Originally hailing from Michigan, but now based in Stuttgart, Germany, the country, americana and bluesy desert rock have been embedded in Sally Grayson’s DNA since she was little kid. Over the years of course her interests and skills have waxed and with the release of the latest EP from her band BLACK SWIFT dubbed “Desert Rain”, she is now genuinely staking her claim as a well refined, passionate singer-songwriter that encourage with seducting soundscapes, rich voice and melodicism, as well as a louring sadness. I interviewed her last month and I was instantly taken by her story, artistic approach and inspiring mindset.
With their new EP, BLACK SWIFT traveled to the desert. Many of the bands Black Swift and the leading front, Sally Grayson has been inspired by over the last years are from desert regions: Calexico, XIXA, Queens of the Stone Age, Bombino, Tinariwen…. All these bands carry with them a certain “desert” sound and quality. Grayson, hailing from Michigan and Minnesota, and now in southern Germany with her German band is far from the desert, but she somehow felt a connection with these hot, dry, lonely and beautiful sounds, and has felt a need to cling on to them. Part of the connection for her, personally, has to do with the spaghetti western part of the desert sounds. These sounds drum up that nostalgic homesickness in me.
For this release, Black Swift were back in Dresden, Germany at Castle Rohrsdorf, together with legendary producer, Sylvia Massy (Tool, Johnny Cash, Foo Fighters). These songs are to help you get through a time in your life where you feel as though you are in the desert, standing in the blazing hot sun, looking up at the sky, and longing for the rain.
Think of a dark place of your life. The valley you’ve had to walk through, the desert you’ve had to crawl through. What do you wish that you had at that time? The songs on Black Swift’s new EP, “Desert Rain” are to help you through the valley. They are songs about that waiting time – the time where the questions are at the forefront and the answers seem far away. They are songs about the dangers of bitterness sneaking in the process of going through challenging circumstances. They are songs about that desire to be filled, the desire to be drenched with rain when you’re parched in the desert. They are songs of encouragement to tell you to keep moving on, to face hardships yet not to fall into despair and a reminder that this time shall pass.
Hey Sally, thanks so much for joining us here on IDIOTEQ. How are you? Where are you at the moment?
I’m doing great and coming at you from outside Stuttgart, Germany.
What prompts an American to live in Germany?
The short version: I married a German who I met at the airport in Delhi, India.
That’s where my husband lived at the time, so Stuttgart it was.
Could you give some broad strokes about your background – where you grew up and about the role independent music and DIY approach played in your life at different stages?
You know, if I can say so myself, I’ve been a DIY Queen for a number of years now. This is my 4th independent release with Black Swift and it’s only been recently that I realized that the stems of this most likely come from the example of my parents. I grew up in a small town in Michigan just across the lake from Chicago. My parents had a small hobby farm. We had pigs, chickens, goats, horses, and cows. I watched and sometimes didn’t want to watch my Dad slaughter the animals himself. I’m not sure if that’s even legal now a days (or back then) but I don’t think anyone taught him to do it, he just did. He’s a mechanic by profession and there’d always be some classic car he’d be working on at home, and I can still just see next to the car in his garage would be the occasional upside-down carcass of a cow hanging there. My folks also had a garden, and canned and stored food for the winter. They would go to auctions, find beat up old antiques and bring them home to strip, varnish and stain making them look back to the beautiful pieces they once were. My Mom is very creative and experimented with pretty much every kind of arts and crafts projects out there, include making stained glass windows. I realize that the mentality they had runs deep in me. If you want something to happen, just try- do it yourself! And I’ll tell you, I’m very thankful to have this mentality as a musician. It’s SO hard to make a living as a musician and there’s certainly something to be said for growing your team, and getting help along the way, but I believe nowadays there are so many possibilities to have a sustainable career as a musician, but it comes mainly through the hard work of just digging in and doing it yourself.
What are the intersections between music and movie inspirations with regard to your artistic creations in different stages of your development?
That’s a really hard question. Growing up, we owned 2 movies on Beta. They were “The African Queen” and “The Muppet Movie.” I can’t say these were inspirational to my music, but what I do know is that on Sunday’s we would come home from my church and my Dad would be watching westerns. I’d sit at the end of the sofa in my sunday best and hear those spaghetti western soundtracks. I don’t know how many Elvis documentaries I watched with him as well, and that mixed with the weird and scary sounds of the many Twilight Zone episodes we watched together probably all had an influence. Otherwise, I’m really not sure what movies have inspired my songwriting. I’ve always been a big Tim Burton fan and “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” is still one of my favorite films- I love that weird quirkiness- that also connects I think with my love for Tom Waits. I played in an old timey band for a stint when I lived in Minneapolis around the time “O Brother, Where Art Thou” came out. And fairly recently, one movie that I’ve thought a lot about in relation to Black Swift is “Only Lovers Left Alive.” I love the colors and vibe of that film, and maybe it sounds weird, but have always felt that Black Swift would fit well in one of the club scenes in that one.
