Exclusive Video Premiere and Interview: ‘Argosy,’ Lady Lazarus

Published August 12, 2013

ABOVE: MELISSA ANN SWEAT, AKA LADY LAZARUS

In choosing the moniker Lady Lazarus for her musical output, Melissa Ann Sweat has ensured that her recorded work be set apart from the mundane. Invoking both the title character from a Sylvia Plath poem and a figure from the Bible best known for rising from the dead, Sweat’s chosen name suggests despair and hopefulness in equal measure—something certainly reflected in the handful of releases she’s put out since she began working under the name in 2008. Her gently lilting compositions recall the eerie warmth of early Beach House efforts coupled with the stark hermitude of piano-bound singer-songwriters like Perfume Genius or Youth Lagoon. But where those songwriters might focus on the personal, Sweat aims for the existential. The dense clouds of reverb that coat her 2011 effort Mantic and this year’s All My Love In Half Light function not to obfuscate the person behind the songs, but to parallel the hazy subject matter she explores.

After a string of tour dates in support of this year’s record, she has emerged again with a video for one of that album’s standouts, “Argosy,” which we’re pleased to premiere below. Over the phone from her Los Angeles apartment, Sweat speaks fondly of a creative youth that sparked her recent entry into the music world, as well as the processes that spawned this album and the video.

COLIN JOYCE: So you started working as Lady Lazarus in 2008; were you making music at all before that?

MELISSA ANN SWEAT: No, I wasn’t playing instruments at all. I didn’t have any musical training growing up, and I didn’t really pursue it as a kid or a teenager. I had a keyboard at one point when I was little. I remember playing around on it, but I never asked for lessons or anything like that. I played more sports than taking art classes, even though I was really artistic growing up. Then in 2008, I bought this really bad Casiotone keyboard and started exploring. Immediately I decided to give [the project] a name, and it went on from there.

JOYCE: What was it that motivated you to try your hand at music?

SWEAT: I had been a big music fan growing up, I listened to a lot of indie rock and singer-songwriters and went to a lot of shows. Some of my favorite bands in high school were Guided By Voices, Pavement, Aimee Mann, and Elliott Smith. I always liked that kind of music. But beyond being a music fan, my brother Matt taught himself drums and then guitar. He had a band with his high school friends. Seeing them make music and seeing how fun it was made it seem doable. I didn’t have many musician friends, so it was something that was always mysterious to me. At the same time, I’m a creative person, so making things is not foreign to me. Music just seemed magical and difficult, so I didn’t know where to begin. I was also on the shy side growing up, so I didn’t see myself doing the performing arts. I was more into writing and fine arts, so I thought I would go more in that direction.

JOYCE: Were you into visual arts, then, too?

SWEAT: Writing became my main outlet, but visual arts definitely started things. I’ve continued to work in that. Music has just taken over, but I get to work with visual art, too, through making videos and thinking about the art of the project. I was into painting and taking photos. But I think seventh grade was when I became interested in writing, and I was going to school for journalism for a little bit. So I was going in that direction…

JOYCE: And then music.

SWEAT: Yes, and then music completely took over my life in 2008. In San Francisco, I had a nice job at a nonprofit, in the communications department, writing and doing some design work. I wanted to be more creative, and I wanted to write other things, so that’s when I really started exploring keyboard. Then about a year later I decided that I couldn’t really pursue that life on nights and weekends. I started working part-time, and decided to go as hard as I could working on music.

JOYCE: The name that you chose for yourself right when you started is an interesting one, but I have to admit when I first read it, my mind didn’t jump to the Sylvia Plath poem, but to the biblical roots of the “Lazarus” name. Did you intend to recall those ties as well?

SWEAT: I grew up Catholic, so I was familiar with the biblical Lazarus before I came across that poem. In some ways I like to think my music is kind of spiritual even though I’m not religious, so I feel that aspect is fitting, but the main reason I chose it is because of the poem. I really related to Sylvia Plath, like a lot of women do. I remember I was reading her journals and got into that. I also had a little bit of a difficult time growing up. I got into some darker phases. A lot of people hear the reference to the poem and think it’s really dark, but the reason I even named it that is to honor those hard times and for it to be a kick in the ass and say, “You can do better! Rise!”

JOYCE: All My Love In Half Light is the first time you’ve recorded outside of your house, right?

SWEAT: I started recording stuff for Mantic in 2009 to 2010. I recorded all of that stuff at home initially, and then I thought, “Okay, I’m going put out a record, I guess I should go do this properly.” I went to one of my friends who had a home-recording studio in San Jose, and I recorded with him. You know, some of the songs really worked out well, but some were lacking the warmth and human quality that the home recordings had. So for probably 60-70% of the record we went back to my home recordings and cleaned them as best as we could.

JOYCE: And then you recorded this one with Jason Quever from Papercuts.

SWEAT: Yeah, Jason lives in San Francisco, and he also has a home studio. I knew I wanted a happy medium between clarity and the homeyness of Mantic. We recorded in April of 2012.

JOYCE: Was it a natural transition, switching to a more traditional recording environment?

SWEAT: There were a few challenges, but I didn’t want there to be a huge leap between these records. I wanted to focus on making the vocals stand out. The songs had gotten a little tighter and poppier in a way, and I knew they’d stand on their own. I worked on some layering of piano and vocals. I envisioned a little bit more instrumentation, but due to my budget we just ran out of time. If we’d had more time to work together, it might have come together a little more. It really just came down to money. If I had the resources, I could have experimented a little more, but it was good to continue to be a little delicate with it at this point. There was some incremental change, and a few more challenges, but that’s what happens when it’s not just you and a tape recorder.

JOYCE: Tell me a little bit about the video for “Argosy.”

SWEAT: Before, I had been making videos myself and collaborating with people who lived away from me. It was only last year that I started working with directors because I could finally pay them. The video for “Argosy” was directed by Milena Martinovic. We were friends when I went to UCLA and she lives in New Orleans, which I’m really fond of. The video was her idea, but we collaborated on some of the specific concepts. We both really like the films of Maya Deren, and we wanted to have something like that.

Not to get too analytical about a music video, but I feel like it goes really well with the song. The song was inspired by The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and the idea of “the hero’s journey.” I wrote it about when I was living in Savannah, GA. I don’t know if a lot of people realize this, but Savannah is a big port city, so these massive ships come in on the river and you can watch them. It’s kind of trippy because you can’t really see where the river starts. It’s surreal that these massive ships come over from all over the world. I’m used to seeing them come in the Bay area, where it looks industrial, but Savannah just has this desolate beach. I got the idea about someone “waiting for her ship to come in”—that old expression. It was an all-female crew, and we shot it in one day. We ate fried chicken and drank beer and somehow got it done. At some points, I was one wondering if it was going to come together, but it finally did.

ALL MY LOVE IN HALF LIGHT IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON LADY LAZARUS, PLEASE VISIT THE ARTIST’S FACEBOOK PAGE.