When Alana Sweetwater was a kid growing up on the far westside of Tucson, she carved a star into the trunk of a tree in her backyard. She would come home from school and pray to it. Or with it, or maybe just near it.
"I can't explain it, really. Both of my parents were Jewish, but not really hardcore. My mom would only go to temple on Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) so she could get her name on the list. But for some reason, I've always been really spiritual, just in my own way."
She credits her godmother, who is Native American, with instilling in her a sense of connectedness. To this day, she is awed by the nature of Nature and stunned by the nature of Man.
There's gotta be a song in there somewhere; Sweetwater finds a song just about anywhere.
She was a ham from the jump. A precocious kid, she belted out "Tomorrow" from Annie at talent shows and school theatrical productions. When her parents would take her to a restaurant where they had a piano bar, she'd get up onstage and sing along, usually to the delight of the patrons and to the tongue-biting chagrin of the piano-player.
"My early idol was Dolly Parton," she explains. "I just loved everything about her. She has that booming voice and that flamboyant style. And you just know that if she's singing to a crowd of 10,000 people who are dancing and having a good time, she is still the one who is having the most fun of everybody. I love her."
She grew up in what can only be described as a family compound that's nestled at the base of the Tucson Mountains. As a kid, she would walk along Sweetwater Drive, the road taken from Silverbell Road to get her home.
"It was so strange," she recalls. "I was walking along the road one day, and it just came to me. It was perfect."
And so she changed her name from Alana Swidler to Alana Sweetwater. I asked her if she knew that using a street name like that brought her dangerously close to the manner in which porn-industry performers allegedly select their professional names. She said that she knew about that, but since she never had a pet named Alana, she figures she's OK.
It could be worse; she could have grown up on Camino de la Tierra.
From her earliest days, she knew music would be her life. She also knew things wouldn't always go smoothly. "I remember being frustrated with my career at the age of 7. I think I was born frustrated."
If past is indeed prelude, then Sweetwater's past set her up for a lifetime of writing and singing the blues. When she was just a kid, she and her friend Cody found a bullet in the desert. Geniuses that they were, they decided to do a little MythBusters and see if it could be fired by them hitting it with a rock. She carries with her a nifty leg scar from that incident. Not long after that, she was dragged by a horse. But that's just kids' stuff; who among us hasn't been dragged by a horse and shot?
She was part of the performing-arts program at Utterback Middle School and was charting her career path by the seventh-grade. But not long after she entered Tucson High, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. At a time when a lot of high school kids are worrying about the prom or the geometry final, Alana Sweetwater became the functioning head of the household, taking care of her brother, Ari, while spending as much time as she could with her mom, and trying to keep her dad's spirits up. (By odd coincidence, her father, Steve Swidler, was, for a time, the Ronstadt family dentist.)
Sweetwater's mom fought the cancer for two years before passing away when Alana was 17. She remembers that her dad was an "emotional wreck" for a time, but then he met somebody, and they had a child. "It was hard on my brother and me. We were happy for my dad, but at the same time, we definitely had mixed feelings about our place in the family."
For a while, she helped raise that sibling as well. "In a way, I feel that I've lived my life backward. I was dragged into adulthood before my time."
Complicating matters exponentially, she was in a "serious relationship" at the age of 14, and it carried/dragged on for more than 10 years. The details are fairly grim as love stories go. If you were writing a song about it, the chorus would be, "She got in way too early, and got out way too late."
Sweetwater added a rather unique twist to the star-crossed-lovers routine when, just a few weeks before she ended the long relationship, she actually married the guy.
"I'm not really sure why," she says. "One day, I just said, 'Hey, let's get married.' We went downtown and did all the paperwork, and we got married. That definitely was the beginning of the end."
For some people, marriage turns out to be the perfect cure for romance. For Sweetwater, she's not really sure. Maybe getting married was a shock to her system, or maybe it lifted a veil from her eyes. Or, perhaps, saddest of all, maybe marriage did nothing for her whatsoever. Whatever the case, within a few weeks of having said "I do," she was gone. It was like Isaac Hayes in his classic take on "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."
