Two Musicians, One Brain
A Q&A with AJ Swearingen and Jayne Kelli
By Geoff Gehman
The first time AJ Swearingen heard Jayne Kelli perform in person, he was impressed by her distinctive singing, expressive songwriting and unusual poise. The first time Kelli heard Swearingen perform in person, she was impressed by more. “If he hasn’t made it by now,” she thought, “then I feel better for myself.”
Their mutual admiration society began that 2009 evening during a songwriters showcase at the Hideaway Café in St. Petersburg, Fla. The next year, at the same place, Swearingen invited Kelli to perform with him and she sang his songs as if she had been singing them with him for years instead of minutes. A year after that they became a touring duo, an offshoot of Kelli’s solo projects and Swearingen’s long-running, popular Simon & Garfunkel act with Jonathan Beedle.
Last year the twosome became a true couple. In September they released their first joint record, “Swearingen & Kelli” (CD Baby), a stellar collection of probing instrumentals, burrowing songs and nesting vocals. Standout tracks include Swearingen’s “You’re Not Here with Me,” recorded by Tom Rush; Kelli’s “Give Everything Up,” featured on the Web site of the Bonefish Grill restaurant chain, and a re-recording of Swearingen’s “Realize,” a cloaked confession of another kind of partnership. In December that partnership became official when the musicians became engaged.
Kelli and Swearingen will present their new unions on Jan. 19 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where they performed last October. During a recent phone chat from Florida they discussed their natural evolution as a duo, their streaks of edginess and perfection, and their fondness for everyone from Johnny Cash to Radiohead.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears and soul?
Kelli: The first song I really remember was “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” When I was five I had my first crush on Elton John.
Swearingen: I hate to cop out but I can’t narrow it down to one song. I guess it’s because I started out more with playing guitar than singing. I really didn’t start admiring specific songs until I discovered singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Paul Simon. Simon obviously was a huge influence on me.
Kelli: The first song that really influenced me was Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.” I had a babysitter who was into them and I remember really identifying with it, really being haunted by it. In high school I was introduced to Radiohead and I discovered the similarities in chording between the two bands.
On the flip side I loved Alison Krauss and Johnny Cash, a lot of folk and old country. I have a lot of those influences in my writing: the chord choices and the moodiness; the Johnny Cash end of the spectrum and the Radiohead/Duran Duran end of the spectrum.
Swearingen: My parents used to spin vinyl when I was a kid and I remember listening to Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and especially Gordon Lightfoot. I spent a lot of time with tunes like “Carefree Highway” and “Sundown.”
Q: Who was your most important mentor, someone who persuaded you to become, and stay, a professional musician?
Swearingen: I didn’t really have any allies in that field. Most people discouraged me from pursuing music because it’s such a hard profession. My parents took me to guitar lessons, but most parents are leery of letting their 18-year-old kid pursue something that tough full time.
Kelli: In high school I had a history teacher who was an awesome mentor. I started writing songs in high school and he loved one that I performed in a talent show. He also supported me as the lead guitarist in a backup band of teachers.
My teachers and my parents knew how difficult being a professional musician can be, so they told me I better get a college education, just in case. When I left Michigan for college in Florida my history teacher gave me an Ovation guitar. It looks like the one Paul Simon played during the Simon & Garfunkel concert in Central Park in 1981. That was a beautiful going-away gift.
Q: What impressed you about each other the first time you heard one another perform live?
Swearingen: I was struck by a maturity beyond her years. She was a great singer who took it seriously; as a perfectionist, I appreciated that. She was an original artist who had something to say, who didn’t sound like anybody else. I was struck by her writing right away, too.
Kelli: All I remember thinking was “If he hasn’t made it by now, I feel better for myself.”
Swearingen: After that night, we would see each other from time to time at the club [the Hideaway Café in St. Petersburg]. One night I was performing there and I invited her up. I had given her my  CD, “Way,” and she said she knew pretty much every song. She easily stepped up and performed those harmonies. I didn’t have to tell her to go here or go there.
I ended up keeping her up there for the majority of the evening. That night we had an unspoken connection; it seemed that we had been performing together for a long time. .
Q: Did you make any surprising discoveries during the recording of “Swearingen & Kelli”?
Swearingen: The cool thing about recording together was that there really weren’t any surprises.
Kelli: We’re both big-time perfectionists in the studio. I’ll write a lead part and AJ will take out the slide [lap steel] and execute it pretty much the way I hear it.
Swearingen: Sometimes Jayne will hum a part and I’ll play it on lap steel and, sure enough, it will be really beautiful and carved out. She is very specific about how I should play what she hears; the voices in her head are very strong [laughs].
We joke that we share one brain, and that’s really unusual for two solo writers. I’m not really a collaborator; I can’t sit down in a room of people and figure out what to write about. I’m very stream of conscious and she’s the same way. We both like to let the process rule.
Q: I’ve read that re-recording AJ’s song “Realize” was a pivotal choice for the album. Why was it so important?
Swearingen: Jayne really breathed life into “Realize” when she sang it on my “[A] Straight Line” record . She really breathed life into all my songs; it was like they were somehow written anticipating her contributions. “Realize” somehow symbolizes our coming together.
