Born in California and raised in Sweden, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Nad Sylvan is a music lifer who formed his first band in 1968, toured for the first time in 1975 and signed his first record contract in 1983. With three eclectic solo albums already under his belt, Sylvan’s 2008 collaboration with keyboardist Bonamici Unifaun caught the prog community’s ear; it’s a stunningly fine pastiche that goes beyond superficial gestures to embody the musical soul of Genesis’ progressive period. One thing led to another from that point: Sylvan joining Roine Stolt and Jonas Reingold in Agents of Mercy; his ongoing gig with Steve Hackett, providing a visually and vocally flamboyant focus for multiple Genesis Revisited tours since 2013; and the deliciously Baroque solo albums on Inside Out that constitute his Vampirate trilogy (2015’s Courting the Widow, 2017’s The Bride Said No and 2019’s The Regal Bastard).
Nad’s new effort Spiritus Mundi sees him joining forces with guitarist/songwriter Andrew Laitres to set poems by W. B. Yeats — including visionary classics such as “The Second Coming,” “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Stolen Child.” This is a fresh, winning album, focused on Laitres’ acoustic guitar, shimmering orchestral colors — and Sylvan’s voice, ably navigating the spry melodies, inhabiting Yeats’ weighty words with grace, power and panache.
Nad Sylvan spoke with us last in 2019; after seeing him in concert with Hackett three times, it was delightful for me to chat with him about Spiritus Mundi and related topics. Recovering from a long day of shipping out preorders (roughly five times the amount he anticipated), Nad was nonetheless thoughtful, charming, and engaged throughout. The audio of our conversation is below, with a transcript following.
So, let’s talk about the new album, about Spiritus Mundi. How did you decide on a direction after you finished the Vampirate trilogy?
You got that one right! Vampirate — good! It’s my own invention; think of the vampire and the pirate combined into one character.
Well, to make a long story short, I was approached by Andrew Laitres, who I’ve done this record with. About two and a half years ago. And he asked me if I would be interested to track my voice for a song of his that was gonna go on one of his solo records. And that was a song called “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which turned out to be a bonus track on The Regal Bastard, my previous album.
So I asked him, “could I use this for this album?” ‘Cause I thought, it just went so well, it sounded so good, and I thought, “what a nice thing to use as a bonus track.” And so he granted me permission to do that!
So after I’d finished the trilogy, I immediately came to “where am I gonna go now? What should I do now? I feel like doing something completely different.” And then before you knew it, you had the pandemic as well come along. And I thought, well, spiritus mundi means sort of “the spirit of the world,” if you like. And that’s very much what we’re concerned about these days, more so than ever. It’s also a quote from the first song, “The Second Coming.” Where he sings about spiritus mundi. And it sounds so lovely, and it’s got some power behind those words. And I thought “why not use that as a title?”
And so I asked Andrew, “would you be keen to make a full album with these lyrics of Yeats? Let’s write these songs together.” I don’t have any prestigious thoughts about “I have to do everything.” I’ve already proven that I can write, ‘cause I’ve done three albums already. So he was enticed to go along with my idea, and then we started to work together – I would say it kicked off December of ’19. So during the whole pandemic, as I returned home from the tour with Hackett about a year ago – I would say mid-March of 2020 — I’ve been completely absorbed by this work. And it comes down to everything, even the artwork I’ve done for the album, so I could totally focus on this record, and I think it shows. It just sounds and comes across as being a bit more mature this time.
Well, that was one of the things that struck me, that you’re using Yeats’ poems for lyrics, because that strikes me as an amazing challenge. They’ve been set to music almost since the moment they were originally written.
Yeah, I know, but this was Andrew’s idea, you see. I wasn’t even that familiar with Yeats’ poems; I’ve heard of him. But once [Andrew] presented all his demos for me, I’d cherry pick: “Oh, this sounds nice.” And we started to mold the songs together, like “maybe this bit should be restructured” or “maybe we should change these chords” or stuff like that. It was very much a combined work effort. So, yes, Yeats has been covered by The Waterboys, back in the late 80s, I believe. But I didn’t even know that! I just thought, “what lovely poems! Let’s do it.”
I come from the classical world, and Benjamin Britten and John Tavener, composers like that, have also set Yeats. In fact, I have a CD in my collection that’s titled To A Child Dancing in the Wind of John Tavener’s Yeats settings.
Which is the last track of the album – the bonus track!
And that’s the one with Steve Hackett on it?
