A few years back while Kansas City-native Sara Swenson was picking out a new guitar to strum, someone mistakenly referred to her as “the singer-songwriter.” Rather than correcting the error, she decided to try and fulfill the title. A writer by nature,...
A few years back while Kansas City-native Sara Swenson was picking out a new guitar to strum, someone mistakenly referred to her as “the singer-songwriter.” Rather than correcting the error, she decided to try and fulfill the title. A writer by nature, Swenson unexpectedly found a new voice, penning tunes known for their honesty and connections to listeners’ personal experiences.
Following her first year of public performing, she released her debut album in September 2008, a self-titled effort produced by Don Chaffer.
In 2009, she earned the title of Kansas City's "Singer-Songwriter of the Year" at the Pitch Music Awards. Her self-titled album also garnered the #1 spot on the "100 Best Recordings of 2009" by local radio station 90.1 KKFI.
To date, 2010 has only brought Swenson more success. In January she released the digital single "Be Not Far," which propelled her into the top standings of the 2010 OurStage Lilith Fair Local Talent Search. Also, she has already received another nomination for the Kansas City's "Singer-Songwriter of the Year" for the 2010 Pitch Music Awards.
Further, in late spring 2010 she recorded a new record at Woodland Studios in Nashville, Tenn., collaborating once again with producer Don Chaffer. The album, which boasts supporting vocals from Katie Herzig, Gregory Alan Isakov and Lori Chaffer, explores new territory for Swenson, in terms of both depth and diversity of sound. The record, titled "All Things Big and Small" will be available mid-summer 2010.
Swenson regularly performs solo and in collaboration with various musicians both around Kansas City and in other cities.
Ourstage.com: Lilith winners stand side by side with top female acts by Martin Stubbs Last week, we caught up with Ashley Matte, Annie Bethancourt, Terra Naomi and Xolie Morra to hear about their experiences performing at the 2010 Lilith Fair. This week, we are featuring the latest batch of Lilith winners and their stories. In case you haven’t heard, OurStage partnered with Lilith in April to give aspiring female solo artists and female-fronted groups the opportunity to play at the famous festival on stops across the US this summer. Since last week, OurStage winning artists Sara Swenson, Katie Todd, duo Amanda Lucas and Audrey Cecil, and The Airplanes have all performed their sets, and we caught up with them afterward to hear how things went. From their stories it’s clear that each artist had a unique experience, but what they share in common is the increased exposure to new fans and the chance to stand side by side with some of the world’s top female performers.
I was the everday girl hanging out with rock stars for a day." —Sara Swenson
Singer-songwriter Sara Swenson performed at the Kansas City stop of the festival alongside artists the likes of Emmylou Harris, Heart, Sarah McLachlan, and Ingrid Michaelson. “It was an unforgettable experience, from the buzz of interviews and excitement of fans beforehand to the fun photos and feedback afterward,” recalls Swenson. “It was a dream to be on the same bill as Sarah McLachlan and the other ladies on the Lilith Tour, and both playing a set to an attentive and enthusiastic audience on a secondary stage and sharing the big stage with all of the headlining artists for the finale were experiences I’ll never forget.”
We had an absolute blast being part of such a high-profile event; it’s something we’ll never forget." —Amanda Lucas & Audrey Cecil
Recently, singer-songwriters Amanda Lucas and Audrey Cecil combined forces to perform and write as a duo. At their Lilith performance in Indianapolis, Cecil and Lucas played songs to “the largest crowd on the tour for the first performer of the day.” “Playing at Lilith Fair has created more of a buzz than we have ever experienced up to this point,” commented the duo. “By the time we were two songs in, our stage area was packed. Since returning from Lilith fair, we have had constant fan requests/chatter on our social networking sites and web page.” In the upcoming year, Cecil and Lucas have plans to record their first album together and hit the road to play dates in many US cities.
Performing at Lilith was pretty much one of the best things that has happened in our short career so far." —The Airplanes
In St. Louis, songwriting duo Airplanes performed for new faces and learned a little about the festival business. “Performing at Lilith was pretty much one of the best things that has happened in our short career so far. It was a really nice opportunity to perform with some great artists and to perform to crowds that we may not have been able to perform before otherwise. It gave us a really cool opportunity to gain a new fan base in a sense. I really learned that it takes a lot of hard work from everybody to really get a show of this magnitude up and running. From the sound people, to security, to both festival and artist staffs, it takes a real team to make the shows so awesome and so fun.”
