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Veronica Swift: A Musical Journey

Courtesy Veronica Swift Website

Mark Robbins BY

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The reason I sing standards is because they are close to my childhood but the second everyone started calling me a standards singer I was like no no wrong! Do not put me in a box!
—Veronica Swift
It should be no surprise that Veronica Swift is recognized as one of the top jazz singers on the scene today. Her father was jazz legend Hod O'Brien, a true master of bop and swing piano. Her mother is renowned jazz singer and educator Stephanie Nakasian. Veronica recorded her first album at the age of 9, Veronica's House of Jazz (SNOB, 2004), followed by It's Great to Be Alive! (SNOB, 2007) at age 11 and has continued performing at many of the the top jazz venues around the world. In 2015 she placed 2nd in the Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition, graduated from college in 2016 and two years later moved to New York where she has honed her craft to become what she is today, a true jazz star known around the world.

All About Jazz caught up with Veronica towards the end of the Covid restrictions and talked about her new album, This Bitter Earth (Mack Avenue Records, 2021) and her journey from Charlottesville, Virginia to New York.

All About Jazz: Veronica, good morning!

Veronica Swift: Good morning, Mark, how are you?

AAJ: Well, thank you. Where are you, east coast or west coast?

VS: East coast.

AAJ: You may not remember this but you and I have met a couple of times. I photographed you at the Attucks and the North Carolina Jazz Festival.

VS: Yea, yea when I saw the name I knew I knew you. Hope everything has been treating you alright despite everything.

AAJ: Yes, actually you and Emmet [Cohen] and the trio helped me and I think a lot of people cope with your virtual gigs.

VS: Oh yea, glad to be of service!

AAJ: How was that? Do you actually get a count as to how many computers have clicked on and watching or are you just hoping for a decent audience?

VS: I mean, that was Emmet's thing. I don't follow that stuff, I don't like live streaming, so I just show up and sing. I don't pay attention to who was watching, really. I'm a technophobe, but Emmet kept a tally of everything.

AAJ: Did you find you were performing differently than you would have in front of a live audience?

VS: Everything is different because there are no people there, a virtual performance, man, it feels just like a rehearsal. It's like me and my friends getting together and having a jam session and I like that too but man, what I do, I'm a performer and a performer needs space, audience and musicians. You need all three elements for there to be magic and that magic is what makes the sacred space for us to be together, the musicians and the audience. It's like going to church or synagogue or whatever. It's a place to worship!

AAJ: You've been at this for a long time. Did your dad accompany you when you were starting out?

VS: Oh, my dad was a great pianist and mom a great singer and when they would go on tour I would go with them. I was 9 or 10 when I started singing with them, and the rest is history. I've been doing this professionally for 18 years.

AAJ: Does it seem like 18 years?

: The thing is, it was never like a thing I was counting or tallying up. It was just like, it's like you look at your grandkids and say "Wow, that happened!"

AAJ: I know, it's like you look in a mirror and say, "When did this happen?" Did your parents encourage you when you were younger? Your first album came out when you were 9 years old, did they prompt you to sing or was that your own thing?

VS: Yea, that was something I wanted to do and they always encouraged and supported anything I wished to do. They didn't egg me on or anything. They weren't stage parents like some kids have. There are kids who just don't want to do what their parents want them to do. I have friends whose parents were jazz musicians and they were total stage parents and the kids didn't want to play jazz. So, the kids turned their back to it and their parents were so offended that they would do something like that. That wasn't my parents. If I went away to do something else then came back to jazz then went away again, which is what I always do, they always supported me whatever it was. They're the best.

AAJ: When you were that young were you aware of just how well known your parents were? They were both successful jazz musicians, your dad was probably the top bebop and swing pianist on the scene. Did you understand what they were doing?

VS: Yes, you know when you're that young very few people understand, even if they hear the subtleties of the music and hear what someone is playing, or understanding it with words and putting it in an emotional context for yourself. I wasn't able to do that until I was maybe 17 and going to music school and really studying music instead of just playing. I would actually listen to my dad's records when I was in college, especially when he got cancer, I was really listening to his records and I said, "Holy shit dad, now I get it!" Not that I didn't get it before but now it's on a much deeper level. That comes with age and experience.

