Changing Directions: An Interview With Sungaze

Leaning towards their admiration for the realms of shoegaze, psych rock, and dream pop, Cincinnati-based Sungaze offers music eerily reminiscent of notable singer-songwriters from days past.  The songs themselves lend a relatable sense of feelings we experience as humans through the kaleidoscope of metaphysics and spirituality.  Sungaze’s inspiration often leads them to capture enchanting landscapes and a sense of place within themselves. 

Over the course of 2018, Sungaze crafted their transcendent debut Light in All of It.  The tracks went through several stages before finally seeing their completion.  According to band member Ivory Snow, the writing process was started by Ian Hilvert but then reversed course when she arrived.  Along with Tyler Mechlem, the duo worked on brand new songs to achieve what they felt was perfect.  “All three of us are very much perfectionists when it comes to crafting songs and recording them, which felt a bit grueling at the time, but I think it paid off; we’re all quite happy with how this one turned out,” said Snow.

Light in All of It is slated for release on vinyl, courtesy of Netherlands-based AudioSport Records owned by Theo Van der Veer.  Pre-order is available now and on Sungaze’s Bandcamp site.  The official release/shipping date (total of two hundred, fifty of which are printed on limited edition white marble vinyl) is slated for January 20, 2021.  Light in All of It will be released via cassette as well.

Having been around Cincy throughout most of my life, I have seen the music scene become vibrant as of late. What do you think the state of it is these days?

The state of the music scene just before 2020 was vibrant and healthy for SO many bands in the Cincinnati area. Almost all of the bands we have played with that originate from here have tons of talent and originality. The venues these bands regularly played had well-established crowds and circles of committed individuals who are great about showing up and supporting them. We can’t say that Sungaze was a part of every corner of the scene, but we can say that what we witnessed (with out-of-town travel and shows being something with which to measure), Cincinnati is far underrated when it comes to the talent of bands, variety, and quality of venues and the dedication of fans and friends. Things seem to be a little quiet now, but we hope venues will begin to reopen their doors in 2021.

Reading about how Sungaze started, I read that Ian had recently left the band he had been in for so long. How difficult was it to depart and try a completely different project?

Ian Hilvert: It was difficult for many reasons, one being that I am a people-pleaser and do not like letting people down, haha. The guys in the band were great friends too, so it was kind of like breaking up with all the other members at once, which felt dramatic and very emotional. Before I broke the news to them, though, I had already written some songs and had narrowed down the direction I wanted to go in, so the new project was in motion already. I had been working at Whole Foods and found some friends to play with, and we had a practice space and had some time to solidify, so to speak. The band I was in was death metal, but I always liked other genres, like chillwave, psychedelic rock, and other atmospheric music types. Over time I had lost my angry edge and traded it for a more introspective, spiritual-ish sort of vibe, and I felt more attached to making music that represented that part of my personality.

Had Ian and Ivory already been writing songs together before collaborating on Sungaze?

IH: No, not at all actually! Once I had started the project, there were a few member changes and I asked Ivory if she would play the keyboard. She said yes, more or less, and was good about learning the material. Fast forward to like 2018 and Ivory began singing and coming up with vocal parts and giving me lots of direction on ideas. So in a way, I think that was the beginning of our collaborative songwriting, which shows up on Light in All of It.

How was the recording process like for Light In All Of It?

So funny enough, we actually hadn’t been planning on releasing a full album when we began writing and recording the songs that would eventually become LIAOI. We have some friends here in Cincy who have their own recording studio set-ups and we played with the idea of just recording a few singles here and there and releasing them one at a time. We recorded a few tracks this way and when we wrote the next batch of songs, we realized we didn’t like the first ones anymore, so we ended up scrapping them. Long story short, we decided that it might be more lucrative for us to take the money we would have spent on studio time and put it towards buying our own recording equipment. So we took a trip to Guitar Center and one of our members at the time had a Guitar Center card (bless him), and we bought a couple microphones and an interface.

