Having worked for years to become a worldwide-known artist that he is now, Nad Sylvan’s emergence on the scene wasn’t as sudden as it might have seemed when he moved forward as a singer for Steve Hackett‘s “Genesis Revisited” band. The vocalist has done much in Sweden, and he was on the prog aficionados’ radar, so his talents merited international recognition, but it’s only recently that Nad’s dreams – and his imagination knows no boundaries – began to come true. Sylvan’s graced the Albert Hall stage and found the faithful fans on his global trek, and here’s his solo album almost ready for release. Quite a time for a reflection, which was the focus of our conversation with the man.
– Nad, now you’re firmly set in prog rock, but if we talk about the most popular song with you on, would it be “Cotton Eye Joe”?
I’m not on that song. I’m on the album (REDNEX’s “Sex & Violins”), but I’m not on that song. I was on the next song they recorded, called “Old Pop In An Oak” – there’s my voice in there somewhere – as Chris Sylvan Stewart. My real name is Christopher Sylvan Stewart; I’ve only been Nad since 1997. I did that album twenty years ago, when I was really struggling with my own music trying to get a record deal and all that kind of stuff. I tried everything, and I just went to a party one night where I met one of the guys who formed REDNEX, but a year went before their project kicked off and I was even thought of being part of the band. But it just wasn’t my thing, so I only lent my voice and did some vocals arrangement for the album: it was a very good income for me, and it was good to get to know more people in the business. But I’m in no way responsible for that album, as I was just a hired hand.
– But you’ve been a prog fan from the off, haven’t you?
I’ve been a prog fan since I was sixteen, and that’s 40 years ago, I’m 56 now. But I liked to listen to everything that got a good rhythm and a good melody and wonderful harmonies. I like very much the same kind of thing that Steve or any other guy in the band likes. I just like great music, and it could be anything from Gino Vannelli or Beyonce to heavy metal – doesn’t really matter… not heavy metal but hard rock. I’m a huge fan of Glenn Hughes from DEEP PURPLE and TRAPEZE. If I don’t listen to prog I like the sort of bluesy music that has a funky edge to it. That’s why I love TRAPEZE; “You Are The Music…We’re Just The Band” from 1972 is a fantastic album. I’m a funky singer in a way – if anything in my band, AGENTS OF MERCY, has a funky element, that’s always me.
– And still, everybody sees you as a quintessential prog singer.
There’s nothing wrong with that because I can do that just as well as I can sing jazz, soul or plain rock ‘n’ roll if I want. But my heart has always been with prog, and I think it’s also very important these days that you have a sort of a niche – you need to know how to market yourself. They say I’m being very flamboyant onstage, and I admit I am because – as I said before – I believe you need to put on a show; I like to do what I would like to see somebody do onstage. I want to be entertained. So I just grew into this stage persona that I have now, and I enjoy it very much. It took a long time to get here for me, and I’m enjoying it.
– You’re recording a solo album now. What style is it going to be in?
Progressive rock. It’s going to be like a continuation of what I’m doing now. I keep getting recordings of people’s prog demos and records they’ve done – they hand it to me, and that’s really sweet – but I don’t fancy prog rock music in the same way [as they do], I guess, because it’s me, I have certain albums that I like but I like a lot of other music, too. It doesn’t have to have prog rock feel to them in order for me to like it; it can be anything as long as it’s quality music. I was watching a broadcast from Hyde Park, where my friend Lee Pomeroy (Hackett’s former bassist, – DME) played with Jeff Lynne’s ELO last year, and that music sounds lot more simpler than it is to play it, but I was in heaven as it was absolutely fantastic! And you ask yourself, “OK, what was this guy listening to?” But Jeff Lynne is 67, so it had to be people like THE STONES or Chuck Berry or Muddy Waters. So there are the people who initiated it all: prior to YES and GENESIS you had KING CRIMSON and PROCOL HARUM, and I don’t think that YES and others would have sounded like they did if it weren’t for those bands, so one things lead to another. And you need to be true to yourself, so I don’t go out now, I quit coming out to disco’s and places where they play techno music, trance or that kind of stuff: to me, it’s utter rubbish, I just can’t listen to it. I can’t listen to anything that goes, “tooch-tooch-tooch-tooch” – I go mad, I go crazy, I just leave after all these times I’ve been forced to listen to shit. I listen to what I like to listen to, and most of the time I don’t listen to music at all.
– Being true to yourself, do you find it difficult to break away from Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins mold while staying within this GENESIS framework?
No, it’s not that hard at all. I know I’ve been tagged as sounding like a mix of both of them, and I suppose in a way it’s true because I tend to render the songs the way I’ve heard them – I don’t try to stray too much because I, just like anyone else out there, have a huge amount of respect for these classic GENESIS songs, and I don’t think you should change them too much – that’s why Steve stays true to original arrangements and [his keyboard player] Roger King uses basically the same kind of sounds. But on my own stuff that I’ve been writing over the last two years, for my own record – I tend to use my voice a bit differently, because I wrote the songs so I can fit my voice to the music exactly the way I want, and that’ll be an original recording. But if you listen carefully, I sing GENESIS songs in my own style, I don’t copy anyone else, but there are similar inflections because we have similar schoolings – I have listened to a lot of soul music; I used to sing soul in my thirties – so it happened to be like a parallel thing, it’s just I’m about ten years younger than the members of GENESIS. So it’s all natural, and if you listen to my version of “The Musical Box” and you listen back to Peter Gabriel’s version, recorded I believe in 1971, there’s a huge difference.
