Veronica Swift: Following the Family Route, Exploring Her Own

Genre-hopping singer considers covering Queen on next album

Veronica Swift (photo: Ken Frackling)

Listen to Veronica Swift scat and you’d swear she’s channeling Ella. Cool, calm, confident, and elegant onstage, the 25-year-old can slide seamlessly from a difficult syncopated rhythm to a wistful love song to a fresh arrangement of an old standard. “People ask me, ‘When did you discover that singing jazz was your passion?’” she says. “It’s not a passion, it’s just a way of life. It’s as natural as it could be, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Indeed, this is simply the only life Swift has ever known. Born in Charlottesville, Va., she was raised on jazz. Her father, acclaimed bebop pianist Hod O’Brien, and her mother, vocalist Stephanie Nakasian, toured frequently together, and often brought their daughter along. “I would be sleeping in green rooms in the bass case or in back of the bar with a coloring book, not paying attention to anything,” she recalls, sitting backstage at SFJAZZ in San Francisco after a February performance with trumpeter Chris Botti.

At a young age, Swift began singing, playing piano and trumpet, and obsessing over Stravinsky, Dvorák, and opera. When she was nine, her mother encouraged her to audition for a youth jazz band; she got the gig and began touring and recording professionally every summer. She also began performing with her parents. “I would sing a song at the end of a set with mom and dad and then we would build it from there,” she says. At 11, she made an appearance at Jazz at Lincoln Center, in the “Women in Jazz” series.

Singing in her high-school choir taught Swift about blending and voice-leading, while playing trumpet in the jazz band taught her about improvisation. “I noticed that I could actually sing this stuff better than I could play it on trumpet,” she says, “so why don’t I just scat?”

In 2015, as a vocalist, Swift won second place in the Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Competition—a major milestone. “I never really studied jazz until after the Monk competition,” she says, “but when I realized I was going to do something with this music in the world, I started digging into it a lot more.” After earning her B.M. in jazz voice at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music in 2016, Swift moved to New York, where she quickly landed a residency at Birdland. Within six months, she was touring full-time.

Seeking a quieter space where she would feel more grounded, Swift moved back to Charlottesville in 2017. “To create, I have to have peace and quiet and just listen to my own thoughts,” she says. “The moments when I’m writing are the most magical—and when this universe comes together in my head.”

Her first recording for Mack Avenue Records will be released later this year, featuring both the Benny Green Trio and the Emmet Cohen Trio. The record will be “just straight-ahead jazz that really speaks to what I’m doing right now. Each song has relevance to specific events in the last couple of years, and tells my story up till now, about the rise that has been happening.”

A writer as well as a vocalist, with a self-declared flair for the dramatic, Swift penned a dark alternative-rock opera, Vera Icon, while still in college, to channel some of her “frustration and fury.” For her second album, she plans to include “more dramatic content, more crossover with classical music and theater, and maybe a couple of songs by Queen,” a band that she cites as a major influence. For her third record, she plans on recording an original jazz musical set in the 1920s, an era she loves: “It’s about a female bandleader and is very female-empowered.”

Although Swift is enjoying a successful career singing mostly jazz standards, she hopes to share much more. “The other part of who I am is drama, it’s metal, it’s opera—it’s a lot more provocative and challenging to the audience,” she says. “It’s going to be a long and interesting journey.”

Lily O’Brien

Lily O’Brien is a freelance writer and editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area with a passion for music and the performing arts. She has written articles for a variety of online and print publications including DownBeat, the San Francisco Classical Voice, Marin Arts and Culture, the San Francisco Chronicle and Strings Magazine. She is a singer who has performed professionally in a variety of genres, and an avid world traveler and bicyclist.