We already had a dedicated rehearsal space in town, so we rearranged it to where it could accommodate recording as well, and from November of 2017 to November 2018 we basically just met up regularly with our drummer for jam/writing sessions and slowly recorded the new material. There were a lot of late nights in the studio and it was a really fun and inspiring time.
About mid-way through, we realized we had enough material for a full length, so we decided to make that our goal. We wanted the album to serve both as a single piece of work that tells a story from beginning to end when listened to in order, and also as a group of songs that were strong on their own.

Writing from a place of focusing on themes of spirituality, do you find that the lyrics come easier for you, or is it challenging?

Ivory Snow: There have been a few times where the lyrics for a specific song seem to evade me, but most of the time, they flow pretty naturally. Usually, we will have a melody first and I’ll kind of listen for what I feel the vocal line should sound like, or what sort of emotion I want it to carry, and then I’ll just sing/hum and play with different syllable orders until I feel happy with the overall vibe. Then I’ll sometimes do a recording of that, over top of the music, and I’ll just listen for the words that want to come through. The only time it’s really hard to write lyrics is when I’m feeling disconnected and overthinking it or when a song just isn’t ready yet and the words aren’t there.

IH: I have trouble coming up with lyrics that feel quality enough for Sungaze songs, but there will be some little glimpses of thought or feeling that make for something worthy of writing down. I excel the most at using chords and harmonies to get across emotions or an idea that will set the tone for the song.

When writing and recording for the debut album, what were some of the artists that you were listening to a form of inspiration?

IS: Actually, I wouldn’t say I like to listen to other artists when I’m working on writing for Sungaze. I want the music I contribute to this project to really come from my own inner space, rather than be a reflection of things I’ve heard recently or other artists I admire. For LIAOI, I was totally new to making music, so a lot of it was building off parts Ian had written and experimenting with my voice and how it could sound.

I’m also picky about music and when I find something I like, I tend to obsess over it— that ends up clouding my judgment for our own songs and I start overthinking everything and getting lost in comparison and loops of thought like, “well why make my own songs if this perfect specimen already exists?!”. I have a feeling this method will be changing with the third album, as we’ve been exploring more music over the course of quarantine, but we’ll see!

IH: I on the other hand kind of need to listen to other artists. I am very influenced by anything around me and I like to listen to artists I am inspired by to keep my work in check. Once upon a time I was a little too influenced by Tame Impala, but I have since dialed that back in my own music. Washed Out and Slowdive are two groups I certainly look up to as far as delivering emotions and vibes that I sync up with and become influenced by, particularly when I am playing guitar and wanting to create similar atmospheres in my music. I also still listen to metal music at times; two artists I have always listened to and continue to now are Opeth and Mastodon. My guitar playing has definitely been influenced by those two bands as well.

Have you found the pandemic in many ways an opportunity to explore going about different sounds and themes with the work on the follow-up?

Yes! During the beginning of the pandemic, Ian was still working a day job while Ivory was taking some time away from hers, and this resulted in a bit of a different take on the second record. Light in All of It was decently collaborative, but with Ian having written the bulk of the melodies and Ivory filling in some of the details (with the exception of Washed Away). Overall, these roles are kind of reversed on the second record. Our drummer and bassist both left at the beginning of 2020, pre-pandemic, so there was kind of this feeling of loneliness and uncertainty that made its way into some of the new songs. With the absence of a full band, a lot of the songs were initially written with just guitar, from our living room couch, by Ivory.

An unexpected perk of quarantine was having free reign of our rehearsal space—from March to May, the building was pretty much empty—and we utilized this time to really flesh out the new material and build the second album, free of distractions. Most of the songs were expanded into fuller pieces of music with more instruments, but we did decide to leave a couple of tracks more minimal with just vocal and guitar, which is new for us.

It was a big-time for hope and introspection, and we think the new songs are reflective of that.

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