Nad Sylvan… Hugh Erik Stewart to his parents… is an American-born Swedish vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who, despite his relatively recent high profile as the vocalist in Steve Hackett’s band, has actually been around for some considerable time. Born in LA in June, 1959, he’s been making music since the 1970s. At 16 he fronted a band called The Envoys and, from there, joined Attacus, a Genesis-style prog band, playing keyboards and singing. They renamed themselves Avenue in 1979, cutting one single and, in the 1980s, he played in the band One by One. After stints in bands, he concentrated on pursuing a solo career, releasing his debut album, The Home Recordings, in 1995 under the name Chris Stewart (his mother renaming him Chris when she remarried). He released the concept album The Life of a Housewife in 1997, and his debut album was rereleased as Blue Waters in 1999, by which time Chris Stewart had morphed into Nad Sylvan.
Why the name change ? Choosing his name was an OTT gesture but, as he says, he was getting desperate by this time …’A friend encouraged me, saying ‘be outrageous, be the class clown if you have to be. You’ve got musical ability, get them to notice it’. With a friend he met via the internet, he then got involved with Unifaun in 2008, releasing one album, which was a tribute to Genesis, and then, after meeting fellow Swede Roine Stolt, formed Agents of Mercy, who toured and released four albums between 2008-11. But since 2012, he’s been fronting Steve Hackett’s band. As well as this, he’s released ‘The Vampirate Trilogy’ of albums in the past few years under his own name –The Bride Said No, Courting The Widow and The Regal Bastard – and in April 2021, will be releasing his latest album Spiritus Mundi, which marks a shift away from his previous albums, being based on the poems of W.B.Yeats.
But, despite being busy preparing for the release of his new album, Nad agreed to take time out from his schedule to talk, via Zoom, to Velvet Thunder about his life, his struggles to become a musician and his music, and I began by stating most fans had probably never heard of him until he joined Hackett and, after his journey from being a little known vocalist to fronting Steve Hackett’s band, taking him years and many setbacks to reach where he is now, he couldn’t exactly call himself an overnight success, could he? ‘No, I can’t,’ Nad agreed with a laugh. ‘ I still get new fans, people who think I’m new to singing the Genesis stuff with Hackett, and aren’t aware Steve’s been doing it since 2013 with me as the singer. But it’s never too late, never too late to enjoy some success, finally.’
Beginning his career in the mid-1970s, Nad spent quite some considerable time attempting to be successful, either as a solo artist or playing in bands. Was there ever a time when he thought ‘this just isn’t gonna happen for me,’ and decided to stop trying? ‘Yes, there was,’ he agreed, ‘but I was adamant, and I was determined to become a rock star, from the word go, really, since I was fifteen. I gave it a whole lot of trying, I got lots of refusals from the record labels, but I just knew this was the only path for me. At the age of 43, maybe 44, I’d just released an album called Silver Night, which became my last solo album before I started recording my solo records for Inside Out many years later. Nothing happened with it, and it was a fantastic album, though now it’s a seller because it’s my back catalogue – I’ve just sold the two last copies, actually’ – he said, proudly! ‘At that time, I was focusing so hard on becoming a household name in rock music, but nothing was happening, but then I met a guy online who was doing this tribute to Genesis with his own music, so I thought, ‘okay, why don’t we try to do something just for fun?’ as at the time I’d given up on the idea on becoming a full-time professional musician. This led to the Unifaun project, which became the platform for me to get where I am today. So, once I started to relax, things started to happen for me.’
Unifaun was where things began to move along for Sylvan. Following this, he played in Agents of Mercy with Roine Stolt because finally connecting with Steve Hackett. How did the connection with Hackett come about? ‘Around 2012, Steve decided he was going to make another Genesis Revisited album with different singers, and I was recommended to him by this guy who’s the promoter of the ‘Night of the Prog’ Festival in Loreley, Germany, named Winfried Volklein. He was a huge fan of the Unifaun album, and he told Steve ‘you should definitely get Nad Sylvan onboard’. so Steve went online, saw some clips of me with my previous band, Agents of Mercy, and decided to give me a shot, so in April 2012 I get this phone call saying ‘Hello Nad, it’s Steve Hackett here’, and I flew over in May to see him. I even sang acapella to him in his studio, and he said ‘Great, you’ve got the job.’ I recorded three tracks for him for his Genesis Revisited album, and the following year, I was hired to become the lead singer onstage. This was quite a huge jump for someone who’d always been this relatively obscure artist up till then.’
Joining with Hackett was the springboard which finally put Nad Sylvan in the public eye. What did he think he had Hackett liked? ‘I fully understand people who thought ‘who’s this guy? Does he think he’s Peter Gabriel?’ because people didn’t know me. Now, I’m about to release my fourth solo album and people know me a lot better than they did, and they do know I have my own voice, and my own character’ – he paused for a moment. ‘I believe I got the job with Steve because he thought I sounded authentic. You could clearly hear there was an influence on my singing style, that I had been listening to Genesis quite a lot. I mean, Genesis will always be my number one band, alongside the Beatles. So, my authenticity is what grabbed his attention.’