– You sing better because you have more experience now.
He was 21, but I have a thicker texture than he did then – his voice got thicker later on but that’s not what you hear on “Nursery Cryme” – so if people make those comparisons and say that I sound like Peter Gabriel, they should listen again: I really don’t. But I will always find these things complimentary, because they mean well when they say it, as my voice fits in that category of voices.
– Was that a reason for Steve to pick you as his permanent singer – out of all the singers who are on “Genesis Revisited II”?
I’m really not sure. It could’ve been so because I was available; I think also he liked that I could be theatrical in my performances and that could enhance the show, although I wasn’t that great at it in the beginning, I have grown in confidence since then.
– Did you expect that the invitation from Steve would take you to places like “The Albert Hall”?
Not really, but it was like a dream for me – I didn’t expect it all to happen. I did the “Unifaun” album that was released in 2008, when I was 49, and I’ve been working on my own music since I was 14, so that’s 42 years for you, working in the dark. But I always knew that I was right and everyone else were wrong – I’m talking about record companies and people who always turned me down – I think I have proved them wrong now.
– That music that you were writing when you were a kid… What did the song you wanted to send to Jimi Hendrix sound like?
Oh, that was the cross-hand (piano technique, – DME) song I did when I was seven (Laughs.) I tend to divide my years in music as years when I just played the piano and started to compose, that was when I was four or five years old until I was about eleven; then there was a two year gap when I left my grandparents to go and live with my mother when I didn’t have an instrument until we borrowed a piano from a distant relative and soon I started singing and writing pop songs. So from the early years to the later years, basically I’m involved with music all my life.
– What with your newly found popularity – you even have this website, “Nadmania”…
That was created by a couple of my fans who live in the Philadelphia area, so it’s not my website – it’s theirs.
– …so where do you think you will be going now when Steve finishes this project?
I will continue touring with him until December as far as I know. After that, promoting my solo album that will come out while I’m on tour. I do have a very loyal fanbase, which is growing all the time – they’ve been extremely kind to me: sometimes over the top, sometimes more than I actually can handle, and they know about that, so sometimes I just hold back because I can’t take it no more. They’re really sweet, the Americans especially, I must say; when you play in America, the audiences are more intense, and if they like you they show you that they really like you, but when they don’t like you you get to know about that, too. They’re never indifferent in that sense. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I seem to click with American crowd very well; maybe they know I was born in America, in Los Angeles, but I never really lived in America, and sometimes I get the vibe that they’re sort of welcoming me back to where I came from. I get that vibe sometimes, and I absolutely enjoy being here, I just wish I could stay longer at each place just to get my bearings.
– Where do your theatrics come from?
From within, from my heart. I had no schooling, it’s all natural. I took part in some school plays when I was really young – twelve, thirteen, fourteen – but I was always the class’ clown in school, I was always the funny one.
– Back to “Genesis Revisited,” you sang just a few songs on the album and then became the only singer of them all. How did you feel about performing more pieces than you originally recorded?
Steve didn’t know that but I think he knows now that I had to reinvent my singing technique for the songs like “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” that has high bits, and some bits in “Supper’s Ready” go extremely high too, and “Squonk”especially, is way above my comfort zone, really, but now I’ve become more comfortable with it because I found a new way of singing it. The trick is not to strain your voice, to not push it and ruin your voice, but to lift it up there, because the voice has to remain in good shape for a long tour like this. Some nights I’m struggling with notes, and I’m sure people hear this, I really don’t get there sometimes, but that’s just because I’m feeling very tired, or the voice is tired, or it’s too cold in the venue, or the air is too dry or whatever it is.
– Is there any song you’d like to sing but Steve just doesn’t play it?
The songs we do – not all of them – Steve had a lot to do with writing, and maybe that’s where his heart is, but I’d love to have a crack at more songs from “The Lamb [Lies Down On Broadway]”: “The Colony of Slippermen,” “Back in N.Y.C.”… I’d love to do songs like “The Battle Of Epping Forest.” There’s a lot of stuff there that is very exciting.
– And if it wasn’t GENESIS stuff, what would you like to sing in terms of covers?
I can’t do the YES material because it’s too high, consistently high, but if would be nice to do “The Revealing Science Of God” from”Tales From Topographic Oceans.”
– So what should we be expecting from your solo album?
You should be expecting the same sort of quality that I delivered with the “Unifaun” album, but it’s not really a continuation of it: I deliberately tried to sound like GENESIS then, because it was fun to do that, but this is more me, there’s more freedom. But it’s definitely old-school prog in many ways, albeit a bit more funky. You see I’ve been marketing my name for two years with Steve, so it’s going to be a “Nad Sylvan” album. And there’s fabulous musicians playing on it alongside myself. People I love and respect.
– Well, guests can overshadow a main artist.
Oh, there’s no risk of that. There’s no risk of that.
Photos used by kind permission of Kamila Branco, Rick Pauline and Robert Juckett.