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Veronica Swift on Singing When Things Get Complicated

At the ripe old age of 27, the vocalist is ready to retire the descriptor “jazz singer"

Veronica Swift (photo: Matt Baker)
Veronica Swift (photo: Matt Baker)

Counting off a tune as she steps to the mic, Veronica Swift holds tempo in her stride. In the living room of a longtime collaborator, pianist Emmet Cohen, she engages those around her and begins telling a story as only she can tell it. 

That’s her truth on the bandstand. Away from it, Swift enters a state of artistic metacognition. Since the dramatic changes of spring 2020, the singer and composer out of Charlottesville, Virginia, has been stepping outside herself to observe permutations of her own expression. “It’s almost a meditation,” the 27-year-old artist says. “You take yourself out of your body and it gives you clarity when you come back in.”

Despite the solemnity of her words, thick white-framed sunglasses that cover half her face can’t hide the glint in her road-weary eyes. “I don’t wanna call myself a jazz singer anymore,” she says. “I’m a singer and storyteller. That tells so much more than breaking it into subcategories.” 

As a child, Swift absorbed the impact of truthful music during late-night road hits with her mother, singer Stephanie Nakasian, and her father, pianist Hod O’Brien. “In my mom and dad, I saw the most sincere people,” she says, “[and] how the audience reacted.” 

In 2015, Swift became a finalist in the Monk Vocal Competition; she issued Confessions, her Mack Avenue debut, in 2019. For its follow-up, This Bitter Earth, released in March 2021, she explores a side of song interpretation often left unsung. Layers of nuance inform her original treatment of existing compositions, documenting a moment in the next phase of her artistry. 

“I play Dr. Frankenstein with styles, and hopefully what I create won’t ransack a village.”

JazzTimes: Song interpretation’s a long-practiced art form, yet there’s something fascinating about examining it in the influencer era, when sharing and self-disclosure feel inextricably linked to curation. 

VERONICA SWIFT: There’s no subtlety. With social media, you have one minute to say everything—such a short amount of time to capture attention. And I don’t see a lot of development. Part of why I love to sing is to develop a story: taking time, with the song, that the story deserves. It’s like reading a book. You have to sit and read the whole book. You can’t skim it to find the buzzwords. 

Storytelling through song can include both frank honesty and careful presentation. Do you find this kind of dualism in your performances? 

I’ve never performed a song that was untruthful. That’s the seed. The presentation is the flower that grows, but it stems—pun intended [laughs]—from this seed of truth. I think the audience can pick up on whether someone’s being true to themselves or not. Maybe some of the listeners don’t understand music theory; maybe they don’t even speak your own language. But people can pick up on if an artist is being genuine. I love drama and showiness, believe me. I love it [laughs]. But presentation doesn’t have to suffer. It doesn’t always mean this fabrication of something that isn’t true. It can be much more powerful when it comes from that [truth]. 

As we develop, our personal truths evolve. Do you consider how your interpretations of these songs might change as you enter your thirties or your forties? 

Time is the truth. Only time can validate certain truths we’ve had in the moment. When I’m singing songs I haven’t done in a while that I learned 10 years ago, I say, “Man, isn’t it crazy that I’m only 27 but I’ve been singing this song for 10 years?” The songs reflect where we are. That’s why they’re called records—they document where we are at that time. It could be something so simple as a tempo change: All of a sudden you’re doing a ballad up-tempo because of something else that happened in your life. It comes down to the story. Everyone’s got one too. 

Your musical choices—harmony, phrasing—seem to emerge from what you’re accessing emotionally. 

Technique is there to facilitate the emotional. It can put you in a prison sometimes. It depends on your artistry. At least for me, that technique is there so I don’t have to think: “I need to do this with my voice so I can convey this emotion.” Then you’re a robot. But when you get to the point where it’s muscle memory—you practice, you drill—then live, you have this chance to step out of your body and accept the body’s gonna take you where you need to go. There’s three of you on stage: mind, spirit, and body. 

Is technical “imprisonment” something you’ve experienced personally? 

It happens to all of us. Especially when you’re a young artist, every day it’s constantly changing. You go through this big breakthrough and then you plateau for a while. It’s very unsettling. So we’ve all been there with the technique, especially if you have a goal. That’s part of the ebb and flow. The creativity has to stop to pay attention to the core technique: “I need to get this skill and put it in my arsenal.” But I think that’s a natural part of the process. It doesn’t necessarily mean imprisonment; I use that term to set a tone for what it can be if you’re not careful. When I started to really get some bebop vocabulary, I was like, “Oh man, I got all these lines!” You just wanna use them all the time. Then you come off as “technically proficient.” A lot of young people do this, myself included. You rely on licks out of context, when the magic of improvisation is when you’re developing spontaneous melodies. It’s like, “Listen to all these lines I can sing!” And then you listen back to yourself or, with an older musician, you have your ass handed to you and they say, “Yeah, so what about it?” And then you turn the switch. 

I once spoke with a tenor player who admitted she’d spent countless hours studying the language and developing her own tendencies, drawing from different vocabularies. But only recently had she figured out what she has to say. It feels as though you’ve recently started exploring what you mean to say. 

There’s the process that makes you an artist and the one that makes you a musician, and the two don’t always go hand in hand. I don’t wanna say “easier” because that’s the easier word to use [laughs], but the story comes a lot easier to singers than instrumentalists. For instrumentalists, it has to come in the world of music and harmony and notes. The story is there, but it’s a lot more abstract, especially for the audience. This is the challenge that instrumentalists face. That’s why we have this respect for each other. We learn from each other. Then when you find that it’s really one unit, that’s everything. I play trumpet a little bit, some piano, which helped expand my harmonic knowledge. But it can be harder for instrumentalists, I think, to know what they wanna say. Great geniuses like Herbie Hancock don’t play a song unless they internalize every lyric.