“Performing at Lilith felt absolutely incredible and surreal.” —Katie Todd
At the end of the day, each winning artist had the opportunity to perform a special finale on stage with all the other acts on the bill. Katie Todd, winner for Chicago, recalls the experience: “I really enjoyed the sense of camaraderie amongst all of the musicians. For the finale, Sarah McLachlan had all of the artists who performed that day up on the main stage singing ‘Because the Night’ by Patti Smith, and I’m still on a high from that experience.” You can watch a video of Todd onstage with McLachlan, Heart and Mary J. Blige, to name a few, here.
The Pitch: Concert review - The Love Hangover by Jason Harper The concept is simple and kind of genius: get male-female duets to sing songs about love the day after Valentine’s Day. Devised by a guy named Richard Alwyn in North Carolina ten years ago, the Love Hangover took place yesterday in only four cities nationwide: Ann Arbor, Brooklyn, Raleigh and Kansas City. Why so few? Perhaps its because few places have singer-songwriter-organizers as enterprising as Alwyn, or, locally, Scott Easterday, who has organized the Love Hangover two years now. (Last year’s was at Davey’s.) Or maybe it’s because people have had enough of silly love songs.
That wasn’t the case last night at the Record Bar, where a hundred or so people, mostly 30s and up (I freakin’ felt young), filled with their well-heeled, loveworn souls every available seat in the place as one by one, duets got up on stage and did about eight songs each. First up were Bev and Aaron Weidner of local band the New Tragedies, then Howard Iceberg and Amy Farrand, followed by Barclay Martin and Sara Swenson and lastly, diva/divo combo Valery Price and Nathan Granner, with Jeffrey Ruckman on piano.
The RB’s Web site, usually reliable, told me to be there at 8, and I was there at 8, and I missed the entire first act. Sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Weidner. I did, however, catch The Simpsons and part of the recently resurrected King of the Hill. Hank’s voice sounds different.
The second duo was the night’s oddest pairing. Howard Iceberg is one of the city’s most loved songwriters, and also one of the most unique cats out there. He does things his own way, and one of those things is to lay the guitar on its back, strings pointed at the ceiling, and playing it like a dulcimer, pressing only simple bar chords with his thumb and forefinger on the neck. His voice is weathered, nasal and bleaty. He writes lyrics in his sleep, often waking up early in the morning each day, getting coffee, and starting a brand new song. If Iceberg had come up in Greenwich village in the ’60s, I have no doubt he’d be world famous. He’s an amazing talent, and he’s quirky as hell. Amy Farrand brought her own thing, too, and it was way more rock and roll. She’s been the drummer in numerous local bands (Sister Mary Rottencrotch, Whiskey Boots) and has held a bass residency in American Catastrophe the past few years. I’ve only seen her solo before at a couple of open mics, so I don’t know whether being in that band has influenced her own songwriting or if it’s the other way around, but with her booming, low-tuned guitar and occasional slide, it felt as if she were repping AmCat’s dark, gothy take on Americana last night. It didn’t always gel with Iceberg’s gentle nature, but that was probably the point.
The two fell into step on a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Candy.” But for those paying attention, the highlight was Iceberg’s own composition, “She’s a Beautiful Girl,” which he wrote 30 years ago as a song to sing to himself when he got older to remind himself how important his wife is to him. Until last night, he hadn’t played the song publicly. It was super sweet. And good, too. The tune kind of reminded me of “Long May You Run.”
Next up, Barclay Martin and Sara Swenson came dressed as if on a date, he in a grey suit and red tie, she in a red dress. He played guitar and sang, she just sang. As if from a sense of duty, Martin and Swenson brought out some of the Important Love Songs, namely “Let’s Stay Together” and “God Only Knows,” plus the recent Oscar-winning song from the movie Once, “Falling Slowly,” which moved me to tweet. I mean, hell, it took balls to cover that one. Speaking of which, into almost all the songs, the two injected scatty vocalizations; with their gentle, high voices and falsetto twitterings, they came as close to personifications of chirping songbirds (especially on “God Only Knows”) as I have seen in a mainstream performance. Aside from the crowd-pleasers, the two also did “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” by Paul Simon, which pleased me to no end. (That was the second Graceland cover I’d seen live at the Record Bar in six days. I’ll take it. I fucking love that album.)
