By the time she graduated from the University of Toronto in 1998, Ember Swift was already establishing herself as a notable figure in the post-riot grrl lesbian folk scene. Along with regular touring, she had launched Few'll Ignite Sound, the independent label that promotes her music. Ten years later, she has developed from a stripped-down, literate folkie with clear-cut accusatory politics into a more worldly sound.
Her most recent album, 2006's The Dirty Pulse, exhibits aspects of more straightforward rock in the style of Sleater-Kinney in addition to calypso and African beats, perhaps informed by her international travels. And lyrically, it's fair to say that Swift has moved from a straightforward politics of indignation to a more personal form -- and a more positive vibe. A song like Pulse's "Some Fine Day," with its dancey beat and hopeful lyrics, might have seemed out of place in her earlier work.
But political ire is the engine that drives Swift's music and her popularity, and she hasn't dropped the motif completely. Sexuality, global politics, power structures -- Swift isn't necessarily always coming up with original content, but she's willing to drive home the ideas that her fans believe in, ideas they don't hear from more mainstream sources.
Swift represents one interpretation of what it means to be both DIY and popular in 2008, in that her modus is a good bit different from that of her riot grrl forebears. To be sure, Few'll Ignite is a small independent, but it features Swift only, suggesting that if others hope to gain success they should start labels of their own. Similarly, the label offers an extensive (if slightly outdated) database of industry contacts for those looking to promote themselves and book tours, though Swift herself uses the same booking agent as Toad the Wet Sprocket.
Swift's Jan. 25 appearance at ModernFormations Gallery is nothing if not a DIY affair, though. She will be performing as part of local musician Joey Murphy's queer acoustic singer-songwriter series, which next month features Garrison Starr. Since the demise of the K'vetsch open mic, Pittsburgh has not had a high-profile regular queer performance series; an appearance by Ember Swift would seem an ideal way to kick off a new one.
Queer Songwriters Series featuring Ember Swift, Tracy Drach and Steffany. 8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 25. ModernFormations Gallery, 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield. $8 ($5 students). All ages. 412-362-0274 or www.modernformations.com