Interview: Milwaukee native Angie Swan, guitar pro returns home

Interview: Milwaukee native Angie Swan, guitar pro returns home

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88Nine Radio Milwaukee
The Milwaukee native discusses her career in music and why it's good to be home

For the next two weeks, hundreds of world-class musicians will take up temporary residence in our city as part of the 50th Summerfest.

For the last year and half, one world-class guitar player who was raised right here in Milwaukee has returned home after being away for more than a decade.

Angie Swan has worked as a touring and session musician for will.i.am, Macy Gray, Fifth Harmony and more. Swan spent three years playing in the Cirque du Soleil show ‘Amaluna,’ traveling all over North America. She has also appeared on ‘The Tonight Show,’ MTV’s ‘Rock the Cradle’ and the BET Awards. She is endorsed by Knaggs Guitars and Gibson Guitars.

A Sherman Park native, Swan attended Milwaukee High School of the Arts and Berklee College of Music, where some of her classmates included Esperanza Spalding, Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Eric Andre.

Swan’s college years coincided with the music industry’s transition to the digital age. Her varied career is a reflection of the subsequent changes in the music business.

Since moving back to Milwaukee in late 2015, Swan has accompanied the New Age Narcissism collective and was in the house band for the ‘Wonder Uncovered’ show at Turner Hall Ballroom in April, among other gigs in and out of town.

In December 2016, Swan began hosting a monthly “Funk Night” at the Jazz Estate, which I attended last week. The evening featured a mix of originals and covers, the stylistic range reflecting her various influences.

Before the show, Swan was spotted taking photos with her parents and some of their friends. She cracked jokes throughout the night, dedicated a song to Seattle, busted out her pipes (because she was “feeling it”), and even jumped on a chair while playing her ax behind her head.

I recently sat down with Swan to discuss her Milwaukee upbringing, her college days, hanging out with Courtney Love, auditioning for Prince, traveling with Cirque du Soleil, getting stranded in India, wearing a Cheesehead in enemy territory, and more.

Listen to the interview and read excerpts below.

(The next Funk Night” at the Jazz Estate will be Tuesday, July 18.)

MUSIC ROOTS

My father is a guitar player and a bass player. My mother has always been a lover of music. Both of my parents have influenced me in different ways. My mother showed me a video of me playing ukulele when I was three years old. I took my first guitar lesson when I was about 11-years-old down in Bay View at a place called Crown Music. I took private lessons every Saturday with a guy named Norb Kaminski, who just passed away. I was happy to be in town to pay my respects.

I studied music at Milwaukee High School of the Arts. I had the option of doing classical or jazz, and I studied mostly jazz. I studied outside of school at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music with Paul Silbergleit, Mark Davis, Berkeley Fudge and in the summer I was at music camps at UW-Madison, UW-Green Bay and UW-Steven’s Point. Guitar was the first instrument I was drawn to. I took piano lessons when I was 5-years-old, then clarinet, but guitar is the one that I stuck with.

A young Swan

MUSIC MEMORIES

My father used to play ‘Surfing With the Alien’ by Joe Satriani. I don’t know what it was about that music, the cover of the album, but my dad would play it all the time.

My mother would play a lot of Tracy Chapman, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughn. The ’80s hair band videos on MTV, I thought those were so cool and I wanted to do that. Jennifer Batten in the Michael Jackson video, I thought she was so cool.

In middle school, it was Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots. I really liked rock at the time, even Candlebox. I remember the older kids were listening to Candlebox at the guitar camp at UW-Green Bay and I thought it was so cool, I think because I like the E minor chord.

I have a little brother named John. I think he’s human. He’s a comedy writer, he studied at Second City in Chicago and now he lives in New York City. He’s a DJ too. After I left Milwaukee he was in the No Requests crew with Jordan Lee, DJ Madhatter, and Tim Zick, who is Kid Cut Up.

My mom has these videos of our little family bands playing in the basement. I’d get on drums and John would be on the microphone. He was always a character, he liked to dress like Pee Wee Herman. He is the more theatrical one, but I have my goofy days.

John and Angie Swan

MILWAUKEE MEMORIES

I remember seeing Citizen King and Little Blue Crunchy Things. I think Milwaukee used to have a lot more all-ages shows, or at least outdoor festival shows. I’d go with friends, my mother would drop us off and we’d buy a cassette or a CD from the bands.

