Music: Out of Border

Ember Swift has been making guerrilla Folk music on her own for the last decade

Jan 19, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Canadian progressive Folk singer/songwriter Ember Swift shuns the corporate music machine in favor of a more self-sustaining, do-it-yourself approach.

On "F.A.Q.," a song from Disarming, her eighth self-released album in the last nine years, Ember Swift runs through a list of questions she hears from her audience at the close of nearly every show she performs. The song is cleverly constructed: Over a Jazzy Folk soundtrack, the first half of "F.A.Q." features the roll call of familiar questions ("Do you have a record out?" "Is this your first time here?" "Is that your real name?"), while the second half of the song offers up the answers, in order, to each question posed.

Perhaps the most telling moment of "F.A.Q." comes at the halfway juncture, when Swift recounts an obviously frequent fan question delivered with a clenched-teeth-throbbing-vein tone in her voice: "Have you heard of Ani DiFranco?"

Although the strained patience in her voice hints at the number of times Swift must actually endure the question, her breezy answer ("Well, hasn't everyone?") reveals the fact that, at some deeper level, she understands and accepts the source of the veiled comparison. Like DiFranco, Swift runs her own label and releases her own material, an eclectic mix of guerrilla Folk, Jazzy Pop and touches of every conceivable type of ethnic music, from Celtic to Middle Eastern to African Juju. And like DiFranco, Swift is a passionate activist who chronicles any number of social and political issues in her lyrics, from global water rights in "H2O" to North America's privileged and arrogant status in "Sucker-Punched." Swift differs from DiFranco in one significant area — she operates slightly further to the north, from her headquarters in Toronto, Ont.

Swift is passionate about everything she is and does: She is gay and rightfully proud; she is fiercely independent in business and in creative spirit; and she is vociferously Canadian. She recounts with glee a recent encounter at the Canadian-American border when she was detained briefly for a search of her equipment truck.

Also in the holding area was a fellow Canadian who was clearly quite conservative and was assuring the American border guards that all Canadians agreed with American policy and were ashamed of their own lack of involvement. She steeled her nerves and spoke up, informing him that, at that moment, he represented only 50 percent of the Canadians in the room and the other 50 percent took issue with his opinions.

"And off we went," says Swift with a laugh. "I'm a very proud Canadian who feels there are differences between Canada and the U.S. It's easy to step onstage or behind a microphone and say, 'This is how I feel,' because there's a division there. It's totally different scenario if you can overcome the inertia that we're taught and step up in a situation like that. I felt really good about myself for standing up."

Swift's independence from the traditional label system is another source of pride. As noted, the diverse and aptly titled Disarming is her eighth album since her eponymous solo acoustic debut in 1996. In the subsequent years, Swift says the major labels showed early interest but have always come to the conclusion that her music is unmarketable to any particular audience at their level and so she has never even entertained an offer.

"I've never been sat down at a boardroom table," says Swift. "I've had some sniffing by the industry around albums two and three. I was told that the music I was making wasn't style-specific, it was too across the map; it was too confrontational politically; it was too experimental. So I was given a back door message that I could either change the way I was doing my music or I could be independent."

Swift is joined in this venture by multi-instrumentalist Lyndell Montgomery, a British Columbian who met Swift after her first album and has been an integral part of her career ever since. Montgomery plays bass primarily (but is skilled on violin and bowed guitar), co-composes with Swift and is her business partner in their label, Few'll Ignite Sound.

"People come up to me after concerts and say, 'Where did you find her? She is unbelievable,' and she is," says Swift. "She is one of those gifted musicians whose whole body makes music. She doesn't just play her instrument, it doesn't just come out of her instrument, it comes out of all of her. I feel really gifted to make music with her."

Although the lifelong Ontario resident is a self-taught guitarist and "mother-taught" vocalist, Swift studied piano at Canada's Royal Conservatory of Music but rejected the classics for her own compositions early on ("I've always been doing this quirky, weird personal stuff ..."). Her penchant for speaking her mind comes from her family's tendency to air their opinions honestly, whether for agreement or dissent.

"It comes from being a global citizen that's paying attention; there's a lot of us out there who are concerned about what's happening," says Swift. "I come from a family of talkers and arguers and debaters, and I grew up always taught to express my opinion and be prepared for it to be contested. Being confident enough to be outspoken was definitely nurtured in me as a child."

All of this adds up to an incredibly diverse artist with little interest in mainstream success or compromise. Swift has found an acceptable level of success on her terms by tirelessly traversing Canada, building an audience in Australia (where she has toured six times), breaking into the American market slowly and finding fans worldwide through her Web site ( While she is never content to rest on the laurels she has received, Swift is happy with her position in life and her musical direction.

"I've heard (Disarming) reviewed as having more space in it," she says. "I think that's probably accurate. I'm paying attention to what I'm not saying as much as to what I am saying. I'm on a journey to grow."

EMBER SWIFT performs an acoustic "storyteller-style" duo show Saturday at Crush.