Dec 16, 2019 • 37M

"You have to do it, like you have to do it all the time. That's the only way your thing is gonna take off."

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Purists may whine that the best days of music are behind us, that capital “M” music has seen its peak and is no longer relevant. But here at Play It Like It's Music we believe the opposite: not only is the act of musicmaking an essential life skill with a lineage stretching back to the beginnings of human history, but the vocation of the professional musician is more vital today than it ever has been. Once a month, join musician, songwriter and producer Trevor Exter as he drops in on working musicians from every genre.
Episode details

004 Mazz Swift

Photo by  Nisha Sondhe

Photo by Nisha Sondhe


[INTRO] You're listening to Play It Like Its Music. Exploring the lives and craft of the people who play. Today we feature Mazz Swift.  She's one-of-a-kind: plays, sings writes and performs with total fire. I'm proud to call her friend. She's been a member of Burnt Sugar, Brazz Tree, she's got her own band called MazzMuse and she also plays in a string trio called Hear In Now. Let's jump in.

TREVOR EXTER: State your name and instrument

MAZZ SWIFT: Mazz Swift. I'm a violinist and singer.

TE:  How have you been today?

MS: Today was a day of alternating between catatonia - is that a word? Catatonic state and flustered and flurried activity. I had a meeting, so that was good and important. I was able to make it a phone call instead of actually going there so that made everything a lot easier for the day.  I don't know, I'm alright.

TE: Well. It's really good to be here talking to you. Why do you play music?

MS:  Because it's the only thing I know how to do. I wanted to, I had a really strong idea that it was what I was meant to do, when I was very young before I had reservations about things. And I chased it down and then when the reservation started to set in, and the self-doubt and everything, it was plenty of my life spent thinking I was not ever going to be good enough to be professional musician. But I always came back to it eventually. I do it because I have been doing it, and I really actually do love it.

TE: I just want to ask you: in the very beginning, let's go to the very first time you knew that you were hearing music ()as a little person) and then the first time you touched the musical instrument. Can you tell me about those moments?

MS:  Wow. I I remember being aware of music, I guess... you know my parents always listened to it. They were like real lovers of it, so it's just always been around. I think part of my history and story as a violinist has been like me hearing this thing and being like "what's that" and they're like "that's a violin" and I'm like "oh, that's what I do" [laughs] like. And they were like "Oh, what?"  "A violinist plays the violin, right?  "Yeah..."  "so I'm a violinist!"
So they were like "I guess we'll get you a violin eventually."

TE: So no aspirational anything, just recognition? Like oh, that's what it's going to be, not even "what it's going to be" like that's what it is already?

MS: Yeah so "I'm a violinist right now, without my violin or knowing how to actually hold one or play one or anything.

TE: How long did it take you to actually get your hands on one?

MS: I think it was a couple years. It was definitely a couple years from me saying that and from it actually happening. I think they wanted to see if I was serious, then I went around telling everybody I was a violinist.

TE: Wow so you really did an end run around the whole process didn't you?

MS: [laughs] Something. So that happened, but I feel like I have memories as far as the first time I played an instrument. I have two older sisters and one younger and my two oldest sisters were in the public school system, as was I - and my younger sister eventually - but at that time when we grew up in the projects in Queens, in Long Island City, the local elementary school had a music program. And they had recorders! They gave people plastic recorders, and they got to play these things.  I think I played my sister's recorders more than they did. Just to make sound. I really liked it.  It was something that just happened quickly and easily. And also the piano. My parents had a piano and my sister practiced piano.  So between the recorder and the piano... I feel like one of those was the first instrument I played.

TE: And then violin came around.. And then we're you like one of those annoying kids that was just good right away?

MS: ...

TE:  Guilty as charged!

MS: [laughs] The future looked so bright!

TE: What age was that?

MS: Six. So I'm late.

TE: Yeah no that's super late.  I mean I started when I was seven, and you know it took me a while after that. Still taking some time, but let me skip forward. What was the first paying gig you did, like the first time playing for money?

MS: Well first time playing for money was in the subway, but the first paying gig was with Alexis Hightower, who is a singer-songwriter. She saw me playing in Washington Square Park and came up to me and asked me if I'd like to go with her band to Spain.  And I had never been out of the country - for music anyway - and and I didn't even have a passport. I got a passport and yeah, that was like my first gig.  But the very first gig was like a trial run kind of thing with her at Joe's Pub, so yeah, I started at Joe's Pub.

TE: At this point you were how old?

MS: Uh I was it was 2000 I think so I was like 29 or 30 something like that.

TE:  Were you doing other jobs in your 20s to pay rent?