What led you to form BLACK SWIFT?
I started Black Swift about 10 years ago here in Germany. I had played in a post-punk band in Minneapolis called Standbye and we released 2 albums, and when I came to Germany, I didn’t know how long I would be here, I was still writing songs, so eventually I started Black Swift. I’ve played with many great musicians along the way, but the last couple of years Black Swift has been the consistent members of David Arzt, Bertram Oeler and Zar Monta Cola.
How do you and your band work toward incorporating such atmospheric southern, desert and so called „Tarantino” vibe into your work?
You know, I’ve struggled for YEARS on how to describe Black Swift because my writing style is very diverse. The only description I’ve felt good with was invented by our guitar player Dave, and that’s “Post-Punkified Americana n’ Roll.” But that’s not a genre :D or, at least not yet. My writing style comes very much from my growing up years (again, I can blame my folks). My Dad was a big country western fan, and Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Tammy Wynette could be heard streaming from his garage. My Mom was the religious one in our family and wasn’t keen on us kids listening to mainstream radio with “all those raunchy lyrics.” As I grew interested in music, though, she gave me a different option- I could listen to the collection of tapes she had of popular music from the 1950’s and 60’s. A lot of them were mixtapes and I loved it. When the day came when I received my first Walkman, I chose my first tape: The Beach Boys “All Summer long.” I turned that tape over many a time and those songs swam around in my head like the great ocean they were inspired by. I don’t feel a tinge of sadness that I missed out on 80’s Pop Radio. Thanks Mom! But as I entered my teenage rebellion I got into metal, death metal, and eventually grunge and alternative. So, in the end my writing style comes from trying to incorporate all these elements. I HATED country music with a passion as a teenager, but as I look back, I know those sounds seeped into my bones and often that country rhythm sneaks out of my arm and onto my guitar.
Recently at our live shows, a good number of times, people have come up to us and said that we sound like a Tarantino film. To be honest, I’m not crazy about Tarantino films, mostly because I have a hard time with the brutal violence, but when I listen through the sounds on his soundtracks, they probably could also be described as “Post-Punkified Americana n’ Roll.” So, that makes sense now.
Has the style evolved over the years? How did you approach writing for this new tasteful offering?
Well, this goes with what I was just saying, since it’s been so hard to describe our music, when we came together to the practice space for this latest EP, I wanted to be more intentional about the genre we would pursue. I write the songs with a general vision for what I want for them, then I bring them to the band and we work through arrangements. This time we decided to focus on “Desert Rock.” This could mean a variety of things. It could have sounds of your classic Psychedelic/Stoner Rock, it could also have more of the spaghetti western desert feel ala Calexico influence, but also open to the Rebel Blues of the Sahara Desert like Tinarinwen or Bombino. So that’s how we approached these new songs.
What themes do you explore through your latest lyrics and why are they important to you?
So this EP is called “Desert Rain” because I realized that many of the songs lyrically have an element of water and/or rain, and that combined with the Desert Rock focus. Contextually, the songs are about the times in life that can feel like you’re walking through the desert and longing for rain. I went through some of my own personal hardships, and to be quite honest, I needed the songs to work through what I was going through. In the end, I hope that they will be a comfort for those who are either going through these kinds of times or it’s something that you can pass along to a friend who might be in a tough season.
How was the recording process in Dresden?
It was absolutely phenomenal! We worked with a producer Sylvia Massy who is an absolute legend. She’s worked with Tool, System of a Down, Melvin’s Johnny Cash. She has this long list of artists who she’s worked with and rightly so because she’s brilliant. We started as her guinea pigs for recording workshop that she was doing for about 20 engineers and producers from all over Europe and we had so much fun. She is incredibly experimental, and is someone who will try and try and try until she gets the sound she is looking for. We connected when we found out our Dad’s were both mechanics. Her Dad was always bringing home car parts and she started with just messing around with them and seeing how they work and eventually getting interested in engineering. She has a tenacity as it relates to working to produce the best sounding songs, and pushing the musicians to bring on their best performance. She certainly took us to the next level and I can honestly say through working with her that “Desert Rain” is the best production I’ve ever been a part of.
The city has a rough history and a beautiful old town with many historically valuable buildings. Apart from working on your new recording, how did you like the city?
If you mean Dresden, well this time around, we didn’t have any time for sight-seeing, although I know from past visits that Dresden is really beautiful. Stuttgart however is, in my opinion, just OK. Stuttgart was actually was bombed pretty massively in World War II and so a lot of their historical buildings were completely destroyed. What they rebuilt was pretty ugly architecture. Fortunately, yes, there are still some really nice places in Stuttgart, but for the most part it’s not nearly as beautiful a city is as Dresden or cities like Nuremberg who rebuilt their city to look just like it did before it was bombed. But what I do love about Stuttgart is that there are a lot of wonderful people and there’s a great musician community.
