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Ember Swift
Canadian indie music artist Ember Swift's song "Laowai"
(Foreigner) from 11:11 landed, ironically, on the Chinese
rock charts.

The East - West Convergence of Ember Swift

From Canada to Beijing to baby - What lies between those words are Ember Swift's latest release 11:11, and a life journey which, like her new album, encompasses many layers and a few surprises

By Shelley Gummeson

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“Love cannot be ignored.  You cannot think yourself out of love.  Love is a dominion of the heart and your heart leads.” – Ember Swift

Love can be a force that changes your life in many ways. Travelling to China, self-described queer girl Ember Swift found unexpected love, marriage, a new baby, and a whole new chapter to her musical career.

When she was little, Ember Swift wanted to be Prime Minister of Canada. As the dreams of being Prime Minister became diaphanous, they were replaced with dreams of performance.  As a young teenager, Ember discovered folk music and began to attend folk festivals which inspired her to pick up the guitar.  This was a switch from her formal education in piano. Following the dream to fruition, she eventually performed professionally at those festivals.  A prolific touring and recording career ensued, and her astute political observations were given voice through her words and music.

Long Shen Dao

Ember Swift is married to Guo Jian (Chinese characters are ??) who is a Chinese rock star twice over.

He worked with famous rock band Cold Blooded Animal (Leng Xue Dongwu which later became Xie Tian Xio") for six years while working with his own band Long Shen Dao. (??) The band's name is technically three separate words that is roughly translated as "Dragon. Spirit. Way." Since there is no English equivalent it is written as Long Shen Dao. Long Shen Dao is an internationally touring reggae band that also incorporates the cultural music of China. The band had played together for a number of years before recording their award winning album Tai Chi Reggae.

See two Youtube videos of Long Shen Dao below.

With a degree in East Asian studies from the University of Toronto, Ember Swift answered the call that was whispering to her and travelled to Beijing where she currently lives with her husband and newborn daughter. “I’ve always wanted to go to China. In 2007 I took a break from my busy touring career and went.  I loved it,” says Ember. “I felt I really had something to learn here.”  To Ember it was recognition of having been there before in another lifetime; it was being attuned to the vibration of the land

While on the formative journey to Beijing, Swift embraced the music community and they reciprocated.  “Despite being a huge city, it’s a small community,” explains Ember. “Contemporary music is at an early stage in terms of infrastructure here.  When I was introduced as a musician I was suddenly introduced to the inner circle of the live musicians that are here and working in China. It was quite remarkable actually.  As a musician back home I occupy a certain level and I didn’t know the famous musicians.  I come here and it’s a smaller pool.  I was suddenly meeting all these rock stars.”  One of those musicians, you could say, rocked her world.  “I was introduced to this bunch of rock musicians, I turned around and thought wow, he is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.  He apparently had the same thought about me.  It was one of those beautiful moments where we noticed each other at the same time.”

Ember Swift, self identified “queer girl,” had fallen in love with Guo Jian, rock star.  “Love changes everything when it comes to your life’s direction,” Ember states emphatically. The two musicians traversed their way through language and culture to the melody of the heart.  They married and have welcomed into the world their daughter, Echo.

During this time Ember Swift entwined her folksy, jazzy, musical style with her cultural immersion and released 11:11. The title has significance on numerous levels. “For me it was quite a significant time,” says Ember. “This was my eleventh album, I released in the year 2011 and by extension November 11.  Also it’s numbers that I have felt a kinship with my whole life. I always see that time on the clock, I always think of it as a lucky time to look up and make a wish and it’s an important year for me so why not name it after the auspicious clock time.”  Continuing to combine art and activism, Ember addresses topics of conservation, religion and government’s intersection, as well as raising your voice and finding peace and love.

It would be fair to say that 11:11 is a labour of love like no other album Ember has released. With her new band founded in Beijing, she has recorded it in English as well as in Mandarin. “It’s such a musical language,” says Ember, “As a singer I feel it’s such a huge challenge to hope to one day speak it perfectly.  Because it’s a tonal language, I feel like I’m singing while speaking.  It’s a joy for me to learn this language.  I would say it’s the most beautiful language in the world.” Ember explains some of the intricacies she found of the Mandarin language and music:  Ember Swift and Guo Jian
Ember Swift and Guo Jian's Engagement Photo
“As a tonal language the tones get lost in the melody.  The one thing is you have to have sense of the context grammatically to understand what a Chinese singer is singing about. The tones won’t give you the clues because while you’re singing it you’re singing the melody rather than the tones.  Once you know the context you can follow along.  I find that if I write Chinese lyrics simply enough, in more everyday speech, that none of my Chinese listeners has trouble understanding what I’m singing about.”

Two of the songs reflect a generational line of women in Ember’s family. “I’ve Fallen In Love With You” and “I Wish I May” (see video below) were written by Ember’s maternal grandmother in the 1940’s. Her grandma is now 94.  A simple love song, “I Wish I May” was the first song that Swift translated.  “People loved it,” she says.“So I translated another of my grandma’s songs.  Both are well requested by my Chinese audience.” According to Ember, the insert of these traditional jazz songs added another dimension to the show that people really liked. Husband and rocker Guo Jian and baby Echo
Husband and rocker Guo Jian and baby Echo
  Ember toured and performed with her guitar balancing on her round pregnant stomach. On occasion she would lift the guitar to introduce the fifth member of the band.  Her daughter Echo now extends that matriarchal line.

Ember Swift is an independent artist who’s been around a while. She’s been able to record eleven albums as well as tour internationally and at home in Canada. She has a pretty solid view of the independent music scene and the importance of it. This is what Ember would like to tell you.   “I think it’s so important that we as listeners open our ears to artists who aren’t on mainstream radio or Much Music.  I think we need to be that much more open to the diversity that’s out there.  I hope that, if nothing else, hearing some music of mine inspires people to open themselves to the huge pool of talent in the independent music community.  I’m an independent artist and I’ve been a sustainable, working, long term artist. I have so much gratitude to my audience for that.  There are so many more independent artists who are struggling everyday to make their careers sustainable.  What it takes is an audience of open minded listeners, music lovers, who are willing to invest the time to listen to artists they’ve never heard of before. That’s from people going on the internet, people attending live music performances, people taking a risk and going to a festival that maybe have no artists on the bill that they’ve ever heard of.  I do think that most of society operates in a very narrow stream that is dictated by mainstream media, in particular television and mainstream radio.  Maybe this interview will help to open the ears of people. Not just to my music but to music by so many independent artists out there.”

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