Sylvia Rose Novak is an Opelika native, but she spent several years in the Magic City before a brief journey to Athens, Ga. This October, she released her third record, Someone Else’s War, independently, which may be her richest work to date. A familiar face in the local club scene, she still performs with her band Five Shot Jack with her husband and musical partner Kelen Rylee.
She talked about the new record and her recent return to Birmingham ahead of her formal welcome home party at Mom’s Basement on Sunday, December 9.
You spent a lot of time in Birmingham, but you left us for a little stay in Athens. What led you away and what brought you back?
I LOVE Athens. I have always loved Athens. And I really just needed a break. We were on the front-end of releasing Someone Else’s War, the house we were living in (in Birmingham) was in such bad shape that our instruments were warping so our landlord let us out of the lease rather than actually do anything about his house and we had a tough time finding anything else that worked for us in Birmingham with such short notice. All of our gear and the band trailer kind of make it harder to find housing.
We were in Athens for one of my photo shoots and, over coffee, I looked at Kelen and said, “Let’s just move here.” And we did. Unfortunately, it’s a college town at the end of the day and that leads to some limitations re: part time work when we’re off the road (releasing an album is expensive) and Kelen loves Birmingham so much that we came back. I know everyone in Birmingham loves it so much that they want me to say, “I just couldn’t stay away!” But that isn’t true. I actually really, really struggled with leaving Athens for the first couple of months. I still miss it badly, but I feel like I’m getting my feet back under me here.
‘Someone Else’s War’ has been a long time in the making. Why was this process different for you than the previous records and what made this one special?
I don’t really think it was that long of a process. We had everything done pretty quickly but the release was delayed because I was basically scammed by an A&R “company.” Luckily, I caught some early red flags and got out of that contract with the help of a great lawyer. This one’s special because of that long dumb fight. This album had to struggle to survive AND because – this is my third album in four years. That’s not a lot of time. I didn’t plant my roots, wait, grow and put out my first project. It was my rooting point. Someone Else’s War, I think, is me finally hitting my stride as a writer, arranger, producer and player.
What most inspired this album? Was it another artist? The world around us?
The 2016 election. The human condition. My constant and near-crippling existential dread. I wrote these songs instead of screaming into a pillow every morning and getting drunk every night. Though they both still happened (and do happen) on occasion. [No one is impervious to pillow-screaming if they think way too hard about the state of things.]
How active is Kelen in your writing process? Is it a full on collaboration or does he serve as more of a sounding board?
Actually, neither. Not really. I write and finish my songs and I play them for him so that he can learn them. He’s allowed to make up his own guitar parts sometimes but I tell him what I want regarding feel and tone. He helped me with the music for a tune that I wrote recently, “Bad Luck.” It’s not on the record. But I wrote the lyrics, sang him the chorus and told him exactly what I wanted the music to sound like. He nailed it. He’s a very talented writer, and I totally listen to – and sometimes incorporate – his ideas, but I have my own thing. When I put a song down on paper it is finished in my brain – arranged even. Down to the harmonies.
Is an artistic endeavor with your partner more or less challenging? What makes it successful for you guys?
I think it’s great. We do fight sometimes because the focus is constantly on my music. Learning it, performing it, etc. And he is super creative so I get why that can be tough – if the roles were reversed I’d feel kind of lost in the fray. We communicate well, though. And those feelings get talked about instead of stuffed down – I hear him. He’s my greatest source of support. He believes in my ability to be more than successful in this industry 120% and he puts so much work into making sure that happens. I never want to do this without him.
You’ll occasionally still do Five Shot Jack shows. Are those fun for you? How do you balance the two acts?
YES. Man, I love playing rock and roll bass while someone else sings. Or while I sing. Or while we all sing together. That band is just insanely fun and I’m in it with two of my best friends (one of them being my husband). I’m the primary lyricist for Five Shot Jack, but the music and arrangement is a collaborative effort and It’s just brilliant when we’re all putting our brains together (in the name of creativity – in other endeavors it can be pure idiocy in the best way). I honestly feel like that band would be blowing up if we had really pushed it. Who knows what the next few years will hold, though.
What has the Birmingham scene been to you from afar and what are its strengths that lured you back?
Oh boy. Honestly, on the songwriter side, it seems really clique-ish from afar. It can also even feel that way a little when you’re back in the midst of it. But this city has some of the best players I have ever met and I can’t wait to work more with them on tours and my next singles and record. This city really does have a wealth of ultra-accomplished musicians – the guys in Tragic City, Taylor Hollingsworth, my own sometimes bassist-sometimes drummer Blake Bolton. They are all monster players. And those are just a few examples.
Sylvia Rose Novak stops by Mom’s Basement on Sunday, December 9. Wilder Atkins opens. Show begins at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.