The infinite and elaborate ascension of Lady Lazarus
The coast of California possesses a certain spark of ingenuity that inspires artists and polymaths of all disciplines to create some of the most beguiling and entrancing works of art. Along the ever-evolving rigid western edges of the Pacific Coast exists a certain individual call of creativity and elements of enlightenment that are as unique as the individual that dwells along the inspiring longitude of sand, majestic rock formations and trees. From the expanses of the rich conifers that stretch toward the Pacific Northwest to the southern cliff mountain majesties of Big Sur and well beyond — somewhere between where the bodies of water intersect the azure skies and rich earth exists that ineffable pull and push for luminaries of the past, present and future to contribute to the medium canons of literature, visual/healing arts, symphonies of sound and all the crafts that defy titles, tags and logos.
Exemplifying this westward leaning phenomenon is the oeuvre of Santa Cruz based artist Melissa Ann Sweat — known otherwise to the world of poetry, pop music, prose and more as the almighty Lady Lazarus. The globe took notice initially with the release of Mantic where Sweat would soon turn intimate and ethereal song cycles into a hallmark institution with the release of the much lauded All My Love in Half Light, as the narratives of the personal/environmental/universal/supernatural/et al. would carry forward on Miracles. Persevering through life’s trials and tribulations; Melissa made a detour to Austin, TX and applied focuses on compositions, multidisciplinary pursuits, personal growth and developing artistic approaches into new echelons of realized works. Upon returning to the mystic shorelines of the Pacific, Sweat’s own unique shadow work would prove to be the foundations for new enlightened perspectives that would become the groundwork for a new full-length collection of hymns that rise out of the abyss of night and into the transcendent places of calm, care, love and warmth.
This catharsis contributed to the new Lady Lazarus album Impossible Journey Of My Soul Tonight, a record of reckoning that takes the listener to those familiar places and emotions that the onset of evening brings. The first single “I Know What it Feels Like” is a song of unrelenting empathy like a ballad brought down from the moon and stars to lift up the listener to the heavens and dimensions that offer an array of infinite comfort and a reassuring feeling that everything is going to be okay after all. The sharp Rhodes piano pointed minimalism and subtle reverb offers an evocative sense that is not easy to translate into conventional adjectives. The incredible aspect of “I Know What It Feels Like” is how Melissa manages to tap into some kind of metaphysical slipstream where the artist is virtually able to answer the prayers/meditations/cries of the listener in a message that resounds with the sentiment that nobody is alone in their pain and fears in a world that can feel very isolating and cold. Lady Lazarus materializes and rises again with a message to guide those trapped in the shadow realm of endless night to find that faint glimmer and promise of daylight. Sweat gives the audience a sense of safe passage through the darkened corridors of weeping and gnashing of teeth and into the bright shimmering aura of dawn; where the daybreak provides respite and peace from the spirit’s impossible battle in the mauve zone of those eternal evenings that rage forth (with seemingly no end or exit in sight).
We had the chance to catch up with Lady Lazarus’s Melissa Ann Sweat about all the latest in the following candid interview.
Spiritual awakenings and realizations that 2019 has shown you about yourself, your art, the universe, multiverses and more.
I've become far more aware now than likely ever before in my life how I'm responsible for and capable of creating the world I live in.
Describe the creative journey from Mantic, All My Love in Half Light, Miracles to Impossible Journey of My Soul Tonight and how this path and its progressions have left impressions both consciously and unconsciously on your own artistic praxis as being milestones and landmarks on your own aesthetic trajectory.
My creative process has been very intuitive, self-taught, and one of trial and error. You have to make a lot of songs and records to get really good at them, I feel, or that's been my take — and I've grown a lot with each record, exploring and expanding different areas of my craft. While I'm very proud of the work I've done in the past, I feel I've reached a sort of culmination to date of my songwriting, sound, vocal work, executive production, collaborative, visual, and other skills on this new record. It feels grown up, polished, and complete in a way that's really satisfying to me, and I could have had no idea how to get here except to follow the path of trying and experimenting, as I did. I don't like to look back on my work with too much nostalgia, though I do honor how brave I've been as a person, artist, and young woman, and that helps fuel me on — but I'm more interested in what I am creating right now and can create in the future.
