Activism in art often comes with an attached set of expectations, and it's especially true in music. Is the artist folk, or punk? What's their defining issue? It can be difficult to resist the temptation to slot an artist into a fixed stereotype about activism as it exists within a particular genre, and even harder to perceive an artist as dodging the concept of genre in the first place.
Ember Swift manages to consistently evade such pidgeon-holing, both in her music and in the causes she advocates. Musically, her political brand of Canadian indie fare has best been described as the bilingual lovechild of Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson. Add to that 'raised on Joan Jett,' and 'infused with the well-informed convictions of a committed socio-political activist,' and the discerning listener is one half-step closer to pinning a fix on the elusive, eclectic music of Swift.
"I'm talking about lots of different issues, from affluence to ecological conservation, and they're all interconnected," says Swift. "I think most political activism becomes fragmented and less effective when you categorize it into causes."
Her music may be heavily saturated with messages about such issues, but she actually walks the socially-proactive walk. In addition to hosting her own workshops on such topics as 'women in music' and 'sustainability in independent music,' Swift founded her own label in 1997, named Few'll Ignite Records, in order to release all subsequent recordings independently.
"I think that artists can play a gig that pays the bills, but doesn't feed them spiritually," explains Swift. "And that's not artistic sustainability in my books. Sustainability means realizing that we do have the capacity to thrive outside of the corporate structure that exists within the music business. With creative entrepreneurial solutions, we can stay afloat."
Swift has done better than just staying afloat. She has come a long way from recording lo-fi solo tracks in a basement studio some ten years ago. The Dirty Pulse, her ninth and most recent studio release, features up to eight artists collaborating on one track. The album's undeniable catchiness, combined with a relentless touring schedule and a positive perspective on the online sharing of her music has brought her recognition both on North American soil and abroad.
"I've noticed that people will download my work, and then turn around and buy more of it," says Swift. "If we only see free music downloads as theft, then we're undermining the whole nature of the artist. No one's stealing my art, because while the CD is a piece of plastic which houses a snapshot of it, my art is an intangible thing that is presented on live stages everywhere."
Such achievements have helped to solidify Swift's success as an independent artist in a largely corporate market, and have also given her a unique perspective of the pressures on women in the industry. It's this outlook, combined with her obvious intelligence, that makes her music irresistable.
"There's this idea that women have to be young and beautiful to be successful," says Swift. "The young male artists are aware that many of their idols didn't come into their prime until their mid-thirties. My advice to women in the music industry is: 'You're not running out of time. Forget what the industry is saying, do the music at your own pace, and don't let anyone rush you.'"