ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — On May 14, critically acclaimed and rising jazz star singer Veronica Swift makes her third trip to Rochester. This appearance follows 2017 and 2019 appearances at the Rochester International Jazz Festival.
Her performance at Theater at Innovation Square on Chestnut will not only feature tunes from her latest release, This Bitter Earth, but will also feature a multi-genre setlist. Tickets are on sale online now.
She’s joined by:
- Mathis Picard – Piano
- Julius Rodriguez – Keyboards
- Chris Whiteman – Guitar
- Alexander Claffy – Bass
- Brian Viglione – Drums
- James Sarno – Trumpet
- Troy Roberts – Tenor
- Lauren Sevian – Baritone Sax
Ahead of the show, Swift talked about how she stays grounded, finding her voice in a genre that is steeped with foundational names, and how it feels coming back to Rochester. Here’s her 1-on-1 with Dan Gross.
So the first thing, there’s that big old lockdown thing that happened, especially in New York… Now you’re out on the road playing for people, how does it feel?
I’ve been touring my whole life pretty much, to the extent of 300 days a year I was out on the road. So for the first six months, I was rather enjoying myself, to be honest.
I don’t live in New York, I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. And I had, that’s where I grew up. I moved back to Charlottesville a couple of years after the pandemic. I was missing the mountains. I was missing my home and my job, my mom who lives here as well. So for the first six months, it was actually an incredible opportunity for me to just shut down.
I mean, of course, it wasn’t all fun and games, it was a global crisis. Everything was going on. But it gave me time to reflect. When you’re on the road, you don’t have a chance to really think creatively, because you wake up early in the morning, get on the flight, get to the gig… And when you come home from the road, you just want to shut down.
I’m sure every artist agrees they had this creative burst (after lockdowns), writing music, I was working on a musical, all these projects that kind of presented themselves to me. I’m blessed to that I get to now work on these projects that I’ve been cultivating for some time.
On creating new things, you’ve drawn comparisons to other foundational names like Ella Fitzgerald. How do you balance those comparisons, staying true to jazz’s roots, but also creating something new and finding your own voice?
The industry likes to put a box around people because it’s easy to market — it’s easy for people to recognize the sounds — there’s value in that. And that’s why I chose jazz music as the first genre focus. Because you as an artist, if you’re expansive and (artists) like Linda Ronstadt who did everything, you have to start with a focus, so I chose jazz music.
It’s the foundation for everything. It’s like ballet for all dance, it has everything: technique, artistry, sophistication, subtlety, elegance, bombastic everything is there, information-wise. Also, it’s where I grew up, it’s my world. So I would take that with me wherever I go.
But in my concerts, which I will be doing in Rochester, I urge the audience, I connect with the audience, (asking) what kinds of music do you guys listen to? I mean, no one has one genre, they listen to. It’s like having personality: sometimes it’s here, sometimes it’s there. We’ve all been through different phases in our life, and we carry those with us wherever we are with the person we are today.
So that’s kind of how I put it; these different genres are like different relationships. Jazz music is a relationship with my parents, literally and figuratively. It’s foundational, rock’n’roll music, and opera, those are relationships like passionate love affairs that are this way and that, and up and down.
But the foundation, the thing that connects all these mediums, is storytelling. That’s the real genre here. Whether I’m a jazz singer, or if I’m working as a writer for a musical. It’s all storytelling.
“Take it with Me,” I think is a that’s a Tom Waits song, isn’t it? So why don’t you break down “This Bitter Earth” a little bit for us? We’ve touched upon some of these things, drawing from different genre of influences storytelling, which was kind of the aim of this project.
I recorded “This Bitter Earth” before everything happened before there was any inkling of a crisis, in 2019. These were all songs that you know — I’m the kind of person and I know exactly what records I want to do down the road, I got the next 10 records, I figured out — and I wanted (my second album) to be something more of a kind of a social commentary without taking a stance on anything opinion-wise… I didn’t want to be connected to a specific issue, I just wanted to present the issues at hand that we’re all experiencing together as a planet and, and society.
We have issues of racism, we have issues of sexual abuse, and we had really intense stuff. And my challenge was how do I approach these intense topics without one pissing anyone off, without taking a side. I didn’t want to alienate my audience… But also to how do I connect people through these songs, and do it in a way that isn’t overstepping the comfort zone, but still challenging. So I think every artist has a problem with a record like that.
I tried to be as honest as I could. Everything comes down to the programming, not just the song choices, but the tracklisting, and how the arc plays out. And so I chose songs first that started kind of inward intrapersonal, and then expanded outward, how our reactions and how our choices and feelings affect a global scale. And that’s why start with “This Bitter Earth.” It has a more minimalist sound, and then the last song “Sing,” its epic and big.
As more artists come out of the lockdown, some have embraced more remote and asynchronous workflows, but others like yourself and Jon Batiste are moving their music to something that is meant to live and focused on audience interaction. What do you want to people to take away from any show of yours that they go to with that in mind?
