It still gives me goosebumps when other people feel the same way I feel listening to the delivery of the lyrics and the music.
San Francisco’s Silver Swans is vocalist Ann Yu (formerly of LoveLikeFire) and DJ/producer Jon Waters. The duo’s third LP TOUCH debuted earlier this month, and it’s appropriately transparent in feeling. According to their docket, Yu willed herself to write about her new relationship just as the record was beginning to take shape, and it shows. Yu’s glacial exhalations, and the souffle of sparky synths and pogoing beats, dream us into gloom-tinged pop, but one that’s undeniably hopeful on the surface like a soothing balm to life’s woes. Deeply introspective lyrics set to happy melodies is nothing new, but a lot of dreamy music uses a blunt chisel on big beautiful slabs—Silver Swans is working in scrimshaw. The twosome has managed to utilize elements of something boring and dry and turn it into something uniquely heartfelt and unshakably catchy. Among the album’s tracks, “Sea of Love” and “Desire” are sonic checkpoints that seem to do the band most justice. Don’t expect singalongs and confetti canons—TOUCH is a porcelain sorrow.
You can purchase Silver Swans’ TOUCH here.
Ann, since Silver Swans’ sound is so much different from what you were doing with LoveLikeFire, did that take some getting used to in the beginning? Were you okay with leaving that sound behind?
Ann Yu: I feel like Silver Swans comes more naturally to me. I really had to work at the delivery and the presentation of LoveLikeFire. The loud guitars, the moody and dark energy. Silver Swans is dark too, but it’s a dreamy dark. It’s bittersweet and conjures up a lot of nostalgia. With LoveLikeFire, it was a bit aggressive. I don’t want to use the word angst-y, but there was a lot more tension in that music. I’m sort of a brooder and internalize things. Silver Swans is more—
Jon Waters: You can pick your emotions instead of wallowing all the time.
A.Y.: Yeah. So it was more effortless for me to write and perform as Silver Swans. LoveLikeFire took a lot of me and it challenged me in a different way.
So do you think this sound was always somewhere inside of you? Was it just a matter of time that you moved on from LoveLikeFire?
A.Y.: I’m sure every musician and artist says this about their current project, but this is what I always wanted to do. It’s like when you’re in all these different kinds of relationships and the relationship you’re currently in is the best one. When you move onto the next one, you reassess that. You’re always trying to explore the wonderment of you through your relationships. I thought LoveLikeFire was exactly who I am and then when Jon and I started working on music together, it felt like this is me.
J.W.: As a channel of expression, you get to be involved more. You could write words and melodies working with anybody, but it’s the freedom that I give you or whatnot.
A.Y.: That’s actually a really good point. In the best band that you could ever be in and the worse that you could be in, you’re just so invested. When you’re working with 4 or 5 people, it’s a democracy. Everyone is telling you what they want out of the band. Coming and working with Jon where it’s just the two of us, being pulled this way and that way between everyone in a band is completely eliminated. I’m sure you go through this too where you’re constantly second guessing yourself. In a band, you feel like you’re constantly under this microscope: Are they going to like this? Am I? How do we make sure everyone feels fulfilled creatively?
When you do start second guessing yourself about a particular track, what songs to include on an album… How do you resolve that? How do you test things out between the two of you?
J.W.: We don’t. We have to just do what we want to do. That’s the beauty of it. Whether we become hugely famous or popular or not, we have to go with out gut feelings.
A.Y.: That’s a good point because bands and musicians are always influenced by what’s happening in society and in the culture around them at the moment. The thing about this microcosm that we created is that we don’t put a song on any given album unless we’re 100% excited about it. We call it the “eek factor.” If we don’t feel that during the recording process, it’s not worth finishing.
J.W.: There are songs that haven’t seen the light of day just because there was something in there that didn’t work. And we can always change our direction, which is the cool thing about it. We don’t feel tied to a specific genre whereas a band is oftentimes, you know? Unless you’re David Bowie or one of those people who change a lot.
A.Y.: With this new album TOUCH, I’m coming out of a relationship and into a new one. That was a big thing for me in the creation of the music.
Well, I wanted to ask you about that. Since the album had so much to do with this new relationship and you volunteer that information freely, do you feel very exposed, especially around this new guy?
A.Y.: From my point of view, and I always felt this way about creating music, it’s a journal entry into your life at all times. Even the stuff with LoveLikeFire was the same way. Your fears, hopes and dreams all come out in the music. I think the vulnerability is sort of the thrill of making the music. I think every artist has that element of narcissism because you have to. Part of the obsession with what you’re making and the thrill of chasing what you’re feeling before sharing it with other people is the ultimate payoff for the artist.
Narcissism or not, I think people can pick up on bullshit really fast, so you have to come from a place that rings true to you even if other people can’t immediately relate to it.
A.Y.: So much of the fulfillment of creating music comes with seeing it out there. It still gives me goosebumps when other people feel the same way I feel listening to the delivery of the lyrics and the music. It’s a great feeling when you can sense that the listener is on your side. When people pull certain lyrics from songs and apply it to their own personal life, it’s really an amazing feeling.
