Scrooged: An Interview with Lady Lazarus

Inspired by the 1988 Bill Murray movie of the same name, we bring you the second in a series of interviews called Scrooged.


130-BPM: Talk about how long you’ve been playing piano and writing songs, as well as how you got into it.

Lady Lazarus (Melissa Ann Sweat): I really didn’t play any music growing up. The first time I sang was for an eighth-grade play that I had a small singing part in.

What was the play?

It was Oliver! And yeah, I had a singing part, I mean, I think I had the sneaking suspicion that I could sing, but I was pretty shy… very shy. Well, not very, but shy

Shy enough to not sing in public?

Yeah, I just wasn’t the type of kid who was like “sign me up for performing arts.” I was a creative kid, I liked to draw and write, but I never saw myself doing performing arts even though it might have been something I wanted to do. Then three years ago I started this music project. I didn’t really start it with great aspirations, but I’m kind of a project completion person and I wanted to make it a well-rounded thing. So I was like “I’m writing songs, might as well throw them up on MySpace and call it something.”

So yeah, it was like 2007 and I bought a keyboard, like a used Casiotone on Craigslist, not a full-sized keyboard. It was sitting around and I would play on it a little bit, stuff that was really electronic-sounding. The one I have now sounds more like an actual piano, or I like it to. Then I moved to San Francisco in 2008 and just immediately started writing lyrics to the music I was creating and it was simple, I mean, I recognize it as pretty simple. They were not complicated songs, but I recognized a growth from the early songs ’til now.

Talk about some of your non-musical influences. Sylvia Plath comes up when I Google Lady Lazarus. Is that the obvious reference point?

Yeah… yeah, it is… I took the name from the poem by Sylvia Plath. I relate to the poem, with the struggle. I mean, it’s a poem about suicide, which is pretty intense.

I read The Bell Jar a couple years back, but that is the whole of my Plath experience, but your music doesn’t sound that dark, it’s almost uplifting.

Thanks! Yeah, I appreciate that. Well, it’s funny because I think that some people read it as being depressing… one description called it a “suicidal Karen Carpenter” or haunting, but I think you’re right and I’m glad you picked up on that, I think it’s more existential in away? It’s not necessarily wired in darkness or wired in happy, golden-sunshine times, but I’m very conscious of the spirit of it and there is a bit of positivity. I guess I try to have real feelings so it’s not going to be totally one way or the other.

I’m glad you said existential. When I wrote the review I brought that up… there was the song with the line ‘who’s gonna say it but me?’ which I found very existential. It was empowering in the loneliness, because you are in it by yourself.

Yeah… Yeah! You’re exactly right. One of the themes that I realized was coming up… my writing style is very much in-the-moment and a lot of times I have to figure out where I’m coming from, which is nice because it helps me figure out what I’m feeling.

One thing I realized is there is a lot about solitude and a lot about the creative process and being a creative person alone and making something. I think that line that you brought up from “The Eye In The Eye Of The Storm” touches on that because if you’re having these feelings, no one is going to express it but you. It’s almost an obligation to sing it, think it, write it, speak it, and get it out there. I believe in that.

For me, being a person who writes about music all day, live concerts were probably my inspiration for getting into this… that feeling of being overwhelmed with live music. Did you have this same experience and do you have any early concert memories that stand out?

I guess in high school I started to get into more indie music, but I hadn’t been to a real concert until I was like 16.

That was about the same age for me.

Well, I think we saw Raffi when I was a kid.

I guess the first one speaks to my alternative-rock upbringing. I went to Live105, which is a Bay Area radio station..they do a Not So Silent Night…

They do KROQ Acoustic Christmas down here

Totally, same concept. Yeah, that was my first show and it was a blast!

What year was it?

Oh my god! I don’t know, whenever I was 16, like ’98? And I wasn’t a punk kid or anything… I don’t even know, I was just a kid, I wasn’t like super-hip or anything.

Who played the Not So Silent Night in ’98?

Blink-182 and Filter!

I was really into Filter! I liked Filter!

Totally. I like that “take your picture” song.

OH MY GOD YEAH! That’s what they played! And I was like “Oh, this is amazing.” It was really intense, too. Filter was one of the first bands up and I was this 16-year old girl. There were all these older dudes there and it got kind of rowdy and I remember feeling a little overwhelmed and a little scared, but then, and this is the funny thing, towards the end I was having a blast, I wasn’t drinking or anything, just pure youthful bliss, I looked slightly punkish but more like Hot Topic-punk. Yeah, so by the end of the night I was crowd surfing to Blink-182 and being pushed towards the stage. I crowd-surfed like 3 or 4 times.