AAJ: So you're nine, ten years old and listening to music, jazz, rock, whatever, who would you listen to?

VS: Anything and everything! Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, anything classical that was really passionate, romantic. Also, I was a huge fan of baroque music. I actually liked the similarity between baroque and bebop lines and, as a kid, I noticed that a lot of the instrumental bebop lines was like taking Bach but swinging it. I loved that! I loved Lambert= 102612}} of course. I loved the big bands, you know the Fletcher Henderson big band, Benny Goodman and 1920's music. Really, it was the 1920's music that sparked my interest in jazz. It wasn't bop at first because that was my parent's music and the American Songbook was my parents music plus the American Songbook was a little bit too sophisticated for a 9 year old to understand. You know, you hear the songs of course and you sing them for fun but I would never understand them until I was 17 or so. The lyrics were so subtle. Anyway, there was all that and I would listen to rock and roll. Zeppelin, Queen has always been a favorite, Tower of Power, Earth Wind and Fire.

AAJ: Do you still listen to them or has your taste changed?

VS: No no no, my taste has not changed! It's become more refined and expansive venturing into music from different parts of the world, different countries and regions. World music is pretty hip, electronic music I like, but nothing pop! I've never been interested in mainstream, well mainstream now, except maybe Lady Gaga or someone like her.

AAJ: Do you have a meat dress you like to wear when you listen to Gaga?

VS: (laughs) I have other kinds of crazy dresses. My wardrobe is a little staid.

AAJ: When did you realize you could sing? Did your mother know it before you?

VS: Oh yes, of course she knew before I did. I mean I was singing in choirs back in elementary and middle school. I was harmonizing on Beatles' tunes, finding thirds and sevenths without knowing what I was doing .Of course, my mom noticed it right away. She said, "Okay, you're going to be a singer."

AAJ: You've been doing a lot with Emmet, how did you two hook up?

VS: Emmet went to University of Miami which is where I went but he graduated a year before I entered so I didn't go to school with him, but we had a lot of mutual friends in New York and I was hanging out with my friends up in the New York scene. When I was in college I would go up to New York and on one of those trips I met Emmet. I would be hanging out in a club where he was playing and he would ask me to come up and sing. Then I started playing Birdland and thought about who I wanted in my band. I tried a lot of different people and Emmet just kind of stuck around and that seemed to be the vibe for that chapter of my life. He and I really helped each other get to where we are. I am very grateful to him.

AAJ: You sang with Benny Green for a while.

VS: Benny Green and I, yes! I met Benny when I was 12 years old then we reconnected when I was at Birdland and I thought I would love to work with Benny because of the connection with my dad. Benny loves bebop and this was at a time when I was really focusing on jazz. I was in New York and if you really want to make a name for yourself you need to focus on one thing and hone in on your craft otherwise you're all over the place. Now that I've sort of secured that fan base I can branch out and actually show who I am. Benny helped me do that, he helped me show that side of myself and Emmet helped me show a different side. Now I'm moving on to a whole new chapter that's all encompassing.

AAJ: The tunes on your new album This Bitter Earth are a far cry from American standards. Were you purposely trying to distance yourself a little from them?

VS: The reason I sing standards is because they are close to my childhood but the second everyone started calling me a standards singer I was like no no wrong! Do not put me in a box. That's not the only reason I did the songs on This Bitter Earth, but that's part of it. The songs on This Bitter Earth are the right songs for the times. Here's how I put it, you have your family love, your mother, father, sister love. You have friendship love, you have passionate love affairs and you have your children who you love. So there are different kinds of love, right? There's love for mankind, humanity and my relationships with these different kinds of love are the same relationships I have with different musical genres. Neither one is more important than the other. Rock and roll, classical, opera represents the passion and love affair, like being on a roller coaster. Then jazz, bebop, swing is my core, they are my roots, where I come from. Quite literally, my family love.

AAJ: For This Bitter Earth and Confessions (Mack Avenue Records, 2019) did you choose all the songs or do you collaborate with anyone?

VS: When it comes to the story and the narrative on a record I'm pretty much the one calling the shots. That's my job, I'm a singer, that's what I do.

