In the corner booth of a trendy gastropub somewhere in Houston, Sheila Swift draws an impromptu illustration on a drink coaster for the benefit of an enthusiastic waiter. She may be the most promising rock singer to emerge out of Texas this decade, but at the moment she’s musing about a side career. “I want to start a food truck with gourmet grilled cheese on one side,” she says with a straight face, “and a cereal bar on the other.”
Such ambitions may have to wait until her new album is complete. The creative process has spanned well past a year, but the finish line is in sight. She threatens to tell the tale of why the album doesn’t yet have a name. First, though, she insists I try something called bacon-jelly. The topic will turn back to music eventually. But for now her lunch companion, photographer and artist Erik Xydis, affectionately known to Sheila and friends as Rico, whips out his iPad to offer visual evidence as to how the Wizard of Oz could have been a much shorter movie if Dorothy had simply been packing a super soaker water pistol from the outset.
Sheila’s album includes a number called Daisy, which began as a musical sketch which wasn’t originally supposed to go anywhere. But as is so often the case with these things, it evolved into a a song which turns out to be the catchy lead single. The gentle rock tune drips with vocal harmonies which, despite while not really leaning country, sound distinctly like Texas. As I order something called a Ditzy Chicken, we’re joined by a growing entourage. A fellow musician named Jake Shaffer arrives and tells tales of his Camaro before he heads to band practice, while his friend Bentley keeps the jokes coming.
As the gang leaves the BRC Gastropub and moves down the street to a Starbucks which is improbably across the street from two other visible Starbucks, Sheila steps away for a moment to pick up her kids. She returns with female twins, four years old, each named after a Bob. The one named Marley spots a cage of pug dogs in the shopping center and decides she wants one. The one named Dylan begins performing ballet moves for the benefit of the patrons as the group finds its way to the newly opened hotspot Macaron by Patisse, owned and operated by Sheila’s friend Sukanina Rajani.
The gentle balancing act between mom and rock star plays out in real time as Sheila makes sure the kids are properly entertained (or is it proper entertainers?) while making sure the journalist in the room has what he needs. She reveals a half finished song stashed on her phone called Stay which shows off what she does best: a vocal journey which manages to be powerful, vulnerable, sweet, and colorful all at once.
The unlikely mix of artistic attributes may owe its underpinnings to the brain tumor she was diagnosed with when she was a teenager, which is still with her and is causing no problems other than the lingering tiny chance that it could still turn malignant at any time. But that’s shown no signs of happening over the years, and she’s perhaps now living out the childhood on a bigger stage that the tumor never quite allowed her to have the first time around. When she speaks, she has no filter. “The truth will set you free,” she says with a smile while out of earshot of the kids, “but it’ll jack you up.” Coming from her, it sounds more like a gleeful mantra than a resignation.
Sheila Swift nabs me some pastries for the road, which I set down next to her illustration depicting me as a cosmonaut with a tiny giraffe for a sidekick, making clear that the whimsy within her never does quite fade. The album arrives perhaps this spring. No word on the food truck.