Black Swift: The World Howls
By Walter Price
Stuttgart, Germany based indie art-pop-rocker Black Swift (Sally Grayson) has just released her first full length album The World Howls.
Following the powerful force of love, Grayson packed up her life in New Buffalo, Michigan and landed in Germany some 10 years ago and started down a path of family, collages, teaching and music making. All of which she clearly marvels in.
The World Howls is an impressive collection of vast sounds full of wails and tales in well produced vignettes. The art of a good story whether it dark, empowering, whimsical, tongue and cheek will always have a place in my brain space. If you can have these descriptions of verses backed by music of many influences, styles and ranges on one album, win.
Another aspect that makes Black Swift (Just one of many stage names) is that she has done everything with DIY spirit and drive that has to be mentioned and praised. So kudos for a great album and cheers for making this dream happen!
Congratulations on your recent release The World Howls, how was the album release party?
Thanks! The release party was fabulous- it was my heart’s to desire to have the venue packed out and that it was, the air was electric and we enjoyed every minute of it. For the special occasion, I invited a couple more musician friends of mine on stage, so we were 6 total. The more the merrier & merry it was.
How did you find yourself from bustling New Buffalo, Michigan all the way to Stuttgart, Germany?
Ooh, that’s a long story…short version: love & music.
I met my future German husband at the airport in Dehli, India working for an organization called Dehli House Society that cared for the poorest of poor including running a home for disabled kids. Together he and I taught art classes to the kids there. Later we met up in Munich where he was studying art at the time. He told a sad story one night and I said, “I just want to give you a hug.” He said “what’s a hug?” so I hugged him. He said “that’s a great word, that would be a great band name.” So, although he didn’t play an instrument at the time, he decided to start a band called “The Hug”, and invited me and his musician friends to play in it. He then got the Akademie Galerie space and made a HUGE sculpture out of wood of a hug: a large torso where the band eventually played in the body and the audience was in the arms. Needless to say, it was pretty amazing. The rest is history.
This is your first full length album, which finds you coursing through the some varied sonic textures, would you say that your largest influences come from the 60’s and 70’s? I particularly I hear Grace Slick in your voice and delivery…
Ooh Grace Slick- that’s the first time I’ve heard that one- why, thank you. No, I wouldn’t say my largest influences come from the 60’s and 70’s, but certainly a lot. I grew up, not being allowed to listen to pop radio, so I was given a collection of old cassettes my mom had from the 50’s and 60’s- so that was the music I grew up on. Then there was the country music that would pour out of my Dad’s garage. Whether I like it or not, I think those earliest introductions to music will always influence how I write. I don’t want to write country songs, but sometimes that rhythm is just in my blood and it comes out when I strum the guitar.
That being said, the first songs I learned on the guitar as a teenager were Metallica songs and as a little punk/metal head, the first guitar teacher I had was an Elvis look alike who taught me blues scales, Sleepwalker and of course lots of old rockabilly tunes. I’d say I learned to sing from singing along with Janis Joplin, Patsy Cline, Etta James, and yes, even Tammy Wynette- those are just some of the best records to wail along with and to learn how to belt it out. But I rebelled against all that country music as a teenager and I’m certainly still a rocker at heart- there’s just nothing like turning up the distortion and tuning in some good feedback. The influences that stream through my own home stereo these days among many are Wovenhand, Anna Calvi, Tom Waits, Sun City Girls and lots of older records like Link Wray and Muddy Waters. Thus I hope in a nice way, it does all get thrown in a pot together: the history, the rebellion, the punk, and of course the front porch country blues.
Where did you record this album?
We recorded this album in many places with many different people. Thanks to technology now a days I was able to pass along files and get the job done. David Arzt on guitar stepped in and spent all kinds of crazy time learning the best way to record the drums, and ended up doing a great job recording Steffen Eifert on half the drums. For most of the other half, Burkhard Mayer-Andersson from Wiesbaden stepped in and nailed it. Tobias Unrath put down half the bass, and Nate Lehner (The Guilty Wanted) from Wisconsin played most of the rest of the songs.
