Interview / Marsha Swanson

Marsha Swanson

“Facing Life” is described as a compelling exploration of the bond between a mother and her daughter, intertwined with the fragility of life. Could you share the personal experiences or inspirations that led you to create such a poignant and emotionally resonant track?

I was born two days after my Grandmother died. My Father was attending his mother’s funeral while my mother was in the hospital, hoping that he would return in time for my birth. In this way, it could be said that my first entry into the world was surrounded by a complex mix of joy and grief. My birthday celebrations each year thereafter in those formative years were also intertwined with that same mix of both celebration and commiseration.

This gave me a pre-verbal imprint and sensitivity towards the birth/death connection. Becoming a parent often invites an opportunity to revisit childhood experiences with a new lens. I wrote “Facing Life”, following a conversation with my brother about my parenting style. He observed that while I was very good at facilitating good experiences for my daughter, enabling any area of interest to be explored, he wondered whether I had done enough to prepare her for things not working out. We both agreed that this was an equally important part of parenting that I hadn’t embraced as fully.  His looming cancer diagnosis was also in the ether at this point, and these vibrations were certainly infiltrating, heightening an already well established predisposition to the fragility of life and the potency of love.

Collaborating with esteemed names like producer Iestyn Polson and musician Henry (King Thumb) Thomas is undoubtedly a remarkable opportunity. How did these collaborations influence the creative direction of your album “Near Life Experience,” and what unique elements do they bring to your music?

I had met Iestyn initially 20 years prior. We were introduced by my manager at the time, Ivan Kushlik who was also the tour manager of David Gray.  Iestyn was incredibly busy producing David Gray at the peak of his success, amongst numerous others. Ivan had nevertheless managed to arrange a time for him to pop in to the studio where I was recording in to hear a few songs. He liked one of them called “Losing Me” and we set some preliminary plans in place for him to work on this track. I could hear in my head exactly what he could do with this song! However, his schedule didn’t allow for it in the end and it did not materialize at that time. Those who know me will know that I don’t easily let go of lost opportunities and I continued to make intermittent check-ins with him for some years after. Timing is everything and after a long hiatus (following becoming a mother),  I was ready to record again and Iestyn happened to be in England. We met to talk initially and then again for me to sing him all my latest songs.

He knew instantly which ones were contenders and we began working towards an E.P. It was a hugely satisfying resolution to that history!  Iestyn and I were in agreement from the outset about the creative direction. We wanted a live band and the kind of organic sound that could have come straight from the “brill building” era. What I couldn’t have anticipated was the process and detail he applied in order to achieve this. The band practice ahead of recording was key to the solidity and tightness to the rhythm section. He brought in drummer Kieth Prior, who had also worked with David Gray and who was fully accustomed to Iestyn’s rehearsal regime.

In the recording and mixing stages, Iestyn’s  razor sharp ear (developed from his extensive sound engineering background) meant that he knew how to maximize the quality and clarity of sound for each instrument. On top of this was an intuitively led and unrelenting insistence towards getting the right performance. My tendency is to go big on harmonies. On the song “In Parallel” for instance (which comprised of 4 part vocal harmonies), Iestyn was able to meticulously remove problematic areas of “mid-range” that could go undetected to normal ears but that ultimately muddied the sound. This was a process that needed constant review, particularly when adding the string section! I felt like a co-detective at times, sitting beside him at the computer with multiple tracks laid out in front of us, spotting bothersome sound clashes and trying to identify by process of elimination what the culprit was!

Henry Thomas’s influence on the creative direction of the album was born from his own unique holistic approach and a belief in the nurturing process as a means to getting the best creatively out of each musician.  He is the only person I’ve ever worked with who wrote me a letter ahead of starting setting out his clear intent and integrity to what he called “the pursuit of artistic truth”. We worked tirelessly together deconstructing and reconstructing every aspect of the songs so that everything that remained in the track at the end had been fully considered and chosen for its inclusion. His mission was to hone in on the core message and emotion of each song and to select not only skilled musicians but also highly attuned, empathic and thoughtful individuals who could pick up on these key components, and enhance them. 

Your music has been praised for its blend of “grown-up pop” and romantic realism, drawing inspiration from artists like Carole King, Kate Bush, and David Bowie. How do you approach merging these diverse influences into a cohesive sound that resonates with modern audiences?

It isn’t something that I consciously approach at all. However, music that I have enjoyed listening to, grown up with and been inspired by will inevitably have formed a part of my developing taste and psyche in much the same way that every book I have read, film I have watched or conversation that I’ve had will play its part in my thinking. The sounds and styles we are drawn to early in life resonate with parts of our real life attachments or identity. This all happens effortlessly and without awareness.

When I feel the urge to sit at the piano to write a song,  the starting point is very rarely an attempt to create a sound or even style that I have in mind. In fact very little about it begins with choice. It is more of a compulsion to understand or figure out something internal that I’m grappling with. The piano serves as the helpful medium that allows me to do this. As melodies emerge that fit my mood, lyrics can surface that then tell me what it is that was on my mind. 

Following the acclaim garnered by your release so far. Can you give us a glimpse into the thematic and evolution your listeners can expect from your upcoming album, “Near Life Experience”?

Near Life Experience, whilst not strictly a concept album is most definitely a journey to experience from beginning to end.  Most people are familiar with the concept of “Near-death” experiences. I have had my own share of these, most notably a serious car crash 20 years ago. Any experience that reminds us that existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness is knowledge that has the capacity to both stagger and calm simultaneously. Just as death is part of life, the flipside of the same coin, I wanted to reveal nearly living or a “Near Life Experience,” as a new way to re-examine the same issues. In essence, awareness of mortality has the capacity to either shadow our life, or inform and enrich it.

The album songs are sandwiched in-between two instrumentals as book-ends for the album.  The beginning instrumental represents life energy  (in the form of a waltz, called “Waltz for Life”) and the end instrumental piece “In Touch” represents all endings/death. The songs in the middle are the content between these two states. The themes loop back and are not always linear (as in life). I hope that listeners will come away with a feeling that love is bigger than loss and that whilst love cannot protect us from losing either love or life, it is still the biggest tool we have.

Photo credit: Michael Clement