Art & Culture Along the El Camino Real: Travel along the coastal route of the El Camino Real with writer Pedro Arroyo and curator Catherine Trujillo as they explore the rich and diverse cultural and artistic identity of San Luis Obispo County incorporating personal narratives, photography, art, infographics, and sound.
Pedro Arroyo and Catherine J. Trujillo interview her in two of her most treasured environments: her coastal home and her beloved hometown venue the Steynberg Gallery.
One of the Central Coast's most celebrated musicians lives quietly in a traditional coastal bungalow, located just a few blocks away from the historic downtown of San Luis Obispo. Like other craftsman style homes in town, the bungalow is rustically simple in design yet very comfortable. An open door reveals guitars and keyboard sitting amongst a collection of record albums. From the kitchen table, Cerro San Luis, one of the region's peaks is visible in the distance against a characteristically clear and blue sky. Behind the house is a lush garden that serves as a small paradise for San Luis Obispo County native Inga Swearingen, a jazz singer, songwriter and college instructor who fuses jazz, folk music and Swedish traditional folk ballads to create a innovative and intimate sound. Swearingen calls the Central Coast home but her music has taken her from the prestigious stage of the Montreux Jazz Festival where in 2003 she won the Shure Vocal Competition and on numerous national appearances on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion.
She grew up in a home where music was always present. "Both of my parents sing," she explains. "Music was always present at home but in a non-academic and non-traditional way." She was encouraged but was not pressured to pursue music. "I was not interested in going to school and they did not judge me for it." Swearingen's journey toward music took a peculiar route. Growing up on a ranch in rural Atascadero 17 miles north of San Luis Obispo, she decided to give farming a try and began to grow and harvest hops for local brewers. This is how she was discovered the local music scene and musicians on the Central Coast. "Who knew that beer and music were so intertwined," she said laughing. "I'm a terrible beer brewer, but I can grow some good hops."
Although Swearingen always loved singing, it was not until she joined a jazz choir at Cuesta College that she decided she wanted to be a jazz vocalist. This decision and her informal musical education and her family's own Scandinavian roots prove to be a particular source of inspiration and influence for her. As a young child, Swearingen's father, a Cal Poly professor of architecture had accepted a sabbatical to work in Denmark and Sweden and the Swearingen family left the Central Coast for Europe for several years. She became fluent in Swedish and draws on this linguistic and musical tradition in her jazz.
She was drawn to the work of Jan Johannson, a Swedish jazz pianist and composer, who like Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, collected traditional Swedish ballads, later arranging and re-imagining them for piano and small jazz ensembles in the 1960s. Johansson is considered a giant in Scandinavian jazz, but is barely known outside of his native homeland. Swearingen was immediately captivated by Johansson's minimalist arrangements. "I love Swedish music," she said. "We can hear each instrument." In Swearingen's latest recording, First Rain, she covers Visa Från Järna, one of Johansson's minimalist piano pieces. There is a beautiful subtle pattern, which creates a rich minimalist texture in Inga's vocal arrangement of the piece, and like Johansson, she captures a sense of loneliness and nostalgia present in his solo piano work. Inga also draws from more contemporary sources like Swedish/Norwegian jazz quartet Fattigfolket (The Poor People).
Europe Calls Again
In 2003, Swearingen returned to Europe, this time to Switzerland to study with Swiss/Dutch singer and composer Susanne Abbuehl (ECM Records). Swearingen was drawn to Abbuehl's avant-garde and minimalist jazz vocal style caught Swearingen's attention and proved to be a source of significant inspiration. While in Lucerne, she worked with Abbuehl for six months and the experience was transformative. "Susanne taught me so many things. In particular how to exit the form of song and improvise and come back to the song," she explained. "I had no free jazz experience," she added." I learned to find myself in the song." Abbuehl also became a mentor of sorts. "We would go to concerts together, to record shops and to drink a beer," she said. Swearingen also liked Abbuehl's multiple identity as a composer, singer and educator.
A Prairie Home Companion
One of Swearingen's bandmates learned that Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion were coming to perform at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo and subsequently pitched the band's appearance to the show's producer. The producer liked what he heard and the band was invited to appear. At the time Swearingen was living in Florida working on a Masters Degree in Choral directing. After the San Luis Obispo performance, she was invited to play on what would be the first of many appearances on the show. "The show is an institution," Swearingen said. "It's a well oiled machine of very talented people," she continued. What she enjoyed about A Prairie Home, is the spontaneity of the show. "You go in with an idea of where you want to go but you never know the end result. It's kinda like jazz." Traveling with A Prairie Home Companion, Swearingen had the opportunity to perform at Town Hall in New York, Wolf Trap in Virginia and The Berkshires in Massachusetts reaching an audience beyond California's Central Coast. "Garrison is really genuine," she said. "He wants us to reach a wider audience. He has a genuine willingness to help." But the most challenging aspect of being on the show was "my willingness to say yes not to be so attached to outcomes."
Home at the Steynberg Gallery
Despite her travels to Europe, and short stints to Florida, Texas and Arizona, Swearingen has always returned home to the Central Coast. What she has found here is an incredible and supportive arts community. "I found a really nice balance of playing with musicians who challenge me. I can bring new ideas and be vulnerable," she continued. "I feel musically stimulated by this place. However, if I did not have it, I would keep searching. But I never feel isolated here. I feel connected." Her collaborations with Dylan Thomas, a local jazz bassist and Los Angeles-based guitarist Jeff Miley are some of the many musicians she had built relationships with over the last decade, which include musicians close to home -- her sister Britta Swearingen often performs playing a Cajón, a type of Afro-Peruvian drum.
On a recent night, Swearingen was orchestrating an impressive arsenal of equipment and juggling national talent for a gig at the Steynberg Gallery located in San Luis Obispo. The gallery is operated by South African painter Peter Steynberg and his wife Estelle. Steynberg holds a special place in Swearingen's heart -- a place where she has often plays to sold-out crowds. The small and intimate setting of the gallery offers audience members an opportunity to see Swearingen perform live and to interact with her. Joining Swearingen for the evening's performance are Sante Fe-based Round Mountain, a band composed of siblings Char and Robby Rothchild. They are a two-man world orchestra who play guitar, muted trumpet, the African Kora and a host of percussion instruments, sometimes simultaneously. Also on the bill was Los Angeles-based singer-composer Moira Smiley, one of Swearingen's frequent collaborators. The show was set to start at 8:00 p.m. yet guests start arriving at 5:15 p.m. staking out their seats early in the midst of the soundcheck. Sitting in the audience, a man sipping tea who jovially shared his reason for his early arrival, "You put Inga's name down on a ticket and people just go nuts. They sell out fast and prime seats get snatched right away." Coordinating the soundcheck, Swearingen was often interrupted by early-arriving fans. She greets them with a Namaste hand gesture, graceful and patient and happy to be home amongst friends and family.
The Steynberg Gallery is a true folk club and creative incubator on the Central Coast for musicians. Last November, Swearingen hosted a benefit concert for the gallery, which was suffering from some economic setbacks related to new city-imposed regulations for occupancy. In a passionate Facebook message Swearingen explains her reason behind the benefit, "Café Musique I are doing a show together to help the gallery with unexpected expenses. We all know how tough the current economic climate is, and we simply felt that it was an opportunity for us to give back to Peter and Estelle for all they have done for us and the community. That's all it is, giving back."