The mood shifted from coffee shop to cabaret for the last act. Valery Price is a jazz singer of local renown; Nathan Granner is an opera tenor of national renown. Any sense of singerly decorum ended there, however; after a slick run through of jazz standard “Almost Like Being In Love,” Granner jumped into the role of clown and Price played the straight-man, keeping him on track. But you already knew something was up by the fact that Granner had busted out not one but two flamboyant jackets for the evening to go along with his red pinstriped pants. The first jacket was black and looked like something a matador would wear while cocktailing at a nightclub; the second was white with a motley pattern on it that, from a distance, looked like splotches of dust and rainwater. The duo swung from swing to comedy, doing a send-up of Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E,” with Price singing “L is for the way you look at me” and Granner spelling out a different four-letter word beginning with F… you get the idea. And his mother was even there. They closed with a (mostly) serious take on the Beatles’ “Something,” which is a beautiful song but one that kind of makes me want to puke due to its involvement in a certain wedding ceremony I was a part of, god, now nearly eight years ago. Damn, I am an old salt.
And therein lies the danger of these love-song showcases. Even songs that carry the least amount of meaning — i.e., “Falling Slowly,” which is more about sound than lyric — in the right context, because of the poignancy of it all, of that period in your life where (insert sadness here), and so on — that shit can really hang you up.
I think I heard once about these scientists who collected a bunch of the sappiest love songs ever and played them for a group of monkeys. Among the monkeys, the scientists found, the ones who had loved and lost were way more affected than the ones who had never loved at all.
But which group of monkeys was better off? That, my friends, is not a question of science.
Ourstage.com: Psychic Strums by Kate B Sometimes it takes another person to point out something about yourself that you’re unaware of. In the case of Kansas City native Sara Swenson, that other person was a clerk in a guitar shop and that something was “singer-songwriter.” Swenson wasn’t one at the time, but took it as a challenge and began to write and perform. A few years later in 2009, she was dubbed Kansas City’s Singer-Songwriter of the Year. This doesn’t make that guitar clerk a soothsayer, just a great listener. Swenson’s talent is audible with just a few strums of her guitar, as her new single, “Be Not Far,” demonstrates. Spare, bluesy and terrifically romantic, the track shows off the gentle husk of her singing. A pedal steel drifts around low strums of acoustic guitar, adding a bright counterpoint to the quietude. Although warmth and calm prevail throughout the song, when Swenson’s voice lilts up into a higher register towards the end, you may get chills. This doesn’t make Swenson some sort of supernatural force, just a great singer-songwriter.
Present Magazine: Sara Swenson at Lilith Fair by Pete Dulin Sara Swenson sits at a table in Mildred’s Coffee House, where it is mildly busy with a dozen customers, to discuss her new music and upcoming show. A small word appears on her colorful print T-shirt, but the word is a mighty one. Awe. A feeling of respect or admiration mixed with a sense of fear or wonder. When Swenson performs before thousands of people on Lilith Fair’s third stage at Capital Federal Park in Bonner Springs on Thursday, July 15, 2010, she might experience, and even inspire in young music fans, awe.
Swenson will be part of a bill that includes Sarah McLachlan, an artist she saw a decade earlier headlining the concert. Others scheduled to appear include Heart, Emmylou Harris, Ingrid Michaelson, local band Vedera, and former Kansas City singer/pianist Julia Othmer, now based in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, Swenson won an online contest sponsored by OurStage to earn a performance spot for Lilith Fair’s Kansas City tour date.
“I entered the contest in late January,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll try things just because. I forgot about it for a few months.” In early May, she checked her ranking against other artists that had also uploaded a song and self-portrait for the open nomination. Thousands of people had listened to and voted for her song “Be Not Far,” placing her in the Top 10 listings.
“It was a boost of confidence to have an unbiased audience beyond my friends, family, and people in the Kansas City music scene rate the music so highly. It was really nice,” she said. “The comments on the site were positive and encouraging.”
Swenson began emailing her friends and fan base to encourage them to vote and spread the word of the contest. That push led to her earning a coveted spot on the Lilith Fair stage.
She chose “Be Not Far” because it was written more recently than songs from her 2008 self-titled debut album. However, the single will not appear on her forthcoming All Things Big and Small, due to be released this September. “‘Be Not Far’ represents where I am musically,” says Swenson. “My songwriting is more intentional lyrically and melodically. Performing live for a year-and-a-half has helped me be more confident and to develop my style.”
Swenson’s music appeals to a wide audience, but she doesn’t create music with a popular style in mind. “I’ve tried to retain a simple, honest aspect that’s easy to connect to,” she explains, “but I don’t want to lock into a sound. I’m still trying new things. I don’t want to stick to a formula.”
All Things Big and Small demonstrates the growth of her voice and music. Backed by a full band, the arrangements are rich and full of texture on some songs. The sparseness of her voice and a piano or guitar capably fills the space on ballads.
