Life is full of possible courses of action, and sometimes they lead us to unexpected locales. Get to know indie blues rocker, songwriter, artist, humanitarian and lead vocalist of Black Swift and New Buffalo, Michigan native, Sally Grayson.
Before landing on the sixth season of The Voice of Germany television show and TEDx Talks Stuttgart in October and November of 2016, Grayson took charge and set her own course. In India, she not only actively engaged in helping improve human lives, but also embraced a period of self-awareness. Grayson turned to art and music as a means of processing through injustices and traumatic events she witnessed first hand on the streets of New Delhi including bride burnings—a practice where young women are set ablaze by husbands and kin when the bride’s family refuses to pay additional dowry. Awoken to truths about the world around her and the importance of “communal catharsis”, Grayson ultimately relocated to Stuttgart, Germany where for the past twelve years continues to inspire, elevate and improve the human experience through her original music and art. “For most of my life I have had a heart for the outcasts of society—the poor and the oppressed. From helping start a community house in Minneapolis that offered food and shelter to the city’s homeless community, to then eventually moving to India to help care for the poorest of the poor on the streets of Delhi. I intended to stay for two to five years, but after seven months found myself burnt out. Many things happened, but I realized through the process that I’m not a nurse, but am an artist and musician. I have not been given these gifts for nought. It was so hard to leave from doing to very practical work in helping people to then ‘only’ expressing it through art and music. Yet through those experiences, I’ve come to realize that my dream now is to help end poverty, injustice and inequality through my gifts of art and music. The only thing that will really help change the world for the better is in the way we choose to love one another. In the end, it’s my hope that my art and music will inspire people to do just that,” expressed Grayson. There’s strength in adversity and Grayson has got what it takes to stand up for her convictions. Her cathartic storytelling is essential because the songs convey context, emotion and perspective all the while weaving in a simple compelling idea that all humans are 100 percent valuable, beautiful and worthy of love.
Grayson spells out what she was feeling in those last few seconds on stage when blind auditioning for The Voice of Germany: “Gratitude. The Blind Auditions are of course, very suspenseful. You don’t know if anyone will buzz and turn to see you—meaning that you will come further in the show. And if they don’t turn, it’s possible you won’t even be aired on TV. So I was really thankful that I got three buzzers! Plus being on stage and playing music is one of my absolute favorite things to do. The live band for the show is incredible—so to be on that huge stage with great sound accompanied by professional musicians was so much fun!” Grayson gives a justification for choosing the playful “Love Cats” number: “It was actually on a list of songs given to me by The Voice of Germany. Most of the songs on the list I either didn’t know, or didn’t like—but as a long-time Cure fan, I was excited to find that one. Not only that, but it was a really cool rock n’ roll version by a band called the Hot Rats, and honestly I liked that version even better!” said Grayson.
Co-produced by David Artz (Jumbo Jet) and released in 2014, Black Swift’s first full-length album, “The World Howls” aims to please. Stretching the gamut of songwriting and soundscapes, the style ranges from Tarantino road trip Rock to Morricone, to Fugazi to Tom Waits. Grayson’s musical brilliance coalesces well with incredibly talented collaborators, David Artz on guitar, Steffen Eifert (Same Same Here) on drums, and Tobias Unrath on upright and electric bass. Through epic ballads, the energetic post-punk American rock-and-roll collaborators connect emotionally with their audience by way of soul-infused and blues-influenced anthems.
Adding spark and flair to our culture, Grayson sheds light on how she got her start in music: “I’ve been playing music ever since I was a kid, starting with piano essons for many years and eventually I picked up the guitar when I was 15. I never had any vocal training, but always loved singing. In college in Minnesota, I met some fellow musicians and we started a band called Standbye. We put out two albums—the last of which I’m still proud of called ‘The Coping Mechanisms”, said Grayson.
Grayson extends her virtuosity to other mediums and explains how visual arts inform her music. “I studied art in St. Paul, Minnesota with an emphasis in painting.
However, the last six to seven years I’ve been focusing on making collages. This has been very exciting because I have finally found a way to connect my art and music together. I am able to visualize my songs through my collages. In 2014, I released an album with my band Black Swift in which I created a mini art catalog with a collage for each song and with the CD of the songs in the back. I’m excited to do something similar with our next record coming out hopefully in the summer of 2017. Through the first album, I also received some commission work for other bands to create album covers, which has been really fun. So my art is very much influenced by my music, but my music has yet to be inspired from my art,” explained Grayson.
