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The transgenre vocal stylings of Veronica Swift

Veronica Swift
Matt Baker
Veronica Swift

WBGO’s Janis Siegel talks with fellow jazz vocalist Veronica Swift about her creative process and her new self-titled album on Mack Avenue.

I recently had the absolute pleasure of talking to one of my very favorite young jazz singers on the scene, Veronica Swift, whose self-titled new record on Mack Avenue is an absolutely thrilling example of stretching the boundaries of the art of jazz vocal. I loved learning about her concept of "transgenre," repertoire, her jazz pedigree, and who her choices would be for an intimate dinner party.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Janis Siegel: I have to gush a little bit. Your new record blew the top of my head off. It was the first record I've listened to in a long time where I was surprised at every turn. I didn't really know anything about it. I just put it on from the top, and I went, “Wait a minute, hey, that song is from La Cage aux Folles, and yet it sounds like she wrote it as an anthem for the entire project, like a mission statement.”

Veronica Swift: Absolutely. That song, and also “Don't Rain On My Parade,” are kind of anthemic in theater and in the LGBTQ culture and they've become anthems for me in my musical mission.

Well, your musical mission seems these days to be, I call it genre whiplash.

That's cool. I like that.

Transgenre is your term. I had genre whiplash listening to the record. And personally, I'm all about that.

Thank you so much. You're part of that lineage too.

You have expanded the art form because you're bringing in opera and punk and heavy metal and dark cabaret. I just freaking love the record. You are authentic in every style.

Well, that's the key for anybody who wants to do the transgenre approach. The main element has to be the cohesion. You have to be authentic in each of these genres that you're doing, whether it be years and years of craftwork and building your understanding of the vocabulary, whether that's bebop vocabulary or classical coloratura, bel canto vocabulary. It's doing that work. And also feeling like you are of these. I literally feel like I have lived past lives in the Baroque era and the ‘60s. That's a huge element to the time travel element of what we do too.

At what point did you realize you were different from the other kids?

Well, just the fact of my childhood love of music. I grew up in a jazz musician family. Janis and I have a crazy backstory. Janis knew my mom, Stephanie Nakasian, a great jazz singer, for many years through the years of the jazz singing scene. And my father, the late, great Hod O'Brien was a bebop piano player.

Stephanie Nakasian with Hod O'Brien - Someone To Watch Over Me (2006)

My childhood was this music, bebop, and being on the road. I grew up in green rooms and jazz clubs. I grew up at jazz festivals, running around, always hearing this music, but it was never something that I passionately was drawn to because it was always around. Jazz music was the way of life. It's like speaking English, like growing up speaking a first language.

It sounds like you absorbed the bebop language as well as English. You were speaking jazz from a birth almost hearing it. Or even in utero.

That's right. My mom was performing pregnant and when she had the cabasa right next to her belly, she said I was kicking along.

You got a leg up on that, but do you think that Stephanie and Hod were purposely planning on raising a jazz singer?

No, they knew their kid was going to be musical. particularly before I was ever singing. When I was like four or five or six, I was totally obsessed with Baroque music, Bach and Handel, because my mom would put that stuff on for me. She probably read somewhere that this will help your kid go to sleep. And it did the opposite for me. It kept me awake because I was absorbing all this. Something about harmonic structure and melodic movement and the interplaying of all the parts of counterpoint, for some reason that made sense to me at four or five and I wanted to learn every part and then I started playing piano around that age. I started learning how it's all orchestrated in the hands and then singing along to it trying to get every pitch right in the center. That was before I ever started singing professionally. I was nine years old was when I first really started performing, but this music was informing my ear at a very early age. My parents had no idea. They didn't push me. A lot of kids have stage parents. I didn't. My parents were not like that at all. It was very much, “If she wants to do it, let her get to it on her own.”

It sounds like you have a mathematical mind.

I wish I did. It's more language than math for me, because the numbers didn't make sense, but language made sense. Patterns.

I think you have a talent for math though, because music is math.

I wish my grades reflected that, Janis, I really do.

I've been doing a lot of listening to you, my friend. I love the way you use your voice as a horn. People have recognized that, like Emmet Cohn and Benny Green. The first tune I heard was “For Regulars Only,” the Dexter Gordon piece that you did with Benny Benack III. Oh my God. You slip right in there as a lead trumpet. It’s so cool. Who wrote that vocal?

We both write vocalese, but that one was his. He called me to come in and sing it. That was all Benny's. I'll give him that. He wrote that whole thing. So he, and I've been writing some stuff too, that I wanted to get in the studio with him, but time hasn't come together yet, but Benny and I are both of that lineage too.

Did you know him from The Frost School in Miami?

No, Benny, I believe was a Manhattan School of Music kid, but I was going to New York since I was a kid, getting to know people up there through the years, each time meeting new people and that's how you develop an understanding of the scene. When I was in college, I met Emmet Cohen. He had graduated four years earlier. When I went to New York and was hanging out, I was a little younger than Benny and Emmet and those guys, but they were all introducing me to each other.