I also invited some other friends of mine to work on some songs, Jerome Fontamillas (Switchfoot) worked on “Traum Tod” and Jayanthi Kyle (Black Audience) and Mike Gunther (Mike Gunther & his Restless Souls) sang and played on “Whiskey John & Irish.” Other singers and sound makers joined in as well. I recorded a number of instruments and sang in my basement, studio, attics…wherever I could get the best sound, and Dave recorded on most of the songs in the practice room also on many instruments including playing drums, bass, and all his guitars. It was really important to me that despite “home recording” that the album sound like a professional recording. We hired Johnny Park (Swim Bird Fly) with his professional fingers to mix it, and sent it off to Jacques Wait in Minneapolis to master it. In the end, I’m so thankful it all worked out, because I think it sounds great!
Being a multi-faceted artist how much collaboration did you allow in writing, recording and packaging of this album?
I love to collaborate and there was really so much of that going on this record. I wrote all the songs and about half of them I brought to my band here in Stuttgart, and they helped with arrangements. The other half was sent to the various musicians with fairly clear ideas of what I wanted them to play. The only exception was David Arzt he was along for the whole ride. We produced the album together, with the both of us spending a whole lot of time working on the pre-mixes together, sending songs back and forth until we got the feel we were looking for. We really saw eye to eye on the vision for this album, and for that I am very thankful- it’s not every day you show a song to someone and they know what it needs and can make it real. An old band mate, Matt “Walter” Halbersma from our then Minneapolis band Standbye, also stepped in and helped with working on pre-mixes.
The packaging I did with the help of my husband and a designer friend. I have a degree in art and always wanted to try to find a way to connect art and music, but it wasn’t until I started making collages that I was able to contextually connect my art with my music. I had the idea of producing a miniature CD sized art catalogue, with an image next to the text for each song, and with the CD in the back. And it happened! If I can say so myself, I’m feel really proud of how it all turned out- the art, the design, and especially the songs! Financially part of the project was also made possible through friends and fans pre-buying the album and artwork so that we could afford to put it out. In the end I’d guess that there were really over 80 people that actively participated in making this album a reality and for that I am truly so thankful. It’s really amazing to have a dream for something and then to see it become a reality!
Speaking of being an artist, you sell your art as well.
Yes, of course! I’ve been selling my little collages (check em out here) that connect with the songs on the new album pretty steadily over the last couple of years which I am very thankful for. It’s of course the dream of any artist to be able to sell their art. I try to keep my art reasonably priced so that the common Joe would be able to afford some original art for their home, but there’s almost always more to be had, and I’m always open to trades and negotiations.
You have some dates coming up and also you offer living room shows. Can you tell us the details on how and where you can be seen?
Gladly. Well, in the end, Black Swift is me with my songs. Sometimes with a full band on a big stage with a big crowd, sometimes with only myself and a drummer, sometimes alone and electrified, sometimes unplugged in front of a small group of people. I’m playing in all these constellations in the next months. I’ll be playing solo at an up-and-coming Festival in Leipzig called “Keine Fische Aber Grethen.”. Then later in August in Dresden at Manifest Festival (Dresdener Stadt Fest). There are more festivals and shows in-between with and without band.
The living room shows have been really fun, the person hosting opens up their home, invites at least 15 friends, the friends bring a bottle of wine or a snack and then I bring the music- in the end a hat gets passed around and people give what they think the music is worth. These shows are usually quite special because they are so intimate with a small crowd making way for the opportunity to tell more stories, to get to know “audience”, and I almost always try to get people to join in on the songs be it with noise makers or singing along, and on rare occasions it has even lead to spontaneous house dance parties = good times.
What do you do outside of songwriting, performing?
Well, lots of different things, teaching English, translating texts, but recently something that’s been really exciting is that I’ve been getting some work doing album artwork for other bands. This has been SO great. I listen to their music, hear the vision of the band of what they want to represent visually through their music and then I work on some collages towards that. I’d love it if this kind of work kept coming along, as I thoroughly enjoy it. Otherwise, I am always very busy with my favorite collaboration work I did together with my husband- namely our 5 year old twins.
What are the 5 things people should/need to know about Black Swift?
- Black Swift is happiness in minor chords
- Black Swift songs are not always “black” nor are they always “swift” but they do occasionally make references to birds.
- Black Swift cannot be brought down to one genre and probably never will. It has been and will continue to be a journey of exploration.
- Black Swift should be listened to loud.
- Black Swift is a whole lot about love: questions about how to love even when it’s hard-to-love, questions about when true love is no longer true,it’s about learning to love ourselves, and through that to have the ability to love others, and about the urgency in these