I love ya', baby, but I got to go,
See, 'cause this man just can't take no mo'.
She lit out for Los Angeles with 80 bucks in her pocket and absolutely no prospects.
Back in the 1960s, Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote about a decidedly L.A.-based phenomenon.
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they'll make you a star.
Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass,
And all the stars that never were,
Are parkin' cars or pumpin' gas.
(Yes, young-uns, there used to be a job where people would pump gas for other people. Oddly enough, that job still exists in Oregon and New Jersey.)
Alana Sweetwater did not have the occupational opportunity to pump gas, and she didn't want to park cars, so she got a job as a waitress. She got lots of jobs as a waitress, sometimes two or three at a time.
"When I first got to L.A., I was broke. Some friends told me that I could stay at their place for three days, and they were very insistent that it would be for just three days. Fortunately, I knew a handful of people, and I bounced around from place to place, a few days at a time, until I found a job. After a few weeks, I had saved up enough money to get a place. It wasn't great, but it was mine."
Over the years, she has continued bouncing around. For a time, she lived in a funky house near Echo Park with other members of the band she was in at the time. She's currently living in an apartment that's so close to the Hollywood sign that she doesn't get cell-phone service in her apartment. If she wants to call somebody, she has to walk down the hill to a coffee shop and hang out there.
(Just imagine living in L.A. and not having cell-phone service. They'll kick you out of the Pretentiousness Parade in a big damn hurry.)
As soon as she got herself established—which, in the case of somebody trying to break into the music business while holding down multiple waitressing gigs, means that she got to the point where she was hanging on by more than one fingernail—she set about gaining entry into the local music scene.
"I'd go to places where they had an open-mic night, and I'd sing until they told me I couldn't sing any more. And if they didn't tell me, I'd keep on singing. I'd look for ads in the L.A. Weekly for auditions or people who were trying to put together bands, or if somebody needed a backup singer. I'd go to clubs and knock on agents' doors. It was very frustrating, but somehow exhilarating at the same time."
As the years have gone by, however, the exhilaration has been hammered into steely determination. There are highs and lows, and until recently, there had been a period with considerably more valleys than peaks.
"I'll never give up. I've proven to myself that I can survive, but I do sometimes wonder what it's like to thrive," says Sweetwater, who declined to share her age.
Several months ago, while deep in one of her steeper valleys, Sweetwater was waiting tables at the Culver Hotel when she struck up a conversation with one of her customers. That diner turned out to be Ben Folds, of the Ben Folds Five and lately of just Ben Folds. They hit it off, with neither knowing that the other was a musician. It was only after he had finished his meal and left that the other waitresses told Sweetwater who he was.
One day, after he had found out that she, too, was a musician, they were just hanging out, and he said he wanted to hear her sing. She said, "My guitar's in the car. Let's go to the park."
She performed an impromptu concert for him, and he was impressed. A couple of weeks later, he was performing at a club in L.A., and she joined him onstage for a spirited rendition of the old Loretta Lynn-Conway Twitty ditty "You're The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly." (You can see it on YouTube.)
"It's so funny. I was really in a down place. I hadn't played anywhere in a while; I hadn't been in the studio. Ben gave me that jolt. It wasn't so much a rah-rah, 'You can do this,' thing. It was more like a kick in the butt: 'You must do this.'"
She got back to work. She finished writing the songs for her album with her new band. And then she got in the studio.
At the very least, a chance encounter at work nudged her in the right direction and got her back on track. (Ever the romantic, I'd like to think that her childhood tree star sent Ben Folds her way.)
With the self-titled CD Sweetwater and the Satisfaction in the can, she and her new band set out on the toughest of all tasks—getting people to hear it. They set up a CD-release gig at a club near downtown L.A., and then started promoting it.