Ah! OK. So did the two of you, Andrew and you, take a similar approach to writing each song, or was the process more varied? Did different poems require different approaches?
It was a bit varied. Sometimes Andrew would just send me a very rough demo with him strumming along on the guitar and singing, and maybe the song was only 30 seconds long. You know, because the poem was so short!
For instance, a good example was “The Witch and The Mermaid.” Those were two very, very short demos that I thought, “OK, this needs to be extended, and maybe we could link those two songs together, and throw in the [sung]: “Spiritus mundi,” almost like a mass. You could almost see twenty monks standing in a church! You get a sort of ethereal, almost – that’s actually one of my favorite moments on the new album, that bit where the monks come in! I think it really works well in the totality of the whole concept.
I feel it’s a very deep album in many ways; it has to connect with the heart and the soul in a different kind of way than before. And that has strictly to do with me working with a new person. I believe in expanding and learning by working with other people; that’s a good way to grow as an artist. And I think we’ve succeeded! I mean, I’m amazed how well it came out; I didn’t expect that really, to begin with. I thought it was gonna be a nice record, but it grew into something quite extraordinary to me.
I’ve heard an advance copy of the album, and I especially love how the arrangements flow. They have a very intimate sound, with a lot of air and space and light, but they’re really lush and opulent, too, really driving for an orchestral feel. Could you talk a bit about how they came together?
Yes. Initially, when we started to work, I realized that Andrew’s guitar playing was quite lovely, and I thought, “let’s really focus on his guitar playing on this record. And let’s focus on my voice,” because these are such lovely poems. I wanted to make absolutely sure that the voice and the guitars had plenty of room in the mix. And I wanted to let those two items be accompanied by some orchestral, very organic sounds.
Sorry, I’m a bit knackered still from all the preorders – I keep losing my English! I’m sorry about that. I’m just so tired; I’m trying my very best.
But I wanted to make room for the voice and the guitar on this album. I didn’t wanna make a regular prog rock album, ‘cause I’ve done three of those. I thought, “let’s show what my voice really can do at its best. And let’s place it in a register where I sound the best,” which is nowadays my lower voice, my baritone. And I think I succeeded in that.
Well, I would agree with you. And I also had a question about your singing. Because again, as we’ve said before, this is high-octane, high-calorie stuff in terms of poetry, in terms of emotions. When you started singing Yeats’ poems, what challenges did you discover? Were you at all intimidated by them? What was involved in unpacking them so that they resonated where you were coming from?
I was just so enticed by the whole idea. And also the fact that I didn’t have to write the lyrics this time, ’cause believe me — I remember Freddie Mercury said it so well. He pointed out, “oh, the music, no problem! It comes just like that, it comes from within. But lyrics – ahh!” Writing lyrics is such a challenge, because it’s a completely different side of the beast. It’s a completely different thing; it’s like comparing any kind of work one to the other.
And I felt that, my goodness, such great lyrics. And when I sang them, I felt, “wow, what a natural flow it has!” In a way it was effortless because I could really connect with the meaning of the lyrics, and also I could go a bit more intimate with my voice this time. I didn’t wanna belt it out, you know? I do at some moments, like in “The Fisherman,” I do have moments where I belt it out a bit. But it’s just because it’s the last song on the album proper. You need to go off with a bang, I believe! [Laughs]
How else did you choose the guest musicians for the various tracks? It’s you and Andrew, but there’s some other very high-profile guests as well. In your mind, what do each of them bring to the party?
Well, I’ve been working with a few of those lovely musicians prior. Like Tony Levin plays bass on four tracks on this album. He played on my previous two albums, and when I asked him, he said, “sure! What do you have for me?” He’s such a humble man; I sent the tracks over and he was so excited to do it. So that was a no-brainer.
Jonas [Reingold], of course, is always a good companion; I’ve known him for years. We’re both in the Hackett band; in the past we were in a band called Angels of Mercy with Roine Stolt. So Roine’s a good friend of mine, and Jonas is a good friend of mine, so I asked him.
And for the drum duties, Mirkko DeMaio plays drums on this album; he’s nowadays the drummer of the Flower Kings. And he’s such a great fan of my work and a great supporter; he said, “if you ever need any drums . . .” And I talked to Roine and Jonas, and he was highly recommended, actually. And I thought, “why not give him [a chance]? He’s such a fan; sweet guy; great drum sounds. Why not have him on?” And so I did!
