The Atypical Songwriting of Swati Sharma


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

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."


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