Monday, August 23, 2010

Glowing Ember

Canadian singer-songwriter Ember Swift (which is, apparently, her real name; did her parents realise they were condemning her to a career on the stage - and a lifetime of punning headlines - when they gave it to her?) has, after a number of visits over the past three or four years, recently come to make her home in China, and has been playing quite a busy gig schedule in the last few months to 'relaunch' her career over here.

A week last Saturday, she was playing in my backyard, at Jiangjinjiu... so I thought I ought to check her out.

Well, she has an amazingly sweet voice - high range, very smooth, very pure, sounds classically trained. Trouble is, it's almost too damned pure; it's not really rock'n'roll. For the kind of songs she was doing that night - or the way she was performing them that night - it would have been good to hear a bit of husk and rasp and raunch.... but she doesn't seem to have that in her repertoire. She's put a superb little band together - awesome Aussie drummer Zac Courtney, laidback bassist Paplus Ntahombaye, and an extremely pretty Chinese girl on erhu - and they really rock; but her voice doesn't. I have a feeling her style is probably far more suited to folksy, acoustic stuff (I've heard raves about the unplugged two-hander she played with Jess Meider at The Bookworm a couple of months back).

On this occasion, I wasn't convinced by the songwriting either. She has some pretty and catchy tunes here and there, but there wasn't any progression in structure, no sense of building excitement. And the lyrics often seemed a bit clunky: mundane or clichéd or struggling against the scansion (but then, most of her songs this time were in Chinese, so I was tuning out for long periods, not really trying to follow songs all the way through - just having my attention snagged by the occasional 'off' line).

She's a very engaging performer, though - poised, relaxed, funny. And she looks to have pretty good Chinese skills: most of her between-songs banter was in Mandarin, and she seemed to be getting genuine we-get-the-joke laughs from the Chinese audience rather than the more usual oh-it's-a-foreigner-trying-to-speak-Chinese embarrassed titters.

I was probably in an excessively curmudgeonly, rather unreceptive mood on this night: feeling ill, exhausted, barely able to keep my eyes open, yearning for an early night (I had, in fact, decided to skip the gig and go home..... until The Choirboy made a last-minute decision to come and join me). So, I may perhaps be failing to give Ms Swift her due. I'll certainly go and check her out again sometime.

[This Jiangjinjiu session was being filmed, but none of it appears to have shown up on the Internet yet. One of the best bits of Ember I could find just now was this experimental jam with another musician (uncredited on that YouTube posting, but one of the commenters below tells me it's Lyndell Montgomery - now pursuing a solo career).]


Anonymous said...

"probably in an excessively curmudgeonly, rather unreceptive mood on this night" <--- might be the most accurate statement in this post!

Peter Benes said...

I saw Ember perform a few years ago at an outdoor festival in my town in Canada, and was blown away by the show. I've been a fan ever since. I realize that her music isn't for everyone, but if you're going to tell people you don't like it, I wish you would have really been able to give it a chance. If you were too tired to be present, why write a critique?

Shala said...
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Steve Baker said...

Stay away from sweet voiced entertainers, or just report on the sweet voice. Being a smart arse doesn't help anyone, especially yourself.

Shala said...

I'm sorry, I'm not sure what to make of your critique, "she has an amazingly sweet voice - high range, very smooth, very pure, sounds classically trained"? Her voice was too good? These aren't negative qualities.

She's not rock and roll enough? Mayhaps, she's not rock and roll at all, she's Ember, she's Swift and she's awesome and can not be pigeonholed by some short sighted critic, who feels that because something wasn't done to please him solely, it has no value. Sounds like everyone else enjoyed the show.

If you had nothing to say, you didn't have to blog about the show, no one required that of you.

Anonymous said...

amazing! i've seen ember swift many times in the states. it was her talent that motivated me to start a venue for independent artists in the midwest.

though i disagree with your opinion, i can understand how your health might have cause you to misjudge.

take an aspirin. learn mandarin. then listen again. i'm sure if you understood the lyrics, you'd appreciate the passionate writer/musician that i have.

Anonymous said...

Ange here: You should have just gone to bed! Ember Swift is one entertainer who I would go watch and listen to, when she is in my neck of the woods and have on many occasions. She has her own sound(s), she experiments with her music, and she delivers energy that is passed on to her audience. Only not to you cause you should have just gone to bed. Next time wake up, open your eyes, clean the wax from your ears and experience Ember with a fresh and open mind, so you can feel the music and really hear her sing

Belle said...

