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At the tender age of 29, Veronica Swift can look back on a career that stretches over two decades. Yet it's just in recent years that she has broken through, getting prodigious airtime on jazz radio and racking up high play numbers on the Spotify and Apple Music services. Her 2021 album, This Bitter Earth, was her breakout, landing her on JazzWeek's Top 50 listings for 27 weeks – and at the #3 slot for the year in total airplay. That CD came to my attention through those jazz listings and via glowing reviews in newspaper and magazine reviews. The buzz for Swift's latest release, the eponymous Veronica Swift, has been harder to ignore. My inbox has been hit with emails from publicists, a steady stream of hype from Middle C Jazz, where she performs this Saturday, and news from JazzWeek on September 28 that the album made the highest debut among albums in their Top 50 for that week.
People are clamoring for Swift partly because there's more of an industry push behind her, but also because she's finding her voice and daring to proclaim there are many voices – and languages – at her command. The jazz singer has songs by Nine Inch Nails and multiple dips into Freddie Mercury and Queen. At what might normally be termed the other end of the spectrum, there are a couple of Broadway songs bookending the CD, plus an Ellington and a Jobim in the middle. But that wide range isn't wide enough for Swift anymore. There's a gush of Beethoven, Gounod, and Chopin on the song list, with additional glimpses of Puccini, Leoncavallo, and Rachmaninoff. Her current tour, promoting the new CD, is spreading the word from San Francisco to Italy.
We caught up with her earlier this week on her cellphone.
Hello. This is Perry Tannenbaum from Cultural Voice North Carolina.
Veronica Swift: Hi.
Hi. How are you?
Where are you?
Oh my heavens. Okay. And your next stop is?
Well, tomorrow we're headed to Alabama to play in Auburn, and then we come to you guys.
What's it like? I mean, I know the last time you cut an album, This Bitter Earth, I was only hearing about it through jazz media, but now I'm hearing it through publicity agents and you're out there promoting it. Is that a big change for you?
Well, I just focus on the music part. I'm not behind the scenes with the publicity stuff. I just take the calls when they come. But all I do is I go where I'm needed, where the gigs are happening. That's the important thing. And so, you know, just moving forward, onwards and upwards. It's all part of the evolution.
So you're not noticing any intensification in the amount of bookings you're getting at this point?
Well, I don't really go into that, because it's not always cohesive with someone's career moving forward. It's non-linear. That's something that's kind of hard to describe. But basically, since I'm doing something now that's genre-wise, it's genre-bending and it's a little bit harder to market. So actually, my bookings have become slightly less because of that. Because a lot of venues, one also post-COVID, a lot of venues, we've all had to scale down.
And so I've lost a lot of stuff because of COVID. Even though we're all back out there going to shows, the world, the economy is still like its response to those two years of having nothing going on. It's just still the aftermath. It's really very real for us musicians.
So knowing that you do have an eclectic album out, do you feel like you need to tailor that somewhat when you come into a Middle C Jazz Club?
I absolutely do not tailor any part of my set because there's nothing far-reaching. It's not avant-garde. All the genres we play were at one point pop music. We do swing and standards and Judy Garland-style theater stuff. We do rock and roll, like 70s classic rock stuff like Janis Joplin. We also do funk and soul, like Aretha Franklin stuff. So basically, everything is palatable.
And so everywhere we play, whether it's an orchestra, if it's a jazz club, or if we're opening for a rock band in a rock club or a festival, we do the same set, because you have to stay true to your message. And if I tailor my set to fit the room, or I hope people like it more if I do this, then you're going against the message, which is the all-inclusive, all-inclusivity and embracing the full spectrum of who you are.
It goes beyond music. I'm using music as a metaphor, but that's what I hope to inspire people to do. And everyone's been getting it. So I'm really happy that the audiences have just been so supportive. And they've known my past catalog, but that that hasn't hindered their experience or enhanced it. It's just all music. It's all good music.
