“You Can Blame My Parents:” An Interview with Danielle Eva Schwob

David Johnston

2011 Composer-in-Residence Danielle Eva Schwob

Recently, we spoke with Danielle Eva Schwob via email about her musical upbringing, compositional process and her new music collective SYZYGY.

You seem to have a two-fold musical background – first in popular music and then in concert music. Tell us how you discovered both.

I don’t think I ever really discovered popular music and concert music as much as having been raised on both of them.  I come from a family of music lovers with very eclectic tastes. Growing up, there was always something playing in the house, whether it was Led Zeppelin, John Cage, Thelonious Monk, Tibetan Buddhist chanting or Michael Jackson (all of which I still listen to).  I suppose the diversity of my family’s CD library instilled in me the sort of “anything goes” mentality that I have today.  As far as my musical education goes, I started off playing classical guitar when I was very young, shifting my focus in high school to electric so that I could play and write rock songs, before finding my way to classical composition while I was in college.  So, long story short, my tendency to flip-flop between pop and concert music seems to be a chronic condition. You can blame my parents.

You’re originally from London. What brought you to NYC?  And how do you compare being a composer here in NYC versus back home? Any specific challenges or rewards?

Well, I moved to New York City when I was 18 to study music at NYU. And I suppose that my reasons were fairly straightforward – I wanted an adventure, and I wanted to move somewhere new and far away that had a good music scene.  New York seemed the perfect fit.  I was also educated in an international school, and so picking up to move somewhere new after high school was more or less the norm.

While I have benefited both personally and professionally from living in New York City, I think that England is a wonderful place for a musician.  The country possesses a sort of reverence for creativity that I haven’t encountered to the same extent elsewhere, making it easy for creative individuals to feel respected and produce good work.  The sense of humor is also quite lateral and imaginative, and people seem to take themselves less seriously than they do here. Sometimes I wonder if these national traits developed as coping mechanisms for the dreary winter weather. But regardless of their origins, they are definitely great things for an artist!  In my experience, the English also draw less of a distinction between concert and pop music, as well as between high and low art in general – a way of thinking that has proven influential in how I approach my own writing.

New York City, on the other hand, has a fantastic entrepreneurial spirit that is totally unique. One of the things that drew me here was the sense of possibility and opportunity that pervades the city.  The “do-it-yourself” attitude sits well with me and I find the positivity that people have to be very exciting. I think it’s actually been the most rewarding thing about living and working here.  Seeing how unafraid people are to go after their dreams, and how far they can ride on talent, some hard work and a good attitude is very inspiring.

As a singer/songwriter who composes concert music, are there any differences (or similarities) in your compositional process?

While there are small technical differences from genre to genre, overall I approach my music in a similar way regardless of idiom. I like to connect with people emotionally, as opposed to trying to sound too academic, and for there to be a clearly defined sound-world and thematic concept within a piece. It also has to feel genuine and honest to me. Within both genres, I try to mine my own experiences for inspiration rather than imagine stories or look through someone else’s eyes.

If you want to talk nuts and bolts, I guess the simplest way to describe the difference between my processes is this: with pop music, I spend a lot of time trying to cut my ideas down, and with concert music, I spend a lot of time trying to expand them. Generally pop music is expected to be succinct and visceral. You have to get to your point quickly and be clear with your ideas, since you’re in trouble if listeners hit the 30-second mark and aren’t feeling something or don’t know what you’re trying to say. There’s a leanness and muscularity to a good pop song, whereas a concert piece can be comparatively expansive. In longer form works, my goal is to develop my ideas in order to take a listener on a journey, as opposed to confronting him or her head on with whatever I’m thinking or feeling.

Do you ever feel like you’re wearing two musical hats? Or does one inform the other?

I used to feel like that but I don’t any more.  As I become increasingly confident in my perspective as a composer/songwriter, I see new connections between my concert and pop music. And so having a few hats in my collection doesn’t bother me. In fact, I prefer it that way.  I’m also coming to an interesting creative juncture where I’m starting to see my concert and pop writing trajectories converge. Seeing how the two worlds can influence one another is exciting to me.

As a result of this musical cross-pollination, I’ve noticed that my pop writing tends to be more intellectual than a lot of commercial music, while my concert writing generally has a bit more immediacy to it. For example, when I started working on the record, my producer Ido Zmishlany said that he could hear through my song melodies and arrangements that I am a concert composer.  In retrospect I don’t know whether he meant that as a good thing or not. But since we were both happy with the record, I’m going to be optimistic and take it as a compliment!  I’ve also started to experiment with using my concert works as samples within my pop songs. “Always In My Head,” for instance, uses segments from my concert piece “Mehr Licht” in the introduction and bridge sections of the song.  I thought that this was an interesting way of tying my two worlds together.

While I’m interested in borrowing influences from both pop and concert music, I’m not sure that I think the two idioms can truly be fused to make something new.  There seems to be a trend in the music world where concert composers throw in some rock grooves, and pop writers chuck some strings on a record and then proclaim they’ve invented a new genre. But I don’t really buy into that. I think that a piece will usually be grounded on one side of the pop and concert music divide. And while I’m interested in the grey area between the two worlds, I think that they will always remain distinct from one another.

Congratulations on your debut EP Overloaded.  Such thoughtful lyrics and beautifully composed music.  How did you decide upon the title and its contents?

Thank you!  It may seem odd, but I rarely begin a piece of music knowing what I’m writing about.  In fact, the songs/pieces that I think I have a handle on initially usually end up sounding the most overworked.  With the good ones, the ideas usually start off feeling quite nebulous and I figure out what I’m writing about around halfway through the compositional process. Overloaded was a similar story.  While the songs are all about different topics, I eventually realized that they’re all unified loosely by my frustration with the pace of the modern world and how complex relationships have become as a result – not to mention how the effects of technology spill over into our personal lives.  I’m sure my ambivalent feelings on the topic are compounded by the fact that I’ve lived in Manhattan for over six years. But I think that generally we’ve reached a point in the world’s history where it is unprecedentedly complicated. The title track, “Overloaded,” seemed to summarize this sentiment as well as the tone and scope of the EP.

How did you come to form SYGYZY? What do you look for in your collaborating artists?

I started it after I left NYU because I felt that it was important for young artists to have a platform upon which to present their work.  At the time I had a regular group of collaborators, and formalizing our activities while trying to expand the circle seemed like the next logical step. The prospect of being one small voice screaming to be heard in the city was not appealing, and so it was also a strength in numbers type of thing. Over the past two and a half years the group has grown significantly and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with lots of musicians, both less and more established.

While obviously our personal preferences do factor into the equation, in general the group doesn’t adhere to any particular aesthetic. We like to work with artists who have clear voices and are not afraid to be bold in their creative choices.  Sometimes we invite other performers to share a bill with our in-house ensemble, and other times, we seek out new works by young writers for our performers to play.

What are your plans for the Con Edison Musicians’ Residency at Church Street School for Music and Art this fall?

As I mentioned previously, I’m interested in combining influences from different genres.  To this end, I will primarily be using the residency as an opportunity to re-imagine some of my rock songs (as well as write some new ones) for SYZYGY NEW MUSIC, culminating in a collaborative concert where I will perform with the ensemble and members of my band.

Any thoughts on what’s next?

At the moment I’m primarily focused on getting my new band off the ground.  We have a show booked at Fontana’s on Wednesday, November 30th as well as few others in the works that I’ll be announcing soon.  I also have other commissions for NoiseBox as well as The Deviant Septet, so I’ll be working on those, too.



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