Desert Meditations: 
 AV talks with Swartz et aka Steve Swartz


Steve Swartz

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Desert Meditations

AV:  Tell me about what music has meant to you in your life and how it morphed from something you listened to into something that you actively worked with as a musician.

SS:  Music has been a constant in my life. It was pretty clear to my parents from a very young age that I was going to be musical. While I was in the womb, my parents would be somewhere and music would come on and I would start moving. Not exactly the most comfortable situation for my mom. I was always fascinated by how music made me feel. My obsession grew as I got older. Once I started learning how to play instruments, I became more and more interested in exploring sound for myself. I felt connected to the music that I loved. It was all very electric for me. I wanted to make music that made people feel all the things I felt when I listened to music.

AV:  Was ambient/drone music something you discovered right away or did you go through other genres to start with?


SS:  I heard a lot of jazz, country, gospel and Top 40 music growing up. As I got older, my tastes widened. I had a pretty voracious appetite and listened to punk, metal, rock, goth, blues, folk, electronic, classical, film scores. I basically listened to anything I could get my hands on.
I’ve always been a bit of a night owl and I remember listening to an overnight radio show in Detroit. That’s where I was exposed to the music of Brian Eno, Cocteau Twins, Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin. It was such a different world of sound. And then my dad introduced me to the music of Arvo Part. His string scores were fluid and drifting and sounded like they came from another dimension. That was the gateway.

AV:  Is there a different mindset that a musician must get into when composing ambient/drone music as compared to composing top 40 rock music? How is it that you go about making this shift in thinking when you start work on a new piece of ambient music?


SS:  I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but for me, the mindset and process is completely different between the two. When I’m working on a more traditional song for a project, there’s intentionality. There’s a mindset of “I’m making a song and this is what I’m trying to communicate.” I’m trying to create an experience and connect to an emotion. In a way, I’m the driver. But when I’m working on an ambient/drone project, the experience is happening to me. I’m the passenger. Sound is being made and I’m reacting to it and it’s pulling thoughts and emotions out of me. It’s telling me what is going on.

AV:  When people ask you what kind of music you play is it difficult to explain to them what ambient music is if

they aren't already familiar with the genre?  Tell me how one of these explanations might go as you try to explain what ambient is.

SS:  I usually get a questioning look. It really is kind of an ambiguous term for most people. So I usually end up clarifying that what I do is largely instrumental with an emphasis on moods and emotions. After all, we are more emotional creatures than logical ones. I don’t believe music is passive. Most of it is birthed in a moment of inspiration which always has emotion attached. Which is why I try to lead with the heart and think as little as possible when making music. We can’t always meet each other in the space of our minds, but emotions are universal and there’s always a reason for their existence despite all of our logic.

AV:  Do you compose or play anything but ambient music? Does composing in other genres help you to bring a fresh set of influences into your ambient compositions?

SS:  My ambient compositions have had the most visibility in recent years, but I do get to explore more overt song structures when I’m playing guitar in the band Au Revoir Borealis or quieter acoustic things with a project called For Wishes. I’ve also recorded music for commercials, TV shows and documentaries. As for working in other genres, I think it definitely brings fresh insight to my work. It’s like interacting with people from different backgrounds or cultures. You get to know them. Hear their stories. You learn what shapes them. And over time you discover that your ability to understand the heart of things gets easier. And I believe that transfers to any creative discipline.

AV:  When did you decide to start sharing your music in digital/physical formats with others? Has that process been one that you look forward to with each new album you put out?

SS:  The first thing I ever “released” was a cassette tape of experimental guitar pieces. I think that was around 1996. I have actually heard from a few people recently who still have their copy! I shared it with people in my music and art school circles just to share the work that I was excited about. I was trying new things. When I started getting feedback from people who really enjoyed the work, I was encouraged by that. I knew from that moment on that I was going to continue doing that no matter what. And I still get excited every time I put something new into the world. I make the music for myself first. It has to mean something to me.


But after that, I figure it may mean something to someone else. Once it’s released, it’s no longer mine. It’s whatever it needs to be to the listener. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate that with each release, I get messages from people in all sorts of places in the world where the music has reached them and touchedtheir lives in a meaningful way. It’s always an honor that I have never taken lightly.

AV:  Do you do all the recording, mixing and mastering yourself?

SS:  I do, for the most part. Recording and mixing happens at the same time for me. By the time I’ve finished recording a piece, it’s usually pretty close to mixed at that point. I have mastered most of my own work because of cost, to be honest. I often can’t afford the expense. There are ears that I trust though. People like Rafael Anton Irisarri, Simon Scott, Carl Saff. But another factor that weighs in, is that I usually have a strong idea in my mind about how I want the final product to sound. So when I’m done recording and mixing, I’ll set it all aside for a month so that I can come back to it with fresh ears and perspective before mastering.

