Sylvia Rose Novak is an Americana musician from Alabama with her album Someone Else’s War coming out tomorrow. She has a well-rounded artistic lifestyle: she’s written literature, has rebuilt violins, is a yoga teacher, and not only produced her own album but is beginning to branch out into producing more for other people. We had a chance to talk to her about all of this and more recently.
AH: You’ve said you are a fan of Southern Gothic literary novels. Who are your favorites?
SRN: My Southern Gothic obsession started with Flannery O’Connor. In high school a teacher had us read A Life You Save May Be Your Own, and that was the best most amazing thing I had ever read in my life.
AH: How do those ideas influence your songwriting?
SRN: I’ve lived in the south my whole life. But I didn’t start to really look at the richness of the landscape until I started reading those books. They are so descriptive — the views of the tress, the skies. I was 18 years old and starting to really pay attention, and when I started to really pay attention I started to form ideas of my own. In my songwriting I find that I stay true to that really vivid imagery.
AH: Your songs have a complexity, for example “Someone Else’s War” tackles some highly involved international concerns. How does that song relate to our current state of affairs?
SRN: I wrote that song in the fall of 2016. This election felt like much more than a simple “political” difference to me, it felt much more drastic. It felt like we were really doomed. People that I thought would be able to see through that, regardless of political affiliation, weren’t seeming to see that.
AH: Is it your hope that your songs might help change peoples’ minds for the better?
SRN: Yes, I see music as capable of being a rallying point, and that song is intended to help uplift people and emphasize that we do have some control. Music can absolutely be a powerful motivating source. The first three songs of the record are the ones that suggest we may be about to die in a nuclear apocalypse. “Someone Else’s War” asks what are we going to do about this.
AH: You’ve written literature in addition to songs, so you have multiple creative outlets for writing. How important do you think it is for really everyone to be creative?
SRN: When we repress the parts of our brain that are creative and daydream, we totally disconnect from each other. I blame social media for a lot of this right now –people are very disconnected. We don’t connect anymore. People should journal, draw a bad picture, write down words, any little thought or phrase they have in their minds, all of that would help.
AH: How do you try to avoid this disconnection?
SRN: I’ve been practicing listening to albums. It’s important to listen to albums multiple times, not just once through. I’ve been listening to albums on repeat, twice, three times, and more. I hear so much more of what’s going on, what the artist intended that way. People need to sit with records all the way through, otherwise they’re missing so much.
Also, I recently went through yoga teacher training, and I learned so much about the importance of mindfulness and being presence. It’s helped my whole approach to life and my music.
AH: When you write music, what’s your process?
SRN: I write very spontaneously. Most of my songs come together in ten minutes or less. I’ll get a handful of ideas and they’ll bounce around for a few days but then I’ll sit down and the whole song will come together really quickly.
AH: What’s your muse?
SRN: My muse is the human condition. I like to pay attention and watch people. I write a lot of songs about other people and personalize them.
AH: What made you choose Warren Zevon’s When the House Burned Down to cover on this album?
That song made so much sense to cover, it has so many metaphors and is very much about people right now. It was a perfect fit with the rest of the record. Also, I love Warren Zevon.
AH: You don’t just play your violin, you work on it. Tell us more about that!
SRN: I rebuilt the violin I’m playing. I used to pull apart and rebuild violins with my old boss in Auburn Alabama, and that was fun, we’d pull them completely apart and rebuild them. But now I mostly just set sound posts and fix cracks and basic stuff. It’s been nice because everything in the violin is built to the way I like it to sound and the way I like it to play.
I’ve set up my violin to play according to my own personal preferences. Inside a violin there’s something called a bass bar, and that sits along the top of the body, on the same side as the lower resonance string. The size and length and thickness and overall placement of the bass bar affects the tone of the low end of the violin. My violin has a little bit longer bass bar because I like a little bit deeper pitch. And I cut my bridge really low and very flat to make shuffling and double stops easier.
AH: Who is on the album?
SRN: My band is my husband, Kelen Rylee, he’s my guitar player. My bass player and drummer swapped back and forth for the entirety of the record. I produced it myself, and I figured out that if one was playing drums and one was playing bass, and it didn’t sound quite right, I’d ask them to switch. And it worked every time! The rhythm section was Blake Fulton and Lester Nuby III who owns the studio and engineered the record. Courtney Blackwell and Christo Case also added cello and keys.
AH: Have you produced albums before?
SRN: Yes, every one of my three albums was self-produced. I’m creative, and I have opinions (laughs)
AH: Would you consider producing for other bands?
SRN: I would love to. It’s a dream goal. Some of this is in the works right now, although nothing is set in stone yet.
But I have to say I feel like it’s harder for women. People don’t realize a lot of the time that they’re condescending. I’ve had to stand up for that sometimes. For example, I’ve offered to other women to produce a track for them, and most of them have said yes, but when I approach men I get more of a vague “sure,” which is a brush off.
It’s also harder, as a woman, to have my instructions followed. There have been times when I’ve tried to ask people to play a part in my own music, and I’m in a room full of men where they have point blank told me no. And I promise you that in these moments I’ve said: “you wouldn’t say that to a male producer.” It makes a roomful of men suddenly realize what they’re doing. Because a lot of sexist stuff is inadvertent and unintentional.
But then I run the risk of being called “bossy” or “difficult to work with” where they wouldn’t consider the same of a man asking for the same thing. But, we’re working through it, I’m working through it.
AH: To what extent do you associate with Americana music?
SRN: Unfortunately I missed Americana Fest, they reject my application every year. My music is Americana but it’s not typical to what women are doing in Americana. And that’s just going to take a little bit of extra tenacity on my part to get people to recognize that. I am absolutely making Americana music.
Novak is already working on her next album. To find out more, investigate Novak’s literature, check out her new album, and find tour dates, click here: https://sylviarosenovak.com/