Reflections on how the collaboration with Beau Sorenson at Tiny Telephone assisted in further developing the expansive groundwork for Impossible Journey.
Working with Beau Sorenson felt like nothing short of kismet. He was simply a dream to work with and is truly a wonderful person and producer. Beau really got where I was coming from and took the time to do so and have numerous conversations with me about my songs and sound. We had a lot of records in common that I was wanting to reference and was inspired by (like Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me, and Joni Mitchell's Hejira to name a couple), and he'd worked with one of my heroes, Sparklehorse, in the past so I really felt like he understood my world. When we recorded at Tiny Telephone, I wanted to make sure that the songs could stand on their own with just vocals and keyboard/piano, and when we completed day one recording we both felt the album was solid as it was. We then talked at length about what production work and additional sounds on each track I was interested in exploring, and we were again very much on the same page. Beau then added delicate synths, pads, and other textures to my already delicate songs, which was magic to me — he just nailed the production on pretty much the first takes. Beau truly did an incredible job of enhancing the mood and strong points of my songs, while adding subtle drama, but never overstepping. Everything he created just felt right.
Describe how your own cathartic 'shadow work' has contributed to your own ever-changing approaches to song craft.
My work has always been revealing, even to myself, as I discover and uncover feelings and trauma I didn't know I felt. My own personal shadow work simply deepened this process, so you're getting a whole lot more of me (the dark, the light, and in between) on this record than ever before — and more depth, wisdom, feeling, and expression along with it.
Interested in hearing more about the art of conveying the complexities of personal experiences, emotional landscapes and thought streams into structures and cycles of song.
For me, it nearly always comes down to the music. The music and my exploring the sounds of the keyboard/piano pulls it out of me and then the words appear, and I craft them further until I feel they've conveyed something powerful, complete, and real, and then my knowledge of my own personal experience deepens as I become more aware of where exactly this was all coming from.
Notes from how life in Santa Cruz county has impacted your own perceptions of the self, the world and the spiritual realm.
I grew up in San Jose, and lived all over California and the US, but Santa Cruz always felt like a second home and is a very special, magical, and spiritual place. This was where I felt embraced by Mother Earth again and at the same time more free and open to connecting with beyond. It's been a trip, incredibly healing, and I've truly gotten what I needed here.
From the subtle and cosmic Ali Said visual for "I Know What It Feels Like" to the ethereal resonance that the song possesses — describe creating the moody lullaby melody and expression of empathetic care that transcends the isolating nature of feeling into something that can be related and shared.
A lot of my songs are very personal, and while "I Know What It Feels Like" is too in that it comes from my own experiences, I felt with this song in particular a need to make it more universal. I consciously wanted it to provide comfort for people and have it be a sort of lullaby of empathy and understanding. I recall being comforted by so many songs and art and books and films growing up, and if this song can make someone feel less alone than that's one of the greatest gifts as a songwriter and artist I could ask for.
How the creation and completion of the new record has enlightened your own approaches to future creative and personal endeavors going forward.
Just keep going. And trust the process.
Meditations for the forthcoming seasons, new eras, new years, new epiphanies and beyond.
Choose love and compassion as much as possible.
I've also recently completed a new poem that I think shares a bit of my contemplative/spiritual mindset during this time period, as well as the influence of living in the Santa Cruz area with all its healing beauty.
“Circles in the Sky”
by Melissa Ann Sweat
Took some time this evening
looking at the sky
and Emily Carr paintings
of above the tree line.
The trees and sky outside my window
mirror the image on the page,
and I am still again
inside the shadow of world.
Only, an oriole appears
as I despair
at the distance between
our reality and dreams.
A gold gift placed in the treetops
all aglow in yellow sunset beams…
while the reliable needle whispers softly
upon the ended record spinning,
“All are lost in circles in the sky.”
Lady Lazarus's new album Impossible Journey Of My Soul Tonight will be available October 18.
Catch Lady Lazarus in San Francisco August 14 at Hotel Utah.