Wednesday, July 25, was another day of perfect weather in Los Angeles. (Or, for those of us who can't stand L.A., it was another day of no weather.) The Bootleg Theater is a 1930s warehouse that has all the charm of a 1930s warehouse. It serves as a venue for the arts community in Los Angeles, hosting a play one week and then music, dance or art shows at other times. This night, Sweetwater and the Satisfaction would be one of three billed acts, sandwiched in between the Family Crest and Two Ton Folk.
The 48 hours leading up to the show had been less than kind. The guys in the horn section who had been hired for the gig were behaving like musicians, so the members of the band, figuring that they had a big-enough sound, got rid of them. The band's regular guitar-player wouldn't be able to make the show because he was fulfilling a contractual obligation by playing in Poland.
Sweetwater, who had been working three jobs in the run-up to the show, decided to quit one of them to give herself more time to write and rehearse. Shortly after she quit, she was let go from another one, and she suddenly went from having too many jobs to not having enough.
If you look at some of the stuff on YouTube (including interviews), you'll see that Sweetwater has these big eyes. She looks like a DeGrazia painting. But, diametrically opposite from the eyes, she has these tiny-ass feet. She probably has the smallest feet in America. She wears a size 5! Even the most-inveterate Chinese foot-binder would frown at that number for being too extreme. She spent much of the day of the show trying to find a pair of shoes to match her dress.
There couldn't have been more than 30 people in the place to hear the Family Crest, but the place filled up nicely after that. More than 100 people greeted Sweetwater and the band when they took the stage. With jet-black hair and bright red lips, she commanded the place and quickly established an easy connection with the crowd. They jumped right to the songs from the CD and drew an enthusiastic response.
Sweetwater's voice—mostly soulful, but with traces of folk, gospel and even a little playfulness—is somehow sweet and gravelly at the same time. ("Someone told me that I sang like Janis Joplin even before I had ever heard Janis Joplin," she says.)
I find her style most closely reminiscent of that of Bonnie Raitt, which is some compliment. Sweetwater plays acoustic guitar, so she doesn't have Raitt's slide chops, but they both have voices that convey a world-weariness with just a tinge of hope that tomorrow might just be the day.
The show didn't go perfectly. The substitute guitar-player they hired for the gig got a tad too enthusiastic at times, and his playing drowned out some of the lyrics.
However, the crowd seemed to really like the show, and the band sold out all of the CDs they had brought to sell, which can't be a bad sign. After their set was over, and Two Ton Folk took the stage, the place emptied out like an Applebee's after happy hour.
There had been some music-biz types in the audience, and Sweetwater and the guys are in discussions with a couple of folks concerning representation. The band's CD is available at their website (sweetwaterandthesatisfaction.com), and they're making plans to go on the road to support it. She'd love to play Tucson.
"I used to play Plush, Hotel Congress and The Rock all the time, first with the band Propaganda Child, and then on my own. I loved it."
She rarely talks about it, but she was offered a recording contract when she was still a teenager in Tucson.
"I think about it sometimes, what would have happened, but I certainly don't obsess over it. I didn't think I was ready. With all the emotional stuff swirling around, it might have pushed me in a bad direction." (The oddball Sweetwater rarely drinks, doesn't smoke and has never gotten into drugs.)
She's ready now, and hopes it's coming.
In a quieter moment, she opens up and says that it sometimes bothers her to see less-talented people succeed. (That would include every young person who has ever worked for Disney.) "I'm not going to let that get me down. I have my self-respect, and I'm not going to compromise."
She takes solace in the fact that all of the successful, talented people she has ever met are gracious and genuine. "I have found that the biggest (jerks) are the least-successful. They're just bitter, and that's not going to be me."
There's one more thing: She has met a lot of successful female vocalists along the way, people she admires. "It's strange. Every one who I've met—Lucinda Williams, Tori Amos, Shakira, Stevie Nicks—they're all tiny like me.
"I take that as a sign."