(Photo by Michael Price)
Described as having a “uniquely Midwestern softness and heartfelt authenticity,” Sara Swenson delivers that sentiment with catchy, thoughtful songwriting that hooks audiences in. In the week before she performs at the annual Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City, we talk with Swenson about her music and what’s next for her.
The Deli: Down and dirty: one sentence to describe your music.
Swenson: A vocal hybrid of Feist, Sharon Van Etten, and Sarah McLachlan, employing a varied and interesting soundscape that accompanies songs of my stories (which also happen to be some of your stories, too).
The Deli: What inspires your music and songwriting?
Swenson: My experiences and emotions + the experiences I observe from those around me + whatever is sonically floating my boat at the time + how pieces of those songs can fit with said experiences to create a sound that represents the feelings I want to convey. Make sense?
The Deli: What have been your greatest accomplishments as a musician?
Swenson: I think just staying in the game. It can be a hard slog sometimes, but it can also be a personally satisfying one. I’m proud that I’m four albums in, and I feel like I’ve just put out my best work yet. But having a song on a big TV show once was pretty great, too. :)
The Deli: Tell us about your most recent album, Runway Lights. What can we expect from it? You wrote it while living in the UK. How did that experience inform the album and shape your music overall?
Swenson: My experience abroad was the basis of Runway Lights—they’re songs I wrote in transition, in love, thinking back to home, etc. The sounds and production on the record are a real hybrid of things I love… folk/acoustic, atmospheric/electronic, soul/horns. There’s plenty going on, but also plenty of space to let the songs expand as they need to.
The Deli: Now that you're back in the KC area after living in the UK for awhile, do you think the music scene here has changed at all? If so, how?
Swenson: I think the most noticeable difference is the amount of attention the KC music scene is getting now. It’s amazing to have things like the Folk Alliance conference here. 90.9 The Bridge has made a tremendous impact. There are more and more notable festivals going on. It’s wonderful to see all of the excitement and support for some truly remarkable talent coming from this area.
The Deli: Do you typically perform as a solo artist, or do you have others collaborating with you?
Swenson: These days I’ve been performing solo, although I’ve performed in about every possible configuration in the past… who knows for the future!
The Deli: What does supporting local music mean to you?
Swenson: Going to shows. Buying the music and merch. Being on the same team and cheering each other on!
The Deli: Who are your favorite local and non-local musicians right now?
Swenson: Local: Mark Lowrey. Hembree. Akkilles. Non-local: Ciaran Lavery. Sons of Caliber. Gregory Alan Isakov. Brandi Carlile. Patty Griffin.
The Deli: What is your ultimate fantasy concert bill to play on?
Swenson: So tough! So many people I’d love to play with. Can I just sing duets with Ryan Adams, Justin Vernon, and Willie Nelson?
The Deli: A music-themed Mount Rushmore. What four faces are you putting up there and why?
Swenson: Patty Griffin: She’s inspiring, top to bottom … songwriting, performance, stage of life, etc.
Justin Vernon: The man has a rare gift for using syllables and sound for emotional purposes. I don’t entirely understand it, but I really wish I did.
King’s College Choir of Cambridge (can I do that?): Cathedral choirs embody peace and hope and beauty to me.
Michael Jackson: He’s made me want to shake it from a very early age. Again, a gift for a dancey, poppy tune that lasts.
The Deli: What goals do you have for 2015?
Swenson: I did pick up an accordion at an estate sale, and I’m determined to master it well enough to at least play a few songs on it. Beyond that… like I said earlier, just continuing to write and perform music I’m proud of. We’ll be expecting our first child in the spring, which is obviously a game changer, but I’ll keep at the music as best as I can. Maybe a baby pack on back and a guitar on front?
The Deli: Where can we find you on the web?
The Deli: Always go out on a high note. Any last words of wisdom for the Deli audience?
Swenson: Love to you all. Thank you for listening and investing your time into local music. You help keep us going!
Michelle Bacon is editor of The Deli KC and plays in bands.
Sara will be performing at the Folk Alliance International conference next week three different times: Wednesday, February 18 at 8 p.m. in Westin showcase room 640; Friday, February 20 at 11:30 p.m. in Westin private showcase room 644; and Saturday, February 21 at 7 p.m. in Music Fair (Sheraton) Chouteau Room.