Taste Of Sweetwater
Listen Up DiFranco Fans -- There's A New Righteous Babe In Our Midst.
By Mari Wadsworth
MARCH 13, 2000: THE FIRST TIME I saw Alana Sweetwater (at that time Alana Swidler) was at The Rock in 1994, fronting a band called Propaganda Child. The diminutive 18-year-old was too young to be in the audience, but there she was on stage, commanding the microphone with a voice that was part Janis Joplin and part -- oh, comparisons are odious, but -- let's say Pat Benatar. It was that rock thing: volume and raw talent blown out with youthful exuberance. It wasn't great music, but it was a great time. She and her (guy) bandmates' originals tapped a '60s aesthetic and poured it into a frothy, hard-rock elixir that made them darlings of the local scene for a couple of years, playing everywhere from Bentley's on Speedway to opening club dates for Tool, Eve's Plumb, Weezer and Sas Jordan.
Theirs was the typical band story: saw an ad on a local music store bulletin board, liked the guy's influences; she brought a guitar and guitar player and he found someone to play bass. They became regulars at bars like the now-defunct Third Stone on Fourth Avenue, garnering favorable local press. Then after about two years, like so many other young amateur bands, they just seemed to disappear. Those with an eye for faces might've recognized lead guitar player Jason turn up for a while in the Greyhound Soul pack -- he and rhythm guitarist Chris have since defected for L.A., Sweetwater tells me. The P.C. rhythm section (drummer James and bass player Brandon) is still plugged into the Tucson thing, respectively hooking up with the Simplistics and Annie Hawkins Band.
But back in 1995, at the still-tender age of 19, the determined, brown-eyed songwriter had other ideas. "After a while, it was going in a direction I couldn't relate to. My mom had just passed away, and I'd written a lot of songs that were getting me through that. When I left the band I recorded this album called Hope for the Living and gave it to my friends and family."
She describes the all-acoustic cassette, recorded for about $100, as "just me and a guitar pouring my guts out with no intention behind it." Nonetheless, it was a watershed for the fledgling songwriter.
After months of being holed up in her room, writing songs, playing self-taught guitar and grieving for her mother, the very music born of isolation started pulling her back into the world. Having been raised by parents deeply involved in the metaphysical movement, life's mystical connections, if not entirely expected, certainly don't surprise her. While taking refuge with her godmother (married to a Yaqui elder), for example, she ate peyote, changed her name, and waited to see what the universe would deliver. (Of the name itself, she says with a shrug and characteristic humor, "I was living off Sweetwater (Road) at the time.")
By word of mouth and happenstance, Hope for the Living got into the hands of a guy at Creative Artist Agency. He called Sweetwater from L.A. just to say he'd listened to it twice, was blown away by it, and thought he could help her. "When he showed me who they worked with," she recalls, "...everybody, everybody works under him...I was like, 'Oh, you're real!' "
A week after that phone call she catapulted into what would become a dizzying year in the sugar-glazed world of Major League Music, heralded by the arrival on her doorstep of one Bennet Glotzer, a caricature of industry smarm if ever there was one. Glotzer flew out to Tucson to hear her play, and left full of promises.
"Keep in mind, I'm heavily in grief," she says. "And all of a sudden all this big stuff is happening and I'm kind of scared. So Benny comes out and tells me how he managed Janis Joplin and Frank Zappa for nine years, and he wants to sign a contract with me. He goes to New York about a week later, and ends up playing my tape for this guy (Alan Mintz, the Columbia VP who signed The Presidents of the United States of America), and then that guy comes out to see me a week later.
"In three weeks, I went from nada to having this big guy from Columbia Records fly out to hear me play." She's smiling at the insanity and providence of it, but isn't starstruck. It was a whirlwind experience that landed her in a bidding war with a couple of labels, with gigs at the House of Blues in L.A., the Fox Theater in Boulder, SXSW in Austin, and the Cutting Edge Music Conference in New Orleans, among others. This takes us to about 1998, and the beginning of her literal "have guitar, will travel" lifestyle.
"From then on, I spent some time living in L.A., and all of it, the negotiating of the record contract, is unreal to me. In fact, when I went to New York and they said they wanted to do it, I was numb. I showed more enthusiasm when they opened these cupboards of hundreds of CDs and said I could take as many as I wanted. I (shouted) because it was tangible, something I could conceive of. They must've thought I was crazy."
