Veronica Swift: The Real Deal

Roseanna Vitro’s interview with the gifted young singer who talks about learning her craft as vocalist and musician

Veronica Swift
Veronica Swift

Veronica Swift’s raw talent was derived from the perfect blend of nature and nurture. She’s the daughter of pianist Hod O’Brien and jazz vocalist Stephanie Nakasian. Veronica was drenched in good jazz from birth and she’s a natural, a beautiful young woman with heart and soul and drive, whose tenure at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music deeply enhanced her skills. In 2015, a pivotal year, she became a finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition, received her degree, and moved to New York City.

Upon settling in Manhattan, Veronica appeared weekly at Birdland Jazz Club, embraced by club owner Gianni Valenti. Her skyward trajectory led to touring with Chris Botti and Wynton Marsalis, and a new album on Mack Avenue Records called Confessions. She has recently experienced the highs of success and the lows of tragedy: industry-wide recognition, coupled with the loss of her beloved father.

It was my great pleasure to interview Veronica, as I’d been hearing about her for years from old friends at the Delaware Water Gap—drummer Bill Goodwin and the one and only Bob Dorough. Check out this recent scat solo by Veronica with Wynton, in Marciac, France. [NOTE: Solo starts at 5:40.] 

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Roseanna Vitro: What are your earliest memories of singing?

Veronica Swift: Singing professionally—I started at nine, but of course my awareness of my abilities occurred before that. I knew that I was “different” when I was listening to and singing Bach inventions and fugues and other classical music themes at five (something my other friends didn’t take part in). Mom always put on [Bach’s] Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D Minor at night before bed, and I just stayed up listening.

Your father, Hod O’Brien, was a deep-swinging pianist. Did he teach you to play piano at an early age? 

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No, neither of my parents actively sat down and “taught” me anything. It was all osmosis, if you will. But at about six, I started formal piano lessons and had many teachers specifically for that. Then at eight I picked up the trumpet and began my training as a trumpet player.

Your mother, Stephanie Nakasian, was Jon Hendricks’ choice for his vocal group in the early ’80s when many good singers auditioned for that spot. Stephanie is an amazing talent. Did she introduce you to vocalese parts early in your development? What did you love to sing with your mom?

When I got my first break at nine, it was an offer to join a youth jazz band called the Young Razzcals Jazz Project led by Dave Adams. The audition piece was “Twisted,” which sparked my interest in vocalese. Of course, seeing my interest, my mother then introduced me to the world of vocalese tunes she knew from working with Jon—some songs that aren’t even officially recorded! I felt like I had the inside scoop. Mom and I would sing in harmonies on tunes like “Doodlin’” (great for a young child musician to learn), “Corner Pocket,” and “Room 608” (“The Opener”).

When did you formally begin studies with a teacher? Were there pivotal programs in school that inspired and helped shape your early development?

It was important to me first that I develop my ear and blending abilities by singing in choir. I think starting formal training before age 15 is a mistake. So by the time I was 16, I was obsessed with opera and I began formal training in opera studies with my lifelong friend and mentor John Carden, one of the great countertenors, and also a fine composer. He gave me the confidence I was lacking my whole life in my abilities—not just as a jazz singer, but as a theater performer and writer/composer. And he really got me to understand my instrument and how to listen, because we tend to get too much in our heads about how we sound. Letting go is the hardest thing to master.

In high school I also had one of the greatest band directors (I think) in the country—a man named Greg Thomas. This man didn’t just teach us what was on the page and how to play it to perfection … no, he had each and every student thinking as arrangers and composers by taking scores apart and rebuilding them to make them our own. It’s because of him I was able to find my own voice with my arranging. Rules are important, but what makes your sound unique is crucial.

What do you remember about the first time you hit the bandstand with your parents?

I was nine years old and I remember this one show—one of my first—at the Jazz Standard. I was to come up on stage at the end of their set and sing “I Love Being Here with You.” So I walked up on stage, opened my mouth, and was so nervous I ran back to the dressing room crying. It was the only time I was ever nervous for a show. Mom came back to console me and gave me the strength to go back up the second set and do it again. And so I did, and I was ready! Haven’t been nervous since.