I always say on my shows that there are three elements to making a show happen. There’s the physical space. (For some) the webcasting, the live streaming worked for them, which is brilliant. I personally couldn’t handle not having a physical space, that tactile sense that we’re all in it together, that (the thing that) united us, the artists on stage, communicating the kind of the vessels between music and life… And it couldn’t happen without the audience.
You can’t do any of this without people there to share their stories too, because sometimes I actually get my audience talking back and forth, depending on how big the venue is. We did a New Year’s show this year, and it was supposed to be sold out and everything. And I ended up only being 50 people in this giant theater. So I had everybody come up to the front center. We started by talking to each other; it felt like a nightclub. People felt connected at a time when in the last two years we’ve been so really struggling to feel connected. And that’s why I appreciate artists like Jon and so many of my friends that I make music with they are advocates for the personal experience.
You have an absolutely stacked lineup of musicians playing at the show for you names like Lauren Sevian, Alexander Claffy, James Sarno, it’s a really great band talking about making music with these cats. You’ve got piano keys, a full rhythm section, and horns. And it’s your chance to chat about them a little bit.
No one’s more proud of the musicians that I play with me. These are friends of mine, some of them for (years). Like Julius Rodriguez, I’ve known him since I was in high school… I was 16 or 17 when I met him, so he must have been like 12 or 13. I’ve been so proud to watch his career unfold, and he’s becoming a star in his own right.
I always tell people you know, there are no ego issues, there’s no none of that, because it’s all about the music, all about the experience. We just want to tell this story as best we can, both our collective story and our personal stories. I like to give each musician an individual moment a chance to shine because they’re all stars in their own right.
It’s hard to find that kind of group, let alone a band of nine people. Four years ago, I was working with just a trio because I didn’t ever dream I could have this. I dreamt, of course. But I didn’t ever think it was going to be a reality for me because of financial stuff…
Having all those musicians on stage with me. That’s a central part of telling that story. So I’m just so proud of them. And Brian Viglione of the Dresden Dolls is our drummer now. I mean, I listened to that band since I was 12 years old like it’s unreal.
Watch Veronica Swift answer Dan Gross’s “Big Three” questions here:
Sounds like a really nice full-circle moment. Onto our “Big Three.” On that note, you’ve, you seem to come back to Rochester every couple of years… What about Rochester makes special for you?
I remember the first time I went, I was on a festival like I was new on the scene, I had been touring for 15-16 years, (but I was) new on the major scene. I just had enough money to bring a guitar and a piano. And the next time it was when “Confessions” came out.
So we had a little more each time, (and each time it) represented a turning point in my career, and in my personal life as well. Going back to Rochester, it always feels like I can look back at each gig, and look at kind of how I’ve grown and learned from certain events that have happened since then. “Where was I then? And what was it? Am I still acting with integrity to myself?”
The last time we were there must have been what? 2017, 2019? Geez, three years ago. So much has changed.
I was going to say, it has gone by very fast. I feel like I blinked in between January and April, and now it’s gone by very quickly.
And when you’re at this point in one’s life, the mid to late early 20s. It’s just exponential growth in the learning experience. So it’s amazing to share that with the audience. I’m excited to even get to meet Mark Iacona, and all the people that make everything happened there. Properly, and thank them for all they do for this music. I love this community.
Next question on the list, we more or less started the interview with your next projects, you said that you’ve got the next 10 years and stuff planned. What’s like, the next big thing you want to accomplish? What’s the next thing on the horizon for you?
I have been writing a musical, I’m not going to go too much into it. But eventually, I would really love to get this musical that I’ve been writing and would love to get it made into a movie maybe someday or on-stage production. (Maybe) Off-Broadway, who knows man, but that’s kind of in the next 10 years, what I would like to do.
I would also like to really explore this trans-genre musical concept that has been going over pretty well so far in terms of connecting all different kinds of audiences: jazz audiences, rock & roll audiences, introduce myself to new audiences and start a movement.
That’s all too pretentious, but you know what I mean; to kind of explore this trans-genre concept a little bit with my musicians, and see what the people think about it. So it’s kind of on the horizon for me.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
The advice I would give that has served me well my entire life is tracing everything back to the source. There are artists out there that a lot of young musicians don’t know where to find (the music) which is ironic, because in this world of Spotify, and all the streaming platforms that we have, we have an endless plethora of knowledge, musical knowledge at our disposal here… But it can be intimidating how to go about finding records, especially because not a lot of people listen with other friends, musicians — which they need to be doing — especially if they’re in a band together, listening together.
But I always ask “who’s your favorite? You know who your favorite singer is?” The kid might say, “I love Ella Fitzgerald.” It’s like, “Oh, great.” So what about Ella do you like, and (you have to ask who) is Ella listening to? And that’s where everybody doesn’t know what the you know, they would say like Louis Armstrong is not yes, but other singers like who else?
And the answer: One of her biggest influences was Connie Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. Then what were the Boswell Sisters listening to? So keep tracing back this source, and it’s endless like a tree with roots, just keeps growing and growing on different directions.
But finding your favorite artists, and what influenced them, and it helps inform your sound and even give you insight into your favorite artists.