J.W.: In today’s society, too much emphasis is placed on the left side of the brain to get through the day, to get through work. Everything is all business. It’s all structured mathematically and scientifically. People who use the left side of their brain a lot as artists tend to get the short end of the stick. Sometimes you can be your own worst enemy because you don’t belong in that area. That’s the internal struggle all the time, convincing yourself that you’re doing something good. I don’t know what I’m trying to say, but there’s something in there.
A.Y.: [Laughs] All the stuff that we just vomited out.
J.W.: In my regular job, and I’m sure Ann does this as well, it’s all math and logistics. So when we make music, it’s really great because you get to switch gears. I spend most of my time in the business side of it and I don’t really like being there. Once I get to be on the other side, I love it. But I need to make money, so there’s a lot of crossover sometimes.
Jon, where did you pull your inspirations from for the new record?
J.W.: It’s always about getting better at what you do. If Ann wasn’t doing anything with the music, this would be a bunch of instrumentals on someone’s hard drive just sitting there. Since Ann is involved, we can finish the tracks and we can produce a record with it.
A.Y.: It really does feel like having my Moleskin of journal entries. Jon will send me these tracks and every single one I listen to, I can pull a mood or an emotion from it. The lyrics just come. He just sent me 4 tracks yesterday and it evoked specific emotions from me. He’s sort of the left brain of the operation and I’m the voice. We come together to massage and finish the tracks. For better or for worse, Jon has to deal with the technical manipulation of the tracks. Then I take what he’s done and create my emotional setting for it.
So do the melodies always come before the songwriting then?
J.W.: Sometimes it’s the other way around. There are times where Ann will write something on the guitar and send it to me to sort of flesh out.
A.Y.: The track “Desire” was written on 2 chords on the guitar. Jon will take the vocals and the guitar line to fashion an entire track around that. It’s just whatever inspires us at the moment. Lately, it has been a lot of Jon’s tracks that serves as the main inspiration for us.
J.W.: I’ll have an idea of where things are going. I used to write things with the expectation of what Ann was going to do, but she shocked me so many times by doing something completely different and better than I could ever imagine. So I don’t even think about that now.
Can you remind me how you guys met? And what were the initial conversations that you had regarding where you’d want to take the music as Silver Swans?
J.W.: I was working with a friend of mine, Chris, at the time. We had 2 tracks together, but it was more of a business venture. We had 1 house-y song and another Joy Division-y song, which was “Realize the Ghost.” Chris knew Ann through LoveLikeFire or something. She had the perfect voice that sounded like Lush, which was what we were looking for. We sent the track to Ann and she sent it back to us the next day with 2 different variations on the vocals. Then we got interest from Everything but the Girl. The guy in that band really liked it and wanted to put it out on his record label called Buzzin Fly. Then that fell through for some reason and went off the boil. But through that, we decided to carry on and make an album. The first album was largely built on the tracks that I already had.
A.Y.: It was during the LoveLikeFire days when this was going on. Jon would just email me tracks randomly and it was such a new process for me because I’m totally used to the whole write a song on guitar, bring it to the band, the whole band works on it and finish it at practice. So working with Jon, he would just send me all these amazing instrumentals and I would just record the vocals over them. It was so easy and fulfilling. We just kept doing more and more tracks like that and we wound up with a ton of material. At that point, we thought we should do a project. It was the most organic process that we’d both experienced. I don’t really count the first album as the beginning of Silver Swans though because we didn’t discuss what we wanted to sound like. We were just messing around with songs. When the Secrets EP came out, that was the first time we decided this was a project that we will focus on. Then Forever came out, which was the full-length album. TOUCH, which was just released, is our most focused effort.
J.W.: For me, the first one pretty much has the same style as “Realize the Ghost.” We tried to build an album around that track, which kind of worked. If you listen back to that one now, some of the stuff is pretty good and others are pretty embarrassing. With the second one, we made a conscious effort to be completely different and make dreamy music. But every song was completely different and there was no concept through the entire album. With TOUCH, we made a conscious effort to have a concept that flows through the album.
A.Y.: The conceptual aspect of it was really all Jon because he’s the brains behind the technical stuff and the production. He made the conscious effort of using similar drum sounds and certain synths to make sure that we had a general aesthetic running through the album.
J.W.: Also, because of that, you made the conscious effort to tell a story through it of a relationship. The music and vocals come together and it is sort of a concept album.
Ann, you actually sent out a long list of tracks and had people rate them to sort of determine what tracks to include on TOUCH. Do you find that it helped you in the long run?
