Interview: Mazz Swift
We met Mazz at the concert of one of our favourite bands from NYC - Hazmat Modine. She was performing with them as a special guest and a collaborator. We fell in love with the magical sound of the violin in her hands, Mazz's rich voice and strength of her presence on stage. After talking to her and listening to her other music projects we were extremely happy to be able to invite Mazz to enter the Forest. Here’s what came out of this encounter in the woods.
Mazz, how did you begin making music?
I was raised in a musical family. Everyone in my family does something - we all sang, we had a piano in the house, so we all played to a greater or lesser degree. I have three sisters and we all studied music. My father and mom both listened to a lot of music, especially classical music and jazz, bebop. There is actually a funny story about how I got into music. I was about four years old, one day my mom has put on some music and I liked it. I asked her: “What is that?” And she said: “That’s a violin. A violinist plays a violin.” And I said: “Oh, I’m a violinist!” And I went around telling everyone that I’m a violinist until I was about six years old and my parents finally got me a violin, so I began studying. But I’ve always been exposed to music. I always wanted to do it.
How do you create, how is your music born?
My creative process is kind of scattered because of the fact that my interests are really scattered. I like a lot of different kinds of music. Things that feature the violin, things that don’t traditionally feature the violin. My solo project came after splitting with a band I’ve been playing with for a while. I got myself a looper, I found a way to play music and accompany myself. That was a really great jumping off point. I found out things about myself creatively. It’s been a kind of “go to” thing for me. As a composer, I’m one of those people that work well with a deadline. I usually have ideas and record them, write things down. And at some point I go through that stuff and start flashing it out. I also really believe in improvisation as a tool, for learning about oneself as well as coming up with new ideas. A lot of my music comes from initially improvisation, which I then go back to and edit. I have stuff for solo violin that way, for string quartet, violin and clarinet, and so on.
How is it that improvisation is a way to learn about oneself?
Well, a lot of the times when we try to control our reactions.... Or actually I’d say it the other way around - when we let go of control, and just play, or just speak, or just write, like a stream of concience writing, we can really surprise ourselves. It’s a good life lesson in accepting what comes out of you, and reacting to that. That can be a meditation of some sort. It’s really powerful. Ultimately you learn how to befriend yourself, and be ok with whatever is coming out of you, whatever you are thinking, in order to grow, to feel you have something to offer. Improvisation is really important that way.
It’s also really interesting to improvise with other people, to find yourself in situations that are maybe uncomfortable. It’s a lot like having a conversation. Improvisation in groups can sound like a lot of people talking and nobody listening. And it’s really interesting to see how do you react to situations like that. Do you step out of the way? Do you find your little place inside of it? Do you try somehow to direct it? If you stand back and look at what your reactions are you can learn a lot about yourself and other people too. And learn to accept things that you wouldn’t necessarily have accepted before that moment.
How do you do that? How do you get over judgements?
I think it is a process of doing it over and over and over again. This is something I’m learning in meditation: letting the thoughts arise, not judging them as good or bad, let them be and let them go. That’s the same process in improvisation. You notice what you like, what you don’t like, and you let things go - we are in the next moment now. Being able to do that can really help things move along.
What moves you to do the work you do?
I have a lot of energy. And a deep desire to express. To express things I cannot express in words, everything, all the different aspects of who I am. And probably to be understood and loved. Maybe there are people who don’t have that desire to express all of who they are. It’s probably just the way that I’m wired. I was lucky to have parents who saw my desire, my talent, and encouraged me to follow it, even when I was about to quit. Let alone my immediate surroundings, immediate culture. Support is important.
You are a very versatile musician, you play in diverse music styles, different instruments, you also sing. How does it influence you to be so multidisciplinary?
My interests have been in all the different forms of music around the world that do play the violin, a lot of folk music, gipsy, irish music, Brazilian music, folk dance music, and rock and roll of course. I like stepping into different roles: singer, violinist, guitarist or horn player. Hazmat Modine is a good example of that. I’m lucky that I do have a lot of interests. It encourages me to keep expanding my horizons, to keep working. I feel like it’s an opportunity to express different aspects of my personality. I really like finding beauty in everything, in things I wouldn’t normally have exposed myself to. I consider myself lucky. Also, the more diverse you are the easier it is to make a living.
Who inspires you?
I am inspired by people who do things really well. I’m addicted to the Olympics. I think it’s beautiful to see people excelling. I keep myself surrounded by people that I really respect. I feel like you can find inspiration in everything. It’s a lot harder to figure out a way to apply it to yourself, what you want to do with it. It’s easy to be inspired, it’s harder to transmute that energy into something that you do, that is also inspiring to someone else. That’s my hope, that I’m also inspiring other people.
How do you find a way to transmute that?
I don’t think I yet codified a way. I do work well with deadlines. Or being in painful situations. Pain is a great kick in the pants. You have to get it out. And I’m a melancholy person. So as I get older I try to remember to practice my art so that I don’t hold on to the negativity. I’m inspired by many things but what really moves me forward is pain. Though the moments of joy are just as important. Life is really full. You can’t only focus on what’s horrible, or only on what’s great. Life is so full. It’s so important to keep that balance. In perspective and in my work. I would like to represent that life is full in my music.