Either that, or clairvoyant. Because just when they'd finally agreed on the terms, it all fell through. "Mintz got fired two days later," she laughs incredulously. "There were several labels interested, but as soon as something happens, it doesn't even matter what it is. They're like flies to shit, sort of. Suddenly they all stepped back and said, 'Well, we're intrigued by you; we don't know what to do with you. We don't know how to place your sound, you're still developing, you're a diamond in the rough...' "
All of this she relates in a gently mocking tone. Easy come, easy go. It's no skin off her straight, freckled nose. She never made an album on Columbia, and though she continued meeting with other labels, the whole experience kind of popped her back to reality. "When you don't have a bidding war, you're not in a position to ask for anything. You take what you get, and what you get is usually crap. I was still pretty numb about my mom, so I wasn't in a hurry to jump into anything that didn't feel good to me. So things would open up and I wouldn't go there, if it didn't feel right...which probably frustrated Benny. I don't work with him anymore."
She has hilarious anecdotes about growing up on her parents' acreage in the Tucson Mountains, where her dad's holistic dental practice anchored one end of the house, and her mom's salsa factory and warehouses held sway on another part of the property. Nearby is a drug rehab center, where a random dental emergency wound up being her first brush with rock stardom.
"This is back in the '80s when I was a little rocker girl," she says. "One of the guys there had an after-hours emergency, and came out to the house. He turns out to be this rocker dude with long blond hair and tattoos, who worked with Poison and Dio and all these glam-rock bands." She simultaneously enthuses and laughs over the memories.
"But the thing was, he was really fun and nice, so we would come and visit him. He became like family. He even moved in with us for a while, after rehab. Suddenly he was connected with all the musicians in town, and I'm 14 and surrounded by topless dancers and '80s rockers. I'm like, 'Oh, cool, this is weird!'
"So that's how I became exposed to the whole musician thing."
But anecdotes and raw talent alone do not a lasting songwriter make, and despite all the attention from bar crowds and slavering industry moneychangers, the self-taught Sweetwater saw and capitalized on something of greater value than adoration: honing her craft from absolutely anyone who wanted to help her.
For example, through her L.A. connections, she met "a sponsor" in Denver who expanded her blues vocabulary. "In Colorado, I got to play with all these old Motown guys. We did an Otis Redding song, and I felt like..." she sucks in her breath sharply. "Who am I? Here's all these old, black veterans and I'm just this little twerp. It was just for fun, but I got to do some traveling, playing and recording."
She found a mentor in Tim Mitchell, another producer, guitar player and songwriter who worked closely with Bob Seger, with Gloria Estefan in the Miami Sound Machine days, and a slew of '80s artists. "Pablo and I ended up at Tim's house, camping out on the floor in his living room with an inflatable mattress and writing songs. I was able to really tackle structure and melody, new ways to play the guitar."
"Every connect kind of opened up to another connect," she says of her willful transience. She's spent an intense couple of years following opportunity all over the western states, collaborating with producers Shel Talmy (The Who) and Don Peake (Ray Charles), and getting tips from Don Smith (Tom Petty, The Tragically Hip) and John Paul Jones (Led Zepplin bass/keyboardist turned producer).
After Columbia and being horrified by Glotzer's hardball tactics, she pressed boyfriend Pablo Hillman into service as manager and co-producer. Though only 23 and 27, the young couple has been together for nine years, "through everything," Sweetwater says. Hillman, together with Sweetwater herself, her guitars, suitcase, cell phone and dog Tony Roma, make up one colorful brigade of homeless musicians. (The latter, by description, is an utterly pathetic-sounding waif of an abandoned pit bull, a dusty fighter discovered withering in the desert by Sweetwater, with "no ears, protruding ribs and a beautiful, dark look in his eyes like a Vietnam vet.")
Though without permanent digs, they are far from without support. Both were born and raised here in Tucson, and their families are still close by. All are credited with thanks on From Behind the Veil, co-produced and recorded by Hillman and Sweetwater in 1999 at professional home studio JMMR in Tucson.