I’m going to relate to you for a moment, because when I was 16, I went to a KROQ Acoustic Christmas, and I always like to tell people about this show because the lineup was so ridiculous. Portishead was like the third band on and after was all the typical alternative crap. 311 played and Live and Green Day. Then the headliner was David Bowie. And like, at the time it was like “cool, I’m seeing David Bowie, this isn’t weird” but now 13 years later, I’m like “I totally should have reveled in that David Bowie moment more.” I did not realize how special that was at the time.

I totally hear you! I had a similar experience because we started going to the Bridge School Benefit, I don’t know if you know that…

Yeah, I’ve been once. I saw The Who there.

Well, we started going to those in late-high school. And one of the first artists, besides Neil Young who I had grown-up listening to, that I saw that I really liked a lot was Tom Waits.

Dude, I was there! I was totally there, with The Who and Green Day!

Yeah! I think he had a megaphone.

It was nuts, it was totally nuts.

And he was doing his thing, but I didn’t know Tom Waits much at all at that point. And now he’s one of my favorite musicians.

Yeah, I’d kill to go back to that moment and enjoy Tom Waits. I was in the same boat, totally didn’t appreciate how rare or special that was. Do you remember Brian Wilson played that show, too?

Yeah, same thing!

Brian Wilson pissed me off, though. The way he kept ordering us around, to clap and stand-up and participate. I was like “don’t tell me what to do! I’m relaxing!” I still hold a grudge against Brian Wilson to this day.

Only Brian Wilson could do that.


Is Lady Lazarus as a name a clever ploy to be next to Lady Gaga and Lady Antebellum alphabetically?

Totally! No, no, not at all. It’s funny that more people haven’t asked me about the Lady Gaga… uh… similarity in our name? It’s funny, though, because when I named my project I really didn’t know who Lady Gaga was, she might have been known in some circles but hadn’t totally blown-up yet. But yeah, in March of 2008 I didn’t know Lady Gaga, and had I… I probably wouldn’t have named… no that sounds weird… I really like the name Lady Lazarus and I’m glad I didn’t know about Lady Gaga because I might have had reservations about using that name.

But I like Lady Gaga, I mean, I’m interested in her. I don’t, like, listen to her music all the time.

You are like the rest of us. We like to keep our distance but we’re kind of curious. Your name is also similar to Ladytron. I listened to more Ladytron because of you as a result of their album coming on directly after yours and being a pretty good change of pace.

Not to pull too much behind the curtain, but you sort of came to me directly with your record. Is that how you have been operating? I saw Pitchfork reviewed Mantic and Stereogum has given you attention… Those are pretty big names. Did they find you or has this just been your thing of trying to get your name out there and it’s been working.

As I mentioned before, I’m a project completion person. So I wanted to make an EP and had done a little bit of marketing in my career background, so I thought I would send the EP to some reviewers when it was done and see what they thought… and a few publications actually reviewed the album and I was like “wow,” I couldn’t believe anyone would actually want to give what I was doing some thought. Not that I hadn’t thought it was worth it…

No for sure, and it is rare… I mean, again pulling behind the curtain, but we get a lot of people asking us to review stuff and we have to sift through it to find good stuff… and I honestly don’t know why I ended up paying attention to yours, well, I mean I liked that it was personalized and the reference points you mentioned were artists that I like.

Yeah, it’s hard to get it to people’s ears. That’s the struggle, really.

For the release of the album, I’m pretty much running the show. I’m not on a label, it’s my own made-up label. It’s self-funded and self-produced, and I wanted to promote it myself again. One of my friends gave me The Indie Bible and I sent out like a hundred copies of the cd and a bunch of emails. But I wasn’t getting much of a response and I thought ‘I really believe in this album as an album and as an artistic endeavor… ‘ I just didn’t want it to get lost. I was really motivated to get it out, so I was like maybe I should hire a PR person. The first one didn’t really work out but I’m very happy with the one I have now. And that helped with the Stereogum piece but with Pitchfork, the story is told in the review by Brian (Howe) and that’s the true story…

I… I didn’t… I mean, I try not to read other reviews before I review it, so I didn’t read to be honest.

Oh! Well, ok then, I’ll give you the rundown.

I mean, I saw the score. But, it’s like when you read someone else’s opinions, you can’t tell if your own opinions are your own anymore. I don’t know if you’d agree with that…

Totally true, that’s totally true. How Pitchfork came to hear about my project was I set out to write a full album in November 2009. And about half-way through that process, in January and February, my brother was listening to my songs on Myspace and he was like “woah, I like what you are doing here.” And he took it upon himself to email Brian Howe of Pitchfork and was like “recommended if you like Beach House.” Like, me and my brother don’t have any music business connections and it was just an amazing thing that Brian wanted to investigate it. And liked it. That was crazy for me because it was one of the biggest profile reviews I have gotten, because Brian continued to be interested in the project and kept in touch til the album was out. Sorry, I tend to go off.