MS: Yes. I worked in a body piercing shop and tattoo, and then I left New York and lived on a farm for a couple years. It was an artist sort of commune.  I actually quit violin for a couple years during the time before I left New York, and then when I went back to New York is when I picked up the violin again, so but yeah, and I was on that farm. And then when I came back I was working in a mom-and-pop shop, like a office supplies shop as the buyer.

TE: So you're like a legitimate adult, you're not like...

MS: I was an Actual adult. [laughs]

TE:  I didn't mean that in a derogatory way, but there's people that just start working in music right away, and then they never know how to do normal people things. And you're not one of those people.

MS: Right yeah, I mean yeah, that was yeah. I hated it, but I did it.

TE: Yeah. I hear you there. Do you want play something?

MS: Sure.

TE: Let's see what we got. Now that we're not in the subway anymore, and we've done the road and we've done Carnegie Hall what do we got? Mazz what do you got? [looks at violin] I hate that you have bass strings on your violin that pisses me off! Is this the Mark Wood, right, the Viper?

MS: Yes. I shall never call it a flying-V fiddle.

TE: The not-flying-V-not-fiddle.

[Mazz plays]

Nice. I know you got some classical in your backgroun. At what point did you start improvising, was it right away, or did you have to be given permission or learn how to do that or something?

MS: Permission and time! You know I had a boyfriend at Juilliard who was a violinist also and really into the idea of improvising. He wasn't very good at it per se but he was free, so it helped him.  You know he didn't have that fear that a lot of people have so it was interesting to me. He was actually roommates with Dave Eggar, who you know is killing...

TE: We're going to talk to Dave also.

MS: So yeah, I always really admired Dave for that too. So I thought about it, and then I tried it once and it sounded terrible of course, so I never did it again. Which is the classical musician's approach to improv. But no, I didn't really get into improvisation until I went to that farm and lived on the farm.
Part of their philosophy was improvisation and that was a revelation actually.

TE:  What about this farm, what happened at the farm?

MS: What happened at the farm... That's a great title for my bio. "What happened at the farm...." It was, they had this whole philosophical component about trying to create a new kind of culture and, like -what's the word - prototype it for the world? You know, one that was based on collaboration and not competition and pure honesty and life artistry, like even down to the guy who sweeps the floors makes it an art of, you know... So everybody has purpose and meaning and value.

TE: Was this a religious place?

MS:  No, but it was very dogmatic and -

TE: it wasn't the Amish either?

MS:  And it was not the Amish, but it was cool because I got a lot of skills: not just physically being able to do things like learning how to do things with my hands, and I worked with goats. I was a goatherd for a large portion of that time. It was amazing. I freaking love goats. Goats are awesome. They're little assholes. Like me, but I get to be the boss asshole.
So we get along just fine. No, but I learned a lot of stuff, and I learned a lot about, you know, kind of my attitude toward life actually affecting my life. Which sounds kind of like something that you might know, but I kind of didn't. And so I learned a lot about that and was able to sort of take more control of my life because of it.  I'm sure of that.
So the farm itself was weird. It had all these high ideals, and they didn't really put a lot of them into practice, and it was not a fair place, and it was not a friendly place in a lot of ways and a lot of shit went down that's just like ridiculous and bordering on truly horrible. Like awful.  But at the same time I got a lot out of it and kind of really became... I feel like that's where I really became an adult in a way, like responsible for my own actions, even though I was like, you know 23 years old. 24 at that point, but I became aware of the responsibility.

TE: I know some people who've had some weird experiences moving into... I mean there's like any number of alternative model communities around the world.  Some friends of mine moved to the desert in Arizona. Some Buddhist thing, and some people died... Like it was rough. You know, and then we got Jonestown as well... Like there's all kinds. There's all kinds.
Oh, yeah, so that's another thing we have in common. Because I wasn't really gigging seriously until, you know around 30 and after 30. So okay. Cool. Let's start a society.  We'll model it.  [both laugh]
Goats are big improvisers right?

MS:  They are, but they're also very predictable. They're awesome, I have to say. Go back to goats. [laughing[ Whenever think about them, I think about just how jerky they are, how they'll just like kick your shit over. Just just to do it. They're little assholes. Anyway....
But yeah, they had a band on the farm.

TE: Goat band?

MS: Yeah, a goat band. Right. Alright. Um yeah, so that's where I started trying out improv.  And I think the difference was in my mind improvisation had to do with jazz. Like you couldn't separate the two. I couldn't separate the two in my thinking, so what sounded terrible to me was that I didn't sound like a jazz musician, you know? Like I didn't have the accent, so to speak

TE: You didn't have a wealth of cliches.