The second I got up and sang, it's like, “Oh, you're one of us.” We all kind of come from that similar lineage of whether their parents were musicians or not, they were exposed to that music. And we spoke that same language. At the University of Miami, I had musician friends there too that I was hanging out with, but it wasn't as much of a scene.

In New York, you have the clubs and the late night scene and the jam sessions. You could go out any single night and sit in anywhere. Tell me about what you call the naysayers who lit a fire in you.

You have to distinguish between which fire, because back when I was in school, I was experiencing the loss of my house to a fire—my childhood home and the farm. My grandfather passed away. My cousin, who's like a brother to me, had passed away. I was frustrated with academia and the music school environment. My father was sick and dying of cancer. That’s what led me to metal and rock and roll so passionately. I had an outlet for all this darkness. That brought this edge to my jazz singing that it desperately needed, the depth of growing up and maturing. But the fire in recent years has now since died down because I'm totally on my path, no matter what.

Where my head went when I saw that in your acknowledgement section of your record that perhaps it was concerns from a marketing standpoint. How are we going to market this?

Of course, that happens. That's an age old tale. You have like artists like David Bowie. Every record was a completely different style and different artists, but he's the cohesion between all these records.

Nowadays with social media being the way it is and getting on playlists and having to kind of fit in to get exposure, I made the conscious decision to be myself and not follow. But I didn't want to be reckless about it. I want to be strategic and make this make sense. So I put out a record that literally half of the record is jazz, whether it's Gypsy Django Reinhardt or more Judy Garland theater or bebop. Still, half of it is a jazz record. It is bringing my audience along for the ride and showing them where we may potentially be going.

It’s not just a full 180. It was a strategic move on my part to not just embrace the full spectrum of my creative identity, which we all hope to do, but to also just show my fans that are truly jazz fans, just purist in that way, that there is something for you as well here. And this is where I'm headed. You can go with us, but if not, I have 20 years of a jazz career that's here for you to enjoy. I just gotta go be myself. That's a very human thing.

It feels like you did this gradually, but this new record feels like it's a cocoon bursting open. Here she comes, the butterfly.

That's how it feels. Honestly, I've been hiding so much of myself from people. I get frustrated.

The energy of punk and the energy of heavy metal is something that's very attractive to a lot of people.

A lot of people have anger inside them and sadness, certainly. I always use Queen as an example because they're my absolute favorite all time anything. Artist, band, composer, fashion, whatever. Queen was able to harness all of these elements—genre elements and artistic elements—into their own. The genre is Queen. That's something I always aspired to do ever since I was a kid. I knew that this record was the first step in finding that.

Veronica Swift - Severed Heads (Official Audio)

Let's talk about “Severed Heads.” Who is Austin Patterson?

Austin Patterson is one of my dearest friends from my childhood back in Virginia. He is someone, like me, who has a very vast knowledge of all genres. He and I would go to the opera together in high school. We'd go to the Met HD broadcasts in the movie theater. We'd watch operas, learn operas, and then we'd try to extract songs from these famous arias and melodies in classical and opera music and write our own tunes based off the melody and lyrics. An example of that, that has the lyric coloratura aria from Romeo & Juliet that has the cadenza that I turned into like a scat.

I know, it's unbelievable.  That's from an 1867 opera.

It just shows you that there's a through line with all these genres and the history that you can trace it back and back and back. Austin and I tried to do that with “Severed Heads.” We co-wrote that together. He’s the other singer on that.

There are a couple of Queen tracks. “The Show Must Go On.” I love how you started with the nightclub chatter.

I had to leave that in there. I always imagined Sarah Vaughan with Freddy accompanying singing in an alternate universe where there's just a bar and people aren't really listening. That informed my interpretation of that for the setup for the opera.

Well, when you listen to the track, it's like a movie almost. You’re picturing the nightclub and the bar and the tinkling.

We all know what that feels like.

Veronica Swift - Don't Rain on My Parade (Official Audio)

“Don't Rain On My Parade.” I had to send that to several of my musical theater friends.

I'm sure that we got mixed response. But it's an honest interpretation. That's exactly how I've always interpreted that.

It totally works.

For me, that's how that lyric always read. That's how Barbra Streisand sings it. “Don't tell me not to live, just sit and put up.”

She's angry. That's exactly right. And you nailed it, girl.

The arrangement wrote itself with the orchestration originally, like a guitar strumming.

Were you in Virginia all during the lockdown?

Yes, I was living in Virginia. A lot of people assumed I was in New York this whole time. People still think I live there. I'm a country person, despite what people expect. I'm very much a farm country, Southern belle type, and mountains—Blue Ridge, Appalachia. I needed to go back to my Virginia and I was there until just last year when I moved out here to Los Angeles.