Yeah. I'm noticing, though, that there's a real paradox and a real expansiveness in your new album in terms of the genres, the orchestrations, the arrangements that you're doing. Are all those clocks in the cover photo supposed to signify that this is a carpe diem album, "live for the moment"?
Oh, yeah. You know me. I like to have multiple ambiguous symbolism, of course. But that's definitely… you got it. That's one of the meanings behind the album cover. And there's an element of that for sure, because I have a 20-year career.
I mean, I know I'm young. I'm 29. But I have a 20-year career of singing one genre. And it's been my dream to do this album like this, this way. But I have never had the opportunity or the, you know, it didn't make sense because I had a, there were expectations put on me at a very young age that I just kind of, I was on that trajectory.
And I had to say, no, the time is now or never. So yes, there's the carpe diem element. And also, I look at myself and my band. Like, we're playing all these different genres. And the imagery I've used is time travel. And we're almost like, you know, going through time and collecting all of the best of all the genres through different eras.
And so the clocks, if you notice, they come from different eras in history. There's a sundial, and there's a cuckoo clock, and there's a metronome, and there's all kinds of different ways to tell time from different eras, but time is the constant.
You are not the constant. I mean...
Well, actually, if you think about it, I am the only constant in this. That's why this works, is because who I am is in all of these genres. I am the cohesive element. My voice is still my voice. It's not "Veronica wears different hats." It's "Veronica wears the same hat different ways." So yes, I am the cohesive element.
But you're not at all hesitant about embodying opposite philosophies within the space of two or three songs. I mean, "I Am What I Am" is like, I contain multitudes, and just let me be what I am. And whatever it is you're saying that you are singularly. And then two songs later, you're in this kind of bossy, "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" mode.
Well, if you... Yeah, so basically what this album does is connects the through lines from genre to genre. If you break it down, the elements of each song, there is an element, whether it's a rhythmic or harmonic or melodic or thematic element that is passed through song to song.
For example, "I Am What I Am" is bebop. It's got a little of my Bach fugue love for Baroque music in there that I wrote. And then the bebop, which is my roots was passed through to the next song, which is "Closer" with the bebop solo. Right. But that's a funk fusion tune that's written by Nine Inch Nails, which is 90s alternative rock. So what we're doing is actually these aren't really opposite philosophies, but we're connecting these through lines that are very subtle and expanding them so that people can see that these genres really are all connected.
And that it's a part of who all these artists that I love, they're all a part of me and they inform what I do, whether it's jazz or rock or funk or classical, that it's okay to love all of that in one space. You don't listen to just one genre of music all the time.
No, I couldn't make a living that way. But I almost suspect a militancy in your crossing genres because you're swinging "Juliet's Waltz" and then you're singing a Jobim almost in an operatic way.
Yeah, it's connected. That's what I'm doing. I'm showing how the time, it bends with the time. And so a song that was written 150 years later could have been written 150 years ago. It's like that Zelig movie. You ever see Zelig?
It's like he shows up in every picture through time. That's kind of how I imagine myself in this record and in these songs. They're like Zelig.
And yet you have no hesitation about revisiting songs like "As Long As He Needs Me" and "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)." I mean, you do these songs unapologetically without any irony or any sarcasm. And it seems like you are time traveling into whatever the mindset must have been at the time that these songs were written.
Yeah, that's one way our musical mission in life is to... We look at like Mozart and Beethoven, like, oh, that was so long ago. But when you read their journals and their notes they've written to students or lovers or what have you, they're very much relatable people. And the music is the same way. And so that's my mission in life is to do that, to be the person that connects.
You said militancy: I love that because we actually wear – our band uniform is like black and gold parade military outfits that I put together because we're kind of like soldiers. We're fighting this world that wants to suppress creativity and freedom of self-individualism and expression.
But all the like TikTok and be-trendy and be-like-everyone-else. No, we're fighting that.
Well, I have to admit I was wondering which Veronica we were going to get. Going to get the hoodie Veronica…
The answer is yes!
…the strapless Veronica or the leather Veronica. I just didn't know, you know?
Well, the outfit is just the outfit, but it's always been me. It's the same Veronica, you know?