AAJ: Do you try to find something autobiographical in every song you sing?

VS: Oh absolutely! I couldn't do it otherwise. I think in all the songs I sing there may be only a couple that aren't autobiographical. That means 98% of what I sing has autobiographical elements in the lyrics. It makes the whole experience, performing and listening, more authentic. The audience can pick up on what's BS.

AAJ: I felt that especially in "Trust In Me." There was something ominous going on.

VS: Yes, that was sung from the perspective of the antagonist of that portion of the story. He's the predator, or in my story, the date rape.

AAJ: There's one line in "Sing" that goes "Sing for the teachers that told you that you couldn't sing." Did that happen to you?

VS: No, that did not happen to me but I saw it with a lot of my friends. I did have teachers who tried to stifle my chaotic, creative energy. That's a challenge for all artists. They go through school and may have teachers that really just want them to stick to one thing. You know, do this or do that , but as an artist you have to kind of let it go and keep it on a very loose leash and the teacher needs to just offer guidance when it's needed. Ultimately musicians are artists and unfortunately the two don't always go hand in hand. So at least I can speak artistically that I had that experience with a couple of teachers.

AAJ: Who do you listen to now, as far as jazz goes, who do you like to hear vocally?

VS: I love the modern musicians of today. I love to listen to Cecil [McLorin Salvant], to see what she comes up with. She's a friend of mine and I love her creativity.

AAJ: How about any kind of music. If you were in the shower who would you be singing?

VS: Well, if I'm going to be singing in the shower it would be something I'm writing. That's the best place to come up with ideas! If you look at my record player you'd find a whole lot of Beatles, Queen, anything from Stravinsky, Handel, Wagner. Operas, Parliament Funkadelic is up there. I don't listen to jazz regularly every day right now. You know, I've listened to it so much I need to take a breather every now and then. To get new ideas you need to be influenced by other things.

AAJ: I love the Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough songs you do on This Bitter Earth and Confessions.

VS: I love them, man. They are true legends.

AAJ: I was going to pitch you to do a whole album of just them.

VS: Ha! I don't do tribute albums but if I was to do one it would be one of those guys. They're total rock stars, musically and lyrically.

AAJ: The only other artist I can think of off the top of my head who really represented them was Blossom Dearie.

VS: Blossom Dearie is a legend too! She was part of that group. Cecil does a couple of songs by Dorough like "Devil May Care." I can't wait to do my Christmas record, we're going to record Bob's "Blue Xmas!"

AAJ: I can't wait for that! Tell me about "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" from This Bitter Earth. I had never heard it before so I did some research and was so surprised to see that it been written in 1962 by Carol King and Jerry Goffin? Do you know how it was received then and did she perform it often?

VS: Well, I don't think she ever sang it. She wrote it for the Crystals. The Crystals were a B-list female group in the '60s much like the The Supremes. The song wasn't popular back then, it was a social awareness song, a civil rights kind of thing. It was a song for women in abusive relationships and it didn't click because that time wasn't ready for it. It was way ahead of it's time and their version is much more gut wrenching than mine. It's got that '60's drum groove, the base line, [Veronica sings a few seconds of a base line], and it's like the juxtaposition of the sounds between what they were singing and the sound. I did mine the way I did because I wanted it to invoke kind of what I was feeling listening to that song.

AAJ: It was, I don't know if strange is the right word, but, especially in this day of the #Me Too Movement, strange to hear a song about a woman who is so happy because her partner hit her.

VS: That's what it's about! I did it the way it made me feel.

AAJ: It's ironic that a song about abuse was produced for the Crystals by a man, Phil Spector, who was years later convicted for murdering his girlfriend.

VS: Yes. All the things I'm singing about, racism, sexism, shootings, even fake news is to make a statement without stating an opinion. That's my whole goal and it's really hard to do as an artist. We all have our personal opinions and it's much more unifying not trying to be an activist. That's just me. I get a lot of backlash from my friends in the far left, but it's fine. This is my way of unifying my audience. I don't want to alienate anyone.

AAJ: Have you started performing live again?