“In the Moonlight,” which I think is an example of classical vocalese, because you took the chord changes of Moonlight Sonata

Yes, Moonlight Sonata and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 on the chorus.

Veronica Swift - In the Moonlight (Official Audio)

It's very reminiscent of Queen. Beautiful. And the guitar reminds me of Jeff Beck.

Do you mean the vocal guitar distortion?

Is that what that is?

I do that live. I bring a distortion pedal and also now I've added a harmonizer so I can do power chords and rhythm parts behind my guitar player, because that's something I always wanted to do. I never really found many examples of that in the rock world. Like rock scatting, just my thing.

In that Nine Inch Nails tune, there's a sensational scat passage in that. The whole album is really extraordinary, I think. I love going from bossa nova to blues and bebop to opera to heavy metal. I love it. My first listen to it was sitting and listening to the whole thing. I still listen to vinyl. I like an evening where I'm just listening to records and the phone is buried somewhere and the computer is off and it's deep listening to music. I could put on the record and I could do things around the house and now I can do that.

I've been pleasantly surprised that my original “In the Moonlight” has been getting placed on the more known playlists out there.

Let’s talk about your arranging too, because you arranged most of these pieces, right?

Yes, I arrange everything and I bring it to an arranger orchestrator and they kind of adapt it and add things that make sense for the whole, because I don't write for strings. I play trumpet so I can write for horns okay, but I prefer to work with Dave Mann who did the orchestration.

And Randy Waldman, too.

And Randy Waldman, of course. He did the orchestral arrangements. But I always bring the vision and the layout. I do the rhythm section arrangement on my own and bring that.

In picking songs, what are you drawn to first?

Narrative. Narrative always clearly forms for everything else for me and everyone's different. I'm not the kind of person that says, “Well, this is the way the best way to do it.” You can't say that you can't. It's impossible. Art is so subjective and a personal experience. With all my records, This Bitter Earth or Confessions, what is the narrative? What is the thing that you want people to take away? This Bitter Earth was clearly a social commentary piece, but not to take an opinion or side. I had to pick songs that reflected kind of the spectrum of that. And that was hard. This record was a mix. I wanted it to be a social experiment and social message, but also very personal as well. It’s hard to be yourself. And you have to, even with the naysayers and people trying to make you conform.

They're trying to put you in a box, basically. It's easier to label. “Oh, she's a jazz singer.” Or “Oh, she's an opera singer.”

The other side of things is like, yeah, I'm a jazz singer. Yeah, I'm this and this and this. Totally okay. Because people say, well, how does that work? You have to listen to the record or you have to come see the show to know. It's like trying to tell someone what Baked Alaska is like. If they've never had it, they would have no idea that it's hot, it's cold, it's creamy. It's hard, but they know what chocolate chip cookies are because that's super popular. It's easy to sell and package, but Baked Alaska is just as good. A lot more going on there, but harder to describe unless you try it and then you'll like it. That's kind of what this record is.

Veronica Swift - I'm Always Chasing Rainbows (Official Audio)

All your records, I think, have the qualities of a song cycle. Going back to the record for a second, again, because I didn't recognize many of the songs or I wanted to know more about them. I went back and looked at the history of “I'm Always Chasing Rainbows,” which I didn't realize was originally a vaudeville ballad. And you fuse it with Chopin.

Well, it came out of Chopin that it was written from. This transgenre concept is nothing new. This has been a concept for hundreds of years, if you think about it. The perfect example is “I'm Always Chasing Rainbows” that Harry Carroll wrote based off of “Fantasie Impromptu” by the Largo Section.

There are many songs from the Great American Songbook that were based on classical pieces. Like “The Lamp Is Low,” for instance.

That's another one people forget about. And Frank Sinatra singing from Anchors Aweigh with Jose Iturbi playing the Tchaikovsky. I love that. Oh, that's beautiful. A lot of the things I love are based on Tchaikovsky. And, of course, Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself,” a rock standard that comes from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

So I guess it's not a new thing.

I love it. I live for it.

I love it too.

It's not just a record that's showing people it is possible to embrace whether you're an artist or not. It's a universal concept. We all know what it feels like when we have pressures put on us, whether it's familial pressures, societal pressures. This is an embracing of the full sense of self and a coming out story.

I get it. Why not be all you can be? These things can exist side by side together. They can and you're showing that it's possible.

That's what I want people to take away from this, even if some of the music isn't their cup of tea, but that this message comes across.

Over the past five decades, the voice of Janis Siegel, a nine-time Grammy winner and an eighteen-time Grammy nominee, has been an undeniable force in The Manhattan Transfer’s diverse musical catalog. Alongside her career as a founding member of this musical institution, Siegel has also sustained a solo career that has spawned almost a dozen finely-crafted solo albums and numerous collaborative projects, amassed a large international fan base and garnered consistently high critical praise.