You say you're still kind of concentrating on the music. Does it get more difficult when you have such an ultra-produced album like your current album? When there must be just so much input from orchestrators and people from front office saying what you should and what you shouldn't sing right now?
Well, it's taken me years to surround myself with the right people, and that's something you learn as you get, as we all learn as we get older. We start to notice people around us that are negative influences, that are hindering. You know, that are suppressing our kind of, you know, free will, if you will. And just about the last couple years I've put together a band and management team and booking team and product.
My producer is actually my drummer, Brian Viglione, who's been my hero since I was 12 years old. Like I've listened to his band, the Dresden Dolls, my whole life and Brian is a brilliant collaborator. So it's knowing the kinds of people you're surrounding yourself with: Are they stars and are they collaborators?
You know, everybody has something important that they want to say, but ultimately, they're looking to me because as the leader, you have to step up to the plate. You can't, because I usually tend to be like very democratic, like everybody has their input, but I found that people really want to be led, too. They want someone strong who has a vision, like a David Bowie type.
So everything that's happened on the record has always come to me and Brian as well. We both have the same – it's very rare to find someone who has the same vision that you do. And Brian and I share not only the same vision but we share the same taste, the expansive multi-genre taste.
I mean he's a rock drummer that plays jazz and plays all this stuff because his favorite drummer is Elvin Jones and my favorite singer is Freddie Mercury. So we both come from these worlds of, you know, these crossed worlds and we brought them together in such a beautiful way.
Freddie Mercury. I do get the Janis Joplin vein in what you're doing now, but a lot of people would say, well you introduced one new thing but the classical strain. I didn't detect that in anything previous. I know there's a Broadway strain in what your repertoire represented in the past, but to bring it in and to bring it in in such bulk is really very audacious and very much risking to rock the boat of who identifies as your fandom.
It's interesting, you're talking a lot about rocking the boat and audacity. It doesn't feel like that for me, man. I'm just being myself and being very, you know, like at peace with who I am, and that's what people are responding to. They're following that strong sense of self and leadership.
People need that right now, because what the world is trying to do, like you look at everything, like I mentioned TikTok and Instagram is this very conformist view even though they want you to follow the trend, follow the algorithm and that's just what I mean. This whole record is about just standing up to that, and that's what I think people are responding to, and it's of course using the music as a metaphor like I said.
It's easy for me because I love all this. It's not hard what I'm doing. I'm singing music I love. It's not simple and classical music is an important part of my upbringing. I mean my first love was Baroque music. I didn't love jazz as a kid. It's just something I was good at. I found my love for it much later in life when I matured a little, but my actual love was classical. You know the harmonic content of the Tchaikovsky and, you know. Beethoven.
I would study these scores when I was about seven or eight years old. I started to study scores and playing piano of course you know exposed my ear to that kind of harmonic sophistication and so I loved Bach. I loved how all the lines would intertwine within and out of each other and so I've just found a way to do it that way that's authentic and unique to myself and that includes connecting it with these other genres like "Je Veau Vivre" for example.
Talk about you know Django Reinhart and I mean he's not, he's not French but he is very big in France, and Stephane Grappelli is French and so that lineage is an important part of why I'm because I used to sing at Birdland with the Django Reinhart All-Star Band, and so that's the way I've gotten to bring that element of who I am in here as well.
I used to sing all those arias in high school. I don't sing opera anymore but I believe you know, maybe with an orchestra, someday we'll do it.
Yeah absolutely, but you were hinting a while ago that now is the time – maybe I'm detecting that some of this these impulses to do all this and be all this have been repressed or advised against.
You got it, man. If it was advised against it was only because I was surrounded by the wrong people, you know, and that doesn't mean that they're bad people. They just didn't have the vision or the image. They just they saw the world that they saw. And that's fine, you know. It's like it's like asking a Subaru salesman to sell a Ferrari.