One thing I really liked about the venues in Milwaukee when I was growing up, is that you could go with a parent and bring your instrument and sit in with the bands. I used to play with my father at a spot called Boobie’s Place, which I think was off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

There was this place called Rory’s Cafe, which is now a hair salon. I used to play there in high school a lot with a couple different bands. It was a coffee shop, so they didn’t serve alcohol and it was all-ages. I think that was probably the first time I was in a band that played out in Milwaukee. It was like hip-hop/jam band type stuff.

I played at Caroline’s with my own little quartet. I remember being on stage in braces. Sometimes the Conservatory would put bands together and do local shows. Milwaukee offered me a lot of opportunities to play.

COLLEGE DAYS

Once I got to Boston the industry started changing. My audition was on a cassette tape and when I was in college we were recording on mini-disc players. By the time I got out it was all digital, iTunes had just started. So there was a big shift, everything just started moving very fast between those years.

You know, I had this idea of what the music industry was supposed to be like when I was 18-years-old, but by the time I was 22 it was completely different. I left school in 2005, Facebook started in 2004. Napster was just beginning as I was leaving high school, but I didn’t know what that was. Music became more accessible online, it was free, so that took away money from the music industry. They stopped investing as much as they used to.

It’s funny because the professors had a certain way of seeing how the industry was, but they were no longer really in the industry, so at that point they’re having to take courses because technology was pushing everything so quickly.

At Berklee, I think two or three years into me being there they started a laptop program where they required that everyone have a laptop. They put it in the tuition and would give you a laptop with music programs on it because they kind of knew that everything was shifting to digital.

BERKLEE CLASSMATES

Esperanza Spalding was there and we used to play in a band together. Annie Clark who’s known as St. Vincent, she was there and we were in a couple groups together. Eric Andre was there too.

We used to have shows in the cafeteria. I was playing with this band and Eric kind of crashed our video. You can see him walking behind the scenes balancing a broom on his chin. But he’s a bass player, that’s how I knew him.

MOVING TO LOS ANGELES

You have to go out there focused. It’s easy to get distracted. I got distracted a few times. When I first moved out there I just went to jam sessions, because that was the way to get heard. But you also had to finagle and finesse your way onstage. I always carried business cards with me. It took a month or so to meet the right person who would get you onstage.

I learned a lot about networking at Berklee, so that helped. You have to know how to speak with people and work with people. It’s about having a positive attitude. You have to weigh out which situations and opportunities you’d be the best fit for. LA was very competitive, so you always had to be one step ahead of the game, which was hard for me at times, but other times it was easier.

FIRST LA GIGS

First TV show I did was with Britney Spears’ husband at the time, Kevin Federline, I did ‘The Tonight Show.’ That was about six months into being in LA. Actually my third day being in LA, Courtney Love called me. It was out of the blue. This guy gave her my number and she was looking for someone to play guitar with her while she wrote songs in a studio.

Her and I sat in a rehearsal hall, she’s sitting there chain-smoking cigarettes, her knee twitching. And she’s like, “What’s your sign?” and I’m like, “I’m a Capricorn,” and she says, “I”m a Cancer, can’t you tell?” She had a great sense of humor. That only lasted for a few days. Then I realized LA was like hills and valleys, things come and go. I had a couple part time jobs just to supplement income at the time. When jobs would pop up I was really happy. I worked with a lot of unsigned artists and I’d get small side gigs in between major gigs or major auditions.

THE PRINCE UNIVERSE

I was a huge Prince fan growing up. I was always infatuated with him. My mother has videos of me singing his songs. In LA, you’re surrounded by those kinds of people, that kind of energy. So it’s like six degrees of separation. And I knew that Prince scouted people.

A couple times I played at jam sessions in LA and people were like, “Oh, he’s here, he’s here.” You could see him in the background. He just stares at people. I think I met a couple of people in his band, because the community is so tight. And then I got scouted by him.

One of his people called me and said, “He wants you to come to Minneapolis.” I’m completely nervous. They buy me a plane ticket and I fly out there. When the plane lands I turn my phone on and I get a text saying “RIP Michael.”

