Part 1: Vocal virtuoso Veronica Swift unpacks her colourful career from touring since the age of nine to releasing her most recent album, This Bitter Earth

Veronica Swift is widely regarded as one of the most powerful young vocalists and masterful interpreters not just on the New York scene, but internationally. And while she’s already made a significant mark on the global jazz scene, you’d be deaf to consider the 27-year-old merely a jazz singer. 

Rather a master interpreter of multiple genres, Swift is a vocal virtuoso with a rainbow of colours to her voice, only ever selecting the perfect shade to paint a picture that most convincingly communicates a story. 

Sometimes she’s a scat singer with a command of the jazz and bebop (a complex style of jazz) language first (and last) seen in greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Other times she inserts her voice amongst horn sections, mimicking one so well that she’s almost indistinguishable from horn masters twice her age. Sometimes it’s rock, sometimes it’s classical opera, sometimes it’s metal, but regardless of whatever she takes on, it’s always true to the art and entirely original. 

Daughter to the now-late but forever great bebop pianist Hod O’Brien, and vocalese innovator and songwriter Stephanie Nakasian, Swift is the best parts of both parents, having absorbed their teachings by osmosis since she can remember. 

“My father moved to New York when he was younger than me. He played with Art Farmer (jazz trumpeter), Oscar Pettiford (jazz bassist) and Chet Baker (jazz trumpeter and vocalist) and he was one of those guys, you know? He was always practising like eight hours a day — I was always hearing bebop,” she shares her earliest musical memories, “And my mom is an amazing singer, and she got her start with Jon Hendricks (jazz vocal innovator) and she was a vocalese, bebop master, and she wrote great lyrics, so I was just kind of exposed to that,” she elaborates. 

She tells me about being “on the road with mom and dad, watching them do shows and just kind of absorbing it for a long time” and how eventually at the age of nine, her mom had her audition for a professional touring youth jazz band, nailing Annie Ross’s (bebop vocal master) “Twisted”, a song to make many experienced jazz vocalists tremble. “So I toured with that group and really that was the first start in terms of me performing in front of audiences, and I’d sing on the road with mom and dad and that just kind of built from there and through my years of jazz [trumpet and voice] training,” she recalls. 

Having recorded her first professional album, Veronica’s House of Jazz before the age of 10, I am curious about her childhood outside of music, growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I come from a beautiful part of Virginia that just has the most beautiful mountains, and when I close my eyes, that’s what I see when I think of home. That’s what inspires me.” 

Growing up an only child helped develop her creativity in terms of writing and telling stories. “I really had to resort to my own imagination to entertain myself, so I would run all over the farm and just explore,” she recalls with a fond smile, “I’d make little figurine animals and just create whole universes of stories and that influenced my writing… not composing, I mean my screenplays and my musicals — I would say that that had more of an influence than anything in terms of my creativity.”

11-year-old Swift cut her teeth performing at some of New York’s most famous jazz venues like Birdland and Blue Note, before attending the Frost School of Music in Miami. After graduating, she returned to New York, explaining how every gig was a door to a new opportunity, but she attributes placing second at the Thelonius Monk Jazz Vocal Competition in 2015 — which is like obtaining silver at the Olympics — with giving her a significant boost, and eventually seeing her tour with the legendary jazz and classical trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

I ask about an iconic performance of “Cherokee” at Jazz in Marciac (jazz festival in Southern France) alongside Wynton Marlsalis and wonder about feeling intimidated as a young musician playing with the greats, “The nervousness and the intimidation doesn’t come. There’s really no room for that on stage in my experience, that’s in rehearsals,” she says before elaborating, “This Marciac show was a chance for me to really get to know him. I mean he’s on such a pedestal for all of us [and] in rehearsal he could tell I was nervous, like he was sitting right next to me, so him saying, ‘You’re one of us. This is your language, we have much to learn from you too,’ that was more of an affirming moment in my career.”

Swift’s journey as a student of music comes full circle in her newly released album This Bitter Earth, her second album with Mack Avenue Records, as she re-arranges and reinterprets a carefully curated compilation of jazz standards, musical theatre classics, and contemporary rock titles to comment on the state of good and bad in the world today. 

Check out Part 2, as I unpack This Bitter Earth.

Header image courtesy of Matt Baker.