Rising Up: An Interview with Lady Lazarus
Lady Lazarus experiments with sound and its possibilities. Andrew Darley talks to the singer-songwriter about her fascination with composition and the healing that music has given her.
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After making it onto Polari’s ‘Unsung Albums Of 2013’ with her second record, All My Love In Half Light, Lady Lazarus is now re-releasing it internationally through LebansStrasse Records. Under her moniker, taken from the Sylvia Plath poem, Melissa Sweat crafts ethereal and passionate dimensions in her music. Both her debut album Mantic and All My Love In Half Light encapsulate her ability to capture complex emotions is the simplest of ways. Predominately written with piano, she experiments with sound and its possibilities; creating a swirling mass of chimes on ‘Gleam’ to more leaden tones on ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ which accompany her reflective lyrics. Andrew Darley caught up with Melissa to talk about out why she is re-releasing this album, her fascination with composition and the healing that music has given her; something which she hopes her own music will have on others.
All My Love In Half Light was released in 2013. Why have you decided to re-release it now?
LebensStrasse Records contacted me and were interested in putting the record out worldwide on vinyl, CD, and digital with some bonus tracks, so I thought it was a good opportunity to have an international release. It’s been great because the record is reaching more ears now and is in places as far flung as Japan and Australia. Plus, who can resist the lure of vinyl?
Can you talk me through how the songs came together, in terms of their writing, recording and production?
The songwriting came very naturally and almost as a diary of sorts, as Picasso talks about painting, since they happen in real time. For a length of several months, I spent nearly every day at my keyboard, honing the songs for the record. The only song that came far before this period was ‘Lapsarian’, the lone accordion song, which I wrote when I was still living in Georgia. Recording and production happened simultaneously working with Jason Quever from Papercuts. I basically produced the record with Jason’s help and he recorded and engineered the album.
The album appears to be about relationships and love in all its forms. It opens with the lyrics about loving commitment (“Before I say ‘I Do’”) but towards the end of the album it’s almost the polar opposite (“When I gave you my heart, you tore it apart”). Are these songs about one relationship in particular or about several in your life?
It’s about numerous relationships, romantic, sexual, and otherwise in my life. And it’s also about self-love. The record was my way of purging the ghosts and scars of past romantic trials and focusing more on what I want. Complete love for myself, and not settling for anything less than true romantic love. Lucky enough, not too long after writing the record, true love came around. I really believe this conscious effort of spiritual and emotional housecleaning that the act of making this record provided, was in part, a catalyst for this very healthy and loving relationship I’m in now. And for my improved self-love and worth.
What does the title of the album mean to you? Why do you feel that title fit the whole body of work?
I wanted a dramatic title; it almost sounds like a soap-opera title to me. And I wanted to denote a kind of grand reveal and showcasing of these struggles, while still articulating the futility of romance and of loving yourself at times. That it cannot be fully realized. All my love, no matter how much I try, might remain in half light. Not full on. While the album is much about romance, it’s also about how an artist shares and occludes these truths, and how my own artistic visions are not totally all out in the world just yet. Getting there.
Were you more confident then writing All My Love In Half Light after your first album?
Much more confident, and the songwriting became more focused, too. The songs lean toward a kind of dream folk-pop coming out with a bit more clarity from the more reverb-heavy Mantic; melody is more essential, and my singing is pronounced. Touring and playing live, and improving my awareness of keys and piano all helped with this.
Both this album and Mantic largely feature piano as the sole instrument, which you taught yourself to play. I imagine that was quite difficult? How did you come to choose that instrument?
I love how grounding the piano is. What a beast of an instrument. It’s like an elephant—you can’t just cart one around. I love how powerful and thundering it can be, and still so elegant. I couldn’t do what I do with a guitar. It wouldn’t be as pretty and strong, and I need both of those elements in my songwriting. Actually on Mantic, it’s all keyboard, except for two songs (‘Half-Life’ and ‘Twilight on a Steinway’). All My Love In Half Light features about half on piano, half on keys. My songwriting now is even more piano-based. That’s definitely where I’m heading.
Would you say because you did not have traditional music training that the songs you write could be more instinctual?
Indeed. I’ve met a lot of musicians who say it’s kind of a blessing that I didn’t have lessons growing up, that you’re so much more free to explore different structures and just intuit your own music. Intuition is a huge part of my songwriting, both lyrically and musically. I feel free to do what I please.
Did you have a moment when you knew you wanted to make music or was it always there?
Around age 25 I realized I wanted to learn an instrument and try my hand at playing. Having been a writer and poet for so long, when I sat down to play, the words just flowed right out with the melodies, and that’s how my songwriting began. There were other things that drew me to music, of course; seeing Joanna Newsom and Cat Power perform live, particularly, and seeing kindred spirits in them. Watching one of my younger brothers, Matt, teach himself guitar and drums. And of course, being a big music fan. But mostly, it was this innate and mysterious desire to make music.
As a new artist, have you read reviews of your albums or are they irrelevant to you? I can imagine they may mess up your psyche a bit, good or bad!