AV:  Your latest album is called Desert Meditations and will be available on April 8, 2022.  Tell me about the beginnings of this album and what had inspired you to get started on it.

SS:  I was traveling in the western mountains and deserts of America in 2021. I needed to get away after a really hard 2020. I was mentally and emotionally processing a lot of loss and grief. I didn’t have room to bring much with me. I brought a little synth and a laptop so I could experiment with some new things. I’m primarily a guitar player. So this seemed like a good mental exercise. Everything on the album started as these little meditative things I would play outside in the desert to clear my head. I liked them and captured them to possibly use on something somewhere in the future. But when I got home and started listening to them, they felt fairly complete to me. I added a few things here and there. But it was mostly done. I went to the desert for some clarity and mental health and returned with an unexpected album.

AV:  For this new album you spent time out in the desert recording it. Was this something new for you or do you regularly do field recordings that end up in your music?

SS:  I’ve never done anything like this before. I have traveled and recorded in other places, but it’s always been in a controlled indoor setting. But doing something outside and musically reacting to the environment was a completely new experience for me. And I’ve always been fascinated with the sound of places. I grew up in Iowa and Michigan. The sound of wind in trees and fields and the sounds of the Great Lakes are embedded in my mind. I’ve always recorded the sound of places that I travel to but have never done anything with the recordings. This is the first time I’ve incorporated sound from the place as well as recording music in the place. It’s something I would definitely like to explore more in the future.

AV:  What was it most about the desert that you wanted to capture with the music you were making and how well do you think that you succeeded in this task?

SS:  I really wasn’t sure if I would capture anything, but I was curious if a completely foreign environment would draw a different musical reaction out of me. I had no expectations. My only plan was to show up and allow myself to be a conduit for whatever needed to happen in each moment. I think it worked well. I’ve performed pieces from the album a few times now and each time people have reacted positively and said they felt like they were there in the desert with me. They could feel the waves of heat and the vastness in the music.

AV:  What differences do you have to consider when recording in the field as opposed to recording at home?

SS:  There are a lot of environmental factors that are out of your control. That was one thing I discovered quickly. When it’s over 100º in the desert during summer time, the computer will only stay on until it gets too hot. Then it automatically shuts off. In my case, I had about 20 minutes each time.

AV:  Once you had made the field recordings what was your process for working with them to achieve the final version of your album?

SS:  When I got home, I started listening to what I had recorded and gave each piece some room to let me know if it needed anything else. A few of them needed some additional little parts and then a little editing and mixing. But it wrapped itself up rather quickly after I returned home.

AV:  What are your thoughts about Bandcamp & the various other ways that fans can listen to your music online? Are purchases still the best way for those who love your music to support you so that you can continue to make new music?

SS:  I have a love/hate relationship with music technology these days. I love the convenience like everyone else. And I love that there are more outlets than ever to discover new music. But I’ve never been comfortable with the business interests that hold the reigns and take most of the profits. But I do love Bandcamp. They take the smallest cut of any online retailer. And since music isn’t my main source of income, all money earned through sales goes right back into making music or maintaining studio equipment. Streaming is convenient, but purchasing paves the way for future work.

AV:  When you go to put Desert Meditations on the streaming services what kind of process do you have to go through to get the music onto each service? Are there any fees involved with putting your music onto each music streaming service? I'll be the first to admit I don't know what this entails as I've never had to do it before. Maybe fans might be interested in just how much effort goes into making sure that their favorite music is available to them in as many places as possible.

SS:  Thankfully I get to work with a distributor that handles the most complex parts of the process. When I have an album completed, I reach out to them and they give me a “to do” list of specifications and assets to turn over and they take it from there. Back in the earlier days of digital media, it was a lot more work.

AV:  When folks purchase your music and begin listening what would you like to see them take away from the experience of immersing themselves in the music of Desert Meditations?

SS:  My main hope for the album is that listeners would be able to find whatever they need to find in the music. Just as I showed up to places in the desert with a little synth and let the land reach through me, I hope listeners can just show up and be in the presence of the sound and let it say whatever needs to be said. I’m hoping it brings people the same comfort that it’s brought to me.

AV:  Any thoughts you'd like to share about your music here at the end of the interview that we haven't already talked about?

SS:  As I was saying earlier, I try to allow myself to be a conduit. To channel emotions and experiences through sound. My hope in doing that is to bring validation to things that are hard to express. Things that there are no easy words for. I’ve experienced a great deal of loss in my life that has been quite painful. So I always leave space for empathy and compassion to exist in the work. Even when it’s dark or noisy. I want the music to be a balm. Not just a sound, but a place the listener can wrap themselves in and feel like they have been seen in some way. To be heard and seen is to feel loved.

AV:  Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us here at Ambient Visions and to share your thoughts on your music with us. We appreciate it and wish you a long and happy music making career.


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