They're not going to know what how to sell a Ferrari. So what we're selling… it's like talking to somebody who you're trying to get them to try Baked Alaska when they don't even know what it is. They know chocolate chip cookies. That's something that's easily packaged, easily marketed, and you can sell chocolate chip cookies in a second to anybody. But Baked Alaska is a gourmet dish. When you try it, you're going to like it, but you got to try it. There's no way to describe it to you until you've tried it.
So that's what our show is like, and I've just surrounded myself with people that get it and know how to help bring that to life, that vision. So yeah it's just like I'm really excited to bring this show to North Carolina.
How many pieces can you possibly bring to a jazz club?
We've brought I mean we brought the quintet with horns…three horns before, but that may be a little bit tight on the stage, so we're just going to bring the quintet this time.
Okay, does that count you as part of the quintet?
Oh yes, absolutely.
Okay, so we could expect one horn?
No, no – myself, piano, bass, drums, guitar.
Yeah, you can't play rock and funk without the guitar in there.
Yeah, yeah, I forgot about that aspect of it. Okay, I remember some guitar licks on the new album. Wow, yeah. "Was it on Don't Rain on My Parade? "
Yeah, that's the book-ended somatic message. The first song, "I Am What I Am," of course being about being yourself and all that. But then, it's bookended with the last song, "Don't Rain on My Parade." It's the same kind of song, you know, to send people off with the message of the album. "Keep Yourself Alive" of course is like the finale and "Don't Rain on My Parade" is like the encore.
But "Keep Yourself Alive" is the Queen song and "Don't Rain on My Parade" – I mean that that arrangement just wrote itself because just it's such a brilliant song.
Yes. I was in fact thinking about "I Am What I Am": that could serve at either side of the bookend as an encore. Or it's probably too emphatic to be an encore, because you're going to have to sing another song after that one.
Yeah. No, that's the one that always works as an opener.
Uh-huh. Yeah, that that definitely introduces yourself. How intensely do you concentrate on the stuff you have just issued, and how much might we see of what's coming in the future?
That's a really good question. I try to, talking about time, I try to comprise a show that speaks to past, present, and future, because quite most people now have only just discovered me. So that's been an interesting experiment, you know? Like I'm still building my career, so of course the emphasis is on present because I as a person tend to be so future-oriented that I miss the now. So we are really focusing on the present and pushing the record now, and that's the statement.
But there is an element of the future as well in this show, and that is the next phase, which is to show people that okay, I've established myself as a jazz singer and my roots in jazz music with my parents having been brought up with jazz singers on the road. Then I'm showing you who I am now, which is this multitude, this beautiful color palette or spectrum of genres.
Then what I really identify as is a storyteller, and I've never gotten to tell my own story with my own words, save for a couple songs. So my next future album may be an album of all original music, so I think we'll be including a lot of originals on this show as well.
Oh, that's exciting! Do you regret calling yourself Swift for your stage name?
Why would I that's my that's my that's my biological name!
Is it? I look at your father's name and your mother's name, and I don't see a Swift in there. Okay…
Yeah. My mother has used her maiden name as her stage name, Nicasian. My father was adopted by O'Brien he's not really an O'Brien by blood. He's a Swift.
So I've chosen to stick with my biological name.
Ah, there you go! Then you can always measure up against and Taylor and feel modest.
I don't measure up against anybody. I measure up against myself and myself alone.
So you're not daunted – or driven – by the fact that your most popular tracks get maybe two million plays, and she has multiple tracks with a billion?
No, she's a pop star! I don't sing pop music, you know? I have my own artistry, and what I teach to young artists – because I teach as well – and I talk to a lot of artists trying to navigate and find themselves in this new world in this new industry that's really kept by the gatekeepers. For artists that have something unique: one, when you have something so niche like this – it's you – when you create your own universe that is uniquely yours, like no one else can touch it…
…then you've really touched on a goldmine. You've come across something really special, because then you have your own universe, your own fan base, your own career that is truly yours. You can't compare it. It's like Ella or Sarah: you can't compare, you know?