I know Bill Goodwin, I knew Phil Woods and Bob Dorough, the senior statesmen of the Delaware Water Gap jazz scene, and I loved Hod and Stephanie and watched you grow up. My husband, Paul Wickliffe, mixed your first album when you were 13 years old. Tell me what you remember about the Deer Head hang. Who helped you with your first album?

Yes, it was incredible having had them around growing up. Bob was always one of my idols, especially as a composer and lyricist. My first album was actually made when I was nine in Charlottesville, Virginia (my hometown), recorded by Chris Doerman. Musicians were Pete Spaar on bass, Ron Free on drums, my mom and dad, and the great Richie Cole on alto! Growing up, I remember doing shows with mom and dad at the Deer Head. And before I was even singing, I remember running up and down those stairs in the hotel and creating stories about haunted houses and ghosts and such.

I heard you’re a fan of rocker and performance artist Marilyn Manson. How did you learn about Marilyn? 

Well, I don’t think he knows my singing, but I remember I really dug into his artistry in college when I was experiencing frustrations. My manager at the time for my metal band, John Tovar, was Manson’s first manager back in the early ’90s. He’s the reason I met Manson in the first place, which to this day was the greatest day of my life. Meeting my idol … it is a dream to perform with him someday.

I recall first meeting you while giving a vocal master class at the Frost School of Music in Miami. What classes there made the most impact on your talent?

At the University of Miami, the curriculum of my major was created to give the students a broad education of many skills: recording, production, composition, arranging, business skills, etc. In my opinion, it’s one of the best programs in the country. My favorite class was my first year, with Whit Sidener, who taught me about piano voicings. For once in my life I could play jazz piano. I hadn’t been able to do that until Whit’s class. I think it is crucial for every vocalist to take up piano and another instrument. It adds so much to your ear training and ability to understand harmony and chord structure. Just studying the theory won’t be enough to teach you how to scat over chord changes. Gary Lindsay’s arranging book [Jazz Arranging Techniques] is a must-read for musicians who write their own arrangements.

My mom’s books really dive into how to understand the relationship between your instrument and your ear. Her book It’s Not on the Page! is great for aspiring jazz vocalists. I read it now that I am more established and I still learn so much from her book.

I love Stephanie’s section on dividing the beat. Many fine singers who have studied voice are not taught how to feel the time. Now that you’re recording more, do you have favorites to recommend?

I’m proud of anything I’ve done, but I really don’t like anything I’ve ever done. But I can tell you moments that were special in terms of who I was recording with, milestones in my personal life. There are some moments that are really important to me—like when I was recording “Lonely Woman” [the title track of her self-released 2015 album]—that was my first recording with [pianist] Emmet [Cohen]. We only did one take, and it was the first time I’d ever had this kind of telepathic awareness on an artistic level. It was kind of like love at first sight, but with music, because Emmet is like my brother. The musical connection was like “Oh my God, you’re the person!”

Tell us about your Mack Avenue release Confessions.

I have a flair for the dramatic, and theater is important to me. My favorite tracks are “Confession” and “The Other Woman” [which appear as a medley on the album], but what hits home storyline-wise is “A Stranger in Town,” which has a continuation into the next track, “I Don’t Wanna Cry Anymore.” Those two document this time in my life when I was living in New York and going home once a month. I was even thinking about moving back to my old farm. I was very nostalgic, wanting to kind of recreate my childhood, but you can’t do that. That’s what “Stranger in Town” is about, including old relationships, trying to bring them back. I’d get back on the train to New York and feel depressed. But when I hit Penn Station, I’d be ready to get back to work. “I Don’t Wanna Cry Anymore” represents that side, realizing you have your whole life ahead of you and shouldn’t get bogged down, held back by old memories. My career is now going really well.

After discovering your talent, Gianni Valenti began booking you at Birdland every Saturday night. What a hip New York launch.  

Yes, I got my first gig at Birdland in February 2017, and the Saturdays began in April and ran up until my week-long residency the week of Thanksgiving. Then I got the Chris Botti gig but still continued to do some Saturdays. After the APAP Conference in 2018, my touring schedule filled up and I couldn’t do a gig in NYC. I’m now managed by AB Artist Group, with some of the same staff as Birdland, but they are two separate entities.

When looking for a pianist, what is most important to you?

