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Timothy Finn blogs about the Kansas City music scene

Platte City’s Sara Swenson ready to show off songs written in UK

07/17/2014 1:00 AM

07/15/2014 2:30 PM

The past two years have been a whirlwind for Sara Swenson.

In June 2012, after she’d left her high school teaching job in Platte City, Swenson moved to London to be with her eventual husband. After they married and moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland, she returned to Kansas City twice to update her working-visa status (from “entertainer” to “fiancee” to “spouse”).

Along the way, she wrote nearly all the material for her third full-length record, honing many of those songs in dozens of gigs at festivals and folk venues around the United Kingdom.

Her stay overseas was fruitful and brief. In December, 18 months after she moved to London, Swenson returned home with her husband, but not before stopping off in Nashville for two weeks to record “Runway Lights,” which she released officially Tuesday. Two weeks after the recording was done, she returned to teaching full time in her former school district.

“It’s been kind of crazy,” she said.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Swenson sat in a booth at the Brick on McGee Street and talked about the past two years. The Brick, coincidentally, is the place she met her husband, Michael Price. That was in September 2011. Swenson was performing at a surprise birthday party for someone who’d become friends with Price at Oxford. He and Swenson met, hit it off and started a high-tech long-distance relationship.

“We Skype-dated for a while,” Swenson said.

By then, Swenson had stepped back from her full-time teaching job, substituting here and there and focusing more on her music career. As their relationship blossomed, she figured she had another motive to take the complete leap into music.

“The relationship made it easier for me to say, ‘Let’s see how it goes,’” she said.

So she sold most of her belongings, stored the rest and moved to London, where Price lived.She started writing songs for “Runway Lights,” the first of which was “Big Pretty City,” her reaction to living in a large foreign metropolis and knowing no one but her husband.

The song is ethereal, awash in airy vocals and sounds that are both electronic and organic. It signifies a new direction from Swenson’s previous full-length, “All Things Big and Small,” a dandy collection of tuneful and well-crafted acoustic/electric folk songs.

“I wanted this album to be a hybrid of different influences and things I’d been listening to,” Swenson said. “And not just music I’d been listening to, but books and movies.”

There was something else she wanted on this album, and it greets the listener immediately, at the start of “Darling Dear,” the album’s title track: horns.

“I saw Glen Hansard in Galway,” she said of the Irish singer/songwriter. “I’m so used to him singing his acoustic heartache ballads. But at this show, he was so inspiring and joyful. He had a full band and a three-piece horn section swaying back and forth, and he was doing Aretha Franklin covers. It was so much fun. I remember coming away thinking, ‘I really want horns on my next record.’”

As she wrote songs for that record, Swenson tried them out in clubs in Belfast, which has a robust music scene that embraces American performers, she said. Among two of her many gigs: opening for Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek and the Canadian folk troupe the Once.

“It was an inspiring environment,” she said of Belfast. “It reminded me a lot of Kansas City: so much talent. It was fun to get swept into what they were doing. They bring in a lot of American acts. They have an annual Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. And there’s a group called the Belfast American Folk and Roots Club that features American artists or people playing American-style folk music.”

In 2013, Swenson and Price knew they’d be moving back to Kansas City, so she started sending demos of her songs to producer Don Chaffer in Nashville. She told Chaffer how she’d envisioned the album, including the electronic elements.

“It was something relatively new to him that he’d been dabbling in lately,” she said, “so he was excited to try it out.”

Swenson had worked with Chaffer before. He produced “All Things” and her debut album, “Sara Swenson.”

“We communicate really well,” she said. “We Skyped about the feel I had in mind for different songs. So he and Greg LaFollette laid down some atmospheric foundations and grooves for some of the songs so by the time I landed in Nashville, a lot of the groundwork had been done.”

She and Price arrived in Nashville near midnight on a Saturday in December via Boston and Charlotte, and after a bus ride from Belfast to Dublin. They took the next day off to recover from the jet lag and hit the studio the following Monday. The studio work was done a few days before Christmas.

Billy Brimblecom Jr., a former Kansas Citian living in Nashville, played drums on both “Lights” and “All Things.” He said with each recording, Swenson improves as a songwriter.

“I’ve worked with Sara off and on for a long time now, and it’s been awesome to see her songwriting just get better and better,” he said. “Sara is interesting in that she started writing songs as an adult. So I feel her adulthood has informed her songwriting, of course, but also made her progression as a writer happen quite quickly.”

The bustle didn’t subside once the record was done, however. Swenson started her new job teaching English full time at the Northland Career Center. Price, a former documentary producer for the BBC, has started his own production company, English Landing Films, and is now working on a documentary for KCPT.

But it’s summer, and the dust is settling, so Swenson is ready to unleash her album and start playing live gigs. This weekend, she will perform at two house concerts (see box): one on the West Side of Kansas City, the other in her hometown of Platte City.

“I’m really excited for this format,” she said. “It’s a more intimate gathering so I can share the stories of these songs, which are about a whole chapter of my life. There are a lot of stories to be told.”

While in Belfast, she started tinkering with looping sounds electronically, and now accompanies herself in solo performances with vocal, guitar and keyboard loops.

It’s her way of re-creating the lush atmospheres that fill the album, a lovely collection of anthems, ballads and hymns that changes moods consistently, especially when the horns make an appearance, but sustains a soulful, mesmeric vibe throughout. It also represents one of the busiest periods in her life.

“As far as creating the atmospheres I wanted, it exceeded expectations,” she said. “This is exactly what I wanted, and I’m really happy about it.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com.

This weekend

Sara Swenson will perform music from “Runway Lights” at two house concerts this weekend: at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Kansas City and at 7 p.m. Saturday in Platte City. The location of each concert will be disclosed upon purchase of a ticket. Tickets are available for $10 at brownpapertickets.com.

‘Runway Lights’

Copies of “Runway Lights” are available at saraswenson.com. A download is available “at your price.” A compact disc and download version is available for $11. Also available: copies of full-lengths “All Things Big and Small” and “Sara Swenson” and the EP “Never Left My Mind.”

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