The voice of Lady Lazarus has been compared to the likes of Cat Power and her piano playing to such greats as Erik Satie and Philip Glass—she composes her signature piano melodies with repetitions and reverbs—but Melissa Sweat, the talent behind the indie music act, is a whole new artist all her own.

Sweat grew up in San Jose, California, as the eldest of four siblings. Her family’s been there a while, she explains. Her mother and aunt once walked the halls of the all-girls Catholic high school Sweat attended herself. “They’re fun people but not too adventurous, to some degree. They’re comfortable,” she says. “Me doing what I’m doing, it’s sort of new for someone in my family.”

Still, Sweat’s mother and father, a stay-at-home mom and a businessman who runs the family tire store, always encouraged creativity in their household. Sweat remembers a room her parents designated for her siblings to express themselves artfully, even draw on the walls if they felt like it. Incredibly, Sweat never had a music lesson. “I wasn’t even one of those girls who was in a choir,” she says.

All My Love in Half Light

Sweat was eventually noticed by her seventh-grade creative-writing teacher, who “saw something special in her.” By eighth grade, Sweat discovered she actually had a good voice when she auditioned for a stage part in Oliver on a whim. However, Sweat was shy, and dramatic performance was not an option: “All those things led me to pursuing music, but I never thought I’d be a performer,” she elaborates.

Some time after this realization, Sweat was introduced to indie music by her boyfriend at the time, and she was soon discovering artists on her own: Elliott Smith, Guided by Voices, and Pavement, to name a few favorites. She became hooked to this new sound. Upon seeing Joanna Newsom and Cat Power perform at a music festival, Sweat thought: If I were to be a musician, I can see myself doing something like that.

She acquired a “cheap Casio” keyboard from Craigslist and started playing around with it. Her lack of musical training wasn’t a problem—in fact, Sweat saw it as an edge. “People who are classically trained in piano have to learn how to break the rules they were once taught,” she explains. “I don’t know the rules, so it’s all intuitive.”

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At age 25, the shaping of Sweat’s indie music act was born. She chose the name Lady Lazarus, after the Sylvia Plath poem of the same name about a woman who reveals all her scars, wounds, and pain only to rise from the ashes and be reborn into a powerful force of nature.

“When music came into my life, it literally took over,” Sweat explains. “It was a whole new mode of expression for me and it was so powerful. But I had a lot of anxiety and regret that I came to it late in the game, so I decided that if I pursue it, I’d go after it with everything I’ve got.”

While many artists write lyrics first and then figure out the melodies to match, Sweat found it made more sense to approach her music the other way around. She starts at the keyboard and allows the music to draw something out of her, sometimes something unexpected. She wrote “Sick Child” from her first studio album, Mantic, at a time when she happened to be rereading The Secret Garden. She felt impacted by the physically debilitated child in the story, and she remembered a childhood acquaintance of hers who led a similar life to the character. When she began writing the song, Sweat started to cry. “I realized I have this emotional connection with music that can reach in and draw something out of my inner psyche,” Sweat says. “It’s very powerful.”

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For her second and latest studio album, All My Love in Half Light, Sweat addresses her need to cut herself off from unhealthy relationships. “I’m revealing all my love, the stories, how I feel—but there’s an occluded feeling in my music, a mystery,” Sweat says. “I’m revealing it in half light because I’m not quite healed yet, and all my love as an individual can’t yet be realized.”

Today, she’s touring the west coast, and writing songs all the while; though she normally prefers to write songs at her house, she feels like she needs to “get these songs out,” she says. And though she’s only been doing it for five years, Sweat’s getting the hang of life as a musician. “I just wish it came sooner,” she says. “Music has helped me out.”

Here are Lady Lazarus’ upcoming tour dates:

-Thursday, Oct 24 @ The Starry Plough, Berkeley, CA w/ Antonette Goroch & more TBA

-Friday, Oct 25 @ Cafe Stritch, San Jose, CA w/ Plantain, Battlehooch

-Saturday Oct. 26 @ KCPR Fall Flood Festival, San Luis Obispo, CA

-Thursday, Nov 7 @ The Lost Leaf, Phoenix, AZ w/ Wooden Indian

-Friday, Nov. 8 @ The Product Division, Santa Fe, NM

-Saturday, Nov. 23 @ The Mint, Los Angeles, CA w/ Mimi Zulu & more TBA

Lady Lazarus released two b-sides from All My Love in Half Light, available for free download. All photos are taken from the Lady Lazarus Facebook page.

Lady Lazarus