Before the melody begins in the music video for “Sweet Sweet Silent,” the title track off of Sivu’s new album due out next month via Square Leg Records, the musician addresses the audience. “Music was inaudible for a while,” he says. “The worst thing is knowing what I love, the door is closing on that … getting used to the idea that everything is getting more silent, literally.”
Sivu, who was born James Page in Cambridgeshire, England, is talking about his recent diagnosis with Ménière’s disease, a degenerative inner-ear condition with symptoms that include vertigo, tinnitus, and progressive hearing loss. “I wrote ‘Sweet Sweet Silent’ around the time I found out I had Ménière’s,” he explains later over the phone. “It was one of the songs that I didn’t necessarily think about too much, it just happened,” he continues. “I was trying to make a romantic spin on the whole thing. Obviously being diagnosed was horrible and it’s been really difficult, but I wanted it to feel quite romantic in a strange way. It’s quite a negative, sad song, but I wanted it to feel quite positive.”
As Sivu, Page has always had a knack for creating piercingly poignant songs. On both his first EP, Bodies (2013), and his debut album, Something On High (2014), he used rich and familiar biblical imagery to turn simple tracks written on his acoustic guitar into grand, swelling meditations on life and death. With Sweet Sweet Silent, produced by Page’s longtime collaborator Charlie Andrew, the lyrics are perhaps more direct, but no less vivid. “Sweet silence grows,” he sings in the video, blue eyes starring into the camera. “With the first album, I really dressed up how I was feeling in those stories and analogies and imagery,” he says. “With this one, I tried not overcomplicate it, but it wasn’t a conscious thing.”
Between releasing and touring Something On High and recording Sweet Sweet Silent, Sivu took a few years off. He was let go from his label, and moved from London back to Cambridgeshire. He sought medical help when he started having problems pitching before shows. “Notes would sound out of key, and that’s when I realized something was quite strangely going on,” he recalls. “I’d never heard of Ménière’s before … the symptoms were there, but I just put them to something else,” he continues. “I’ve always had problems with my hearing, but it wasn’t until I was actually diagnosed that I realized it was going on and that it was degenerative, which is the most scary thing, It’s getting worse and that’s something that plays on my mind quite a lot … but I’m trying to be positive.”
A DIFFERENT APPROACH: Between touring that first album and making this one, I took a massive break. I wrote a load of stuff in one bulk. There were around 50, 60 songs, and it was just a case of pulling them apart and seeing which ones really stuck. It was quite a long process. The first album felt a lot more natural, this one’s a lot more considered. The first album was very much just me and my acoustic guitar in my bedroom, this time I wanted to push it a little bit more, so I wrote a lot more on the piano and I did more stuff on my laptop. I worked more with sounds—getting those down first, and then building it that way. I had an idea of the atmosphere of a track, and once I set that, the writing of it came a lot quicker.
After the first record, which I toured for a long time, I really took a step back from it all. I wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons. I felt a bit burnt out. I think I lost a bit of focus touring and being signed to a major label. I lost my way a little bit. I definitely needed some time away to think about what I wanted and why I was doing it in the first place. I wanted to make sure I put this record out for the right reasons.
THE RIGHT REASONS: I wrote this record for me, really. As I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking about releasing it. I wrote it quite selfishly. I wrote it purely because writing songs is all I’ve done. I caught the love of performing again. It’s really easy to think about people liking your music or ticking boxes and selling records. That stuff didn’t really mean anything; it’s about writing a song and finding a connection through that.
BOOKENDING THE ALBUM: The first two tracks I wrote are a song called “Flies” and a song called “Blood Clots and Pheromones.” We recorded them near the back end of the first record, more as testers. Then we came back to them and recorded them again with everything else. “Flies” is probably the most produced track on the record—[at first] it was really heavily produced, a lot more layers, and lot more production. It felt a bit too bombastic. The whole point of this record was I wanted to be able to perform it live in a more stripped-back setting, and I felt like, as it was at the time, it wouldn’t have really worked. So we tried to pull it back as much as we could and rein it in.
The last song we recorded—there’s a song called “Wonder in Me.” It’s the last track, and it’s quite a slow, brooding track. We wanted to have lots of layers on it, so we got a harp player in and worked on making it quite textural. It felt like a nice way to end the process of recording.
COMING TO TERMS: Initially [after my diagnosis] there was this urge to write as much as I could, and record as much as I could, because I don’t know how long I’ll be able to. There was that sense of urgency. Now, I feel at peace with it a little bit, and a little more comfortable with the situation. Understanding it a lot more has definitely helped. When I found out that Ryan Adams has it as well, I definitely felt a lot happier. Him being an amazing musician and still touring successfully is really comforting. Now I’m just trying not to overthink it and write when I feel like it. It definitely influenced my music and all aspects of this album.
I’ve only just started talking about it. I was quite worried about talking about it. I didn’t want it to feel like—gimmick is the wrong word, but I didn’t necessarily want to bring attention to it. But now I think it’s good to talk about it, if it helps someone else or makes someone else aware of it, I feel like that’s good.