Nad is a long-time Genesis fan and even managed to see them in Sweden on their 1977 Wind And Wuthering tour so, as a fan, how daunting was it, having now joined Steve Hackett’s band, to actually have to sing Genesis songs ‘live’ before large audiences? ‘Well, many people have seen me as a Peter Gabriel clone for a long time,’ Nad stated candidly, ‘though some people realise I do my own thing, put my own stamp on the music. But it wasn’t daunting, it was more other-worldly, like I wasn’t able to realise what kind of situation I’d put myself in. It was surreal. Being such a fan of the music, as I was and still am, I thought, who else would take on this kind of a thing? I just thought, this is absolutely tailor-made for me. What was more daunting was that I had no touring experience on this kind of level. From the first video from Hammersmith, it could be seen I was still pretty green, I was a rookie, and I was a bit OTT in my theatrics, but this was just me trying to cover up my shortcomings. But if you see me on stage now, I’m much more relaxed. I’ve grown and I’m a lot more confident. But you can’t fake routine, it has to come slowly – so yes, it was daunting but the fans soon came to me early on and were very supportive, so I’m eternally grateful to them.’
One of the misconceptions about Nad is his vocals are limited, but there’s more to what he can offer than just singing Genesis-style prog, isn’t there? ‘Yes, there is,’ he agreed. ‘I didn’t start out as a prog singer. I’ve gone through many styles as a singer, everything from light jazz to heavy rock and pop. I can do several things with my voice, which is pretty much showcased on my new album, Spiritus Mundi. I’m actually very much a soul singer as well’. It was pointed out to Nad his voice has several positive characteristics – powerful, emotive and very distinctive – so I wondered what genre he felt most comfortable singing in? ‘I’m a blue-eyed soul singer,’ he asserted. ‘If I improvise, usually a lot of soulful notes come out. But I’m versatile, I have a leg in a lot of genres I feel confident performing, and this comes with age. I’ve done so much, but soul just grabs a special part of my heart.’
Nad Sylvan’s certainly made his mark as the vocalist in Hackett’s band, as can be heard on the recent Selling England By The Pound live CD, but with his solo career and his new album, Spiritus Mundi, how much did he enjoy stepping out from the shadows and being responsible for writing songs, getting the musicians and so on? ‘I enjoy doing this equally as much as being Steve’s singer, but it’s just a different side of me, and it’s more personal. It was always a dream for me to be a recording artist, solo and in a band, and it’s a huge outlet to be able to do both. It’s a fine balance, doing my own thing and being able to express my own words and my own music – well, not actually my own words, on my latest album, they’re all Yeats’ – it’s a huge liberation being able to do this. But, being the singer with Steve means I get to tour a lot, see the world and be in this huge, loving entourage with people who’re my family these days. I wasn’t able to afford to be a full-time musician till Steve snatched me up.’
Nad’s on record as stating artists shouldn’t just stay in their safety zone, they should be ready to expand. Hackett has demonstrated this on his last two solo albums. Spiritus Mundi is probably the best album Nad’s ever made under his own name. The music enhances Yeats’ words, and Nad has never sounded better on any album. The songs are all top class, showing a very mature level of songwriting, and, as Nad says, ‘I’m so excited about this release. Anyone who’s heard it says they love it. They think it’s my best album, and I tend to agree’. So, after the ‘Vampirate Trilogy’ of Bride, Widow and Bastard, how far does the latest album differ from his previous ones? ‘It’s a bit different from what I’ve done before, and that’s a good thing. The main difference is I was very consistent in working with a collaborator on this one, a Canadian songwriter, Andrew Laitress, who also plays ninety nine percent of the guitars on the album, and is a brilliant guitarist. So, his guitar soars throughout the whole album. It’s made the album the most consistent, the most coherent, cohesive album so far. It definitely has a red thread through the whole album, and also I’ve been working with Yeats’ poems rather than my own words, which created more time for Andrew and me to focus on the music. Andrew would send me rough sketches of ideas where he’d be singing along to Yeats’ poems and I would elaborate on them – add music here, do something there -so it became a collaboration which was very effortless, just pure joy, and I think the joy shines through the whole album. It’s not a progressive album, but it’s very much an album prog rockers would love, because it shows the mellow side you would find on a prog rock album.’
Was using the poems of W.B.Yeats a desire not to be pigeonholed in any one style? ‘Actually, this just happened by coincidence,’ Nad stated. ‘I’d used my voice on one of Andrew’s recordings, The Lake Isle Of Innesfree, and the recording turned out so good, I asked if I could include as a bonus track on The Regal Bastard, and he said, ‘of course you can.’ So, after I finished the trilogy I thought, ‘where do I go from here, as I’m not going to repeat myself, I want to do something new’, and so I immediately thought of Andrew, and I said, ‘why don’t we do a full Yeats album?’ So that’s how this came about. If you keep making the same album all over again, you’re just going through the motions, it’s not exciting. Any artist I’ve admired has always tried to push the limits and do something new, David Bowie being one such artist, Prince being another, both who are curious enough to want to move on, and doing this you finally find your own vocabulary, and it’s the best compliment you can get when you try something new and people still know it’s you doing something new’.