"When the record deal went away, I thought, 'Wait a minute, I wanted that!' Then I looked and waited for something to happen...chasing things that ended up being nothing, and feeling like I missed my opportunity. Then I got to a point where I just decided, 'I'm good enough.' I mean, there are artists out there who are really lame and doing it, and I know people enjoy my music, so I'm going to do everything I can to put it out there in a way that's positive; that feels good and doesn't feel like I'm selling myself out."
From Behind the Veil is exactly that. Like many debuts, it's something of a sampler, trying things on for size. "You know, I listen to the radio and it's so rare that I hear a song that makes me feel anything. It just gets you to sing along with a catchy chorus and it's almost insulting, because it's not giving you anything. But once in a while you hear that song and it's like, 'Oooh, god. That just makes me feel alive!' And so, my songs are that to me."
Her desire for a band is apparent on these fleshed out arrangements, which bring in some 10 musical guests (locals all) on electric bass and guitar, drums, mandolin, didgeridoo, flute and backing vocals. It makes what would otherwise be a folky album an invigorating mix of electric and acoustic instruments, and sampling.
Lyrically and vocally, she calls to mind contemporaries like Fiona Apple and Ani DiFranco. But where those take on the external world of relationships and urban society, Sweetwater aims inward. At their best, her emotive songs are open-ended, speaking of an interior world with a poetic style that manages to be both intensely personal and still leave something to the imagination. "Always it's about looking at the self, connecting with it, evolving it, even spin-offs, almost like a movie," she says.
Her guitar playing is no different. While not as broad as her vocal range, it has a solid sense of rhythm and a pure joy of experimentation that shows up in deft blues noodling on the intro to "Into the Void," in the solid rock strumming of the infectious "Backwards Into the Sun," and on the bass heavy power-pop romp of "Red Room" (a festive, suggestive song about "all the funky, dysfunctional people that live inside one person"). There's even some discernible if unlikely Tom Petty-ness in "Fly Me Low," which opens very stripped down and ends up a collage of sound, with electric guitar and driving vocals on top of didgeridoo, Native flute and Yaqui chanting that insinuate themselves into the background. "Sunday Shrine" does an about face with a lilting, simple melody about walking in the desert that has a whisper of Paul Simon to it; and an unequivocal standout is the acoustic ballad "Tangible," which is as viscerally moving as any lauded Sarah MacLaughlin or Sheryl Crow tune.
"I really wanted to incorporate a mystical feel to the music, some different sounds like the didgeridoo, the mandolin and dulcimer to give it more of a timeless thing," she says.
Though bright with influences and digital polish, Veil retains a homegrown feel to which Sweetwater gives a nod with both pride and discomfort. "It was just because I've been working with so many producers. I'd recorded Hope for the Living, which was all acoustic, and then I started working with these producers and hearing my music in all these different ways, and I didn't know what my own sound was, my own vision. This is very organic. Now I listen to it and I hear all the flaws, being out of key, all this stuff that I would love to do better. But essentially, what I was hoping to communicate I was able to."
She's also in the final stages of self-distributing the acoustic Hope for the Living, which she hopes to have ready by her concert this week. "My voice has changed and my playing's changed (since) 1995," she says. "But it's like a time capsule, so I don't want to mess with it."
This Saturday's concert at the PCC Recital Hall will be a good merging of the two. She'll be playing new songs, both unrecorded and from Veil, but the format is all-acoustic: just Sweetwater's powerful, emotive vocals and warm Taylor guitar. The intimate show is both a homecoming and a coming-out for the Tucson native, who hasn't played publicly for almost two years.
"I've kind of been homeless for a couple of years now, and when you're in other people's spaces you don't want to blast everybody out. So as a result I started singing quieter, and I started writing quieter, which is way trippy to me," she says. "I think the power is important, though. I don't like that conformity to the 'female sound.' The dainty, delicate thing just doesn't move me. I like...huevos."
So if you haven't heard her lately, it's time to check her out. Though still girlish-looking at just over 5 feet, including those two-inch lace-up boots, the smiling, sensitive Sweetwater that's emerged from the wreckage of personal pain and professional melodrama is a considerably more mature, confident and polished performer. It's a look, and sound, that suits her.
"I've made a lot of friends in the music industry now, but my real focus is on getting my two albums complete (including distribution), putting up my website so people can download a song or two, and just playing."
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