Dark Star: Solo artist Swati changes her trajectory


By Shana Liebman

I first met Swati Sharma at Crash Mansion, five minutes after she played an amazing, soulful show for an overwhelmingly appreciative audience. She seemed utterly depressed. In fact, she could barely muster a greeting as she headed to the bar.

The dark-eyed singer who goes by her first name, which means “name of a star” in Hindu, isn’t shy about her “deep depression problem.” It’s why she performs. “On stage,” 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.”

Her music, which Swati describes as “folky, edgy, acoustic…paradoxical,” is haunting. Over the next few weeks, I still heard her beautiful songs in my head, and their intelligent, desperate lyrics, like: “I’d smoke crack for you/I would eat dogs for you/I would steal a dress for you/Shave your legs for you/I would cut myself for you/To paint your lips for you/Anything to make you think I was cool.”

So when our mutual friend invited me to her birthday party, I agreed to drop by.

It was an unassuming affair: microwaved munchies and a fridge full of Bud Light. The guests who squeezed into her tiny 12th Street apartment were an eclectic mix, and everyone there clearly adored Swati, even that older guy who had probably just wandered in off the street. Compelled by her quiet charm, her intensity, her total lack of pretension, I wound up staying longer than I expected. She seemed like “the real thing”— a phrase I have since heard over and over again to describe this woman who is militantly resistant to pretending.

“I wear my heart on my sleeve,” the 32-year-old New York native says, explaining why she is beloved by so many fans, or as she calls them “lovely, benevolent angels. They saved my life by coming to my shows.”

For the past few years, however, she says, “I wasn’t doing anything and I was desperately unhappy. My producer was like, ‘you’re killing yourself.’ He saved my ass. He said, ‘We’re going to make you a career.’”

After years of playing with a band and then solo at places like Arlene’s Grocery, Living Room, and the Knitting Factory, Swati set out to tour and record. “I just decided I had nothing to lose.” So far so good: touring has exposed her to new audiences, and helped her “keep myself out of trouble in New York…I’m always thinking about leaving New York,” she muses. “Half my songs are about that. But I hate to move.”

Recording did wonders for her, too. She laid down tracks at the renowned Allaire Studios in upstate New York, a 30,000 square foot mansion that stands alone on a mountain top.

“It was so paradoxical,” she laughs, “because I was broke. I was eating bread and butter and lying in a fresh water pool. Bowie was building a house nearby.”

Swati has been making music since she was five, when her parents, both born in India, “shipped me to Westchester” (she fled back to Manhattan alone at age 18). But all this scheduled music making has been unusual for her. “I never sit down and write a song. It’s like designing a song. It’s weird….It either comes to me or it doesn’t,” she says. “If [the lyrics] are good, they will be in my head and I won’t have to write them down. If they’re not good, they won’t stay in my head.”

She also never learned how to properly play a guitar, which is why her fiery sound is so unique. “I can’t be taught things. I have to teach myself and when you teach yourself, there are no rules…so I have different tuning for different songs.”

But the routine has paid off and Swati, uncharacteristically, is pleased with the results. She opens for Medeski, Martin, and Wood in Northampton, Mass. on October 7, and her album will be released this January. “I’m excited about the new album. It’s not shiny, polished glossy,” says the singer who doesn’t even own an iPod. “It sounds like I sound.”

After years of playing, the one-named singer is finally coming into her own. “It’s the only thing I know how to do,” says Swati. “It comes easily to me and I think people should do what is simple for them.”

Swati will play on October 27 at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg. Her album is due out in January. Find out more about her upcoming shows and releases at www.swatimusic.com