I suggested to Nad that Neil Young is a classic example of an artist who’s always gone his own way, refusing to conform to what fans expect from him. ‘Exactly,’ he agreed. ‘Fans want to hear you grow. There are a limited number of fans who want to hear the same record all over again, but then it sounds like you’re stuck. I feel I’ve grown immensely since joining Steve Hackett, and I think this shines through in my recordings in his band.’
Moving on to what Nad actually sings onstage, I asked him, given the complexity of some of Genesis’ material, what did he consider to be the most challenging songs from the Genesis catalogue he has to perform? ‘The most challenging songs are the ones outside my comfort zone when it comes to my vocal range,’ he admitted candidly. ‘Songs like Eleventh Earl Of Mar or Squonk, songs requiring a head voice singing. I can’t say I enjoy singing that high so much. From time to time, I can go up pretty high, and there are pieces in Supper’s Ready which are quite high, but it depends which words are being used. Eleventh Earl of Mar is a typical example of where I have to sing consistently high throughout the song, and I don’t particularly enjoy it. That is a challenge. When it comes to very wordy songs, like Battle Of Epping Forest, it all comes down to getting it into your muscle memory. I remember spending every morning for months studying this song, getting the nuances down right, practicing all the different accents, but once you’ve done this, you can sing it in your sleep’. Supper’s Ready, being very wordy and over twenty minutes long, must have been a nightmare to remember, I suggested. ‘I can’t remember if it was, and yes it is wordy, but I can still sing it now, and also Epping Forest, even though I haven’t sung it in a year, because it’s there, in the memory. Every time I have to sing a new song for Steve, I study it for an hour, every morning before breakfast. That’s how I punish myself,’ he laughed. ‘It’s true, you have to punish yourself and be very disciplined, until you get it right, and that’s how I learn stuff.’
At the other extreme, I wondered if there are any Genesis songs Steve doesn’t perform which Nad would love to put across onstage? ‘This’ll probably never happen due to contractual stuff, something to do with the licensing, but I’d love to do the whole of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Listening to this is how I got into Genesis and it’s my favourite album, but Steve isn’t that connected with the album, unlike Selling England, which is his favourite album’ (mine too, I stated to Nad) ‘and it’s a fantastic album, but it’ll always be The Lamb for me.’
Nad’s now in the fortunate position where, as well as singing with Hackett’s band, he also makes solo albums, very often using musicians from prog’s premier league, so if he could record any album in any genre, who would he want for his dream band? ‘Hmm,’ he mused. ‘Apart from Steve, Guthrie Govan comes to mind because he’s done some fantastic work for me. It would also include Tony Levin, who plays on Spiritus Mundi, and Lalle Larson, who played Keyboards in Agents of Mercy, and is a phenomenal player, and maybe Nick DiVirgilio on drums.’
I asked Nad whether he thinks there’ll ever likely be a time when he’ll be able to take the ‘Vampirate Trilogy’ out on the road and perform it live? ‘I would love to do this,’ he admitted, ‘ but I’ve made a promise to Steve I’d stay in his band for as long as he needs me, and once he decides to slow down a bit, and not tour four, five months a year, that’d give me more time to establish my own show. But it’s a bit daunting because it’s a very costly endeavour, and I’d need a lot of help, possibly some sponsorship, to do this. Also, I believe my fans wouldn’t want to see me with a second-rate band, not after these records. I think if you’ve got some great musicians in your band, it’d also be very intriguing for the audience, and that’s probably the most realistic aspect of it all. So, yes, I do want to do it, but you just have to find the time and the money.’
I was now running out of time so I asked Nad finally, if Genesis were to ask him and Steve to join their reunion tour, him to sing the Gabriel songs, freeing up Collins to do his songs, given his health situation, is this a proposition he’d be willing to accept? ‘Oh my goodness’, he sounded surprised. ‘For my own sake, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to do something like this, but I don’t think the fans of Genesis would want to see me do this, I don’t know, maybe they would. I know Steve’s up for grabs if they would have asked him, but as for myself’, a pause of a few seconds, ‘not quite sure about that one. I have huge respect for the guys in Genesis, though I’ve never met any of them. But it seems to me there are two bands, the ’70s version and the ’80s version, and it’s the ’70s version Steve and I and the rest of the band are celebrating. But I’ll never be asked by the guys in Genesis to sing with them, it’s just not going to happen, the fans would rather see Peter Gabriel sing with them, that’s the big dream for Genesis fans.’
It’s an intriguing thought… Nad’s voice is a glorious synthesis of Gabriel and Collins and, had he been around in 1975, could he have been a serious contender to replace Gabriel?? We’ll never know, but meanwhile Nad is now making his own name as a singer, as proven by the quality of his solo releases, and his time in the spotlight, albeit belated, is well merited.