Mate - this is hardly a gig review, and btw, I think you have missed the entire point of the Lentic project.

=Whiskey C. Howl= said...

Haven't seen her since she did a one-niter at the Mansion in Kingston. There's lots of stuff on youtube if the reviewer wants to catch up one previous English language material. About the only comment made so far I would have a slight disagreement with is the necessity to learn a language. (Dead Can Dance anyone?) I think Ember's material could be quite effective if she was singing in a language incomprehensible to anyone else. And she does rock in her own way. This is music that cannot be conveniently pigeonholed as pop, rock, folk or whatever - it's the sort of genre-blending, genre-busting stuff that all artists of any generation are doing - at least the ones that are worth a pinch of raccoon poo. At the risk of sounding harsh, this review sounded like it was by someone only a decade and a half old.

=Whiskey C. Howl=

Froog said...

Ooooh, crazed cult fans!

Tempted to close this thread down, but then again.... it's quite amusing to see what else they might come up with.

Listen up, obsessive admirers, this is a personal response (to one gig!). There is no obligation on anyone else to like her as much as you do.

Moreover, this is on balance a fairly positive assessment: lots of plus points about Ember and her band.

And my reservations - not particularly impressed with her songwriting on first encounter, and don't feel that her (admittedly gorgeous) voice lends itself to a rock'n'roll style - are qualified by an acceptance that I might reassess or warm to her more on subsequent listenings.

But you get all these dingbats behaving as though anything less than 100% adulation/ 5-star rating is some kind of hate crime.

I think Ember - and all serious musicians - would far rather have thoughtful, critical listeners like me in the audience than rabid idolaters like some of these commenters.

Tifa McCarthy said...

Omg, thank you for being so candid on hearing Ember. I have heard her many times throughout the years and I absolutely agree with your critique. I have a friend who was trained in classical opera who attempts to sing with a blues band, and the same discordant thing happens: like Michael Jordan trying to switch sports, these musicians need to stick to their niche.

I have often felt like the kid in 'The Emperor's New Clothes'--women, esp. women in my gay community--idolize Ember for reasons I do not understand and seem oblivious to things like her cliched themes, her airheaded banter about world peace, and her overworked, almost pretentiously complex musical structures.

I grinned and bore it for many years because her former bandmate, Lyndell Montgomery (the artist that was uncredited in the video you posted) was so incredibly talented, it was worth sitting through Ember to see Lyndell. Lyndell is the type of musician where you feel quite certain that she must have sold her soul to play that well. Over time, I came to discover that plenty of Ember 'fans' were really there for the bassist. The band may have been called Ember Swift, but Lyndell was the star. We were there to listen *past* Ember, to hear Lyndell.

I haven't put much effort into listening to Ember's music since Lyndell left and began a solo career; but from every show I've seen (and it's a few), your observations are highly accurate. If you're getting a lot of flak from the world about your review, understand that Ember has posted on Facebook that her fans should lambaste you. There is no "I only went to Ember concerts for Lyndell" facebook group (yet), but know that there are people out there who completely agree with what you wrote.

If your mood was bad to begin with, before you sat to listen to her, there was no hope of it improving. I'm glad to hear that Ember continues to employ fantastic musicians within her posse, but it always makes a little sad to know that they are hidden behind the self-serving band name.

Well done. Thank you for being honest in your review!

China Soap said...

Tifa: ouch.

Just one correction: It's never a band name; it's a songwriter's name. Lyndell never wanted equal billing despite much prodding.
Read her comment here: (scroll down to her bio section).

Thanks for your candid feedback, though. Thanks to all of you!! Especially you, Froog!

It was all meant in good humour. There was no "lambasting" requested of my fans! I post every review: good, bad or indifferent. It IS an amusing debate/dialogue, though!

As an artist, we never insist or expect people to like us. We make the art that feels right. We follow our muse, our hearts, our creative magnets. Who knows if people will like it or want to hear more? The trick is to get to a place in our lives and our careers when it's irrelevant whether people like it or don't. Please know, Froog, that I appreciate your opinion, period!

Once again, thanks to everyone for their honesty.

All the best,

China Soap said...

P.S. I have no formal classical vocal training... but thanks for the compliment!

Shala said...

I'm glad Ember spoke up in regards to Tifa's comments, because there were some pretty harsh and extreme statements. But I just feel the need to comment on the issue of "rabidness" on the part of fans.

