There is a certain type of artistic girl. You know her: thoughtful and maybe slightly removed, with her face in a book of poems and often wearing clothing of the lace-and-velvet variety. There is something medieval about her, otherworldly. She possesses a certain presence, a current of concentrated energy suggesting that underneath her calm, perhaps shy, veneer lies a busy interior world of tremendous thought and emotion. Sometimes for these girls, however, the world becomes too much — the façade cracks, things fall apart.
As Lady Lazarus, Melissa Sweat joins a line of female artists including Joan Didion, Cat Power, Sylvia Plath, Fiona Apple and Joni Mitchell, for whom the act of creation is less a hobby and more a lifeline of confession and catharsis.
On her recently released sophomore album, All My Love in Half Light, Sweat presents a suite of experimental surrealist pop, both minimal and deep, as haunting as it is enchanting.
She's not well known; both of her albums have been self-released, and she hasn't toured much. But on Half Light there is the sense that a potentially vital artist has entered the scene.
Pitchfork gave the album a 7.8 and noted that its “balance of cool circumspection and human warmth is just one of the deep contrasts churning her music's simple surface.”
Sweat now is receiving calls from prospective managers and labels, as well as booking local shows, all while working from home at her day job in online marketing and social media strategy. (The income has funded her artistic endeavors.)
In person, on this weekday afternoon at the HMS Bounty in Koreatown, Sweat is warm; she thanks you for meeting her here, thanks you for asking a question she likes, thanks the waitress for bringing her red wine.
Having walked here from her nearby apartment, she is quick to laugh, easy to talk to, and speaks lyrically, casually using words like “vicissitudes.” She is the kind of woman you want to be your best friend, the kind of woman you know you can tell all of your secrets to because they will be safe with her.
Now 30, Sweat grew up in San Jose, the oldest of four children and the only girl. As an adolescent she was a “sensitive, writerly type of girl,” well liked by her peers. An athlete and a good student, she was always an artist of myriad disciplines, exploring painting, fine art and writing before moving north to attend college at Seattle University.
There, during her freshman year, she had a dark period. She struggled, feeling disconnected from other people and experiencing escalating periods of depression. She began taking Prozac and felt a contradiction between her put-together persona and anxious inner self.
After a hurtful conversation with an ex-boyfriend during this tenuous period, she took steps, she says, tearing up, to “not be here.”
Shortly thereafter came a period of “crazy ups and downs” caused by a drug addiction, for which she went into outpatient rehabilitation. (She declines to name the drug, noting only that it was “very addictive.”)
When she emerged, she transferred to UCLA, to study literature, and after graduating college moved back up the coast to San Francisco to work at a nonprofit. She loved the job, but it wasn't satiating her creative urges.
After having a “25-year-old crisis,” she bought a Casio keyboard off of Craigslist — “cruddy and great in its crappiness” — and began teaching herself to play it in her studio apartment in the Mission District. She was on to something.
“I recognized a quality in the music that I knew was good enough,” Sweat says. “It had a really unique sound that I felt fell in line with other musicians I liked. That was surprising to me, that it was actually kind of OK.”
Taking inspiration from her idols, including Tom Waits, Joanna Newsom and Bill Callahan, Sweat moved forward with this “holistic art project.” She took her name from a poem by Sylvia Plath — which she had discovered at UCLA — called “Lady Lazarus,” in which the writer reflects on a suicide attempt. (“And I a smiling woman/I am only 30/And like the cat I have nine times to die”).
Sweat felt the moniker aptly addressed her own fall and rise, and also served as a self-reminder to instill her life with more of the rising part than the falling.
“There was this internal struggle that started even back [when I was very young], like the artist's struggle. You just think differently, you challenge life. There's something of a rebel in you. I had that.
“Lady Lazarus is definitely because of that time,” she continues. “Feeling like I'm coming back from the dead, from a really dark period.” After all, Plath wrote: “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.”
When Sweat began playing music in 2008, she found that the process helped her to understand and express emotions she didn't even know she had. (“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means,” Didion wrote.)
Sweat recorded her debut album, Mantic, in San Francisco before moving to Savannah, Ga.; she felt called there by the small-town vibe and creative community. In Georgia, she eased herself into the world of live performance while nannying to pay the bills. She returned to Los Angeles last September.
Mantic sees Sweat exploring her newfound creative process; the title refers to powers of divination or a connection with the spirit world. “That's really how I felt at the time,” she says.
All My Love in Half Light, meanwhile, finds her in full command of these skills.
It is deceptively simple music. On the surface, elemental piano shares the spotlight with clear, forthright vocals that come from down in the gut while also maintaining a lightly ethereal quality.
This faraway sound explores themes of maturity, found in everything from love and femininity to self-possession.
“If life is for wanting, and I am for wanting, then I want for nothing,” she sings on “Eventide.”
On “Goudunov” — which she describes as “your standard self-esteem song” — she repeats, “I am good enough for this world” over and over, until she actually seems to believe it.
“With this album I was very explicitly dealing with love and everything related to that,” Sweat says. “I was definitely working through a sort of a spiritual housecleaning of past relationships.” Thus, old patterns and habits were discarded.
“I started to say no to casual relationships and casual sex. I had a sense of not wanting to be with anyone until I felt like it was love.” (As poetic justice would have it, Sweat started dating someone shortly after moving back to L.A.)
“It sounds so retro,” she says, laughing, “and counter to the type of woman I've been since I was young. But what I really realized was that I'm not invincible, emotionally.”
An admission of weakness? Not at all. In fact, it is much more the opposite.