No, it’s good. The opposite is my worst nightmare.

But yeah, to answer your question, I still do a lot of my PR. I consider myself the manager… and the booker.

Yeah, well, I think more artists should take an interest in that end of the industry. I think it would help them. Especially indie artists, they put a lot of faith and hope in their PR firm, which is good if you have a good PR person. But it’s your art and career and life that you are putting in someone else’s hands.

And that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s the most precious thing to you and it’s your spirit… I’d like to write about it sometime, because it’s a very odd transition making music very intimately in your room and then making it commercial. It’s an odd thing. And even though I’m beginning to like performing more, I think my favorite part of it is being alone or with a friend and… and making music. I try to remind myself of that because there is so much other work that goes into it.

Well, that kind of leads into what I want to get into next, that separation from the music world to having your own space. On the album, the idea of space is something I keep coming to, because there is so much quiet… like with every sound there is a moment of silent reflection, and it’s using space as a tool, like silence is as much of a tool as sound is… and I thought about “The Eye In The Eye Of The Storm,” which is almost the epitome of it, because you have all this chaos around you but this quiet moment within something… um, is that purposeful, am I reading too much into it?

No, you’re not reading too much into it. I think a work of art is open to every interpretation and everyone’s going to bring their individual experience to it. But no, I think you really caught on. As a beginning musician, keeping things very minimal felt right to me. The lyrics and the keyboard, it didn’t feel like it needed embellishment. It felt like it could be powerful by being quiet and I liked that. There’s a lot of music that I listen to thats like that. I don’t think it’s entirely revolutionary, and it’s hard, but I don’t think that music gets enough play.

I’m performing now, and I mean I like to go to rock shows too, but what I’m doing isn’t a rock show. My performances are a little more powerful than the album, which is appropriate. But a lot of people want to go out and have these guitars and loud voice. Some people, like me, sometimes want to go out and see something more quiet and intimate.

But I think you see what I mean, that music like this is easy to pass over because it’s not this bright, shiny, loud thing. But yeah, space might not have been completely conscious when recording, I considered having other instrumentation on the album, but ended up just using voice and keyboard, aside from a few stray touches.

I think it’s the song “Immortal Youth,” what instrument is that. It sounds like plucking of some sort. Me and the Editor In Chief were listening it trying to figure it out yeah, this one.

It’s an African thumb piano, a mbira. A friend of mine had one and I took it with me to the beach one day… I sound like a total hippie. Yeah, I came up with that one pretty spontaneously.

Well it works.


Has the attention you’ve received for Mantic exceeded your expectations and where do you want things to go from here?

For someone new to making music in general and performing, I’m incredibly grateful for the press and the kind words and the thoughtfulness that I’ve received so far, even the criticism, too, because it’s helped me see how someone might not be that into it. I thought that would be one of the hardest things, and it was a little bit at first, like when someone insults you as a person and there is a little sting, but you get over it. But it’s been great because after it stopped bothering me, I was like “cool, now I can take whatever is said and learn from that.” But yeah, I had kind of thought that would be crushing.

As far as my goals, I’m just going to keep on this path and try to create a following with shows. Other things I’m doing now, because I’m into all sorts of art, is I just made a “Sick Child” video and thinking about maybe doing a live video, like a Daytrotter type thing… I’ll probably produce it myself with some local people through the college. I’ve been working with this Austrian artist that I contacted on a whim because I liked her artwork and she is an amazing artist and was interested in making a video for “The Eye In The Eye Of The Storm” and she’s working on that now with the hope to release it in late-February.

But yeah, the plan is to just get Mantic to as many people as possible. I don’t plan on ending the music part of my life any time soon. I’m kind of thinking about making another album, but I don’t have much thought out. I just want to focus on this one.

Ideally, if you could go on tour with somebody, to get good exposure as an opener, who would you choose?

There’s a lot of people… well, I’m gonna pick two… well… gosh… there are a few…

Go ahead and name them all.

Ok. Top 4! Mt. Eerie, Joanna Newsom… I’d want to open for Jullian Lynch. And one of my favorites for a long time has been Bill Callahan.

Or maybe a five-person bill. What an epic tour that would be. Newsom would probably be the headliner… And I guess you’d have Bill Callahan before her… Didn’t they date?

They did!

Well, we probably couldn’t get them on the same stage, then. We’d probably have to have Newsom with The Lonely Island