Personally I adore Ember, I think she's a great musician and thru the interactions I've had with her, I know she's also a very authentic and warm person, who marches to the beat of her own drummer, something I respect very much.

And I think most of her fans probably share this trait and love seeing that reflection in her, which is kinda why I take exception to the idea that I posted a comment because Ember "told me to", or that people went to see Ember just to get close to Lyndell or love her because they are queer identified.

These comments are overly simplistic and demeaning to me, Lyndell and Ember, and anyone else who is being painted with this brush.

In fact I think that's what annoyed me most about this "review" and why I responded to this one and not the dozens of others Ember has posted.

If things that are complicated or complex makes your brain hurt, more's the pity for you, but they invigorate me and I feel it's that kinda need to simplify the messiness of life that is weaving this hand basket that so many are piling in for their slow and steady descent to mediocre crappiness.

And after all this, I might have to post some stuff in my own blog *laugh*

Lynda Marie said...

I just saw all of this after a very long day, and it strikes me that people write and say some pretty unnecessary and unkind things about each other. It's as if sometimes we forget that the person we're talking about is just that - a person. How would you feel if this were about you?

Let us not forget that in her writing, Ember makes herself vulnerable to all of us when she sings about her life and her experience. For this, she deserves, at the very least, our respect, even if some of us might not enjoy her particular style. I love her music myself, but that's me. If I didn't love it, I don't think I'd say hateful things about her. I'd probably just say nothing at all. I don't have time to write nasty things about everyone I don't like, and there are too many I do like to waste my energy.

I write my own music, and I would be crushed if I read that people had come to my gig to sit through me to hear someone else, or that they thought my voice was not suited to my songs, or, heaven forbid, to mock my name for condemning me to any sort of life I might not have chosen for myself. Writing music and sharing it with strangers, and getting on a stage - it's personal, and it means opening oneself up wide and trusting. I think some of the comments here are a breach of that trust. I am embarrassed on behalf of the people behind that venomous display. It is far easier to criticize Ember than to get out on a stage ourselves and attempt to do what she does. Believe me.

To say that people (read: YOU) went to sit through Ember to see Lyndell play is not only all of the things above, but it demeans her as an artist, and as a person. Ember's songwriting is inventive, original, and engaging. She has guitar skills I could never even contemplate; indeed, she is a rare talent. Her vocal skills are far above mine, and I took lessons for eons. I think you shouldn't knock it unless you can do it yourself, and I have met very very few people who could do what Ember does. Certainly none of them would ever dream of writing anything such as what I see above. They have far too much in their lives, and they are more humble and full of love and sensitivity than any person out there who sees fit to write shitty things on the internet about a very talented musician in the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday.

Anaiis Nin said, "We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are." Every time you are tempted by a cruel word, remember this.

Lynda Marie said...
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Lynda said...
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Froog said...

Hi Ember, thanks for stopping by.

I haven't dropped by your Facebook page - I hope you didn't "unleash the hounds"!!

Those are some pretty scarily intense fans you have there! Did you come to China to get away from them?! (I jest. But I fear a lot of these guys wouldn't get that.)

Thanks to Tifa - not for "agreeing" with me or Ember-bashing (I like Ember [just not 'enough' to be allowed into her Fan Club, apparently]), but for introducing me to Lyndell Montgomery, the amazing musician unnamed in that YouTube posting I linked to. I'll definitely have to check out more of what she's doing now.

Froog said...

By the way, guys and gals, Ember Swift fans (rabid or otherwise), if you just want to have a conversation with each other, there must be other places where you can hang out and do that. This isn't the place.

Apart from anything else, you people all seemed to be in Canada. She doesn't live there any more! She's OURS now. [Manic chuckle.]

No, really - it would be very interesting to hear from anyone who's heard one of her recent gigs in China, or anyone else who saw her at Jiangjinjiu the other week.

But all these long-time fans going, "Aw, that's a crock of shit. When I saw her in Moosejaw in '05 she sang like Janis Joplin"..... well, it's just not terribly relevant.

The Weeble said...

I can't tell whether or not my surprise at the notion of Canadians having opinions is balanced out by my total lack of surprise at their opinions being dull.

Froog said...

Dull, yet seasoned with a lynch-mob fervour, Weeble.

And be careful what you say about Canadians. We don't want The Fat Man to join forces with these Emberloons!

The Man in Black said...

