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Ember Swift in China: LENTIC & other stories pt. II


Ember Swift performing in China

Ember Swift is not surprisingly, highly intelligent (read her blog!) and puts that brainpower to good use. During her concert at Rivoli in
, she would tell stories of pieces of her life experiences. Not only that, it was quite impressive to hear the process that went into making each song, and their meanings.


Ember is a musical performer with great confidence in herself and her band, which honestly, they deserve more credit as a backing band. The bassist and double percussionists, and keyboard players are highly talented musically and set a groove that you feel throughout the entire club (Rivoli, April 1st, 2010). As well, Ember and her band played a lot of tracks from her LENTIC project album.


This album is a departure and experimental one where Ember adds in mandarin and East Asian musical references, as well as expanding her electronic sounds to blend with her folk sensibilities. It is a unique sound with a delicate balance that Ember controls with expertise.


One of the most interesting points in her performance, was when her band departed the stage, so Ember could play newer songs (they didn’t know). It was cool to see her play solo onstage as she was equally as capable with the short acoustic set.

It was definitely one of those electric shows where you felt you had a true experience, that basically justifies the adage "you had to be there!


So without further ado, here is more of the Ember Swift interview in
China pt. II!

How and when did you learn Mandarin? (i.e. university, when you moved to
Beijing?).When I told my father to listen to your LP, he kept saying, “where’s the Mandarin? Where’s the Mandarin?” 

Did he listen to “That’s Right”? That’s the one song with a lot of Mandarin in it (in fact, there’s no English lyrics at all.) “Stop” also is entirely in Mandarin if you don’t count the English whisper track!


Anyway, I started studying Mandarin at university but there was a long gap between graduation and going to
for the first time. When I went to
, I continued studying and now I feel pretty confident with my Chinese, although I still need a lot of work to really master the language.

Do you find that you experience any racism or criticisms? (backwards I guess being the Caucasian in an Asian world)

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about “foreigners” in
. They’re often lumped together as though all non-Chinese are alike, which is of course not true! I do have to clarify and demystify my “foreignness” a lot, and the assumptions and generalizations that I encounter is a breed of racism. I’ve only had a handful of experiences of the more common blatant racism in terms of treatment or denial of service or sudden judgment/dismissal before I’ve even been introduced or had a chance to communicate. It’s humbling and has taught me a lot about the world. There are very few places that a Caucasian person can go where they’ll experience what it’s like to be “other” and to be not as important/valued, culturally, as a result of that otherness.
is still one of those places. It’s a really worthwhile experience for any white person to have. Comprehending racial privilege is a powerful lesson.

Whatever happened to the “Band on the Run” van? Does it still live and function? (her touring van in China)

It still lives and likely functions, but I don’t own it any longer!

Band on the Run (van)

Your myspace says that you play guitars & vox (what’s that?), but on the LENTIC project you incorporate many East Asian instruments like the guzheng...

Vox is just voice (sorry, it’s a recording term!). I didn’t play the guzheng on the recording. I leave that to the experts!

(Photo from:

Lui Fang plays the guzheng

Liu Fang playing the guzheng

“Having toured North America, Australia, New Caledonia and now
, this artist has never been uncomfortable exploring new territories
.” – Myspace. So… where does Ember Swift want to travel/explore and bring her music with her merry-band?

I am really enjoying exploring
with my band, but I’d like to perform in other Asian countries. What’s more, I really want to tour in
Europe, which is something I still haven’t done after all these years! That’s on the agenda for 2011.

Ember Swift and her Canadian based touring band.

For some reason I believe you are more than bilingual. What other languages do you speak (if any)? What languages would you like to learn still (if any)?

I speak French as well. Maybe one day I’ll study Spanish. I’d love to spend time in Central and
South America. Maybe when I’m retired!

Checking out some of your live shows recorded & on YouTube, I can’t help look at the synergy and musical togetherness that you had performing with Lyndell

. Can you talk a little about that era of your career, and what you’ve learned from working with Lyndell?

Yes, we worked together for almost 13 years! She was a huge part of my coming of age as a musician. We did all our early touring together with two rotating drummers. Working with her was a great gift. She is an excellent musician and a joy on stage. We really grew up together, musically and personally, and learned a million things from each other that are impossible to list here. We have gone our separate ways now, but I wish her well. She is already loaning her immense talent to several other artists including Chris Pureka (US) and Kristin Sweetland (
). Check them out! They’re great artists.


You said that you have a Canadian backing band (great musicians!) & a band in
. How hard has that been to bring the music arrangements to a different group? Is there a difference in the vibe or sound of each band?

The Canadian band is a 5-piece while the Chinese band is just a trio and sometimes includes a guzheng & erhu player. I really love both groups and I think they each have their good points. The major difference between them, however, is that the Chinese band performs some of my older material and more of my brand new material (as of yet unrecorded). Lately, I have done more work with them than I have with the Canadian band. That being said, I know that this fall I will catch the Canadian band up on the new material and we will have more great shows together. They’re all fantastic players.


We all know that you like China, speak Chinese, live there…What does Ember Swift NOT like about

Well, I could do without the air pollution in
, for starters. I see it improving and I know there is a huge environmental movement here, but it would be great to see improvements faster!! I also really miss how green and how much green space there is
Toronto. Most homes here are high rises and I am lucky enough to live in a space with a large balcony that I have transformed into a beautiful organic vegetable garden (the balcony is the size of another whole room with no roof and so it’s open to the sky). Still, I miss the “yards” of
. I’d say the only other thing that I don’t like about
is the censorship of media and the Internet. We Westerners find ways around it via proxies and alternative news sources, but without actively seeking information it can sometimes feel a bit like you’re cut off from the world here. I compensate by logging onto the CBC website several times a week and streaming the radio!


How did your 500 limited edition copy of LENTIC come about? It seems like quite an ambitious project (despite everything being made in

It was ambitious. The product was manufactured in China, but the design is by a Canadian designer and the discs were manufactured in
as well. The whole process was a huge one and wasn’t easy, to say the least. I managed it, though, and I was proud to release something that was unique and collectible, not to mention beautiful.

What do you think of this new digital do-it-yourself iPod music generation that has followed the CD & Napster? Better or worse (your opinon)?

The digital age is upon us. I think there’s still value in purchasing a CD and reviewing liner notes/lyrics while listening to an album, but that’s become almost a special experience as opposed to the common way of taking in music for the first time. I don’t really have an opinion about these changes and just accept that this is just the way it is.


But, as a form of response, I made the Limited Edition because I wanted to make a piece of art that people would want to collect. The music is available everywhere, but that special book is only available through me directly. It reconceptualised what people were buying. They weren’t buying the music; they were buying the physical art form of the packaging. The music in CD form was just a bonus since it can really be downloaded for free on the Internet anyway.

Stay tuned for pt. III in Ember Swift's interview ...coming soon!

Ember Swift and her band

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