When out lesbian, New-York-City native and performing-songwriter Swati’s (meaning "birth of a star" in Hindu) mother named her, perhaps she was foreseeing the future that awaited her daughter.
Swati’s early exposure to music came via the classical world when she was awarded an academic scholarship to study trombone. Her performing debut at Carnegie Hall, however, resulted in abandoning the classical world in favor of exploring her own singing, songwriting and guitar playing.
Swati immersed herself in the city’s music scene at a young age, managing the popular club Nightingale’s. This put her in touch with the fertile music and arts scene in Manhattan’s lower east side. Before long, Swati was performing and creating a sensation, attracting musicians and record company execs alike and securing a spot at Lilith Fair.
Swati approaches songwriting and performing as catharsis: a way to expose her inner self and connect with others. "Onstage," she says, "it’s the optimum place I can be in my head. When I see a stranger who feels what I feel, the emptiness and loneliness are completely gone. I’m completely content."
As a guitarist, Swati’s technique is simultaneously percussive and dreamy, revealing elements of her Indian heritage. Using a twelve-string guitar fitted with eight strings, she employs open tunings ala Joni Mitchell and plays through an assortment of effects pedals. The result is remarkable. Swati doesn’t sound like anyone else and no one sounds like her; rarely has a solo guitarist sounded as muscular and delicate or gotten such an enormous sound from a simple acoustic instrument.
After years of experimentation with different musicians and producers, Swati teamed up with producer Duke McVinnie (songwriter/guitarist with Shivaree) and producer/engineer Brandon Mason (David Bowie, The Secret Machines) to make her independent debut album at Allaire Studios.
From the opening guitar salvos of "Big Bang" to the timely lyrics ("Whatever happened to honesty, whatever happened to respect?") of "Dodge," Swati has created a solid work that touches and resonates with people. The record completed, she has been taking to stages throughout the U.S., exposing listeners to what was previously heard only in Manhattan. Influential tastemakers KCRW in LA and Reg’s Coffee Shop.com have championed Swati, helping spread the word in the U.S. and from Australia to Britain as well.
Swati’s songs are direct, honest and powerful and delivered with disarming humor. In the crowded singer/songwriter universe, Swati stands out as a particularly distinct star. Her newest effort Small Gods was released in April on Blue Hammock Records and she is currently touring in support of the album.
Recently, Swati took some time to chat with O&AN about the new album and her life as a musician. For more information on Swati please visit www.swatilive.com or www.myspace.com/swatilive. Small Gods is available for purchase at http://cdbaby.com/cd/swati.
O&AN: There is a book by Australian satirist Terry Pratchett with the same name as your album and many of the ideas you seem to be exploring are reflected in his work. How much influence if any did Pratchett’s work have on yours?
Someone told me there was a book called Small Gods that I need to read. It’s a total coincidence. I drew the idea from the fact that in India there are a lot of gods. There is a god for everything there, so I thought about transposing that idea to American culture. I love this country, but consumerism has made gods out of money and other material things.
O&AN: You seem to have a versatile wellspring of ideas and stylistic arrangements in you music. How do you approach your songwriting when generating new material?
There are a lot of times when I won’t know what a song is about until later on, if that makes any sense. It’s kind of a backward way of writing but it’s very therapeutic. The process of my music will come to me like a vision in my ears. The music and the words just come together like they were meant to be right there, right then in that combination. I never sit down to write a song. I sit down to play my guitar but I’ve never really “worked” on a song. The other day I was making love to my girlfriend and a song came to me like a vision. All of a sudden I was given the music and the words as one entity. It was in my head in an instant in its entirety. I had to stop and take it all down right then and within five minutes the whole thing was done. I think what I do is like a painter doing abstract work that really requires the painter to put it down as quick as possible.
O&AN: Given your unique approach to songwriting, when did you decide that you wanted to be a recording and performing artist as well?
Being a recording artist was never really what I thought about as a career or even been very ambitious about at all. I never really sought it out until a few years ago. I always thought that my ambitions shouldn’t be motivated by capitalism. I wanted what I did to be something that I loved, not just work. It hit me about a year ago that I didn’t need to waste my life for something that I don’t care about and just do what I love and be thankful that I’m able to do it. I’m doing this in a way to kind of "pay it forward." The world has inspired me and I want to put it back out there. I would hope that people are really connecting to the music and that they are getting something positive out of it. The music is very dark I know, but I hope that there will be enough people that it will touch. My goal for the next five years is to just keep connecting to people.
This is the first real album I’ve ever put out. I’ve made other records before but this is the most honest that I’ve ever made. It’s really the most representative of me I think because I recorded it live in the studio rather than taking more traditional production approaches.
O&AN: As an out lesbian, who is also a performing songwriter, is there ever a fear that you will be lumped into a category as just another "lesbian with a guitar" singing about her feelings?
I don’t even give it a second though that people may think of me as just another girl with a guitar. I do this regardless. The world always needs to put things in a box. It loves to do that and really who doesn’t like to put things in boxes?**Laughs**
I’ve definitely never been inside of whatever box the world tries to place me neatly into. It’s really a matter of how I see myself and I don’t think of myself as just another lesbian with a guitar. It’s really all I know how to do because I’ve always done it. I always get so much positive response from people. I love that I’m not so much thought of as a female guitarist now as I am just a guitarist.