After all these years, how has been the country for you? Do you often go back to the States? And how do you compare both worlds?
Yeah, I never intended to live here for so long. I mean, honestly I am very grateful that I live here. As a musician and artist I feel like there’s a lot of support that is available – also regarding healthcare. I don’t have to worry about going into debt if I need to stay in the hospital. There’s no 45 here and Germany, although it certainly has it’s problems too, feels a little more progressive currently than my homeland.
I go back to the States only every two years because it’s just so expensive to buy flights with 2 kids in tote. But this summer we will be back!
As far as comparing Germany and America, well, I lived in India before I moved to Germany, so Germany felt like a lot more of a similar culture to me than India was. But after being here for so long and there’s definitely things that I still miss. I miss the friendliness in the States. There’s a lot of really nice Germans too but as a generalization, they are more reserved and serious. I miss the great customer service in America, and just the general openness to talk with strangers. Of course, these are all stereotypes but a lot of them are true. But generally, I love living in a place where there is so much beauty. In a little over an hour I can be in France or Switzerland, and there’s loads of beautiful castles within even 10 minutes of where I live.
What was the most challenging aspect of moving to Germany?
The most challenging aspect is 100% being away from my friends and family. All of my family is in the states and I’ve missed so much of their lives. I really miss watching my nieces and nephews grow and if there’s ever anything hard like hospitalizations or other health crisis’, it’s really hard to not be there for my family…but maybe one day I’ll be back to share in the good times as well.
What were some of your earliest or most affecting experiences of interacting with local art, German acts during your earlier times there? How has your relationship with European art evolved over recent times?
You know that’s a really interesting question. I studied painting in Minnesota and my painting style was very figurative and realistic. I painted large scale portraits and also loved urban decay and old grain elevators, so I painted those as well. When I moved to Germany, my husband had studied art in Munich and his education was very different than mine. It was much more free and independent, and the art scene felt very conceptual and abstract. It took me a long time to connect with that scene and in fact, at the beginning, I felt almost ashamed to show my paintings to people because I felt like I would be put into a “craft” category. But over the years, two things happened. One is that I’m getting better at not caring what people think of my art. I do it for me and because I love doing it and two, I changed mediums. I started working with hand cut collage about 10 years ago and through working with collages I was also able to finally connect together my art and my music. I now use my collages to visualize Black Swift songs and so that’s been really invigorating to be able to make that connection and through that, I feel like I latched onto a style that really feels authentic. I don’t care anymore if it fits into a certain box, I just want to make work that I feel really good about and hope to find other people who also like it- which I’ve done and been able to sell many pieces as well, so that’s great!
Ok, so are there some new records or movies coming up that more people should hear or see? Can you give us your some good recommendations before we say goodbye?
Yes! Well, whenever somebody’s asking about the music I always have to recommend a band called XIXA from Tucson, Arizona. I saw them play here in Germany about three ago and I fell in love with their music. It’s a combination of Cumbia, Psychedelia and Rock ‘n’ Roll. I loved the sound of the recordings as well, and ended up getting Gabriel Sullivan- one of the members of the band to mix our last full length album SEE ME HUMAN. We just recently had the honor of opening up their set and I sang with them on a cover of “Summer Wine.” It was a night to remember. Otherwise, through them I’ve been turned on to so many great bands from that region. Gabriel Sullivan also plays in a band called “Trees Speak” which is like a Dark Psychedelic Krautrock band- featuring an incredible video and visual artist named Daniel Martin Diaz. Brian Lopez from XIXA also has some very beautiful solo albums, and he when he’s not filling in for Calexico, he also plays with a band Orkesta Mendosa. Their latest album was my favorite summertime soundtrack, especially for loud car drives in the hot sun. If your readers are into that vibe then they should tune into Howe Gelb, and of course Giant Sand.
Thanks so much!
Lastly, what’s next in store for the band?
This August, we will be heading out on a 10 day Midwest/Southern tour with Good Saint Nathanael, so that’s going to be fabulous! When I get back from the States, I’m going to start working on a solo album. I play a lot of solo shows and many people have requested a recording of a more stripped down version of my songs, so that will be the next project.
Great! Thanks so much for your time and a bunch of interesting insights from your perspective. Cheers from Warsaw! The last words are yours.
Wow, last words makes me a little nervous, but I suppose if I have any last words, it’s to talk from the heart of my music. Which is: I hope our music can ignite fires in people’s hearts to see one another as equally valuable and worthy of love and not only that, but I hope that our new songs will bring comfort to folks who might be going through a difficult time like I said earlier- so I encourage you all to pick up our album! Thanks IDIOTEQ!