Interview: Singer-Songwriter Alana Sweetwater Is A Frenzy Of Raw Emotion
If you haven't heard of Alana Sweetwater yet, you better keep your eyes and ears open. Born in Tucson and based in Los Angeles, the soulful songstress is a firecracker. She's been hammering out bluesy rock 'n roll tunes for over a decade, at times armed with just her guitar and at others, a seven-piece backing band.
Last week, Alana Sweetwater performed in Beacon, NY at the Towne Crier, a staple of the Hudson Valley music scene. She was the opening act of the night, supporting American rock band The Push Stars on their lengthy tour. Strutting onstage in an edgy black-on-black outfit, the pint-sized Sweetwater introduced herself to the crowd with a raspy warning: "My voice is gonna do some weird shit tonight. I just pretend it's not happening, so I encourage you to do the same." That caveat was mostly unneeded, as her voice did some good shit. She moved through a solo set-list of softer acoustic-driven ballads to powerhouse performances, howling and wailing with in-your-face vocal elements, aided by her expert guitar work. The snazzy alt-country gem "Crack Or Christ" was a stand-out, Sweetwater drawling tongue-in-cheek, yet surprisingly profound, lyrics like "Crack or Christ, choose your vice / Everybody needs something." The only cover she performed was "She's Not There," a Zombies smash hit from the 60s, reimagined beautifully by Sweetwater's wispy, barely-there voice. "Love More Than Anything" came later, a soulful track begging to be sung along to, though Sweetwater's impassioned vocals don't need much assistance.
Alana Sweetwater is a frenzy of raw emotion. Channeling both the monotony and eccentricities of humanity in her poetic songwriting, she uses her versatile voice as a vehicle to tell these stories, accompanied by high-energy instrumentation.
The Music Mermaid was so impressed with Sweetwater's live performance that we followed up with her after the show to connect for a quick Q&A... not before purchasing a signed album from her merch table, getting a warm hug, and discussing how absurd it is that The Music Mermaid herself hasn't yet seen Dirty Dancing. [Editor's note: I'm working on it, I swear.]
The Music Mermaid: First, can you tell The Music Mermaid a little about yourself and your music?
Alana Sweetwater: I am a songwriter and performing artist. I grew up in the desert in Arizona. My parents had two home businesses and employed all their friends -- there were a lot of different people who lived at my house, so there was tons of inspiration. There were hippies, gypsies, Native Americans, tons of travelers passing through. Sweetwater is not my original last name -- I was given the name after doing a Native American ceremony and seeing the nature of the universe! I wanted to remember what I saw so I took the name and legally changed it the next day. The name Sweetwater serves as a reminder to myself of who I really am and what matters most to me.
TMM: You grew up in Tucson, AZ but have since relocated to Los Angeles. How do the music scenes differ in each location and how have they influenced your own work?
AS: Growing up playing in bands in the Tucson music scene was really amazing. Being around so many talented artists gave me fuel to become better and better myself. The local bands referred to the style of music we were all playing as "desert rock" which I think describes it well, but I did reach a point when I was about 23 when I felt like I'd done all I could do in Tucson and was ready to jump into deeper waters. I had already spent some time in Los Angeles, played some shows, recorded and made some friends there, so it seemed like a logical next step for me to move there. As an artist, the potential for growth here [in LA] is just never-ending, and that's why I love LA. I've also lived in NY and Nashville; they've all taught me different things about how to be a great artist.
TMM: What is the production process like for your recorded work?
AS: I've recorded 6 albums and for each one the production process was different. The first album was just me and a guitar pouring my guts out. Other albums, I'd brought in different players to play on the songs I'd written. Some albums I had "bands" and we would all be in the studio together laying down our parts and contributing to the sound of us rather than just me. It's always so fun to be in the studio -- it feels like you're in a spaceship, not in the real world, and out there you can create whatever kind of world you want to live in. It's always kind of hard going back to life after being in the studio, like learning to be a regular person again and dealing with important normal things like laundry and showering! I'm kidding. I'd occasionally shower during the recording process.
TMM: Where do you pull songwriting inspiration from? What are some central themes to your music?
AS: Well inspiration comes in all kinds of ways -- sometimes (and often) I process my own thoughts, feelings, and experiences through writing songs. Other times I draw on other people's experiences. Sometimes I hear a great song someone else wrote and the beat or melody might inspire me to come up with something of a similar vibe, but in my own way. I get a lot of inspiration just from life -- taking it in and feeling it. Some common themes in my music are not taking anyone's bullshit, love, loss, having compassion for being a human being, and also making fun of what being a human being is in our day.
TMM: You’re just wrapping up a tour with The Push Stars. What’s it like to share the road with such a prolific group?
AS: I loved being on tour with The Push Stars! First and foremost, they are all such beautiful and kind people to be around. That aside though, they are each outstanding musicians and I'd listen to their sets every night and pick up different things they each did at every show. Chris' songwriting is really incredible! He raised the bar for me on what I consider to be a well-crafted song all around. He's a great lyricist and his melodies are infectious. Dan's bass lines are so melodic and support the vocal melodies in a way that I've not heard many bass players do. He thinks like a producer since he is one, and that really comes through in his playing. Ryan is such a powerful and dynamic drummer, and very soulful too. They all blew my mind and I was honored to be included in the tour. I felt like Snow White being the only girl traveling with all the guys -- they were all so kind, always watching over me.
TMM: You’re both a solo artist and one/eighth of Sweetwater & The Satisfaction. What are the advantages and disadvantages to solo work vs. full band work?
AS: Playing solo is amazing because you're only responsible for yourself. You travel light and also the shows are super intimate, and many people love those kinds of performances. The disadvantage of playing solo is that it's not at all as dynamic as playing with a band, and those dynamics are really powerful! You can make the room shake with a powerful band. Solo, I can show more of my personality and connect with the audience more personally, but at the same time, it's just me, and that's less exciting for me. I love both and that's why I'll always want to play solo and with a band. They each cover different ground.
TMM: Who are three musicians you think the world needs to hear right now?
AS: Me, me, and me! -Laughs- Okay, had to be a narcissistic artist for a moment. That's like getting one birthday wish and using it to wish for more wishes -- one of my classic childhood moves. There are so many incredible artists out there and I have favorites in every genre -- many are friends of mine that I think are fantastic, but The Push Stars of course! My friend Sum is in a band called The Milky Way and I think he is a brilliant hip-hop artist. I love [alt-country artist] Margot Price who is signed to Jack White's label.
TMM: If you had to give the karaoke performance of your life, what song would you be belting?
AS: Aretha Franklin's "Respect"
TMM: What has been your most memorable musical moment so far?
AS: Hearing our songs on the TV show we love, Sons Of Anarchy, and getting to open for Katey Sagal's band that recorded much of the music for the show -- we all played at the El Ray Theater in Los Angeles and that was mindblowing for me!
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Alana Sweetwater?
Alana Sweetwater: Well, now I am doing a lot of writing with some fantastic writers that I adore and respect like Scott Feldman and Brad Gordon. Once I get an albums' worth of new material together, I'll release a new record. We are also doing a lot of writing for film and TV which I love because we can write different kinds of styles. I'm also about to teach a songwriting workshop: showing people how to write them them along with recording them [at the end of the workshop]. I'm very excited about this and have worked hard to put the program together. Also, I'd love to keep touring. The gypsy lifestyle suits me just fine. In my perfect world, I'd have a solid home life, and a grand time traveling and seeing the world and connecting with as many great people as possible.