An Interview with Lady Lazarus
Lady Lazarus cloaks lyrical reflections in impressionistic musical musings. From her debut album Mantic, recorded in 2011 at her home in San Jose, Melissa Sweat has shown a penchant for a home-grown sound. That first album, mailed to Pitchfork by her brother, received glowing reviews, praising her musical musings. Since then, Lady Lazarus has risen, putting forth “All My love in Half Light,” recorded by Jason Quever of Papercuts in SF. On March 3rd 2015, Sweat unveiled her newest tableau,”Miracles” on her label Queen’s Ransom.
I first met Melissa in 2011, backstage at The Uptown Nightclub in Oakland at her headlining set. At the time, I was playing cello for a SF indie-rock band by the name of Doe Eye on the same bill. I was immediately struck by Melissa’s glowing California-girl image. With sun-kissed, blonde tresses, and a glowing smile she delivered a set that was more invitational in nature than I had expected from a project named after a poem by Sylvia Plath. Even then, Melissa had the foresight to see her project would take flight, leading her from her childhood home of San Jose to Georgia, to LA to Joshua Tree, CA to Austin, TX where she now resides, working on a multitude of creative projects.
What I have always loved about Melissa, and what has remained consistent in her style, is her openness and willingness to share her creative process. It was just prior to Mantic, she began teaching herself music after purchasing an electronic keyboard from a Craigslist ad. Pitchfork noted in a 2011 review of her track “Eye in the Eye of the Storm,” that Lady Lazarus gives the bare minimum song elements but is able to provide ample blanketing for her nostalgia-tinged words. Her subsequent album All My Love in Half Light is testimony to her musical growth; themes, musical motifs, and technique are more evident, but she still retains her invitational style. The strength of her lyrics, neither overwrought nor simplistic are enhanced with her placement of sound (in a Debussyian sort of way) meant not to fit in any formal sonata scheme but placed deliberately to enhance her words. She places words with music the way Debussy played tone clusters within Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun. Within a formal structure, Lady Lazarus falls outside the box, she is beyond the confines of the pop formula.
Via an email exchange, that was sparked by my interest in San Jose’s thriving artistic culture that is receiving more and more attention, Melissa shared her thoughts about growing up in San Jose and how it shaped her and Lady Lazarus.
Where did you go in San Jose to be alone? Were there particular spots you would head to when you were pissed off and needed refuge?
Two of my favorite spots to be alone in San Jose were at parks: hiding among the roses in the municipal Rose Garden, and sitting on top of the big green hill watching planes fly overhead at the Guadalupe River Park & Gardens on Taylor and Coleman. I’d also like to put on my headphones and go on extremely long walks and generally ghost all around downtown. One of my favorite areas to explore was the warehouse district where the Art Ark is and Citadel art studios. The door to the Citadel oddly used to be open and you could go roam around in there, though you probably weren’t supposed to. I had no idea that there were so many artists living and working in this strange little section of downtown, and I loved discovering and exploring it.
You moved several times from SJ. With each move what kind of homesickness (if any) did you experience?
I love San Jose, but I don’t think I could ever live there permanently–still, I long for it all the time. It was such a comfortable and nurturing place for me to grow up as a young creative person, and I always felt safe exploring it on my own, wandering, and going on adventures. There’s always been an innocence and humility to San Jose that I love, and I hope it always remains. It’s never going to be San Francisco or Oakland, and that’s a good thing. I miss the old familiar places and my friends when I think of San Jose… and I miss the wonderful times I had growing up and when I returned. I think if I moved back now, though, it wouldn’t be the same for me. Right now I’m living in Joshua Tree, a village of 8,000 people after living in Los Angeles, and I’m not sure what I want out of a city… maybe I’m not sure where I belong in one, or if I belong anywhere, really. I think I have a lot more exploring to do, but San Jose will always be home to me, even if I don’t live there.
In what ways has San Jose changed during your time growing up? Are there any particular changes that are significant to you?
San Jose is becoming more hip in some ways with all the development and new businesses downtown, but I worry that it will become too posh and lose its weird edge. I heard that the Blank Club is closing, which is really very sad. It was a refuge and a void will be created, but maybe the scene is growing older and the younger kids are just into other things. Things just change, and I’m not sure what it means to be “alternative” or “underground” in San Jose now. But I don’t live there, so maybe there are a lot of great things going on that I don’t know about. But I think when I was growing up San Jose it felt a bit more Slacker-esque (like the Linklater film) and now it feels a lot less weird and more grown up with its shit together–and I think I miss the weirder side.
When you are onstage, what thoughts do you have the moment before you begin playing?
I try not to have too many thoughts, and just try to feel. And what I feel is my most beautiful, inside and out, and I try to feel and be, well, magnanimous.
What is happening for you in 2015 (music or otherwise)?
I’m releasing my third album Miracles on my new label Queen’s Ransom. It came out on 3/3/15, and the title track is out now. Take a listen… and send my love to San Jose, please. I miss it.