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Ember Swift in China: LENTIC and other stories, pt. I

Ember Swift at Rivoli
  (Photo by: Jaron Loban) Ember Swift at Rivoli in April 2010.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn't too familiar with Ember Swift's music and work before I saw her live performance at Rivoli on April 1st, 2010. What I knew after listening to her music and reading her bio, was that she seemed different even by "indie" standards.

I was intrigued by the fact that here was a Canadian music artist, who got a degree in East Asian Studies, speaks and sings fluent mandarin, lives in Beijing/Toronto, etc., etc. It was intriguing to me being a Canadian born Chinese (1st generation), who doesn't speak cantonese or mandarin. I was interested in finding out what her motivations and sound/style would exactly be at this Rivoli show.

Her latest endeavour LENTIC, incorporates asian instrumentation, pop sensabilities, quirky lyrics (some songs she switches from mandarin to english every new verse). Her bio describes her sound as "folktronica" mixing elements of folk with electronic beats, progressive effects, keyboards, and guitars. Also, I was curious to see an artist who hardly performs in Canada nowadays (seeing as she lives in Beijing).

Her live performance at Rivoli was in fact great on so many levels! Ember brings a storyteller's spirit to her performance, telling us stories & anecdotes of her life that she's experienced. To hear her experiences of Beijing, it was almost as if you'd been there.

As well, Ember is a confident singer (who gets extra points for singing in another language), but it was her guitar playing that grabbed my attention. She plays the guitar with very interesting guitar parts and lines that make listening to her and the band, never boring. She has a rhythmic sensability that brings a great energy that glues her band together.

What an interesting band as well. There were 2 percussionists, keyboard player, funky bass player that brought a strong musicianship to the group (necessary to incorporates multiple styles - asian music). I managed to shoot some video of this performance, so take a look for yourself.

Afterwards, I bought Ember Swift's LENTIC project album (limited edition), which comes enclosed an asian styled floral case with liner notes in Chinese and English! In a stolen moment, Ember signed my album copy and I quickly handed her my business card. Little did I know what good that would eventually do.

Skip ahead a couple months in late May, Ember e-mails me from Beijing saying, "I was cleaning up my apartment before I went back to Beijing, when your business card fell to the ground. I took that as a sign that I should contact you!" (completely true). So, through the simplicity of the internet, we managed to conduct the following interview, thousands of miles apart.

An Interview with Ember Swift

J: You are called a singer/songwriter who has been writing songs since you were 9 yrs. old and performing since you were 10 (wiki said that). Curious, what was the 1st song you wrote?


The first song I wrote was when I was sick at home with the Chicken Pox at 9 years of age and not allowed to see my friends because I was contagious. I spent hours playing with my cats and wrote a song called “Cats Can’t Catch the Chicken Pox.” It’s true. I rarely tell people that, but you did ask! ;-)


J: People call you a singer/songwriter (rightfully so), however, I believe people forget what an accomplished guitarist you are. I was wondering if your ‘guitar skills’ were acquired over many shows/performances/tours, OR did you have some earlier musical training as a child to prelude your seeming creative guitar work?

Thanks for that. I have been playing guitar for years now and I really love the instrument. Many women are first judged for their voices and secondarily for their instrumental ability (the opposite for men, sadly!) but I really appreciate that you noticed my guitar playing. I wasn’t trained on guitar. I had piano lessons as a child but I’m a self-taught guitarist. Still, I’m always learning (forever a student) and love to study new styles of playing.


J: You are an engaging performer onstage (humorous, dynamic, storyteller, etc). What do you get out of the audience banter repartee?

Performing is an exchange and I feel like the banter is as important as the music for connecting—truly connecting—with an audience. For me, it’s not just about the songs I write to the sound of my voice, instrument or band; it’s about the personalities behind it all. I like when the band talks too! We’re people after all and I want the audience to get to know us!

J: Can you describe your LENTIC project? What exactly is it, and what does it represent to you?


The LENTIC project is a departure project, so-to-speak. I have spent many years performing a collection of multi-styled, folk-based songs that are in the singer-songwriter vein. I wanted to put together a body of work that was different, that highlighted Chinese instrumentation and the Chinese scale, and that was different stylistically than anything else I had ever done. Mixing the electronic grooves and beats into my work and writing a lot of the material in layers, composing other instruments, etc., was a different approach. LENTIC means “of or related to living in still waters,” the opposite to the literal meaning of my given name “Ember Swift” (fire, speed). I really wanted LENTIC to represent a shift in creative thinking and a new branch of my creative journey.


J: What is folktronica exactly?


Well, I didn’t make that word up, by the way! It’s a merging of folk music and electronic music. I generally also indicate that my new material has funk and reggae and jazz undertones, not to mention the “world” flavour of East Asian rhythms, harmonics, and instrumentation. In other words, LENTIC is a real grab bag of styles not unlike my previous releases was…except that LENTIC highlights styles that I had previously unexplored.

J: You received a degree in Eastern Asian Studies at U of T. Looking at where you are living today and what you are doing with your music…was this path planned from university graduation?

Not at all. After graduation, I assumed I had to make a very clear choice between either following my music or following my interest in Chinese culture/language. I chose the former and spent 9 years releasing albums and touring internationally. It wasn’t until 2007 that I realized that I could combine the two interests in my life and go to
on a writing sabbatical. After the first trip, I knew I was hooked and had to return to
. The rest is history. Now I live in
part-time and have really enjoyed developing my music and career here, not to mention developing my Mandarin!

J: What were the circumstances that brought you to live and ply your musical trade in
? Seems a growing number of  Canadian indie artists are making tours to
& developing Mandarin songs…Do you see this as a growing thing, or a phase that will soon pass? Is mainstream success possible or is that not the point?

I don’t know of many Canadian artists who are writing Mandarin songs. Who are some that you know? But, coming to
was something that had been on my horizon for many years. It was a personal and spiritual journey that evolved into more music as well. Mainstream success has never been a goal or the point; making music that is about truth and community and multicultural respect/connection is what it’s about for me. There are so many artists who are making significant and powerful music who are not celebrities. I admire the use of art as a tool for social change, as a connection point or bridge for communication, as a vehicle for transporting hope and possibility.


J: LENTIC “of or related to or living in still waters,” your bio says that your own name represents “fire & speed”. So…have you reached/found or living in still waters nowadays?

Well, it’s a daily practice to take time to be still, to reflect, to study quiet. I have been studying Tai Chi for a year and practicing everyday has become an important ritual. That being said, I still live between two incredibly dense and lively cities (Toronto and
) and so I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered the art of ‘living in still waters’! It’s a process… 

A follow up article will contain Ember Swift's interview ...coming soon - Ember Swift pt. II

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