I flew to Paisley Park the day Michael Jackson died. The world is devastated at that point, so Prince doesn’t want to see anybody. Myself and the rest of the musicians he’s flown out go to a hotel and just wait 48 hours.

Lonnie Smith was the bass player. The drummer was Cindy Blackman, who played with Lenny Kravitz, the girl with the afro. So I’m sitting there just freaking out, because I’m surrounded by my idols and I’m auditioning for this guy. And we played for a little bit and that’s it.

It was such a short lived trip. They sent us back home. It was such a devastating time for everyone. That was my closest connection with Prince. I’ll never forget that.

When I was on tour with Cirque we played Minneapolis and since I knew his band members we went to his pajama party. Doors opened at midnight and he didn’t start playing until four in the morning. I had to be at work at eleven in the morning, but I had to stay there, I couldn’t miss that.

His musical family is still very tight and his spirit lives on with everyone that’s ever had an encounter with him. He used to have jam sessions at his home in LA, musicians could just come over and play. He’s like Stevie Wonder, they’re just lovers of music. Stevie Wonder just shows up at random places in LA and just listens. That’s an amazing thing.

A WONDER-FUL SURPRISE

Stevie came onstage once when I was playing with Bonnie James. We were doing a Wonder cover called “Creepin,” which was at the San Dimas Jazz Festival in 2010 or 2011. We’re playing this song and then everybody starts screaming really loud and I turn around and Stevie is being escorted on stage with his harmonica in hand. So we looped the song, we played it twice. Again, I’m just sitting there freaking out, saying to myself, “Alright Angie, don’t overplay, don’t overplay!”

Swan playing with Boney James

STAGE FRIGHT

I don’t get nervous anymore. There was this time I played with a band called the Shop Boys and we were playing the BET Awards in 2007 and within the first ten seconds I broke a guitar string. The night before I don’t know what came in my head, but I was like “If I broke a string, what would I do? Where would I move my hand on this guitar to compensate for that?” And then of course the next day I broke a string and flawlessly went to the next thing, luckily.

I get more nervous in front of small groups of people. It’s so much more intimate, you’re so much closer to them. When you’re on big stages and the lights are on you, you don’t really feel it. Now I just get this adrenaline rush, I love to play for people and make eye contact with people, which I used to not do.

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL GIG

It was kind of a long process and it was all video auditions because they are based in Montreal. You’d send in a video and they’d say, “Alright, send in another one with a close-up. Send your resume. You’re going to have to play different styles of music, plus the music for the show.”

Eventually they invited me. I think it was February 2012. They called me and said, “Alright, we’d like to hire you, but you need to move to Montreal in two days.” So I’m sitting in my apartment in Los Angeles in February thinking, “Okay, I have to move everything to Montreal in two days.”

I thought about it for thirty minutes and looked at the contract, made a couple revisions, then had two going away parties, gave away a bunch of stuff and put a lot of stuff in storage. The next thing you know I’m walking through the snow in Montreal in Chuck Taylors and I don’t speak French. I’m just thinking, “What have I done?”

Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Amaluna’ band

It was kind of like the movie ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ They put me in this room and there were lights shining on me and they put this helmet on my head and measured it. Each costume is custom fit. So they’d sit and measure my fingers and toes and get a 3D image of my body so they could make the perfect costume.

It was really weird when I first got there. But it ended up being a great experience. The show was called ‘Amaluna,’ which is based on ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘The Tempest.’ We toured Canada for the first year and a half, then we did the U.S.

We did about 8-10 shows a week. The show was two hours long and we only had Mondays off. We had double shows on some days. The days were long. We’d work pretty hard in each city for about two to three months, start making friends, then we’d have to move on. After that, three years had passed and I knew I was ready to move on, so I chose not to resign when the show went to Europe.

REINVENTING HERSELF

After Cirque I moved back to Los Angeles. I’d been gone for three years, so it was like starting from scratch. Even though I lived in LA for ten years before that, I had to reestablish myself. People thought I was still on the road and by this time other generations had come into LA. That city has such a revolving door, people come and go constantly. At that point the music industry had been in a decline. There were way more musicians and way less work. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

I had some friends in France and I decided to use my resume to try to promote myself as a clinician and start speaking to students. That’s what I did for a few months. One of the friends I was staying with was a drummer that had a gig in India and needed a guitar player. So I went there for about a month and then got stuck in a monsoon.