The 11-song album, recorded in Nashville, was titled after the sessions were completed. “Producer Don Chaffer and I thought about the trend in my songs – to stop and reflect on what’s going on around you,” says Swenson. The last track became the title of the album. “It seemed to fit and encompassed everything on the record.”
Don Chaffer and his wife Lori, former Kansas City residents that relocated to Nashville and perform as Waterdeep, sang background vocals. Additional support came from singer Katie Herzig, a Nashville transplant from Colorado, and Boulder, Colorado folk musician Gregory Alan Isakov. Billy Brimblecom, Jr., another Kansas City musician now based on Nashville, drummed on the record. Longtime KC-based collaborator Jeff Larison also performed pedal steel and guitar on seven tracks. Greg LaFollette, another Nashville transplant from KC, also played on the record and was the assistant engineer. This superb support cast aided Swenson in creating songs that would slide comfortably into a playlist next to music by Kathleen Edwards, Emily Jane White, Neko Case, and Tift Merritt.
Swenson chose to work with Chaffer, who produced her debut recording, based on their strong rapport. “We’ve developed a great studio relationship and friendship,” says Swenson. “He has the capacity for taking a song in its raw form and blowing it out of the water. Plus, he’s been supporting me since my early days as an artist.”
All Things Big and Small is set for a September 18, 2010 release with a show scheduled at The Living Room in the Crossroads. When Swenson learned that she had secured a spot onstage for Lilith Fair, she placed a few phone calls to hasten production of the CD. “It’ll be available for Lilith Fair and a few shows in late July,” says Swenson. “I’m excited for people to hear it.”
Regarding her Lilith Fair debut, Swenson has no expectations when she takes the stage for a thirty-minute set backed by Larison. “I don’t want to paint a picture and be let down,” she says. “I’ll have a good amount of nerves. You never know who might drop in and listen.”
Lawrence Journal-World: Lilith's fare - Three Kansas City artists earn the opportunity to take the stage at female-powered festival by Jon Niccum After an 11-year absence, the Lilith Fair has returned.
An eclectic celebration of things both female and musical, the all-day festival boasts headliners such as Sarah McLachlan, Emmylou Harris, Metric and Heart. But it also showcases up-and-coming talent.
Three acts with Kansas City roots are making their Lilith Fair debut during today’s gathering at Sandstone in Bonner Springs. Each has taken a distinctly different route to get to the Lilith stage.
In 1999, Sara Swenson was a student at Platte County High School when she was introduced to the Lilith Fair.
“I think I won tickets on the radio for it,” she says. “I’d maybe been to one concert before. It was an overwhelming crowd with a cool vibe. And there were lots of women.”
Flash-forward to January 2010, when singer-songwriter Swenson decided to enter the Lilith Local Talent Search offered by OurStage.com. At each stop on the tour, one regional winner gets selected to open the festival.
“I thought it was a real long shot, to be honest,” she says. “But that doesn’t really scare me away from trying things.”
So the Platte City, Mo., native entered and promptly forgot about it.
“Then in early May I got an e-mail from OurStage and remembered I had entered the contest, so I decided to check in and see. And I was in the top 10 at that point. Thousands of people had listened and rated songs. I was so surprised and encouraged. You expect your friends and family to give you positive feedback, but when it’s a whole lot of strangers telling you the songs are good, hey, that’s cool,” she says.
Although the 29-year-old artist didn’t finish in the top spot, she ended up being selected because a portion of the contest was based on who Lilith organizers felt represented the best fit for each tour stop.
Swenson will provide a 30-minute set of material from her latest album, “All Things Big and Small” (which literally just arrived at her doorstep during this interview). Live, she is joined onstage by Jeff Larison, who provides pedal steel, dobro and electric guitar to her own acoustic accompaniment.
“As far as my singing voice goes, warm and folksy/bluesy is the best description of it. It’s in the same genre as Sarah McLachlan or Norah Jones. But there are also songs along the lines of Kathleen Edwards,” she explains.
“As far as the voice in my lyrics, it’s a clear and honest voice that’s sometimes compared to Joni Mitchell or someone like that. I enjoy having content that is relatable to a lot of people.”
Whereas Swenson was a student at Platte County High School during her first Lilith experience, she now is an employee. She teaches ninth-grade English and newspaper journalism at her alma mater.
There’s no telling if Swenson’s freshman students know about her high-profile gig, because school was already out when she was informed of her win in June.
“It will be a big surprise if any are out there,” she says.
“They’re not in the loop of where and when I’m playing, because generally I’m playing in bars.”
“Someone once told me that my voice sounded like a place they wanted to live in,” says Julia Othmer.
