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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)

Can you feel a transformation from having had that freedom of development? 

There were a lot of things in my life that I needed to change. When you’re starting out, you have this [idea] that you have to play this game, strategically. When your career becomes clearer, the more pockets you can find for no b.s.—this is who I am—and present it that way. I was in a huge transition last year, playing with new people, turning the next page. It’s uncomfortable but it’s beautiful: trying not to be in control too much, observing from outside. 

Has it been challenging to step outside yourself and observe? 

You see some truths that you may not want to have seen. I haven’t been releasing a lot of original music and I wasn’t even listening to people saying, “Why don’t you do more original music?” You have this idea: “No! I’m in control here!” You step out of that and say, “Wow.” It’s scary because you think, “I have to make up for lost time.” But process is ephemeral. It changes all the time. First you get a concept, then do your best to achieve it. It’s never easy for anyone. I hope whoever reads this—any artists struggling with that—can find some light in what I’m saying. 

Your spontaneous composing is salient in live performance, and a hallmark of your recorded sound. Are you motivated now to release “scripted” compositions? 

Five years ago, I wanted to be the artist known for taking old hidden gems and bringing them back into the light, and finding new songs that could be standards and making them sound like standards. Then my focus became taking standards and doing completely different arrangements. The next step will be originals, for sure. I just wanted my audience to get to know me through the songs that we all know. I’ve written a couple musicals. I would release those in a whole record. I don’t wanna put an original in an album just for the sake of it. But it would be something to present a project, at least for me. 

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

You have experience in acting and screenwriting. The arts collective model seems to be emerging in new ways.  

Our world is lending itself more to this multi-medium artistic approach, as time progresses. People are not one-dimensional. I’m a singer with different interests. I enjoy storytelling; sometimes that extends to other mediums such as screenwriting and acting. So I write, but I do not consider myself a writer. 

You certainly tell stories through your arrangements. The repertoire on This Bitter Earth undergoes feel changes, tempo changes, in-time/out-of-time moments. What are you currently exploring in terms of arranging that serves your stylistic range? 

I hinted at it with “Sing” by the Dresden Dolls. That song kind of became a tour-de-force anthemic piece. I’m taking standards and putting them in aria form, and I’m also doing the opposite. I haven’t had the chance to try it in front of an audience much, for lack of gigs. But what I have been trying so far has been working. I play Dr. Frankenstein with these styles, and hopefully what I create won’t ransack a village. 

Back in the day, especially with the music industry, you kind of had to brand your genre: I am a jazz singer. Now, you go to Coachella or Lollapalooza—any of those big festivals—and there’s all kinds of music. You have young bands playing old music and you have older bands incorporating new music. I think genre is becoming less important in branding nowadays. I love Blood, Sweat & Tears because the genre was the name. 

A friend recently mentioned how today’s paradigm conditions artists to focus on the most—playing the most notes, releasing the most music, posting the most content—but really the goal is absolute recognition in a single note. Do you feel as though you’ve made that transition into true individualism, or do you feel it’s ongoing? 

The second you think to yourself, “I’ve reached my goal,” you stop growing. I have the ideal that I’m reaching toward, but along the way you stay open and inspired. When it comes to finding your sound, I think you have to start by imitation. That’s how we learn to speak language, we imitate the noises. Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day—you just imitate every facet of their sounds, their phrasing, their articulation. You learn the solos note by note. That’s just the first step. Then comes a point where you have to step away from the recording: “Now what do I sound like singing this?” because if you’re singing it to Ella, you’re only ever gonna sound like Ella, and there is only one Ella. That’s just an example, but it’s like being in a laboratory: trying the same thing over and over with slight differences, tweaking it like a scientist does. Then you get to the point where you don’t have to think about it. And you have to allow yourself to get everything you can out of a “phase.” I never had a moment when I thought, “Oh. That’s my sound.” I don’t even know what my sound is. I’m just doing my thing, trying to learn everything I can—and listen, listen, listen. 

Veronica Swift: The Real Deal