I read them, and they’re important for my career, etc, but they are not influential on what I do. I have enough of a good artist’s ego to not care too much about what anyone says about my creative work. I’ve always followed my own muse and my own path.
I know you’ve probably been asked this over and over but you took the name from the name of the Sylvia Plath poem ‘Lady Lazarus’. I’m bringing it up because that’s actually how I found your music as it’s one of my favourite poems. What drew you towards that name? Is there a freedom in using a different name to your own?
I admired a good many solo artists like Cat Power, Smog, and Mount Eerie, who went under these poetic pseudonyms or project names. It conveys that the music is far bigger than just the individual. My name, Melissa Sweat, is strong but not entirely poetic, and there is a great deal of personal freedom in using another name. I chose Lady Lazarus for so many reasons. It’s mystique. Feminine power. Allusion to resurrection. Having been through quite a bit myself in life, I related to the idea of someone falling down so hard, and yet coming back again. I relate to the phoenix-like quality of Lazarus. The rising up.
The album opens with ‘Lapsarian’. It’s quite striking as it features accordion, which is subtle used as backing on other songs. What was it about this song that you knew you wanted it to open the album?
‘Lapsarian’ refers to the fall of Adam and Eve, and I thought it was an apt and almost heraldic opening for an album about romantic tribulations and personal triumph. I’m referring to a sexuality so ancient and powerful, that its far beyond our current social constructs of love, sex, and marriage. In the end, I feel I reclaim myself, just as so many women are reclaiming their powers in this day and age.
For me, one of the album’s most important songs is ‘Goudunov’ which is a gorgeous play on words. Is there a feeling of joy when you capture something very beautiful, yet simple in that way?
Thank you so much! I’m quite fond of that song, too, especially live. I think I’m always striving to articulate the complex and profound into something beautiful and simple in my songwriting. I feel very good when I play that song, and when I get to sing, “I am good enough for the world.” Don’t we all need that?
One thing that struck about me about Mantic was the way you played and pushed the possibilities of sound the piano can make. There are a number of moments on both albums in which it can sound glacial and swirling and then other times pendulous and ominous. Would you say that you are fascinated with sound and its potential, than just songwriting?
Yes, I really am. I think that’s why I relate also to experimental or minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Erik Satie. And I love what Arthur Russell has done. I’m very interested in what the reverberations and overtones of the piano and keys can do, and how you can play with the spaces in between the notes. That space is just as important to me, and feeling the notes and emptiness has always been more interesting to me than playing something on tempo and absolutely rigidly. I need my songs to sound like a real person is playing them.
Did you find it easier to express yourself on this album?
Honestly, I think it’s always been quite natural for me to express myself in creative forms. I think my powers of songwriting are just becoming stronger.
Are there any artists whose career trajectory that you admire and could hope for your own? Not just in terms of achievements but their integrity as an artist or musician.
Tom Waits is by far my favourite artist and musician. Musically, his songs cut right to my heart more than anyone else’s, and he has such the utmost artistic integrity, sensitivity, mirth, and humour. I love that he has acted, as well, and worked in other fields. I’m writing a novel, a screenplay, and I paint and make art, so I relate to his sense of play and exploration of other creative fields. I’d love for just one of my songs to be as indispensable as his are to music and to the American canon.
The reissue features two new songs ‘Envy of The Dead’ and ‘Rabbit’s Road’. Do you see the two new songs as a treat for fans who may already have the album or do you see them as an extension of the original album?
These songs were written during the same time period as the album, and had they fit more within the framework of the record, they could have very well appeared on it. So both, really. A treat and an extension or expansion.
It’s been over a year since the recording sessions of the album, has your relationship with these songs changed over time?
I still love them and love playing them live. I am in a far different place emotionally than I was when I wrote those songs, so it makes me feel quite in touch with how I was, but also empowered to be where I am now.
Have you thought about your next musical direction or record?
Yes, definitely. I hope to have something new to share very soon.
My last question I wanted to ask is about the undeniable emotions that you capture on this album. I wonder if there is a sense of resolve when you write a song like ‘Wonder, Inc.’, for example? Does writing music give you any emotional clarity?
Indeed. Songwriting gives me a great deal of clarity and understanding about my life, more than any other artistic medium I have tried. I have written songs where the melody starts to form, and then something in me unlocks and words come out that seem almost unconscious utterings to me – and then something truly breaks. I hear what I’m singing and how I’m feeling and it’s as if I did not know I was feeling that way all along. I did not know I had unconsciously come to a sort of conclusion or assumption about some topic or experience in my life. Or that something was still bothering me. But inside, mysteriously, things were sorting themselves out. And writing a song distills this understanding for me. It takes me so much further and deeper than where I could go otherwise. Writing songs has truly healed me and helped me grow as a person, and I hope my songs can help others do the same. I hope they connect and give others a sense of not only clarity and peace in their own lives, but of the miracle and wonder of this life.
All My Love In Half Light is out now through LebensStrasse. For more information and updates about Lady Lazarus, visit her official website
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