I'd never heard of this person, but I must say the passion of her fans is suggestive of a powerful personal influence, exercised with discretion though as ever oblivious to the power that (s)he might wield...kind of like Lindsay Lohan's coke dealer at 4:00 in the morning or, say, Mao Zedong.

Ember, never heard you before, checked you out after reading Froog's review and have to say I disagree with him...I think you're really talented but, um, your fans are fucking crazy to spam a personal blog over his random thoughts on one your shows.

Froog said...

Where did I suggest that she was untalented, o Darkly Attired One?

You're not just disagreeing with me to kiss ass, are you?!

Froog said...

And I would say to Shala above - well, you may not have seen Ember's message about this post (and, if you saw it, you may nevertheless have felt that you had reasons of your own to come over here regardless of her request to do so), but the fact is she did tell her fans to come and comment here.

That - if not actively malicious (and I'll charitably suppose that it wasn't) - was at least a tad naively irresponsible.

Ember protests that she posts links to all reviews of her shows she finds. But she doesn't, I think, actively encourage her fans to comment on them (and by clear implication, in this case, to comment negatively because she felt offended that my review was only 80% or 90% positive). For example, this account of the same Jiangjinjiu gig (much more pleasingly fulsome!), written by my friend Ruby for the BeijingDaze music blog, didn't draw any comments from her fans. Not one.

Strange, that - she doesn't do anything to highlight an entirely favourable review, on a blog primarily devoted to music which enjoys a pretty big readership here in The Jing. Yet she incites her followers to outrage over a mostly positive review, on a personal blog that is only tangentially about music and enjoys a readership of only a few dozen. Not the smartest PR choice.

We'll allow her the Mao Zedong 'oblivious of the consequences' defence - "Well, you know, when I said 'Destroy EVERYTHING old!', I was speaking kind of metaphorically..."

Froog said...

Weeble, the dullness of the opinions may occasionally be balanced out by the colourfulness of the language.

I mean, who knew that raccoon poo was a form of currency in the Great Northern Wilderness?

Steven Johnson said...

First all amazed that anyone who goes by "Froog" has the audacity to make fun of anyone else's name. I have seen Ember Swift on several occasions and could not disagree more with most of the comments in your post.
I'm not sure why you would blog about an event when you admit you were too tired and ill to be there. You do agree on one thing though as you do come off as a excessive curmudgeon.

Froog said...


Jeez, do any of these people actually have anything to offer on the substance of my "criticism", or is it all just going to be whingeing and personal abuse?

It would be interesting to hear from people who've seen her a number of times, to get a view on, for example:

How often does she play in a rockier style, and how well does that suit her compositions?

My impression is that her material is more suited to a quieter mode of delivery, perhaps with predominantly acoustic instruments.

Can she vary her vocal style to accommodate performance genres?

On this occasion, she didn't.

Would people accept that rock'n'roll is usually very impassioned and often quite shouty music, whereas.... Ember's vocal style isn't?

I mean, this didn't seem like a surprising or controversial observation to me; and it wasn't even really a 'criticism'. Whatever else Ember is, she's just not a rock chick. Nothing wrong with that.

And... how good, really, is her songwriting?

This is the point I was hesitant to pass judgment on, because you can't really get into someone's lyrics until you've heard them several times (ideally, in the comfort of your own home, and with the printed lyrics beside you for reference). However, on this first encounter, most of the things that struck me were negative rather than positive. Again, that's not a huge 'criticism'. 80% or 90% of all rock lyrics are embarrassingly awful; and even the 'greats' have their off moments - Lennon and McCartney have some bum lines, Dylan has a lot.

The purpose of a 'review' is to be balanced, informative, and maybe a little provocative. I wrote this primarily for the benefit of folks in Beijing who might be curious about Ember (I think this was the first show she'd played here with the band); in particular, for certain friends of mine who'd been interested in coming to the gig with me, but hadn't been able to make it. Most of them have told me that, as a result of this post, they would like to go and see her next gig.

It's lucky we judge performers on their music, not their 'fans'.

The British Cowboy said...

You see, this is what I hate about doing a job that gets scary intense at times. When I get busy, I miss the woo-woo crazies like this.

I would have had so much fun had I been here at the time.

Froog said...

Sorry you missed it, BC. As you see, it was really only a 24-hour 'party'.

China Soap said...

Hey, I'm playing at that same venue tonight with my trio. I'd be happy to put you on the guest list! All the best to you,