by Harry C. Tuniese
Songs are strange critters: thoughts with interpretive sounds, all individually contained, promising more than less, in simple bursts of content, known or unknown. By now, having passed through so many genres and styles, when I hear something where all the diverse elements connect, I’m struck with a renewed sense of wonder and awakening. Some artists may take years of struggle to reach their goals, and sometimes, they’re able to hit their visionary bulls-eye early in their career. Let’s meet Courtney Swain, a young, shimmering performer whose second solo album, Monstre, combines a gorgeous blend of overwhelming vocal talent, modern keyboard techniques, and contemporary sophistication. Although I’ve possessed this disc for just a short time, the sheer power of self-determination, vision, and performance that blazes out of every bar of music is so obvious and so courageously implemented that I am in a state of virtual awe at the achievement. She’s also a member of Bent Knee, a fabulous art-rock ensemble that has been roaming our locales for almost six years. As we sat down to discuss her burgeoning career, I can’t help gushing over her ingenuity and convincing qualities. Her new album is already tops on my list of local albums for 2015…
Noise: Tell us a bit about your musical background. What brought you to Boston and how do you feel you fit into our music scene?
Courtney: I was born and raised in Japan and moved to Boston in 2008 to attend Berklee College of Music. Before that, I was a classical pianist for a long time, though I never really wanted to be one, but it’s where I got my background. In high school, I sang in rock bands and found that to be refreshing to show my emotions along with the piano playing. I applied to Berklee after their deadline, but they contacted me and offered me an audition, so that’s how I ended up here. I find the scene to be diverse, but filled with cliques and niches that somehow don’t work together, but the deeper you dig you find more interests. I feel a lot of people bloom a project here and then tend to gravitate to other places like New York or LA. My band, Bent Knee, was formed in 2008 – we’re still here and that’s good so far.
Noise: What did you expect to get from Berklee?
Courtney: I expected to learn how to make a living with music. I can do the music fine, but it showed me the fast track to doing a lot of things, like earning money, networking, and other aspects of the business. But best of all, it introduced me to the people I’m playing with now. Also, as a solo artist, I’m now part of a new collective, Secret Dog Brigade Records, which is seeking to change the paradigm of the scene towards a more nurturing & community based effort, less cut-throat or using tired old values. We’re trying to connect with other outfits using the internet and other social media, like the Record Company in Dorchester, to offer both veterans and newcomers a less expensive way to make music. That seems like a worthwhile venture to me!
Noise: How do you compose? Where does your creativity spring from?
Courtney: Well, each of my solo albums I did in one month. During the year, I write down little scraps of ideas, mostly lyrical – some musical, and then when the time comes, I coalesce them and see what I’ve got. I usually have half the album done from the work I’ve compiled and then I force myself to pull the rest out of nowhere. I’m most proud of the diversity in Monstre – all the sounds are different in the song flow and I’m adamant to innovate in the form and harmonic structure. A lot of my creativity springs from frustration in the conflict of who I am and who I want to be. Having grown up in Japan, everything is different culturally, and as I gained new friends and acquaintances here I noticed different frames of reference that led me to question my values. I’ve had to change habits to cope and wanting to be a full-time musician allows me to observe these differences, without having to put on a “work face” as many people do. Really, I’m just a work-in-progress.
Noise: What do you call your type of music? Singer-songwriter? Electronica? Quirky avant-garde?
Courtney: That’s funny – I never ever think of that as a whole – it’s just dreamy songs!
Noise: Now that teaching is a vocation, how do you introduce music to your students? Do you first show the mechanics and then encourage them towards originality?
Courtney: It always depends on the student. Some kids are there because their parents make them and some special ones really take to it to heart. I encourage them to find their personal potential to unlock different parts of their lives, in their feelings and communication with others. Especially with my vocal students, the only thing holding them back is themselves. Singing is a very vulnerable and personal activity, so the connection between that and speech is an emotional one. People forget that and clam up. With my keyboard students, the mechanics are an essential tool. Not everyone is going to be a musician, so I know it’s important to learn fingerings and be able to read. The basic thing is to play music as a valuable part of one’s life.
Noise: Your cutting edge tunes stretch into an avant-garde direction with emotional depth, stylistic resonance, and lyrical imagery. It all feels so fresh and natural, yet well thought out – care to comment. What are you aiming for in your songwriting?