VS: A couple of gigs. I had two gigs last week, one in South Carolina and one in Tallahasse, Florida. The one in Tallahasse was the first time doing my whole new setup where 50% of the show is jazz and then we do "Big Spender." We'll do the song like Queen would do it, then a Danzig instrumental then the The Rolling Stones and some metal. The audience dug it, I do my quick change and put on my chainmail gauntlet then do a whole rock and roll thing. It all works.

AAJ: Does a Tallahasse audience react differently to your show than a New York or Chicago audience would?

VS: Well, back before Covid, New York audiences were from all over. You would get every type of person in New York. You know, I'm playing the Bluenote or Birdland, these are international venues and attract every kind of music fan there is. So, I'm performing for everyone. Wherever I go I feel connected to the people. Even if I'm playing to a more polite audience, like in the Midwest or Canada, by the end of the show I've got them all talking and screaming, hootin' and hollerin'! Even in Alaska I had them jumping to their feet! I want to get to a point where I'm doing a jazz concert and no one is sitting down. The audiences are much more receptive to it now because when I was a kid the jazz audience was mainly people in their 80s from the World War 2 era and now that audience, unfortunately, is dying out but we have the next generation of elderly people who are rock and rollers, people who love the music from the '50s and' 60s and they love this shit!

AAJ: You played trumpet in school and with the The Young Razzcals Jazz Project. Do you still play?

VS: Oh yeah, every now and then I bring it out. I'm waiting to use it, I'm doing a lot of stuff and I don't want to introduce too much. It'll come across as shtick or something, then people will start to compare me with Bria Skonberg or Benny Benack but I'm not at that level so I wouldn't want to call myself a trumpet player but I do play trumpet. On my records, if you hear a horn section, one of those trumpets will be me.

AAJ: I want to ask you, and this came at a dark period for you so if you don't want to go there just say so, but I'd like to know more about your rock opera Vera Icon.

VS: Oh yea, I'll go there. I really can't do anything with it right now because I can't perform with a full metal band. The opera was representing a lot of the frustrations and the losses I was coping with. My grandfather died, my house burned down, my father died, all this shit and on top of that I'm in my 20s so breakups are way worse and there are so many frustrations in music school. So, I put it all symbolically and metaphorically into this rock opera about a nun who struggles with her faith and figuring out where she can find god. It's not necessarily religious but music is like religion. The opera follows the model of Dante's Devine Comedy in terms of the three tiers of Christian life, the Christian afterlife, hell, heaven and purgatory all represented in different aspects of this nun's life.

AAJ: Are you hoping to stage it?

VS: Oh god yes. I would love to do it at a local theater. I'd have the band on stage, we'd play it in it's entirety with costumes, sets, characters. I'll probably record it once the rock and roll takes off with the jazz. It'll be like an alter ego, completely separate from the jazz performer.

AAJ: You were also working on a film?

VS: Yeah, Covid hit and it fell apart. I haven't been able to pick up where we left off because of various reasons. I learned some lessons and lost some money I'll never get back. I would like to do it right, hire a director and actually have a production company take on the project. That's how I would want to do it. Take two!

AAJ: What's it about?

VS: Stockholm Syndrome. It's about a woman who is a writer and she's abducted by one of her fans. It's a little like Misery and other stories like that. She writes horror fiction and he abducts her and puts her through hell so she'll write better. She ends up falling in love with him and then it gets complicated.

AAJ: It sounds like your hands are full but any thoughts about a new record?

VS: I'm going to let This Bitter Earth sit for a while, see how it goes. I'm working with new management and I've got to get out there and perform. Travel again, tour again. We're struggling to survive, to pay the rent, it's hard with no gigs. Towards the end of Covid hardly anyone was tipping in the virtual tip jars, it just broke my spirit. Even these guys who are world class legends, like Johnny O' Neal, they're doing restaurant gigs for $100. What the hell is going on? It's just demeaning. I don't know what's going to happen to the New York jazz scene. I hate to end this interview on such downer but it's been such a hard time for everyone. But, I'm confidant people will come out again. Just based on my two gigs from last week people want to get out and be entertained.

AAJ: I am confident the audience will be back. People want to get out again, they're starving for live entertainment. Veronica, I can't thank you enough for your time and conversation. I hope to see you on a stage somewhere soon.

VS: Thank you so much, I hope to see you soon.

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