Sylvia Novak has her fifth record finished, and it doesn’t sound like anything that she has done before. She’s given in to her rock sensibilities; her first love. Novak cautions that she may never play violin again.
She’s been very prolific. When this record is formally released, it will be her fifth full length, and she’s still just 31. Most of the new project was recorded in Birmingham at Boutwell Studios.
She and I talked about how the pandemic drove her to the leap into rock and roll and what blending the two styles looks like; or if that can happen at all.
Every record you’ve done has kind of had its own unique sound. This one is obviously the most different. What pushed you in this direction this time?
I wanted to do something more high energy. Pop-punk and emo were a big part of my formative years. I realized that everyone was kind of doing it, but everyone that was doing it was like five-years-old when that was popular. And I felt like a grandma out here, “No, this is how you make pop-punk.”
There are no rules anymore. It was 2020. I decided to do a totally different writing style; a totally different production style for me. It ended up being a really fun challenge. I want something different. I was bored.
You were obviously doing more of an “Americana” thing before, and this is clearly rock and roll. Do you even bring your violin out now when you’re playing this music?
I don’t. I actually didn’t play it all in “Bad Luck,” but in “The Window,” that string pad you hear in the beginning, that’s me playing all the violin parts. I play my own string pad.
A lot of pop-punk bands use string pads, and I was like, “[Why put] a prerecorded string pad in there? I can play my own strings.”
I guess Yellowcard was the only pop-punk band to ever earnestly play strings…
Yeah, and we listened to a ton of strings to put at the beginning of that song, and I sat behind Brad and I thought, “I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.” I went to the bathroom in Boutwell; I was washing my hands and I looked in the mirror and thought, “You idiot! You play violin!” I walked back in and said, “I’m going to do it.”
When you’re writing this style, do you write the same way you did before and just change the instrumentation? Or is it a totally different process?
I try to be a little more pop sensible. I say what I want to say with less words. I make sure it’s a little more hooky; a little straighter. With Americana, I had to edit myself a little less. I still write the same way, but I use less words. I repeat phrases a lot more. I focus more on one thing that’s going to be the thing. What are people going to remember? Not, “This is a whole story.”
If you continue on in both styles, how do you differentiate which song belongs to which project?
I don’t until I have a label telling me what to do. I do whatever I want until someone tells me I can’t. That’s been my entire approach to this business in general. Nobody is telling me what to do; until they’re paying for me to do what they want me to do.
Have you taken your older work and reworked it in the new style? If you continue on this path, would you perform it both ways live?
I am probably never playing a fiddle again.
Whoa! Is this breaking news here?
I know. I have never hired a bass player that I have liked better than myself. I’ve been playing it since I was 12. I would find myself super frustrated. One day a few years ago, I thought, “I’m not doing this anymore.” I swapped for a little while, back-and-forth. If I ever do, it’s going to be on a giant stage in front of 5,000 people. It’s going to be like playing Wembley. It’s going to be a big surprise. I just walk out on the catwalk with the violin for a minute; just for a song. [laughs]
How old were you when you started playing violin?
23. I don’t want to sound cocky about it, but I was infuriatingly good at it. I was prodigal.
It sounds like you’re enjoying this more that what you were doing. Have you “killed” the old Sylvia, so to speak?
I think so. I’ve gone to therapy a lot. [laughs] I did Americana because it was what I thought I was supposed to do. I’m a tiny girl that can play stringed instruments. But I’ve always had a punk rock heart. Every time I’ve played a songwriter’s festival, I’ve incited some sort of weird riot on stage and it’s been punk rock time in the middle of a songwriter’s round at 6:30 at night. I made some great friends, but I never really fit in.
I think it was when we opened for the Vandoliers, which is basically an Americana/punk band, that I was like, “Ohhh. I know why I get along with these guys.”
I have a lot more fun. There’s a lot of merit to Americana. I love the stories. Maybe when I’m 50, I’ll make a folk record again. But for now, I want to keep making rock music. Maybe next time, I’ll make a pop record. I don’t know yet. I just want to keep doing other stuff.
Sylvia Novak and Parts Unknown plays their first show since the pandemic and their first show with the new rock material on Saturday at Ghost Train Brewing in Birmingham. The show starts at 7 p.m.