First name basis: the sweet sadness of Swati

by Beacon Staff • February 28, 2007

When the New York singer/songwriter was offered a trombone scholarship at Julliard, she left playing classical music behind and traded in her trombone for a 12-string acoustic-electric guitar.

"I was constrained playing in a symphony," Swati said in an interview with The Beacon after a show at Toad in Porter Square.,Swati doesn't play by the rules.

When the New York singer/songwriter was offered a trombone scholarship at Julliard, she left playing classical music behind and traded in her trombone for a 12-string acoustic-electric guitar.

"I was constrained playing in a symphony," Swati said in an interview with The Beacon after a show at Toad in Porter Square. "It was too disciplined. It was so conforming."

Since her decision, Swati Sharma has strived to be different.

She only refers to herself by her first name, Swati, meaning "star" in Indian.

Instead of playing the same instrument she picked up in the third grade, she plays a 12-string guitar strung with only eight strings, which creates a dark, haunting sound that contrasts her raw, yet sweet, voice.

With only a few guitar lessons, she developed a unique playing style all on her own-combining dissonant guitar chords and spiraling rhythms with a hint of the sounds of her Indian heritage.

But even though Swati knew she possessed a talent for music, she struggled to record her first full-length album.

"I was stalling," she said. "I wanted to believe in what I wanted to do."

Now, after a long journey playing everything from small music clubs to Lilith Fair and even managing her own New York City club, Nightingales, she is about to release her first full-length LP at 34 years old.

The album, Small Gods, was recorded surrounded by mountains at Allaire Studios in Woodstock, N.Y.-the same studio where jazz crooner Norah Jones recorded her debut hit album Come Away with Me.

Although many musicians dream of entering a studio to make their first album, recording Small Gods was an obstacle for Swati, who was just recovering from a break up and an unfulfilling job at a rehearsal studio.

Swati continued to push her music away as she battled depression, but her friend and producer Duke McVinnie wouldn't let her give up.

"Duke said, 'If you're going to stay depressed, you're going to die'," Swati said. "So he said 'let's do something constructive with your sadness.'"

Swati took her friend's advice and did the only thing she knew-she picked up her guitar and started looking for inspiration everywhere she went.

Many songs on her album come from real-life experiences, such as the song "2 o'clock in the a.m." The lyrics for the emotionally charged ballad came to her when she was standing on the roof of her apartment building during a stormy night, as she stared out at New York City.

She sings with sweet sadness, "Well it's 2 o'clock in the morning / And the lights in the city have died / but the other half has been left on / I wanna know if you're afraid of the dark."

The song "Blackjack" was also written during a trying time in Swati's life, and according to her, "It's all true."

The heartbreaking song was written after Swati had been recovering from a breakup. She ventured onto the streets one night, under the influence, when she ran into a call girl.

"I never knew that being so up could make you feel so down," she said, as she told the story.

Swati asked the girl what she charged, and asked her if she would hang out with her for the night. The call girl agreed as long as she would pay her $150 an hour.

Sometime during the night, Swati and the girl ended up in a casino, playing blackjack, and that's where the melancholy song conspired.

As for her new album, Swati explained that the song writing and music on her first album comes from her personal battle with depression and her desire to use her music to connect with listeners.

"Expect to hear something up front and honest-not something smooth and perfect. It's the real deal," she says.

Small Gods will be released on BluHammock records April 17.