There's people with different tastes. Some people may not get you, and then, okay. Your job is not to get them to get you, your job is just be yourself and carve your own
Right. So in no shape or form should we confuse the fact that your new album is eclectic and multicolored with the idea that it has anything to do with your ambition to become more marketable.
That is just an added bonus, my friend. That was absolutely a joke. Look, if I wanted to be marketable, I wouldn't have been a jazz singer for 20 years, you know what I mean? I just sing music I love! It's that simple. I mean I love rock music and classical music because it's passionate, powerful, dramatic, and it fulfills that dramatic side of who I am. And I love singing jazz because it fulfills the connection to my family and my roots. It has nothing to do with anything other than that!
Yeah, so you must have the same joking attitude that Ella had – at every concert – when she bemoaned the fact that she never had a big hit.
I don't focus on that stuff. You can't focus on that shit as an artist, you know?
You have to focus on the art, because otherwise you're going to lose why you do it in the first place. I see it happen with so many friends and artists, constantly comparing themselves to other… Once you start doing that, you're dead. You can't compare yourself to anybody.You can't. There's no measuring up. It's you and you alone.
I notice, really deep in your records, that there's what I would say is a foundational interplay between you and the piano, and I know it begins with you and your dad, but say something about the piano and what it means to you and how you interact with it.
Hmm, that's a really, really good question. So on an emotional level the piano has always been – that was always my first instrument, as it is with most people, you know? Like you take piano lessons when you're a kid, right? The piano was – just because of my father – his approach to piano was so different than mine. I'm more classical, like I said, like my first love is classical. So my approach to piano is I try to play like…
When I found Queen, of course, that was like, oh my God, you put these worlds together! Forget about it, I love this! But the Rachmaninoff and the stuff like Chopin, like Liszt – all that stuff you know. The best songs I write come from playing the classical stuff on the piano and then trying… to work some of these harmonic structures into a song.
WTC, I've written a couple songs of WTC pieces. So really, my relationship to the piano is very personal, you know. I actually had a house fire about 11 years ago, and the piano that I learned to play on was saved from the fire. And so, the piano has become just like the phoenix – my phoenix – the phoenix is my spirit animal because of the concept of fire and, you know, rejuvenating, reborn from the ashes, and how the piano survives the fire. So it's kind of become a whole extra set of symbolism, you know?
Maybe the next record will have me playing the piano within a fire or something, you know? And I don't know, that's kind of what it is. I look at the piano, and I just see, you know, me being reborn.
I'd like you to exhume some of those tantalizingly described early recordings of you where you're putting vocalese to Lester Young so…
Oh, that album I did when I was 21!
Yeah, I know! I'd like to hear them, but I don't find them on any of the services. Because I have to look them up on Amazon or something
It's a little bit of power I do have. I don't have to cater. I can put – those albums are just physical copies. So I'll be – are you going to be at the show? I'm going to be selling those, actually. I can – I'll have those records with me.
Yeah, I'll be at the show definitely. I'm coming to the early one.
So… and the rapport that you have with the horn players. A lot of singers just resist recording the way Billie Holiday did way back when, and you've jumped right into it, which is really a heartening thing for me.
Oh, thank you! Well I think music – I see it as a language, you know? And it's very conversational, the way I approach it. And the way you look at Billie and Lester, the way – it's a conversation between two people. And being a scat singer as well, I look at Bebop and the vocabulary of music as if it was a language: the notes are like words, and musical phrases are the sentences.
When you have notes by themselves, yeah, they have some meaning and qualities but they don't have much of meaning without the context of the musical phrase or the sentence surrounding it. And so, when you have that element of that understanding of music, then you can have rapport with any musicians. Of course, the fact that I play trumpet makes it fun for me to play with the horns, because then I actually bring out my trumpet and…
Oh, all right
…but I won't be doing that in North Carolina, because I don't have the horn, sadly.
Oh, that's a shame. Alright, yeah that would that would be something to really tout or ballyhoo or have a scoop about. Yeah, so I'm looking forward to it and thanks so much for your time and for your candor.
Thank you very, very much. I'll see you at the show.
Absolutely. Thank you.