By Lawrence Ferber
Make room Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen and even John Mayer: girls like Marnie Stern and out lesbian Kaki King are quickly rising to guitar deity levels with innovative, fierce electric and acoustic virtuosity. Joining the fray is lesbian singer-songwriter Swati, who works fresh, cascading indie-rock-folk magic with her specially configured electric-acoustic Alvarez Yairi 12-string guitar. She breaks out of her Manhattan Lower East Side stomping grounds and goes international with an April 3rd debut release, Small Gods ( Bluhammock Music ) .
Introduced to music via the trombone, the New York born-and-bred Swati switched to guitar as her instrument of choice by her teens. 'I played [ trombone at ] Carnegie Hall when I was 18 and I quit that night,' she recalls. 'I've been allowed to express through the guitar. I don't know why it's the guitar. It could have been a shovel.' Since then she's made a name for herself playing at cool NYC music venues like The Living Room and Nightingale's. Speaking by phone from Austin, TX, during the SXSW Music Festival, Swati discussed her new album, her disdain for 'fronting,' and getting into a hairy situation at the Michigan Women's Music Festival.
Lawrence Ferber: What's the meaning behind the album's title track?
Swati: To me it means the little things people worship in life. Things that seem so insignificant and they make them godly. Like money. Real estate. Dick size. On my deathbed these small things in the world won't matter but they're gods to the people. We don't live long enough to waste time on this.
LF: What bit of uniqueness do you want to bring to the guitar arena, or music in general?
S: The only representation I'm making—it could be about the guitar scene or being gay—is honesty. There's not a lot of honesty going on around the planet. Everyone's fronting. I'm representing honesty. I don't think you'll ever hear fakeness from me. Sometimes I have to say I ain't no dick sucka! Life isn't long enough to be filtered.
LF: As women move onto the male-dominated guitar god stage, do you wonder if straight men will try to hit on you more?
S: It would be a sad thing if a straight guy got me interested because I would make him wear a dress and feel fat. The same thing I do to women.
LF: You come from an artistic, musical household?
S: Yeah. My parents sang me to sleep more than read to me. So that really became how I dreamt. I'd dream of rhythms. The sounds.
LF: So being all gentle and artistic, was it cool when you came out to them?
S: You know, it's sad, but I haven't come out to them yet. My father is hardcore Indian, my mom is old-fashioned. I had a friend who told her [ Indian ] parents and they disowned her. I talk to this woman, she's like an 86-year-old door lady at [ famed New York lesbian bar ] Henrietta Hudson, and she went through Stonewall. I asked her if I should tell my parents and she said if it's going to hurt them why bother if you don't need to? But they must know. They know I've never dated a guy ever. I think they look at [ being gay ] as only a sexual thing and it's not. I'm sure when I meet the woman I want to spend my life with that I'll proudly tell them and explain. They're both warm people to me. But until then it'd hard for me to deal.
LF: When did you have your first relationship?
S: I was 16. That was a long one, it lasted until I was 22. She was the one I lost my virginity to.
LF: Do you ever write songs about your relationships?
S: I don't like to hear myself get cheesy. When I start talking about relationships I can get sappy. There's Stay, which is about a breakup and me going into my own binge, killing my brain cells. But the second record is going to have more of that. The other day I was having sex with my girlfriend and soon as we were done, rather than cuddling, suddenly the words and music for a song were right there so I got up and ran to the guitar and started playing it to her. But I think she likes cuddling more.
LF: The song Blackjack is about a night you spent with a prostitute?
S: Blackjack is about a one-night relationship I had with a prostitute, platonically, in Atlantic City. I met her at a bar and asked her what she did and she said, 'call girl.' I asked how much for an hour and she said $150 and I said OK. I said I'm just looking for you to hold my hand, and we played blackjack at Bally's. Then I drove her home. I feel like I found some sort of connection and unconditional love with a stranger. She stayed the whole night with me playing blackjack and she only charged me for one hour.
LF: Feeling a connection is also behind 2 O'Clock in the A.M?
S: There was a hurricane in NYC and I was going through one of my fits. Sometimes I go through this incredible sadness. Sometimes I go through an amazing joy. But I'm not bipolar! So I went up to the roof and was really sad and it was windy and it was 2am and I felt so incredibly lonely. Even though I had a girlfriend downstairs. So what saved me from even thinking about jumping was looking at all the lights in the city that made me feel they were connected. We're all connected in the same storm.
LF: You've played a few festivals, including Lilith Fair. Do you enjoy playing women's music events, and have you had any memorable experiences at them?
S: I did the Michigan Women's Music Fest. It was a hoot. We were in the backstage areas and the food line getting our food and I saw Toshi Reagon, whom I idolize. She's gay and on Ani DiFranco's label. I was totally enamored, and then I look the other way and the woman serving herself salad is buck naked with a Macy Gray bush and armpits. I was like, 'Get away from the salad!' Macy Gray in her crotch! But I felt so free there. It was so great.
Swati's debut CD, Small Gods, will go on sale April 17. See www.swatilive.com for more info.