Inga Swearingen: First Rain

Inga Swearingen always loved singing, whether it was with her elementary school choir in San Luis Obispo, California, or performing her own songs in high school, or during her years of voice lessons. But it may have been joining a jazz choir while pursuing her education at Cuesta College that sealed her decision to be a jazz singer. In 2003, after studying with Swiss artist Susanne Abbuehl, she won the Shure Jazz Voice competition at the world-renowned Montreux Jazz Festival. She earned a master’s degree in choral conducting from Florida State University, then returned to California, where she now performs, works on recording projects, and teaches at Cuesta College — her old alma mater. First Rain is her latest CD.

Tell us a bit about First Rain, your new cd? How did the album come about?

First Rain features music and song rooted in family, nature, love and human spirit. It’s a mix of homegrown folk, and soulful jazz, with guitar, stand up bass, violin, cello and vocal harmonies by my sister, Britta.

Last year my friend said, “It’s time for you to record again, lets have a party”. So we put on a couple of house concerts at the farm that helped to fundraise for the project. I was surprised and touched by people’s generosity. We made this together, and the music is filled with that gratitude and love.

What is your favorite track from the cd? Tell us a bit about the song.

“Brick by Brick” is a song I sing with my sister that compares my experience of living in a farm-house that was being remodeled for seventeen years — to a transitional place in life where one must rebuild from the ground up.

How did you go about choosing or writing songs for an album? How long is the process from start to finish?

When I arrange a song, I try to get to the essence of the lyric and find a musical way to communicate that. And when I write, I’m pulling from everything that inspires me, be it jazz, classical, folk, rock, anything good..

The actual recording goes down pretty quickly — it’s the gathering of songs that takes the most time for me. This project took about a year.

I have read that you described the album as “Swedish Farm Jazz”. How would you describe this type of music? What song on the album best represents Swedish Farm Jazz and why?

I view jazz as a big umbrella — a lot that can fit under there in my opinion. On this album, we incorporate jazz harmony and improvisation and the sense of exploration that jazz encourages, while using rhythms and feels other than straight ahead swing. I’ve found that European jazz draws heavily from the folk songs of particular regions. They have a very broad definition of jazz, which certainly resonates with me.

When creating, I try not to fence myself in with a particular genre. However, eventually you must describe your music to others. Having spent time in Sweden as a child I have a fondness for the language and the music. We cover a traditional Swedish tune “Visa Fran Jarna”, which is one of my favorites on the album.

How is this cd different than your previous recordings?

It feels like it’s my most personal work to date because I wrote 5 songs on the album about my home (a small farm in California), and my family mostly. Even the standards and traditional songs are rooted in themes of nature, love and human spirit. I’ve given myself the time to gather material, find the musicians and sit at the mixing board making decisions about how to best present the songs in an honest way. I think this has given the album cohesiveness and fluidity.

'Whatever' from the 30th Anniversary Special

How has appearing on the A Prairie Home Companion affected you or your audience? Have you noticed a new breed of fans showing up at your concerts?

The opportunity to perform on A Prairie Home Companion has not only provided me with lifetime musical memories, it has also expanded my audience to places that I have not yet been able to tour. I’m an independent artist who books my own shows and plans my own tours, so to receive an email from a PHC listener inviting me to their town is an incredible offer. I’m touched that people take the time to email, and I try to write everyone back.

You have appeared on A Prairie Home Companion as a featured guest many times over the past years. We have been taking a quick look back in honor of the 35th Anniversary of the program. Do you have any favorite memories from your guest performances or of the show? Are there any favorite guest performances that you recall hearing that stand out?

I remember singing a song by Rich Dworsky at Tanglewood a few years ago and the poem mentioned birds, just then birds began to chirp in the rafters and we all heard it. Even the radio listeners heard them! It was magical.

And yes, every time Jearlyn Steele is on the show I am moved by her passion and joyous spirit. She sings from her heart.

"Hush Little Baby'

Do you remember anything special about the 30th Anniversary concert?

I loved singing “Hush Little Baby” with 30th anniversary lyrics, a cappella with the audience. They sang their part with such confidence, and that allowed me to scat sing over the top.

How can fans keep in contact with your touring schedule/appearances?

My website has a full listing of tours and upcoming performances and also a way for folks to write to me. I do like hearing from you and staying in touch!


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