[Swearingen stops his answer to ask Kelli if she wants him to reveal the romantic significance of “Realize”]
When I wrote “Realize” it really was a subconscious thing. That’s why that song is so important: it’s about us.
Q: I guess that means you’re partners offstage as well?
Swearingen: We just became engaged, just before Christmas, during our first visit to Miami Beach. We needed a vacation to detox from touring and working the whole year. Work and music are separated from rest.
Q: Have you two changed significantly since you became a duo? AJ, do you find yourself writing more for a female voice? Jayne, do you find yourself listening more to more Simon & Garfunkel?
Kelli: Before I met AJ I only knew the Simon & Garfunkel hits: “Sounds of Silence,” “Homeward Bound.” Now I know the whole catalog and I love it. And I do find some of my writing has been influenced by being in a duo. The last year I’ve been writing more specifically for two voices.
Swearingen: I don’t know if I write with a female voice in my head, but I know I’ve absorbed a lot of her writing. She’s definitely influenced me in a good way, with the chord changes and the Radiohead connection. A lot of people say I sound country because I have a lower voice and you can understand what I’m singing–as if the only things that make you country are that people can hear all your words and you’re not singing high like a girl [laughs]. But I have an edgier sound. I like minor chords as well as rich melodies. I’m into music that’s more mood setting than story telling. So is Jayne.
Q: How would you two like to improve most as musicians? Is there a type of song you’re dying to write? Is there a subject you want to cover that’s eluded you for a long time?
Swearingen: I would say it’s not necessarily a type of song or subject matter I’ve yet to tackle. It’s more about always trying to push the boundaries. I love taking these songs we write and producing them with the fewest notes possible. I love exploring and pushing the production values of songs, narrowing them down until there are only two things happening as opposed to many things happening.
Before Jayne I had only tinkered around with lap steel. Around the time we were starting to get together as a duo she was playing solo and in a trio. Sometimes I would sit in on her gigs. I knew all the harmonies on her latest album, so I sang backup. I started playing lap steel with her and just embraced it; I just dove in hardcore. Before long I was playing it with her all the time.
Kelli: What I really want to do is just sit back down for a couple of hours a day at the keyboard and my guitar. I’m getting back into the act, and the art, slowly. I had a little bit of a disturbance at the end of April when I received a concussion. Actually, I gave myself a concussion. I really rang my bell, and I’m still feeling the residual effects. In the early days all I could do was to play the gigs on the book. Now I need to get back into the flow, especially now that we’re incorporating more keyboard parts, especially in AJ’s material.
Q: Speaking of nicer residual effects, Jayne, tell me about the impact of your song “Give Everything Up” on Bonefish Grill’s Web site.
Kelli: Part of the deal with Bonefish is that last September I gave 10,000 free downloads of the song. Plenty of people have written on Facebook that they’ve heard it. That’s very gratifying.
Q: AJ, any memorable, even surreal, reactions from fans to your Simon & Garfunkel project with Jonathan Beedle?
Swearingen: We’ve had so many of those over 20 years. There have been countless times when people come up to us and say “You took me back 30 years” or “I cried 10 times.”
Q: It’s pretty rare for a musician to hear how many times a listener cried. Usually you’ll just hear “You made me cry.”
Swearingen: It’s really cool to be a vessel for that reaction. As I said, Simon was a big influence on my writing. I feel that the songs he wrote for Simon & Garfunkel are some of the best music of the last 30 years. To perform that music the way it was written, to perform it effectively, is a large responsibility. It’s really rewarding to see that reaction because then you feel that you’ve done your job and everybody’s had their experience.
It’s been a really big kick since we started performing [Simon & Garfunkel songs] with orchestras. It’s quite an experience to watch the people in front when the orchestra kicks in with that big sound on “Homeward Bound” or “The Boxer.” That’s made a big ride even bigger.
Q: Do you two have any reasonable goals within a reasonable amount of time? Any new venues or markets to infiltrate?
Swearingen: We want to bust out another album within six months. When I was coming up as a musician it was all or nothing; you either got a record deal or you didn’t make it. The Internet has changed the game; now there are many more avenues besides a record deal. Our goal is to get our new music out front to as many people as possible.
We want to show people that our music is not a fabricated project, that it’s a very living thing with a lot of facets. The more facets you have, the more chances you have to connect with more people. You should hear our remake of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” We’ve given it a really haunting vibe.
AJ Swearingen and Jayne Kelli: The Scoop
In high school Kelli recorded an album and played festivals. She opened for the Calling, an alternative rock band best known for the hit “Wherever You Will Go.”
Swearingen’s song “You’re Not Here with Me” appears on the CD “What I Know,” a 2009 release from Tom Rush, a favorite at the Mauch Chunk Opera House.
During their show last October at the Opera House the duo performed Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” with the Day Rubies.
Swearingen and Jonathan Beedle have performed Simon & Garfunkel songs with orchestras from Edmonton to Atlanta. In February they’re scheduled to join the Philly Pops.
Kelli has bartended and hosted a weekly open mic at a club in St. Petersburg. Swearingen hosted an open mic at a bar in his native Bethlehem when he was 18. “I lasted a few weeks,” he recalls. “It wasn’t really my forte.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Like AJ Swearingen and Jayne Kelli, he digs Johnny Cash and Radiohead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.