The Happy Afterlife of George Costanza's Girlfriend: Heidi Swedberg and the Sukey Jump Band
What would happen if George Costanza—Seinfeld’s perennial loser—had to interview singer Heidi Swedberg?
He'd talk to her for almost an hour, then discover the tape recorder didn't work. Yeah, it happened to me. Call me George.
Actually, George and Heidi have met before. In fact, he almost married her—rather, he almost married Susan, Swedberg’s character on the show. You remember Susan, who died from licking toxic wedding-invitation envelopes? To which the groom-to-be’s response was a matter-of-fact "Huh."
But Swedberg is having the last laugh—as the joyfully kid-friendly, ukulele-playing frontwoman of Heidi Swedberg and the Sukie Jump Band.
Imagine my surprise when I ordered a copy of the indie outfit’s new CD, My Cup of Tea, from SukeyJumpMusic.com and mere hours later an e-mail popped up in my mailbox from Heidi herself: "Thanks, Bill. Want it signed to someone?"
I don’t have children, so I didn’t (though she ended up scrawling a lovely note anyway). I explained that I’d happened upon her music and was interested in doing a Q&A with her. (Well, because of the recording snafu, there’s no full transcript, hence no Q&A format, so you’re reading plan B.)
In the meantime, I familiarized myself with My Cup of Tea when it arrived: a whimsical, inventive, and musically spot-on collection of songs—Americana meets world—aimed at smart, open-hearted, goofy kids and their grownups.
Swedberg writes in the liner notes: "Like a good cup of tea, music is a social event; something shared, connecting us to other people, other places and the past. Communion. Connection is what makes life rich."
The whole album, featuring a rec room’s worth of singers, youngsters, and instrumentalists—chief among them Swedberg’s multitalented core band members, John Bartlit and Daniel Ward—does indeed feel like an all-ages party. And all-instrument: Besides the through-line of the ukulele, there’s banjo, coronet, marimba, guitar, drums, glockenspiel, jaw harp . . . .
The song "Cup of Tea," cowritten by Swedberg and one of her two daughters ("You are my cup of tea, I take you every day; you are my cup of tea, I take you every way . . .") works equally well as a kiddie sing-along and a flirtatious bauble Mom and Dad might toss back and forth to each other.
Swedberg’s adaptation of Edward Lear’s poem "The Owl and the Pussycat"—which moseys along with the help of uke and tuba—and the kookily caffeinated "Istanbul" ("So take me back to Constantinople, no, you can't go back to Constantinople . . .") allow the actor in her to ham it up with voices, accents, and sound effects that no doubt delight kids she entertains in shows and classrooms in Los Angeles, where she lives.
There are familiar chestnuts—soothing versions of "Simple Gifts" and "Hobo’s Lullaby," a cornpone "Comin’ Round the Mountain"—but some of the nicest pleasures are the surprises (frankly, even most of the chestnuts are surprises): a saucy "Al Tambor," a traditional Panamanian tune; the Spanish lullaby "Duermete," a duet with Cesar Bauvallet; "Johnny Martin," a jaunty, ragtag march said to be a favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s ("Hey, Johnny, play your fife and drum!"); the lilting hand-holder "Turn the World Around," cowritten by Harry Belafonte.
It all adds up the best kind of kids’ music: zany, at times reflective, and culturally varied, with one foot doing the hoky-poky in the past and the other dancing in the happy now.
About that interview . . .
Heidi Swedberg loves children and singing and playing (in all senses: the title of her previous CD is Play!) and, most of all it seems, making music together with people, young and old—she works with adults who have dementia as well. I know this because as we talked by phone, I could feel her enthusiasm clear across the three-hour time difference ("Everyone can sing!").
Swedberg says she's not much of a "consumer" of music, not much for listening to it as entertainment. She prefers to get out there and do it. Asked to name singers she admires, she mentions Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Elizabeth Mitchell—the last of these the only one remotely like Swedberg musically and the one she speaks of most fondly, citing the sweetly singing Smithsonian Folkways kids’ musician as an inspiration.
Swedberg’s own voice? I suggest the word "real," and she agrees. She has a sure hand with the uke, an instrument she picked up at age five when she and her sisters each got one as a present on Easter when the family was living in Hawaii.
She's on a mission to let people, particularly little ones, know that they can sing, and she protests when I comment that I’m not particularly musical myself. "Music is your native tongue," she says, like how I knew from the earliest age to say "I have a sandwich" rather than "I has a sandwich."
Swedberg, 47, is concerned about kids growing up these days without songs in their hearts and memories that speak of the range of human experience—"My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," for instance, which her generation (and mine) was raised on. That song, she points out, is about grief, a useful thing to share feelings about. "What are kids today going to remember?" she asks. "The Mario Brothers?
No longer acting much (though apparently acting some, as she says, "I have this affection for health insurance"), Swedberg devotes most of her time to the Sukey Jump Band, playing gigs around California and New Mexico, where she grew up and still has ties, that typically pay no more than $100. And she teaches, especially kids—in schools, in libraries, and according to her website, by Skype.
She doesn’t seem to miss the sitcom world ("There’s no love lost"), and is self-deprecating when assessing her acting: "I never thought I was a great actor." But she created an indelible character as part of a pop-culture phenomenon. Something to be proud of, it seems to me, even if by all appearances she's vastly more fulfilled now.
I ask if she has advice for someone contemplating a career shift like hers, now that she’s done it.
"So much of life is just flogging," she says. "Don’t forget to play."