To Othmer, that place is emblematic of Kansas City, where she has enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship since she was born.
“It’s one of my favorite cities in the entire world, and I’m really glad to be here for the show,” says Othmer, who left home for college at age 17 before returning to K.C. She then made various stops in San Francisco and Philadelphia until settling on her current base of Los Angeles.
“I am loving following music, wherever it is that it takes me. I’m very fortunate to be in a profession where I do what I do, but ‘what I do’ is constantly changing,” she says.
As a rising artist, Lilith organizers actually contacted Othmer about the show because of her connection to the city. It will be the only date on the tour where she performs.
“Just to be in the company of all of these women is beyond an honor for me,” the 33-year-old says.“Sarah McLachlan is unbelievably inspiring, not only for bringing this tour together but for her incredible songs. And Emmylou Harris has been in my CD player for over a decade.”
Although the piano-skilled Othmer is plenty secure playing solo, for Lilith she’s importing a band.
“They’re traveling out from Los Angeles to play with me, which is really comforting. And I’ll be playing with Kansas City’s Shane Borth, who is a world-class violinist. It will be a blend of my L.A. band and my K.C. band.”
Othmer’s voice has been described as “Macy Gray meets Alicia Keys with a dash of Alanis Morissette.” She’s best known for her boisterous live shows that showcase her down-to-earth magnetism. (Her first-ever release was a 2002 disc titled “Live at Tin Angel,” recorded at a club in Philadelphia.)
Currently, she is finishing writing the follow-up to her 2006 studio debut, “Oasis Motel.”
“I soon hope to be touring nonstop to support it,” she says.
Until then, Othmer is thrilled to be heading back to her hometown, where she describes the crowds as “incredible, enthusiastic and supportive.”
“I’m not saying that you don’t find that on the coasts, but I find that in Kansas City in particular people are very supportive of the arts,” she says. “You don’t need a lot of coaxing for Kansas Citians to take a chance on something new, and that’s so thrilling for those of us who do music.”
Kristen May is ready to bask in a concert environment where women outnumber men.
“We haven’t played shows with girls, so I’m just excited to talk to females about the industry. I’ve been around a bunch of dudes for a while,” says May, lead singer of the Kansas City band Vedera.
Those dudes include her husband, guitarist Brian Little, his brother Drew on drums, and Jason Douglas on bass.
May concedes the family partnership has grounded the Epic Records act in reality.
“I can’t get away with being a diva for nothin’,” she says, laughing. “And the boys can’t get away with being rock stars. In some ways maybe that plays against us, because labels these days want you to be that larger-than-life persona. But at the end of the day, you can only be yourself.”
She’s hoping that honesty shines through on the band’s third album, “Stages,” which is its first on a major label. The commanding pop-rock outfit has proven a consistent draw in the regional music scene since 2004 before finally breaking through as a national act last year.
Like a mantra, “stay true to yourself” is what May says has kept steering the quartet in the right musical direction.
“It’s something I’m going through right now both artistically and personally because we’re doing a lot of writing for our next album,” she says. “I always have to come back to what’s real in my life. You can really get lost in the fairy dust of it all. I want to write about real things, not about $2,000 dinners.”
Vedera has also benefited greatly from a different kind of reality: an appearance on MTV’s pseudo-reality drama “The Hills.”
“We’ve had a lot of people take notice online since that. … Just having that connection to those fans who wouldn’t maybe know we were playing in a bar across town, they’ve started to come out to our shows now,” says May, who also plays guitar and keyboards in Vedera.
Lilith won’t represent the first time the members have stood on the Sandstone stage. The band (which first formed as Veda in Blue Springs, Mo.) played at the Buzz Under the Stars show in 2006 with headliners Weezer and Cake.
Today won’t mark Vedera’s last experience with Lilith, either. The group follows the Bonner Springs performance with festival dates in St. Louis, Chicago and Shakopee, Minn.
Despite all the major-label jetsetting, the 27-year-old May believes Vedera will likely continue to remain based in K.C.
She says, “(The music business) is a crazy, chaotic world, and we work better not in a chaotic, crazy world.”
Present Magazine: "Sara Swenson" New Release by Pete Dulin “Say My Name,” the first track on Sara Swenson’s self-titled debut recording quietly asserts the formidable talent of this soft-spoken artist. The song repeats the lyrics in the title like a mantra, imbuing the words with a transcendent spirit that gathers strength with each repetition. It’s the type of song that could be performed a hundred ways––muted and hopeful within the burble of a coffeehouse, bravely set aloft from a solo perch on a small rock stage, or a proudly declared in an arena backed by a gospel choir and chanted by supportive fans and true believers.
