over the top in some way). I suppose we quite simply circumvent the issue by writing music as honestly and authentically as possible – at least, I hope it circumvents the issue!

Do you have any favorites on the new record, and were there any special situations that happened during the writing and recording process that make some songs stick out?

Part of the beauty of the writing process of “Nectar” was how freely, organically experimental it was. If we wanted to try something, we went ahead and did it, in real-time, working together on Zoom, and we could therefore iron out any experimentation and make it pass muster. Many of the album’s most inspired moments come from such moments of instant inspiration, like much of the song “Neverending,” which was largely produced and arranged together in real-time.

The song “Fallen From Heart” is special due to it being the very first song composed for the album – when I heard Tom’s first recorded line of the album – “snow on my windowpane” – the “sonic world” of the album seemed to come to my mind instantly. I also am quite attached to the song

“Better Days,” which features what sounds like a synthetic atmosphere but is actually many layers of my own voice layered together in a sort of Enya fashion, and the song “The One” is another very special one to me as well with some of Tom’s best writing of his career. Depending on the day and mood, I can probably identify every song on the album as a particular favorite!

On your debut album, there was a beautiful cover of EURYTHMICS’ “Here Comes the Rain Again.” Will there be any more covers on future releases?

It could happen! There is no telling what is going to happen on future releases. Part of the beauty of this band is that we follow our muses wherever they lead, which on the first album resulted in a cover, and on the second album did not. We did work on a few covers in the interim between “Satellites” and “Nectar” but ultimately felt that the original material on this album spoke better standing by itself. Who knows for the future though! I have a rich history covering music myself that predates my life as a professional musician, and Tom has covered many songs himself with EVERGREY, so it more than likely may happen on a future release.

Is SILENT SKIES a studio project only or will we see you on stage one day?

We absolutely will take SILENT SKIES live one day! The setting has to be right and we have no desire to compromise on our vision to make SILENT SKIES live the most powerful experience we can, but hopefully, the stars will align sooner rather than later.

Are you happy with the response SILENT SKIES has received in just a few short years?

We are! We are particularly happy with the way that we have been embraced by the metal community, a community that we have always known to be open-minded, but given the fact that SILENT SKIES lacks certain components that are predominant in metal (loud dynamics, distorted guitars, metal drums, etc.), there was always a chance that it would fall on deaf ears. We have been pleasantly surprised to see that metal fans understand the kinship between SILENT SKIES and metal music – that both place emotions, atmosphere, and vibe first and foremost, and that both have a kind of inner darkness and melancholy.

What are your biggest wishes, dreams, and hopes regarding this new release?

I hope that this music can do for others what my favorite music has done for me: inspire, heal, and show others that no matter what you’re going through, you are not alone, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that the power of the human spirit is strong enough to overcome the various hurdles life throws at us.

Did you learn anything new about yourself while making this album?

I learned a great deal, actually – every time I make an album, I learn how to do certain things better, how to come closer to achieving that ever-elusive sound in my head. But on a more personal level, I learned a great deal about self-confidence and what it means to be a professional creative. The quest to reflect yourself in art and create personal music can be a challenge when balanced with factors like self-doubt and self-loathing. While making “Nectar, I battled these factors, but, in part, thanks to the mentoring and friendship of Tom, have gotten better at balancing these with the creative process and the necessities of being a professional musician. It’s an ongoing learning process, but I’m much further along in this process than I was a year ago!

How would you continue the sentence “Music is…”?

Music is the connective fabric that unites, explores, and defines the human experience. It is art, personal and intimate, but also has the potential to be a vehicle for global change, spirituality, and so much more. It is quite unique in its power to be so many different profoundly powerful things to so many different people.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I would like to say, firstly, thank you for reading – your interest and readership go a long way to supporting music made with heart and soul. If you are interested in “Nectar, make sure to check out our lead singles “Taper” and “Leaving” online. If you like what you hear, then we are quite sure you will love “Nectar” – and if you don’t, that’s okay too! One’s personal taste is a precious thing, and nobody can or should ever tell you that you are wrong or lesser for liking or not liking anything. Hopefully, if you approach our music with an open mind and a willingness to be introspective, our music will connect with you.

Interview by Andrea Crow