MS: [laughing] Again, no comment. Haha yeah, but I also I didn't have the vocabulary. I just didn't have like you know, I didn't have the harmonic understanding of a jazz musician. I'd never been... You know I had been exposed to it a lot, but I had not studied it. And then when I realized you had to study it, then I really just ran the other way because I was tired of studying. But yeah, so on the farm what was cool about it was that they were improvising rock songs. You know they were just like people who played Rock in previous bands and so that's was less intimidating to me. And then I could just kind of put my sound on top of it.
I started experimenting with electric violin and effects and things, and then it just went to a whole other level when I met Greg Tate, and he put me into burnt sugar. And I feel like, if being "born" as a musician was Burnt Sugar, then living on that farm was like the gestation period, you know? Like I just started, it started happening, and then it really started happening, .

TE: You have a way of improvising with just.... Wherever it starts it always goes somewhere. And like there's just a pure imagination that takes hold. I've seen you play in a bunch of different settings, and that thing is always there. Where it's like, wherever you are... At some point it becomes a Mazz thing. And it always fits too, so it's not like you lose your mind while you're playing, but there's definitely a freedom that you have that... I'm curious: was there a point where you started feeling free, are you still waiting to feel free, or what's your relationship to Freedom when you're playing?

MS:  Wow. I think that it's a lot like meditation when people say "I'm not good at meditation", but there's no such thing. You know it's just like whether or not you can like sit still and be okay with all the shit running around in your brain.
I feel very free in it, and I feel very... It was the greatest education being part of Burnt Sugar to be honest. Like I think that's really where... It was a profound sense of safety and value. Like everything, it didn't matter what I put out. It was  valued and part of a really important thing that was happening. So maybe that's what gives me the confidence now.
I feel like that was an experience that like really went inside me on a cellular level. So now I still have shit running through my brain, like just now I was "oh, I think I just did that slide for the gazillionth time, but it feels so good to play it, but then I listen back later, and I think that sounds terrible, and I should stop doing it..." Like I have those thoughts, but really they're so small and they're so... Like they don't have any effect actually on what I'm doing.
I don't think you know.

TE: There's a strident flavor, which as a cello player I associate that with violinists and I don't generally like it, but if someone does get up with the right attitude, and they're like "I'm doing this. I'm saying this", and yeah, it's like whatever. You start in the Brahms concerto. I get it.  You know, so I have a stereotype about violin players that does that.
 You definitely bring a violinistic, strident tone, but you do stuff with it that no other violinist does. But I know creative violinists and a lot of them kind of abandoned the stridency. So like if you know fiddlers... fiddlers will fall back on their fiddle chops. Classical people will fall back on their classical chops if they're feeling like they need to prove themselves they'll fall back on something familiar. And you have all that stuff in your chops too, but I never get the sense that you're falling back on something.

MS: That's really cool. That's very cool. Because I don't think that I am although I do think there are licks that I play, like certain patterns that my fingers fall in all the time - which drives me crazy because I'd love to just do something unexpected to myself, but I think the 100% goal is making something cool.  Like I want to say "self-expression", but it's so corny. But I really feel like the most important thing to me is just putting out some music that I like. That feels good to do, that hopefully other people like. There's nothing unique about that statement whatsoever, but that's what I'm thinking about rather than trying to think of licks and things like that.
So what do you think that [I'm asking you questions now.] What do you think improvisation as a musical tool or style or genre serves?

TE: I don't know. I don't even consider myself that much of an improviser. Like I don't "blow" on the cello, which is why I asked you that stuff. Because you really blaze on the violin. And I know people who really improvise. I compose things, I'm more of a producer and a songwriter than I am an improviser. So I'm always thinking of doing something that I can repeat. Like I'm trying to build a little structure, that I can maybe build a vehicle for myself. So I write a song in terms of "I want to take this to another place". So I build it ahead of time, make prototypes or whatever, and then I test it out and then at some point I have a song that I know I can bring places. But there's a lot of advanced planning that goes into that and construction. It's not an improv. It's not an improvisation. So in that phase I might improvise to come up with stuff, but if I come up with something I like I'm going to work with that thing and compose with that.
And it's really rare that I'm improvising on a stage. So yeah, that's one of the things about you that blows me away: it's like you've just got the improvising thing, like you will tell a Story. Like if you give Mazz the spotlight she's going to do something with it. If you give me the spotlight I'm going to take a minute to get used to the, you know -

MS: You'll be grumpy about it!

TE: - yeah, well not necessarily grumpy, but definitely... I'm going to have to get my bearings you know? And then by the time I've gotten my bearings usually people have moved on. So I never really... You know the improvising thing never took off.  I'm always dreaming that someday it will but...

MS: I think it will, but you have to do it. You have to do it, like you have to do it all the time. That's the only way your thing is gonna take off. I think you have a lot of potential that way. I can't wait to see it.