Swenson’s voice calls patiently and steadily, rising with a gentle insistence and confidence. She has the indie folk lilt of Beth Orton infused with a slight twang that rises and bends and fades like the warm, aching sound of a distant train whistle reverberating off nearby hills and valleys. Notes from her acoustic guitar ring lightly against a reverent, subdued backdrop. It feels personal, powerful, life-affirming.
“I wrote it when I was having a crummy day,” says Swenson. “I saw some friends at a distance who recognized me, waved, and showed me they cared by saying my name.” This simple act of calling out buoyed her spirits and prompted Swenson to write “Say My Name” as a thankful song that recognizes the powerful presence of others who grace her life. “Things are better in life when others care. So much is wrapped into a name. Deep knowledge, details of a person.”
A name is a starting point, a place on a map that serves as a reference and only begins to hint at the landscape of a person’s life, the geography of their personality, the contours of their speech and thought and actions. Sara Swenson is a relatively unknown musician in the local scene, but her name signifies much to those who know her and portends the promise of humble rewards for those who seek out her music.
Sara Swenson has memories of singing on the swing set as a child. She wrote a song for her second-grade teacher and in her youth sang at Hoover Christian Church, located across from a meadow between Platte City and Smithville. Swenson learned how to pick out song notes on a piano and was a band kid in school, playing French horn. Later, she taught herself to play guitar, but didn’t really begin to bloom until college years later when she was around other players and picked the instrument up again. Currently, Swenson takes guitar lessons to develop her skill. Many of the nine songs on this recording are a result of her applying new techniques and approaches.
Words and Relationships
The oldest song on the album is less than a year old. “Some songs like ‘Yesterday is Gone’ and ‘Come Back’ were written in July a couple weeks before recording,” says Swenson.
With “Yesterday,” Swenson sang the chorus for a couple of days before writing all of the lyrics. Other songs originate from entries in her journal. Swenson, a high school English and journalism teacher, wrote “Wanderin’” as a “reflection of the relationship with kids at school that you worry about.”
Musically, she finds the melody as she starts to sing and trusts her instincts with the results. As Swenson writes, she focuses on what’s happening in her life and those around her. “I try to be present in a way that others can relate to,” she says. “It’s not difficult for me to put words on paper. I’m not at a loss for lyrics.”
“40 Days” downshifts into sweet sorrow, pleading for a connection. “Yesterday is Gone” circles around in doubt, the character caught in a moment of confusion and uncertainty and resolved to carry on.
Swenson also finds inspiration in literature. The upbeat, radio-friendly “Jimmy Valentine” is adapted from an O. Henry short story about a con man called “A Retrieved Information.” “When my grandmother passed, I received her O. Henry collection of stories,” says Swenson. “I was intrigued by this character and name. Jimmy Valentine is smooth and captivating. He has everyone fooled.”
Everyone, that is, except the narrator who says, “I really know you.” The song shifts gears when Jimmy Valentine is called out. Swenson’s natural knack for storytelling shines here as her voice dances along fully in command of the tale.
Swenson wrote “Aftermath” last spring after a cyclone struck in Myanmar. Her sister was about to move there on missionary work. Around the same time, tornadoes struck in Kansas City. A friend told Swenson about trees blown down in a driveway and amidst the chaos was a yellow tulip still intact. “A flower, something fragile, survived in the face of destruction,” recounts Swenson. For her, the flower was a symbol. “It was a spark of hope whether dealing with a natural disaster or daily life.”
The song builds on a tamped down drumbeat and steady guitar strum. Swenson’s voice sounds out like a church bell with clarity and determination. Don Chaffer’s mandolin kicks in and bolsters the song with a hopeful outlook that fights past heartache and howling winds. “The high pitch of Don’s mandolin was like the sun shining through the song,” says Swenson.
Goosebumps take hold as the tune builds to a crescendo and Swenson sings,“The sun will rise again, my friend.”
Polished and Accessible
Swenson attends Jacob’s Well, a midtown church where Don and Lori Chaffer also attends services. The Chaffers perform as Waterdeep, a folk/rock band with a sizeable grassroots following and a whole slew of albums to their credit. When Swenson wanted to record songs for a summer release prior to the 2008 Crossroads Music Festival pre-party and PresentMagazine.com 3rd anniversary party, she enlisted Don Chaffer.