And that’s basically it. And then the other musicians were brought in through Andrew; I never met them. But the rest is Andrew and I.
That’s one of the things I’ve noticed over the years. The public stereotype of you as a musician would be, “oh, he’s the singer.” But you dive much deeper than that in your solo albums; you’re doing the bulk of the composition, you’re playing keys and guitars. You bring a lot to the plate every time.
Well, thank you! It has to do with – one side of me is the stage performer that you see with Steve Hackett. That’s the lead singer and the performer. But I do a lot more than that in real life. In all my recordings I’ve done since years and years and years back, I do handle the bigger arsenal of instruments. And so, when I got the record deal with Inside Out six years ago, when I did Courting the Widow, I was very well prepared; “OK these are the songs,” and played all the keyboards. I always play all the keyboards on my album. I actually had Roger King for piano on a couple of tracks, ‘cause I wanted him in. ‘Cause he’s such a great, great player. Not that I couldn’t have played it myself, but I thought, “why not have Roger on?” It was a loyal friendly gesture as well, ‘cause I knew he was gonna do better than me. [Chuckles]
You know, I started playing piano when I was about five years old, so I’ve been – I’m not a trained piano player, I took four semesters, I believe, when I was very young. But I was so intimidated by the school principal, that he scared me off really. It was hard days for a nine-year-old in the harsh atmosphere of Malmö, Sweden back in the late 60s. I was too sensitive for that kind of treatment. So I jumped ship; I left! And didn’t play for a while, and then I started again when I moved to Stockholm when I was eleven. I got myself a piano again, and then I was on the move! So, basically been writing all my life.
I have to admit the first time I came across your work was the Unifaun album, which I think I actually picked up when I went to – it was the US tour of Genesis Revisited, the very first one, where I picked that up, and I’d heard good things about it. What struck me about that [album] is that you really capture that golden era of Genesis. It’s not just the superficial — the sounds and textures, the licks; it’s that the harmonies and the melodies move the way they would have, if you put those five guys in the room together!
It’s really funny, that, isn’t it? ‘Cause we’d started off making that album as almost like a joke; we never thought we were gonna get signed, for a start. We just toyed around, because by that time I’d done an album called Sylvanite; it didn’t go anywhere. It still is a lovely album, and I’m very much behind that one, but it was impossible for me to get signed; it just wouldn’t happen!
And I’d been on the Internet for a few years, and when I hooked up with Bonamici, I started to relax. I thought, “I’m not gonna be a rock star; this will never happen. Let’s just have some fun.” And what do you know? Once you start to relax, things start to happen to you.
Unifaun was a gradual thing; it took us four years to make that album. About halfway through we got signed to Progress Records, that’s the label. And it came out like, what is it, thirteen years ago? And it’s still a heavy seller; that’s the biggest seller they ever had on that label! We just stayed to our ideals and just had fun making it. We had no idea it was gonna be that kind of success that it became.
Now looking back at that, I can tell that you don’t see that as the start of your journey. Because like you said, you’ve been writing for a long time, you’ve been recording for decades before that. But certainly, you have a higher public profile now. Starting with that, going into Agents of Mercy, connecting with Hackett, your solo career.
Yeah, but I think Unifaun became – what do you say? – the springboard to where I am now. I had no idea, when I started with Unifaun, that was gonna turn out to be the key to success in the long run, if you like. I had no idea; it was just for fun. There you go! If I’d never done it, I wouldn’t be here today, believe me.
So kind of looking back on this more intense period of the last decade or so, what have you seen as some of both the more personal satisfactions of this period and some of the musical highlights?
Well — good question, actually! One of the really, really good things was that I was actually able to quit my day job six years ago. It was a bit intimidating, a bit daunting at first. Because they basically said to me, “OK, we’ve granted you leave for two years now for these tours.” And I had a tour coming up that was gonna last four months. And they said, “we think you need to decide what you want to do in the future now.”
And so, it was really a no-brainer. I just said, “OK, goodbye!” I would never forgive myself if I would say, “goodbye, Hackett; I’ll stay here and rot.” ‘Cause it wasn’t a very nice time, working night shifts, and I was getting into my mid-50s and driving through heavy traffic in the morning, and I almost fell asleep behind the steering wheel. It wasn’t nice. And so that was fantastic!
And also, getting this exposure with Hackett. It just happened because people saw me every night. And when I asked Inside Out if they would be interested in making a record with me, they would be interested, because I’d got all this great exposure! They immediately said, “yes! What do you have? Let us hear something.” And I played a couple of tracks and they signed me!