A.Y.: That actually made it a little confusing. It definitely gave us anxiety. For us, all the songs were finished at that point. We had this batch of work where we bared our heart and soul, and this is it. We thought it would be a good idea to share it with our close friends and other respected musicians to sort of carve out what the final 10 tracks would be. But it was all over the place. There was no for sure favorites and for sure tracks that need to get axed. Everyone was very helpful, but it was too many different opinions. Ultimately, we just had to go with our gut. Anyone who has to make a decision, creative or not, go with your instincts. When your mind comes into play, it creates anxiety. You can talk yourself into or out of just about anything. It’s really hard though. All of the tracks are your children.
J.W.: I used to write entire tracks all over again. I’d be obsessed with making it as good as I can. Sometimes I would get a track finished and completely change it to something else. I don’t do that anymore. The original idea is what matters. Don’t change things too much. Things don’t need to be embellished too much because the original idea is what you liked about it in the first place.
When you don’t have a set deadline, how do you know when to stop tweaking something and just let it be? Is that difficult to do?
J.W.: There’s a point where you go, “That’s it.” I could go on forever.
A.Y.: It’s true. He can literally go on forever. I tell him so many times that something’s amazing, we’re done. That night I’ll come home and there will be another version in my inbox. [Laughs] I’ll be like, “What?? This sounds nothing like the version we worked on…”
J.W.: I just get obsessed with it. I actually mastered it as well on this one. It was double the whammy. I’ve explained before that mastering is like smelling your own fart. It might smell okay to you, but for anybody else… As for mixing, to make something sound as pristine as I want it, I’m obsessed with carving the EQ out. I can keep going and going and going. Nobody listens to it like that, but you can tell the difference between a really nice mix and a crap one. As far as peer pressure goes, I wouldn’t want somebody like Brian Eno saying, “Oh, that’s a shit mix.” I’d hate that. I mix things as if somebody like that will eventually hear it. That’s what I aspire to. But an average listener will put their iPod headphones on and go, “That’s pretty.”
A.Y.: [Laughs] No, it’s true. They’re not listening to the subtle details.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in translating the music for live shows?
J.W.: We obviously want it to sound as good as it can. I have a feeling it could be way better than what we’ve been doing. We’re basically taking the songs on a laptop and then playing them with Ann singing over it. Sometimes we have a drummer and another keyboard player. I don’t think it comes across as well as it could. I think a lot of that will have to do with incorporating more instruments into it and forgetting the recorded tracks.
A.Y.: The sacrifice with that though is that you have to involve a lot more people. You also have to be okay with the fact that it’s not going to sound like the recording. That’s where we do involve our listeners because a lot of people aren’t okay with a live performance not sounding like the recordings, especially with electronic music.
J.W.: It takes a lot more rehearsals as well. If we do anything differently, that could totally throw Ann so she doesn’t know where we are in a given track. If it’s exactly same as the recording, you won’t get lost and you know where you’re going.
You guys are known for putting out a lot of remixes and covers for bands like The National, Lana Del Rey and most recently Miley Cyrus. I think your rendition of “Wrecking Ball” is so beautiful. I really dislike Miley Cyrus’ music, but I’ll listen to your version on repeat.
J.W.: We’re usually so serious that it’s sometimes nice to have fun with it. So that’s where the covers come from. It’s about letting your hair down, so to speak. You also imagine what Miley Cyrus thinks about what you’re doing. Sinéad O’Connor would be into it. [Laughs]
A.Y.: Jon and I both listened to the lyrics for “Wrecking Ball” and we definitely gravitate toward the lyrics more than anything else when we cover songs. I’m not really keen on Miley Cyrus’ delivery and she totally rages on that song, so we took it as a challenge. I felt like the lyrics call for something different. She has gotten such a bad rap for all of her shenanigans. We just wanted to see how we would deliver that song.
J.W.: I want to do more stuff like that because my brother’s kids and my sister’s kids loved it. It’s the first connection they’ve made between what we do and the stuff that they listen to from top 40. You can get recognition from people that you wouldn’t necessarily expect it from that way. Plus, we need more little girls listening to our stuff. [Laughs]
It’s an interesting exercise because when you work on your own music, you have a blank canvas whereas with covers, you have to get creative within certain parameters.
A.Y.: Totally. We have so many creative ideas, but sometimes you go off on tangents that you’re really excited about like covers. It was also nice to work on a really focused album and then work on one-off projects like that.
J.W.: It’s almost like gearing up for the next project as well. When we’re in the midst of an album, everything is set out in this specific way. As soon as that’s over, it’s experimental time and everything gets mashed around. You start using different toys and you go about figuring out where to take the next thing.
Maybe this is a bit early to ask, but where do you think you’re going to take your sound for the next album?
J.W.: I guess whichever one we get to. [Laughs]
A.Y.: Right now, it’s all over the place.
J.W.: We’re still in creative mode and figuring that out. It will have a specific sound, but we need to experiment with it.
A.Y.: It’s either going to be super stripped down and minimal or it’s going to be raging, fast dance music. Knowing us, it’s probably going to be on the slower tip.
J.W.: It’s not going to be drum and bass, or dubstep.
A.Y.: We do so many things for shits and giggles. We don’t really know right now. It’s nice to do just whatever for a while and let youurself be free.