He helped guide the recording and added subtle texture to Swenson’s songs. Chaffer played guitar, mandolin, pump organ, piano, tambourine, bells, and percussion. The nine-song recording itself came together in just over fifteen hours. Despite the fast pace, the songs do not feel rushed or over-produced. Rather, the stripped-down feel of the recording stems from Chaffer’s suggestion that they “go Neil Young on it.” The results reflect a warmth and honesty on each track and showcase Swenson’s voice and lyrics.
“Don added lots of color to the music. He sees lots of possibilities until we found something that fit,” says Swenson. “It was so much fun for me to work on. How cool is it that I got to make a record? I want it to be real and accessible.”
When Swenson performed at recordBar for her CD release show, the accessibility of her songs showed plainly for the crowd in attendance. Swenson’s songs appealed to her fan base of family members old and young, coworkers, friends, high school students, and indie folk music lovers. She has bright blue eyes and a bake-sale smile. With one flash of her disarming grin, you know you’re going to buy the whole plate of cookies. Her charm works because songs like “Jimmy Valentine” and “Say My Name” deliver melodies and hooks that are vibrant, unadorned, and polished. Swenson’s voice is pure and sweet as spring water, far more refreshing and rewarding than the slick, saccharine vocals polluting Nashville’s glossy country, or vapid pop and nondescript indie folk artists populating MySpace.
“My Little Girl,” the last song of the recording, is included in honor of Swenson’s grandfather Elmer Swenson, an old farmer who is “ninety-one-and-a-half and a day.” The good-natured patriarch is known for offering tidbits of folksy advice such as, “Make the best of what you’ve got.”
The song originated as a Christmas gift to her grandfather. “I wanted to capture him telling a story,” says Swenson.
When she decided to lay down tracks for the album, Swenson chose to add “My Little Girl” as a way to permanently pay tribute to her grandfather. She visited his assisted living home with her laptop and recorder and asked him to tell a story. The result is a hoot, a down-home ditty where a young girl’s love and adoration for her grandfather hits home. When Elmer Swenson’s anecdote weaves in and out of the tune, his weathered voice is sweet as he rambles and cackles with delight.
“When I played the recorded song for him, his reactions were adorable,” says Swenson. “He sang and laughed in time to his parts in the song. He is special to me and my family.”
The closeness to family and others in her life hints at the kind-hearted character of Swenson. “My Little Girl” is a smart choice as a bookend to the opening song “Say My Name,” and as a closing track that fits without feeling forced. Swenson says, “The lyrics elicit the most reaction from people. People can identify with special relationships.”
With this debut album, it is evident that Swenson is more than capable of capturing the intangible feelings and bonds that nonetheless have a physical impact and emotional resonance. These nine songs confirm her rightful place as a talented artist in the local music scene making the best of what she’s got and then some.
Ink Music Review: Sara Swenson by Derek Donovan Can acoustic singer-songwriters really have much more to say at this point? Isn’t the music all just petty, if pretty, slices of life set to arrangements that have been done a million times before?
Only if you’re listening to the bad stuff. The good, like local songstress Sara Swenson’s self-titled debut, trades the pomp and gloss of the hit parade for a focus on melody, lyrics and, most of all, a personal connection with the listener.
Swenson’s album offers nine unaffecting tunes of sweet, folk-tinged intimacy. It’s a strong effort with minimal ornamentation and zero affectation.
According to the liner notes (on yet another spanky Hammerpress cardboard package), Swenson recorded the songs “really quickly,” in about 15½ hours. Of course, quick turnaround in the studio used to be the norm. Rock and country’s foundation happened live in the studio. Jerry Lee, Patsy, even The Beatles laid down their classic tracks in real time, one time through with everyone playing and singing together.
So there are some imperfections. If this were a Hollywood record, the suits would demand a slight time correction to a strum here, or an Auto-Tune tweak to a vocal there. But that kind of digital perfectionism would serve no meaningful purpose in a coffeehouse confessional.
Swenson’s voice is effortless and direct, with a bit of Sarah McLachlan’s breathy quality. Producer Don Chaffer’s embellishments of pump organ, piano and various tinkly percussion are tasteful throughout, always adding texture without calling attention to themselves. Again, the restraint focuses attention where it belongs: on the song and vocals.
Several individual tracks stand out, including the wonderfully Dylanesque narrative of “Jimmy Valentine” and the appropriately meandering “Wanderin’.”
The almost-sloppy mandolin of “Aftermath” is affecting, and a funny, craggy storytelling appearance from Swenson’s grandpa on “My Little Girl” closes the album out sweetly.
Heavy-metal thunder might get the blood and adrenaline pumping, but that’s not really emotion. Records like Swenson’s connect with the heart before the lungs.
