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This Jewel's a Gem: Valen Swenson 

click to enlarge FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly

It’s January in New York and it’s not just cold out there, it’s record cold. Thermometers are registering around two degrees in Woodstock this Saturday night, and it doesn’t feel much warmer inside the Colony Cafe. Many are huddled together by the blazing fire, chatting and chattering; some are complaining about drinking coffee they don’t really want. Me, I spent half the day pouring boiling water down into a hole in my floor to unfreeze the pipes. How Valen Swenson can peel off her coat and step onstage, baring her arms to a silky, sleeveless camisole, is rather impressive.

Somehow it doesn’t matter anymore that we’re sitting on our hands. That chick up there is distracting everyone with her sparkly trinkets and spiked heel boots, her inviting smile, that shiny black guitar. She’s beautiful, fresh, sexy, and young. Plucking the strings, then forcefully strumming simple chords, she begins to sing.
“I think I’ll stay nineteen forever, don’t wanna grow old / and I’d rather stay hopelessly lost than go back to what I know.”

I’ve heard this voice before. And I’m entranced again.

“Something’s alive here, and I’m not quite sure what that is. / I hope someday I’ll remember to be alive and not just live. / We’re building all these walls so that we won’t get hurt, but all they’re really doing is keeping us apart....”

You go, girlie voice. Girlie voice always works for me. Huge fan here. Harriet Wheeler of The Sundays snagged my attention long ago. Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris did the girlie thing, too, but to the extreme. We’ve had our bowlful of cute Lisa Loebs and precious Jewels in the biz, and there’s always room for one more. It’s time for the industry to hear this girlie voice. It’s both passionate and precious, sweet and sincere, with playful inflections that suck you right in. Somebody get this one an agent—this Jewel’s a gem.

“I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t sing,” Swenson states in the liner notes of the recently released A Taste of Woodstock double disc compilation. “There are certain natural abilities that we are born with. I was born singing.” Being born into a musical household didn’t hurt either. Owen and Lucy Swenson built The Turning Mill recording studio in Palenville where their daughter heard her first notes. “When my parents took me home from the hospital,” she laughs, “they blasted music and invited all their friends over, saying, ‘This is what your life is going to be like, so get used to it.’ I just went to sleep and they hung out. I was always surrounded by interesting and abnormal people. Musicians are a little different from the average person, I think.”

During those formative years, Swenson’s father tried to keep her away from the studio, which she refers to as a low-key, stress-free safe haven for local players. “I think his worst nightmare was me becoming a poor musician,” she says. “That was the road he traveled and he knew how hard it can be.” Dad is most certainly supportive now, pulling out his violin to accompany his offspring on Colony’s stage for the first time ever.

Swenson’s mom signed her up for every kind of artistic class imaginable. She joined many theater groups and jazz, ballet, and tap teams, and even found herself dancing at the White House and Disney World. She sang at Woodstock ‘94 and did the national anthem at a nasa launch. And yes, music was given a fair share of attention, as she learned flute, violin, and piano. But at the age of 15, Swenson picked up the guitar and was smitten, devoting large blocks of time to its mastery. Song writing had never entered her mind while growing up, but once she’d found her niche, the songs began pouring out.

At the age of 18, the small-town country girl moved to London to study music at Kingston University. Not knowing anyone overseas, Swenson had to become accustomed to trains and buses. “I had never even taken public transportation or anything like that,” she muses. Those vehicles took her to countless open mikes, where she played three or four nights a week, every week, for six months. Practice makes perfect, so they say, and she cranked out a lot of new material over there in jolly old England. But being so far from family and friends brought lonely and difficult times for this fledgling.

She sang out her sorrow in “Home”: “This is me from thousands of miles away, when I left there was nothing you could do to make me stay.... / Smoking out my window at night, looking out onto pink city lights, I see someone pass by. / I want to cry out ‘come save me from my solitude,’ but they turn the corner of my mind, and once again I’m left here staring at the sky.” Of course, now that she’s back in Palenville, London is the place she’s missing. Isn’t that always the way?

Lyrically, Swenson doesn’t get overly heady or philosophical. Her goal is to stir emotion by what’s relatable to everyone, so her songwriting mostly centers on love and relationships. Hardly anyone is a foreigner to this message from “Sunlight”: “Golden sunlight streamed through your window and fell into my eyes on that parting afternoon while sleeping by your side. / I kissed your sleeping lips before leaving your house for the very last time. / I know I’ll never sleep without your skin pressed against mine.” And sung with the most darling of voices, this sort of material is sure to rouse a few feelings. “The kinds of songs on the radio that you relate to, I want that to be my music,” she says. “I don’t want some pop hit that people hum along with. I want my music to touch people.”

She admits to steering clear of political themes, expressing some sentiment for her entire generation. “In general, we’re not protesters. It’s not true for everyone, but we’re generally not politically active. We complain quietly, but we don’t do anything. We sit around on the couch and watch television, which is probably a bad thing. I don’t get into politics too much, though I feel like I should.”

Now 20, Swenson is choosing songs for an album and is nearly ready to hit the studio and work with a producer. She’s got an eight-song demo of acoustic cuts, but she wants to go for a more intricate sound with additional instruments. “I’m hearing fiddles and orchestral things. Definitely some strong rhythm sections. midi [musical instrument digital interface] does amazing things.”

Swenson’s not sitting around with her fingers crossed, however. She knows how the world works and she’s got backup plans. Two weeks before the Colony gig, she earned a degree in elementary education from suny New Paltz. Her ideal situation would be to make a living off her music and score enough cash to start her own school. “Education is one of my passions,” she says. “The only way to change the future is to change the youth by educating them and giving them a good background.” Swenson’s also looking at a career as a dj. “I can’t think of a better way to make money,” she says. “I love hip hop. I’m not sure why my music turns out the way it does.” This highly motivated woman may attempt to do all three at once. “I don’t know what the future holds, but if I don’t try, I’ll never forgive myself,” she asserts. “I’m trying to keep as many doors open and experience as much as possible. I’ll just let my life lead me.”

Stardom gets my vote, and she certainly has what it takes. She’s up on that stage, confident, uninhibited, passionate, lost in her own voice. The melodies swirl around us like cream. Yes, it’s wickedly cold out, but Swenson is hot.

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  • A profile of musician Valen Swenson.

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