Courtney: A lot of my music just pops into my head – it just happens! I’m always looking to create something both familiar and fresh. I hear something and I immediately want to translate it to the keyboard to help fully realize the song. “Dreams” – from my first album – came to me on a bike ride past B.U., while “Grow Up!” – from the new album – was based on a keyboard riff and chord changes, with their time duration varying between the verses, which also acted as the metaphor for the song’s context.
Noise: Your vocals and their arrangements are amazing. Did you study or are you just gifted?
Courtney: Vocals just happen! Though my lyrics go through editing, I very rarely do that with my vocals. When I was growing up, my dad listened a lot to The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater, Led Zeppelin, etc. and I naturally gravitated towards harmony lines. Though I have perfect pitch, I did study @ Berklee as a voice major and I had to start from scratch. Despite my piano ability, I did loose the joy of singing for a while because I was so focused on the mechanics – learning how to sing higher, sing louder, etc. It was very frustrating. My vocal development has been closely knit to my personal growth. I’m very proud that the vocals on Monstre are much more assured and controlled.
Noise: Both your solo albums were created for the RPM Challenge. Please explain that situation.
Courtney: I was introduced to that through the band Jaggery. It’s a call to musicians to create a certain amount of stuff based on quantity, not necessarily quality – 10 songs or 35 minutes of music – recorded within a month’s framework (usually February). It’s great when you start out with the first four or five tunes, but then you really have to change up your format or songwriting habits. It’s important to get it out and not labor too much over the process. It’s a great creative artistic enterprise. [For more info, check the website www.rpmchallenge.com.]
Noise: Claws of the Beast Inside  is a good introduction to your artistic values and Monstre  nails it! Discuss your production techniques & ability in creating those albums.
Courtney: I used a software program called Reason. It’s modeled after rack synthesizers so it’s a lot more visual with knobs that you tweak and turn. It’s just my keyboard, microphone, and my computer. I used other instruments like violin, melodica, or a toy piano to enhance the textures. At Berklee, I studied composition and production as well as voice and keyboard, so that’s where my interests are truly directed.
Noise: When I was introduced just a few months ago to your tracks on the Secret Dog Brigade sampler, I was immediately floored and bought your albums from your website. Then I had to see you perform, but was surprised to hear only one tune from the newest album. How do you plan incorporating the new material into your solo show?
Courtney: I need to come up with a better looping situation, though I’m a bit hesitant to jump into full-on looping. So much of Monstre relies on textures that I need to set up a better triggering system. It’s something I’m looking forward to developing. When I get back from this tour with Bent Knee at the end of the summer, I can spend much more time on creating that fuller sound.
Noise: Tell me about Bent Knee, a most robust, dramatic, epic outfit – it’s been your main focus for years and you’re about to set out on a lengthy national tour. (Finished by the time this interview is published. – ed.)
Courtney: Bent Knee is an art-rock sextet. I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious – we’re not like a Rush. To me, it’s just progressive rock: forward thinking rock music with diverse influences. We try to be dramatic and dynamic. A lot of the earlier material was co-written with guitarist Ben Levin, but recently the group has become much more collaborative and exciting.
Noise: How will you handle these concurrent careers?
Courtney: Currently, Bent Knee is our bread winning band – with so much time and energy invested in making it work successfully. Right now it’s very tough to balance because I am the front person, as well as booker and organizing administrator, so there’s an endless workload to be tackled. But, since all of the members have their individual projects, we can foresee a time when the band becomes a seasonal effort. My solo act has become a refuge – it allows me to discover who I am in a fresh light. Though I’ve been playing for years, when I did my first solo show last year, I clammed up. Right there, that’s a new sensation.
Noise: Lastly, I cherish seeing new young talent obsessed with artistry in their efforts. I want to meet and listen to performers who pass this progressive torch. Both you and your band have created your own unique haunting style, obviously vowing never to repeat yourself. What are your future plans? Do you have a manager or agent or are you following your instincts?
Courtney: Well, I’m doing everything by myself for my own enjoyment for both situations, not trying to take over the world. My approach has been to love every aspect of the business and learn from each endeavor. So far it’s been working really well and I’m really quite proud.
Noise I hope Monstre wins you a bevy of fans and helps shape the arc of your career.
Courtney: Thanks very much. Everything I do for my solo act makes me feel good about myself.