It was the biggest storm in 100 years in Chennai, India. The airport was completely flooded. I made videos of it and put a little documentary of it on YouTube. The water had gotten up to the engines of the planes, so it looked like they were floating. The whole airport was destroyed. I slept on the floor of the airport for three days.

The embassy called my mother in Milwaukee, so she was freaking out. At that point I was like, “I think it’s time for me to come back to the States.” We had to drive through hours of flooded terrain. I was lucky enough to make it back home, so I figured I had to stay here for a while. It put life in perspective.

HOMETOWN PRIDE

When I lived on the East Coast people thought I was from the West Coast and when I lived on the West Coast people thought I was from the East Coast, but I was always proud to say I’m from the Midwest.

I actually had a Cheesehead when I was on tour with Cirque du Soleil and during football season I would wear it. I remember in San Francisco when the 49ers beat the Packers I was walking around with the Zumba green and gold pants, my Cheesehead and people were just screaming at me. Then you get non-Americans who see this piece of cheese on my head who don’t understand and I’m like, “Don’t touch it, it’s sacred.”

MOVING BACK TO MILWAUKEE

Coming home as an adult, I thought Milwaukee was pretty cool. I was really impressed with how Milwaukee had grown. The restaurant scene, the music scene, and the cost of living. It’s centrally located, so I can go to the East Coast and I can go to the West Coast. It just made sense for me to stay here for a while.  

The Milwaukee scene is very relaxing. Not every conversation is about music or hustling or trying to find the next thing. LA and New York are both like that. You’re going there to pursue an art. Milwaukee has always been more of an industrial city, but there’s also a huge art community and I feel like over time that’s definitely going to grow as it has in many mid-size cities.

There’s a lot more opportunity in those bigger cities to grow and maybe buy a house one day from making music, but that makes it a little bit more competitive. After a while that can become a little tiring, just being around that 24/7, because you’re constantly working and networking versus playing from your heart, just for the love of it, rather than playing to pay a bill. So coming back to Milwaukee and seeing that is really cool. It makes my heart happy to be able to play music for fun.

A lot of artists are very unique here. I’m curious to see how they can make that translate more on a national level. Artists like Lex Allen, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with in the past. Chris Gilbert has his thing with dancing, which is cool. And he lived in LA, but he’s back in Milwaukee and still travels.

Milwaukee definitely has a great sense of community. When I first moved back here I was pleasantly surprised at the musicianship, the variety of music, there’s definitely a huge circle of different branches of people. I never lived in Riverwest, but my brother did, so I used to go visit him there, and I could sense that whole family feeling.

‘Wonder Uncovered’ group photo

I really like the support I see in Milwaukee. People come to each other’s shows. I didn’t see much of that in LA because everyone is so focused on doing other stuff. I’d be really interested to see more people who are not artists come see this stuff. Because I go to Company Brewing and I see people in the audience who I would usually see onstage and vice versa, so there’s gotta be a way to break through and get more of an audience.

I know people want to be entertained, but there’s a gap somewhere. I’m trying to pinpoint it. I know there’s a lot of stuff going on here, but you need the budget to expand that. It needs support from up top. There’s so much support within itself that it’s almost overflowing, but you have to find a way to bridge the gap between the artists and the consumers. Because artists can only consume so much of each other’s art. You need the capital from the outside to come in to make it flourish even more.

HER OWN PROJECT

Before I left LA, before Cirque du Soleil, I started working on original stuff with some amazing artists. One of my best friends, Eddie Brown, he plays with Stevie Wonder now, we played in a couple of bands together, he helped produce my album. This guy Ron Bruner, he’s Thundercat’s brother, a great drummer, he played with me on the album. Thomas Pridgen, he played with Mars Volta, another amazing drummer.

I’ve got these stacks of hard drives so I’m kind of in the production stage still. It got put on hold because I was traveling for four years. I did my GoFundMe thing and raised about half of it, now I feel like I have more time to get back into that and I can’t even remember half the stuff that’s on there. I just want to sit down and go through it all. There’s so much material. It’s just about organizing it. I hope to have something released this year.

Photo by Aurelie Cassin