TE: Thanks.

MS: It always surprises me when you say you're not too much of an improviser because I think of you as a complete musician, and I think that yeah, I know that you would be so tasty once you just get comfortable with it.

TE: I think for me, just personally, I have a thing with improvising where at some point my reach exceeds my theoretical and technical grasp too much. You know you should always be playing a little bit beyond your abilities - just to keep that fire burning - but I always tend to just go off the rails a little bit. And then I get lost. So I've had plenty of great moments improvising on stage, it's not like that has never happened for me, but in terms of my feeling like an improviser... I feel like until I know more of the functional harmony, you know, ins and outs and voice leading and things like that, and then just knowing how to keep track of my motivic development and formal like like ....

MS: Do you think I have any grasp of any of that shit? I don't even know what that means!

TE: Right right right so, but there's that side of the thing and then if there's other people who I dig who just have that fire burning, and it's like coming out of them, and they're not keeping track of Jack. You know they're just playing and it's working... I've never really been one of those people.  So I'm like, in terms of being "cultivated" as hell, I'm not them. And I'm also not burning it up in that way. I categorize you as a burner and it works great. So you don't need the other stuff.

MS: I do want more of it to be honest, but I know I don't have the... I don't want it enough to like do the work that it takes to get all of that. I admire it when people do, and I kind of use it to beat myself up.... I don't do it, but part of me feels like I really just want to play music. I don't want to study it anymore, and I want it to come out the way that it comes out as me, so.

TE: You play your ass off, and you work your ass off. Like you're legit, So speaking of work that you don't do tell me about practicing. Does it happen, how does it happen? Why and when and where and what?

MS: Um usually it happens because I have a specific thing coming up that I want to prepare for. So I just did a solo show and I had to put a set together.  I was thinking about just going out and just improvising the entire show, but then I felt like well, maybe just have a couple of outlines. Like that thing that I just played is something that's been a blueprint that I've had for a long time that I... That is different every time I play it, so I'll get something together for that reason.
I practice a lot of, like when I have a classical concert I practice a lot for that because it's something that you just, it just requires so much freaking time.

TE: Do you do a lot of classical gigs?

MS:  Um not a ton, but I do at least one a year because I play in a string quartet. So well, I play for a chamber music organization that always has a string quartet concert in their series every year, and I'm always part of that quartet, so -

TE:  I want to go to it. Which one is it and where?

MS: Ha ha, it just happened.


So yeas, the practicing happens less as a thing to like just become a better instrumentalist and more to make sure I'm prepared for this next concert, so I'm basically playing to the test.

TE: Right, and you've played through some good tests, like you don't get into Juilliard by accident do you?
MS: You don't get into Julliard by accident it turns out,. [laughs]
TE:  So there was a time when you were like heavily practicing?
MS:  There was yeah, I feel like. Yeah, I mean definitely. I feel like I didn't practice as much as my counterparts - all the other people that were there - and honestly I feel like I mostly got into Juilliard because of my orchestral audition.  I had a fine solo audition, but I had a lot of experience in an orchestra and the stuff that they gave me to sightread I had actually played already as second violin. They gave me first violin parts, but they always give you like some sight reading thing and that was very strong because I knew the music and I had been exposed to it, and music sticks in my head forever. So like even if it's something that my parents particularly liked, I think that was one of the pieces that I had to play. That was just like it came to me very quickly so I had a very good orchestra audition. Better than the solo thing I think. And I'm pretty sure that's why I got in anyway.

TE: So what should a newer player avoid completely?

MS: God I don't know. I was gonna say having sex with your bandmates?! [laughs] I think that's probably something to avoid, huh. What to avoid, I don't know. But what I tell people to do is - and I think I've actually heard somebody say this to you already, but say yes to everything. Like literally say yes to everything. And then learn how to say no because here I am like, seventeen years later still saying yes to everything and  just realizing that you you can't go forever, but like if you want - when you're getting started that's the most important thing. Like fuck all that stuff like "oh, I don't know if I'm good enough" or "I don't think I can do this yet," or that yet, or "I'm not ready" or any of that.
Just do it. Just do it.

TE: That's good. I can use that. Mazz Swift, thank you so much for talking to us.

MS: Thank you Trevor Exter.

TE: Alright over and out. That was killer.

[OUTRO] That was Mazz Swift. Violinist, composer, singer, bandleader, raconteur... raconteuress? Recountationist? No idea. And general force of nature. Thanks to Mazz for her time, and for being and doing all those things. You can find her at MazzMuse dot com.  Her Twitter and Instagram handle is MazzMuse, and you can also buy her record.  This record underneath me right now. Go buy it.  I did.

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