What gives you energy and what takes it away?
Exercise is really important. Siting around is really detrimental to my mental health. I do martial arts. It’s important for me to have something outside of music that forces me to be in the moment, to move around, that challenges me mentally and emotionally, and also just allows learning something new. It’s imporant to be physical if you are musician. To get into your body, cause we can really live stuck in our heads. Teaching also is really inspiring and gives me energy. I don’t have a method for teaching, which is frustrating at times but also goes together with my philosophy of improvisation. I do have a very clear intuition about how to teach and how people learn. I’ve enjoyed teaching violin lessons, also in groups, helping people to unlock their ability to improvise. People I meet inspire me every single day, they give me energy, and ideas. It makes me feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing.
What takes energy away... Being sedentary, as I mentioned before. Also, I’m a sensitive person, I’m attracted to other sensitive people, who are really great at what they do. But actually co-dependency with them is really a trap for me. Sometimes I put a lot of energy into trying to get to work things that just aren't workable. That drains me. Negativity from people takes my energy. I think its important to think what is negative and what is positive, what encourages growth and what doesn’t. If I’m not aware of those things I can go down the path of diminishing returns.
Where do you feel a wish to create comes from?
I feel like it’s part of the human condition. It’s already there. I don’t see how we could be where we are now without this desire. Life creates. I think that’s just how it is. We do have this superpower - this ability to create. We have the ability to create really crappy things and truly wonderous things. It’s the matter of what our intent is. A lot of things we have in the world that we created have come out of necessity or just as ideas to make money. We have this ability to create but how will we use it, for good or evil... And we have to decide what’s evil, and that’s where it gets difficult, ‘cause it’s different for everyone. I think it’s important to think about what is sustainable, what is a drain on our resources, on the planet, on the community and personal resources as well. We have this thing and we gotta learn how to use it.
What sustains you in times of storms?
True friendship. Having someone in your life that you can be yourself around, who can be a mirror to you, who would be honest with you, and who would listen, just listen. That’s pretty rare. That’s what gotten me through difficult periods of my life. Friendship and music. Also, when I was going for the black belt in hapkido, there were a lot of stressers in my life, but it was a great place to be focused, be in the body. I think it’s good to stay active, to be introspective and to have friends. There is no way to do this life alone and be happy.
What would you most like to teach people you work with?
Improvisation and interaction. Especially for young people. Being in a space where they are allowed to be themselves completely. And also where they learn to be with others. They would get a lot out of that. That’s important.
What would you most like to change?
Intolerance. Sometimes it’s important just to tolerate. It doesn’t necessarily mean going along with, or even agreeing with, but just tolerating ideas that are different from yours. That really bugs me. When it’s not even possible to communicate with another person if they are just not open.
What’s important to have around you, in a place where you live?
Definitely space. Which is a challenge in New York City. I used to live in a very small apartment that was full of our stuff, and cats. That really drove me crazy. A couple of years ago I moved to another apartment in Brooklyn. And I have space, it’s important to be able to open my arms and not touch anything.
Tell us a story from the life of a musician...
I did this great tour sponsored by the US state department, they do it every year. Our band got the grant, and we went to West Africa. It was a great experience. We performed in all kinds of situations - from great halls, to classroom, or ambassadors’ homes. There was also a teaching aspect - sharing what we do with local people of all ages. And the third aspect of it was that they paired us with local musicians. We were at five different countries. So in each country we had a couple of days just to sit with musicians from that town we were in and learn what they do, and they learned a little bit of what we do. And every night they came and performed at one of our shows. It was very energising! I would love to do that again.
How do you keep on growing?
It’s important to constantly be taking in new information, and also to take time to process this information, to see how I feel about it, how can I use it. I try to always stay open to learning. Learning what life offers me to learn. But also practically, learning with composers, taking in different kinds of music, going out. I would also love to educate myself about other forms of art. I love ballet, painting, visual arts. There is inspiration there too.
Your first associations....
Fairy-tale: Brothers Grimm, I like the sort of darkness and weirdness in their fairy-tales
Animal: Tiger, and also a Mole - I think moles are fascinating. It’s this little creature that has got huge hands and a really long snout, and on the tip of it there’s the most sensitive organ, it can sense electrical currents in water to know where the food is, for example. And it’s so ugly, and I kind of love that too.
Saying or proverb: We never play the same thing once.
Plant: Tiger Lily. And Zee-Zee plant, it’s perfect for a travelling musician!
Movie: Run Lola Run, The God Father, The Matrix
Smell: many but nothing in particular
Book: “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander
Song: Steve Wonder "Songs In The Key of Life", Shostakovich 8th string quartet, Bartok 1st string quartet last movement
Sensation: being touched
Person: Nina Simone, she is my shero
Colour: at times red at times black
Object: my violin
Human quality: compassion
Place for travel: Budapest
Secret: would that be a secret if I told you? :)
Cover image cortesy: Mazz Swift