The 100 Best Recordings of 2009 by Mark Manning These are KKFI’s picks for the Best Recordings of 2009. Here’s a link to the article. This year they’ve played hundreds of new releases from local musicians and recordings of Indie Rock, Jazz, Folk, Electronic, Gospel, Hip Hop, Dance, Soul, Blues, Country and World Music on the following radio show:
Wednesday MidDay Medley (10am – noon)
90.1fm KKFI – Kansas City Community Radio
01. Sara Swenson – Sara Swenson
02. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimist
03. Various Artists – Crayon Angel A Tribute to The Music of Judee Sill
04. Sonic Youth – the eternal
05. Be / Non – A Mountain of Yeses
06. Regina Spektor – far
07. Levee Town – Levee Town
08. Shay Estes with Trio All – Despite Your Destination
09. Marianne Faithful – Easy Come Easy Go
10. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
11. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
12. Taken By Trees – East of Eden
13. Charles S. McVey – Animal
14. Pansy Division – That’s So Gay
15. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
16. Swimming in Speakers – Swimming in Speakers
17. Au Revoir Simone – Still Night, Still Light
18. Howard Iceberg & The Titanics – Maiden Voyage
19. Eleni Mandel – Artificial Fire
20. Beirut – March of The Zapotec
21. The Swell Season – Strict Joy
22. New York Dolls – ‘Cause I Sez So
23. Junkyard Empire – Rebellion Politik
24. Ghosty – A Mystic’s Robe [EP]
25. Jill Sobule – California Years
26. Steve Earle – Townes
27. N.A.S.A. – The Spirit of Apollo
28. Latin Bitman – Colour
29. Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band – Between My Head and The Sky
30. Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs
31. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
32. Ray Davies – The Kinks Choral Collection
33. Various Artists –Nigerian Rock Special: Psychedelic Afro-Rock & Fuzz Funk in 1970s Nigeria
34. Various Artists – Dark Was The Night
35. Joel A. Brown – Simplexity
36. Ernest James Zydeco – Jubilee
37. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
38. David Bowie – VH1 Storytellers
39. Various Artists – War Child Presents Heroes
40. Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
41. Antony and The Johnsons – The Crying Light
42. Ingrid Stolzel – Selected Chamber Music
43. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
44. Thao with The Get Down Stay Down – Know Better Learn Faster
45. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
46. Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
47. Exene Cervenka – Somewhere Gone
48. Lyal Strickland – So Many Incidents
49. Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson – Break Up
50. Alela Diane – To Be Still
51. Karen O & The Kids – Where The Wild Things Are Motion Picture Soundtrack
52. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz
53. Los Fabulosos – El Arte De La Elegancia de LFC
54. They Might Be Giants – Here Comes Science
55. St Vincent – Actor
56. Osso – Run Rabbit Run
57. Sufjan Stevens – The BQE
58. Tinted Windows – Tinted Windows
59. Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures
60. Monsters Of Folk – Monsters Of Folk
61. M. Ward – Hold Time
62. The Sexy Accident – Mantoloking
63. Fanfarlo – Resevoir
64. Jason Lytle – Yours Truly, The Commuter
65. Two Headed Cow – Safe As Milk
66. Vieux Farka Toure – Fundo
67. Pink Martini – Splendor In The Grass
68. Cornershop – Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast
69. I Was A King – I Was King
70. El Perro Del Mar – Love Is Not Pop
71. Anna Ternheim – Leaving On A Mayday
72. Peter, Bjorn & John – Living Thing
73. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
74. John Vanderslice – Romanian Names
75. Mouth – Word of Mouth
76. Morrissey – Years Of Refusal
77. Playing For Change – Playing For Change
78. Mexican Institute of Sound – Soy Sauce
79. Wishing Chair – Stand Up 8
80. Nitin Sawhney – London Undersound
81. Pacha Massive – If You Want It
82. Royksopp – Junior
83. Betse Ellis – Don’t You Want to Go?
84. The Wiyos – Broken Land Bell
85. Sage Flower – Arrow
86. Eulogies – Here Anonymous
87. The BPA – I Think Were Gonna Need a Bigger Boat
88. Moby – Wait For Me
89. Monta At Odds – Outono
90. Zee Avi – Zee Avi
91. A Camp – Colonia
92. Vienna Teng – Inland Territory
93. Fol Chen – Part 1: John Shade Your Fortune’s Made
94. EELS – Hombre Lobo – 12 Songs of Desire
95. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
96. White Rabbits – It’s Frightening
97. Deer Tick Born On Flag Day
98. Gossip – Music For Men
99. Megan Birdsall – This Is The Time
100. Easy Star All-Stars – Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band