Swati Sharma doesn’t necessarily love Bruce Springsteen. The
out singer-songwriter may be from the East Coast and sport a jean jacket on her
album cover, but her decision to record the Boss’ "I’m On Fire" for
her debut LP was just a compulsion.
"I got dumped really badly and I had the flu,"
Sharma said. "I was couch-ridden, really depressed and really, really
sick. I’d heard ‘I’m on Fire’ five or six times in my life, and I think I
picked up the guitar and I was almost, not covering it, but playing it because
it was in my head again. I just played it the way I heard it in my head. I
didn’t have a copy or anything like that."
On Sharma’s debut album, Small
Gods, her version of the desire-and-desperation tune sits alongside tales
of picking up prostitutes in Atlantic
City ("Blackjack") and aching to leave
behind a town full of heartbreak ("Dodge"). It’s an album devoid of
boring clichés and repetitive rhymes. Instead, Sharma is more akin to Diane
DiPrima and other Beat poets who weren’t afraid to touch on topics of lust,
greed and emotional abuse.
"I’ve always heard songs in my head," Sharma said. "They just
became so loud that I had no choice but to make it a physical thing."
A New York City
native, Sharma grew up as a classical trombonist who tired of reading and
resuscitating other people’s music. After playing Carnegie
Hall at 18, she made the switch to a 12-string guitar.
"Classical trombone is very contained and it kind of lets your imagination
run wild in a way — what I would be doing if I were not being told exactly what
to play and how loud and how soft," she said. "It kind of made my
imagination grow." Sharma further
developed her skills on the acoustic guitar, and soul-folk songs poured out.
Talking about the sounds or the process, though, is
unbearable for her. "Athletic? Tall?
Blond? I don’t know," she said, laughing as if the idea of describing her
songs were the most ridiculous notion. "How would you describe me as a
person? I don’t know!"
Between discovering her songwriting side and recording Small Gods, Sharma played Lilith Fair
and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, where she stood out with a powerful
set that was also a bit scandalous. (Consider her song "Money," where
she sings, "You want me to get horny? I can f—
myself." Most likely, Sarah McLachlan wasn’t singing along to that tune.)
Songwriters typically focus heavily on love or the loss of it, but on Small Gods Sharma seems
to have other things on her mind. "I
don’t really write many love songs. I haven’t had any so far. It’s more or
less, you know … What are my songs about?" She laughed then continued:
"I kind of look at things in a more inspirational way, like looking at
things as a narrative in a book. I like to look at things from far away."
That her songs are about atypical characters and ideas is even more interesting
when you consider that Sharma also claims that all her songs are
autobiographical. "I don’t make stuff
up," she said. Knowing this adds an intense realism to lines such as:
"Dopamine falling. Stay. ‘Cause I’m freakishly lonely and
if you’re not afraid of freaks tell me your name."
Drugs, sex and Sharma’s raw version of acoustic rock and roll — but despite the subject matter, Sharma doesn’t think her music is dark in any way. Nor is it specifically New York, despite that being the setting for most of her life (and, therefore, her songs).
"New York is very edgy," she said. "I think it’s like my personality type. A lot of people call me dark, but with darkness, the light is brighter. It’s kind of hard to describe, I guess. In a way, if music’s dark, then I see there’s a beautiful light and some imagination to it."
With being so honest, Sharma said she’s lucky she hasn’t gotten into any trouble with exes. "I’m not going to do the real first and last name kind of thing," she said of her personal lyrics. "It’s kind of about karma: I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but if it’s certainly not something I’d say to someone’s face, I’ll just write it in a song and have them hear it and it’ll seriously let them know."