“I started off with my guitar, singing folk songs,” said jazz singer Inga Swearingen. A frequent guest on National Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion show with Garrison Keillor, Swearingen will perform with her jazz band Wednesday, July 22, at Freight and Salvage.
Swearingen, who was born in Sweden, Texas, and grew up in San Luis Obispo, where she still lives, “took choir through school, not one-on-one singing lessons. But my parents and my sister sang. Music was always there.”
Trained operatically, “jazz came first.” Her high school had a jazz choir and “I had a sense of basic swing and tight jazz harmonies in my ear after high school.”
Studying formally with mezzo Jacalyn Kreitzer, “who flies off to do something at the Met, then back to teach 30 kids a week in San Luis Obispo,” Swearingen strengthened a voice “that was not big ... when I arrange tunes, I arrange very sparsely. I leave a lot of open space. I know where my voice likes to sit. It’s the kind of music I like to hear, too, with lots of space, where you can hear each instrument.”
Studying operatic singing, she said, “we both knew I had no intention of becoming an opera or classical singer.”
Majoring in music at Cuesta College, Swearingen’s jazz choir went in 2003 to the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. There she “saw there was a workshop with Swiss singer and ECM recording artist Susanne Abbuehl. She asked for a volunteer; I raised my hand. She had me sing ‘Summertime,’ put it in five, phrase it all scrunched up, but with the last four measures stretched out, so ‘easy’—sounded easy!”
Swearingen continued to write Abbuehl e-mails for two years until she had the money to return to Switzerland, taking private lessons in Lucerne. “She taught me where, under the big umbrella of music, my voice fits in.”
Abbuehl had studied North Indian classical singing with Dr. Prabha Atre. “She taught me as Indian teachers do, when they take on a student. We’d cook together, have meals together. Things just bubbled up naturally. I could see how she balanced it all. I patterned my career after hers.”
After Switzerland, Swearingen applied to Florida State University, and took her MFA in choral conducting at Tallahassee. “I wanted to study more about music, and have the option to teach.”
Meanwhile, Garrison Keillor of “The Prairie Home Companion” came through San Luis Obispo. “The piano player from my jazz band sent in a CD, in case they were considering local talent. Probably having a name like Inga Swearingen got it to the top of the stack.”
Speaking of Keillor, she said, “We hit it off right away. He loves improvisation, scat singing ... I think that’s what he tries to do, reading a story.”
Swearingen’s been invited back “13 or 14 times. I got to go to Wolf Trap, Tanglewood, amazing venues,” she said. “It was a lot of fun, and very spontaneous. You never know what’s going to happen until moments before the show. They try out stuff, then rewrite it at the last minute. It’s exciting and scary. I’m exhausted after the show; I don’t see how he does it.”
Being a frequent guest on National Public Radio “was such an opportunity,” she said. “People would write to me; amazing they still take the time. There’s no other show like it, combining music with humor. Listeners plan their day around a radio show!”
Still, it’s “a slow, steady climb; I spend so much time at it. I have an amazing husband and family. It takes so much energy to get a gig, not being known.”
Swearingen has performed in Berkeley before at the JazzSchool, at Jazz Vespers around the bay and with Anton Schwartz at Peralta loft concerts.
She’ll be releasing a new CD, First Rain, in October. “There’s a clear difference between this and my other two. It’s jazz—jazz chords and harmonies—but folk jazz, with guitar, stand-up bass, percussion and my sister’s voice in harmony. The two voices together make it more folk.”
The new CD will have “a handful of jazz standards, a couple folktunes—a Swedish folk song and John Jacob Niles’ ‘Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,’ and a handful of original tunes.”
“I love different genres,” Swearingen said. “That was something about school that disenchanted me, the general sense you could only do one thing, and never the twain shall meet. But Bobby McFerrin does it! He jumps across the line all the time. I want to pull from every single genre I’ve been influenced by, into my sound.”
8 p.m. July 22 at Freight and Salvage. $18.50.-$19.50. 548-1761. www.thefreight.org.