Black Swift’s indie rock-folk-blues inspired live performances are full of personality and a lot of energy. Grayson sheds light on her creative process: “Just like the waves on the lake, there is an ebb and flow. Sometimes ideas rush at me and I need to grab them and run with them. I always have my guitar close by, and thanks to technology, I can quickly record and try out new things. These are special moments when ideas fall upon you like a rushing wave. But those are not so common. Having creative success is a lot of work. It’s really easy to start a new song, but finishing songs is so challenging and takes time and work. It has to do with showing up, taking risks and trying new things out. It can be a struggle, but when something comes together in a way that sits right as a finished work, its one of the best feelings in the world,” expounded Grayson.
Grayson shares her optimism for the coming year and takes time to visualize and dream about her true heart’s desires. From sharing the stage to flying solo, Black Swift is currently working on the newest full-length album slated tor release in the summer of 2017 fittingly titled “See Me Human”. “In the next five years I would love to have a more consistent income as an artist and musician. As anyone knows, trying to make a living as a creative and get food on the table for the family is very challenging. My husband is also an artist, and we’ve had our ups and downs on how to make ends meet. But things are going forward for both of us in a great way, and I can’t tell you how thankful I am. My husband Markus Merkle [www.markusmerkle.com] has just received a 10,000 Euro art prize; including 5000 Euros to be able to print his next art catalog. I not only got asked to perform on the Voice of Germany, but this year I also gave my first TEDx Talk in Stuttgart. This promotion boost is exactly what I need to be able to gain new fans to help move things forward to in the end afford the time to continue to create. I hope in the next five years, I will have played on bigger stages, in front of more people, growing my fan base, and spreading a message of hope and love in the midst of life’s challenges,” expressed Grayson.
The 1993 New Buffalo High School graduate rew up on a hobby farm on Lubke road. “It was a wonderful place to grow up—with lots of land, and lots of different animals. When I got into my teenage years I spent my summers doing a lot of skim boarding on Lake Michigan. When I was 17 I moved on, I had a lot to see in the world. But every time I’m stateside, I head straight for the beach—the shores of Lake Michigan have been and will always be home to me,” said Grayson. Long-time friend, classmate and musical collaborator, Mandy Gettintheledout Owens expounded upon Grayson’s creativity: “Sally sings from her heart. She has to feel it to play it.”
Grayson expressed gratitude toward loved ones, teachers and musical heroes who have helped set her trajectory to stardom: “I would love to thank Mr. Ferguson—my very first art teacher. I went to elementary school at Heritage Christian Academy,which offered no art classes. When I finally and thankfully changed schools to New Buffalo High School, I was so excited to take as many art classes as possible—and, “Ferg” was always there helping and encouraging. I’d also love to thank Jeff and Cindy Dryden. They both encouraged me to play guitar and sing at church and I think it was also those beginnings where I grew to love to sing and play music. And of course, I have to thank my wonderful parents; Karen Thomas and Dave Grayson, for letting me choose the unknown ways of being a ‘free-spirit’ creative and encouraging me in that! I have a whole lot of musical heroes: Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Jack White, Mavis Staples, XIXA, Wovenhand, Savages, Sleater Kinney, to just name a few. This is the music that inspires me to want to write or to want to perform. But what also inspires me to write is just life. When I’m faced with a challenge, sorrow or question, I turn to creativity. I need music and art to help work through life’s hardships, and I’m very thankful to have it as the catharsis I believe all of us need,” said Grayson.
December is a month that fills us with magical wonder. As the holiday season whisks into high gear remember that laughter, loving-kindness and socializing are good. Be sure to check out Sally Grayson’s TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ia2ldxK2rF0. For more information on the artist-musician extraordinaire drop by www.sallygrayson.com and www.blackswiftmusic.com. Social media can help us to understand the bigger picture of reality, turning stories into community conversations. To explore new levels of consciousness or catch up with Sally Grayson, here a few places to start: Twitter @blackswiftmusic, YouTube: www.youtube.com/blackswiftmusic, Facebook: www.fb.com/blackswiftmusic and www.fb.com/sallygrayson. Listen now at Bandcamp: www.blackswift.bandcamp.com.
We can’t ignore the special feelings that pervade the spirit of the season. It is a time to reaffirm our belief that we have a life to play. The key is to enjoy the journey of discovery. So go forth, seek out greater understanding, compassion and good times.