Now, this would not have happened if I wasn’t with Hackett – and they also told me that: “this is because you’re with Hackett [that] we’re interested.” So yeah, being with Hackett was a great door opener for me, and it enabled me to live my dream, which I actually am doing now!
But now, the pandemic has thrown us all for a loop. So, how have you been occupying yourself beyond recording this new album, and now doing promotion for it, in this world without concerts? I mean, I saw you in Grand Rapids in October 2019, that’s the last rock show I’ve seen. Now, are there any compensations in the enforced downtime? Where are you at this point?
Do you mean, where am I physically?
Physically, emotionally – feeling about the situation you’re in right now.
OK. I guess I share my sentiments regarding that with a lot of people. Uncertainty. Will I have enough money to sustain throughout the year? I’ve got some support and some scholarship from the government, actually. But also, quite a lot of savings from all the touring. So, I’m OK in that part, at least throughout this year. Which is a lovely feeling, knowing that you’ll be OK for at least another nine, ten months or so.
I do hope that we’re gonna go out on the road in the autumn; it looks promising now that people are getting all their jabs, the vaccine. Even though there’s been some setbacks; it doesn’t move as fast as you would have hoped. I guess I’ll get my first shot sometime in the summer. And I just hope everyone will be getting their shots. I know there’s some people are being reluctant to, but I think that’s the only way to get rid of this horrible thing.
Well, I had my first one last Monday. So I will be ready when you go back out on the road. We will be anxious to see you again!
Yeah, good! Thank you for that!
Now, is there anything else you’d like to say to the folks on Progarchy?
Yes! It’s my gratitude! I’ve just taken all these preorders for my new record, I would say more than fifty percent came from the United States; I would say about fifty percent. The rest was [from] the UK and other parts of Europe.
I have a very sweet and growing audience in the States. And it feels pretty – I get a little emotional, because you know, I was born in California and my dad was American. I am half-American myself; I have dual passports. So, every time I come back to the States, it feels a little bit like coming home, you know? That kind of a feeling – “this is where I came from, this side of the big water.” It’s a nice feeling, and American audiences are always so sweet and enthusiastic and all of that. So, to my fans over there, I want to give you an extra thank you for everything you’ve done for me!
You’re welcome! And we appreciate what you’ve given to us over the years, very much. And congratulations on the new album – it really is wonderful! And I’m really looking forward to getting my copy, and I wish you every success with it.
It should be there soon! I hope so.
I’m sure that it will. The US mail is pretty good when it comes to overseas [delivery], so I’m sure I’ll be getting it relatively quickly.
I’ve got one notification that one guy’s gotten his copy, so it is reaching the States.
Excellent! And I will make sure that folks know – they’re still able to order it from your website, even though the preorders have all gone out?
Yeah, the preorders went before Easter. I thought at least I can do that. It was a heavy burden, but it was a lovely one! But they can still order it and I will still sign it and I will still give them a personal dedication, but it will not make it in time before the release. But I will still carry the album in my webshop.
Because I did notice that Burning Shed has sold through their [CD] allocation already, so it looks like you’ve got a pretty good seller on your hands!
It’s doing extremely well, and I’m so grateful! Not surprised in a way, because every album I’ve been doing better, but this seems to be going a lot more toward — an early success, if you like. It has generated fantastic interest. But I think maybe it has to do with the hype around it, because people knew this album, almost since last summer they knew I was making another record. So, the word has been out for quite some time, which builds up some sort of anticipation.
And it strikes me that Inside Out has been doing a very solid job promoting it. They had that first video, the bonus track [“You’ve Got to Find A Way”], out before Christmas. As you say, people are anticipating it. And they should, because it’s a wonderful album. I’ll look forward to holding my copy in my hands and hearing it. And I’ll definitely look forward to seeing you come across the pond, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.
I would love to get back over there, believe me! I love, love touring the United States and Canada; I love the whole continent.
Good to know. The love comes back, I think.
So you take care and have a great rest of your day and thanks so much for talking to me.
Oh, bless your heart; thank you so much! And, hope to see you then in Grand Rapids, maybe?
Hopefully so; it’ll either be Grand Rapids or Chicago. Those tend to be my two concert spots.
OK, then. Good.
All right. Take care of yourself, Nad.
You, too. All the best now.
All the best to you. Bye bye.
— Rick Krueger