Well, that’s a loaded question. It depends on if I’m looking for someone to fill in for a few dates, or someone to make music with. The Magic—I really have no criteria for. Like I said with Emmet Cohen, it was “There it is!” For an accompanist who’s going to play some dates with me, I like when rhythm section players feel quarter notes differently but mesh together. I need to feel the same quarter note as my pianist: attack, velocity, i.e. where it lands. What helps me to learn about a pianist’s thought process is running through a tune rubato [out of time]. This shows listening and interactive skills.

Rubato is one of the hardest things for an accompanist.

Yep, if I’m gonna sing with an accompanist, I’m gonna make sure they can do that.

Many college programs don’t teach accompaniment to pianists. This is really an important skill for a professional musician. A lot of work comes from singers.

Those young punk piano players can gripe and moan all they want about singers, but that’s where a lot of their money will come from [laughing]. I thought it was cool at University of Miami that there was an accompanying class where they put pianists, guitarists, and singers together.

Do you have any listening recommendations for vocalists to develop creativity as an artist?

I would recommend any of those instrumentalists who played with singers a lot, like Lester Young and Billie Holiday, and Stan Getz and also Johnny Hodges. They phrase like singers. These instrumentalists really sound like they were singing. And if you’re going to write vocalese, they’re really easy to write to, because their phrases are so lyrical already, like they’re talking. You can almost pick out words from the sounds.

Of course there are the instrumentalist/singers that I love, like Chet Baker or Louis Armstrong, especially if people want to get back to the source, the people they were listening to, like Sidney Bechet or Kenny Dorham.

You have a sound on some of your recordings that’s very reminiscent of the late Chris Connor and June Christy. Were you a big fan of this style?

Yeah, yeah. When my mom showed me June Christy, that was it. I wanted to sound like her. I loved her sound, that misty sound. My voice has a natural breathiness to it.

You couldn’t have a better role model or vocal teacher than your mother. She’s one of the best out there. It’s always great to see you two doing things together.

My ear training came from singing in choirs, really, and I probably had more awareness than some of the other kids, but I wouldn’t have been able to do anything if mom didn’t have me singing in choirs—and playing my trumpet. One process I developed when I was first playing trumpet was to take a lick I transcribed, one or two bars or maybe four, and be able to sing and play it around the circle of fourths, then back through the circle of fifths. Then that would train my ear to hear intervallic relationships and changing tonal centers and stuff. It’s like learning a language.

There’s a burning video of your gig with Wynton Marsalis at Jazz in Marciac that’s gone viral [with Dan Nimmer on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass, Francesco Ciniglio on drums, and Walter Blanding, Jr. on tenor saxophone]. The joy of watching him check your solo was super-cool. It’s encouraging that Wynton supports young artists. Did you feel particularly inspired on that gig?

Oh, yeah. I was playing with my brothers, man—Carlos and Dan. When we’re on the road, we’re like three peas in a pod. That’s the key, get to know each other and build that trust.

Any other advice for vocalists and instrumentalists to improve their musicianship and to keep moving the music forward?

If I were to give any advice at all to young singers/musicians, I strongly urge the importance of “Don’t think too much.” If you’re like me, getting in your head is maybe the worst thing to do. It makes the music and the art too cerebral and “figured out.” Of course you need structure in a show, but letting go—like I first was able to do at the Monk Competition—was the greatest feeling I’d ever experienced. I trusted and let my voice do what it was gonna do. And I stepped outside myself and watched from above and just gave myself permission to exist. Hope this speaks to someone out there! 

For touring dates and info, visit Veronica’s website, veronicaswift.com.

Roseanna Vitro

Roseanna Vitro is a jazz vocalist who has released 14 albums on the Concord, Telarc, Challenge, and Motéma labels—achieving a Grammy nomination in 2010 for The Music of Randy Newman—and has toured as a featured artist on every continent but Antarctica, including two tours as a Jazz Ambassador for the U.S. State Department. Also an educator, she taught college-level courses for New Jersey City University, SUNY Purchase, and NJPAC over the course of 20 years. As a jazz advocate, she has produced records for fellow musicians, chaired seminars, lectured and presented clinics globally, and regularly interviews other singers for JazzTimes; a full list of her JT columns is here. Contact her at RoseannaVitro.com.