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The best kept secret in music


"This Jewel's a Gem: Valen"

By Sharon Nichols, Music Editor

It's January in New York and it’s not just cold out there, it’s record cold. Thermometers are registering around two degrees in Woodstock this Saturday night, and it doesn’t feel much warmer inside the Colony Cafe. Many are huddled together by the blazing fire, chatting and chattering; some are complaining about drinking coffee they don’t really want. Me, I spent half the day pouring boiling water down into a hole in my floor to unfreeze the pipes. How Valen Swenson can peel off her coat and step onstage, baring her arms to a silky, sleeveless camisole, is rather impressive.

Somehow it doesn’t matter anymore that we’re sitting on our hands. That chick up there is distracting everyone with her sparkly trinkets and spiked heel boots, her inviting smile, that shiny black guitar. She’s beautiful, fresh, sexy, and young. Plucking the strings, then forcefully strumming simple chords, she begins to sing.
“I think I’ll stay nineteen forever, don’t wanna grow old / and I’d rather stay hopelessly lost than go back to what I know.”

I’ve heard this voice before. And I’m entranced again.

“Something’s alive here, and I’m not quite sure what that is. / I hope someday I’ll remember to be alive and not just live. / We’re building all these walls so that we won’t get hurt, but all they’re really doing is keeping us apart....”

You go, girlie voice. Girlie voice always works for me. Huge fan here. Harriet Wheeler of The Sundays snagged my attention long ago. Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris did the girlie thing, too, but to the extreme. We’ve had our bowlful of cute Lisa Loebs and precious Jewels in the biz, and there’s always room for one more. It’s time for the industry to hear this girlie voice. It’s both passionate and precious, sweet and sincere, with playful inflections that suck you right in. Somebody get this one an agent—this Jewel’s a gem.

“I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t sing,” Swenson states in the liner notes of the recently released A Taste of Woodstock double disc compilation. “There are certain natural abilities that we are born with. I was born singing.” Being born into a musical household didn’t hurt either. Owen and Lucy Swenson built The Turning Mill recording studio in Palenville where their daughter heard her first notes. “When my parents took me home from the hospital,” she laughs, “they blasted music and invited all their friends over, saying, ‘This is what your life is going to be like, so get used to it.’ I just went to sleep and they hung out. I was always surrounded by interesting and abnormal people. Musicians are a little different from the average person, I think.”

During those formative years, Swenson’s father tried to keep her away from the studio, which she refers to as a low-key, stress-free safe haven for local players. “I think his worst nightmare was me becoming a poor musician,” she says. “That was the road he traveled and he knew how hard it can be.” Dad is most certainly supportive now, pulling out his violin to accompany his offspring on Colony’s stage for the first time ever.

Swenson’s mom signed her up for every kind of artistic class imaginable. She joined many theater groups and jazz, ballet, and tap teams, and even found herself dancing at the White House and Disney World. She sang at Woodstock ‘94 and did the national anthem at a nasa launch. And yes, music was given a fair share of attention, as she learned flute, violin, and piano. But at the age of 15, Swenson picked up the guitar and was smitten, devoting large blocks of time to its mastery. Song writing had never entered her mind while growing up, but once she’d found her niche, the songs began pouring out.

At the age of 18, the small-town country girl moved to London to study music at Kingston University. Not knowing anyone overseas, Swenson had to become accustomed to trains and buses. “I had never even taken public transportation or anything like that,” she muses. Those vehicles took her to countless open mikes, where she played three or four nights a week, every week, for six months. Practice makes perfect, so they say, and she cranked out a lot of new material over there in jolly old England. But being so far from family and friends brought lonely and difficult times for this fledgling.

She sang out her sorrow in “Home”: “This is me from thousands of miles away, when I left there was nothing you could do to make me stay.... / Smoking out my window at night, looking out onto pink city lights, I see someone pass by. / I want to cry out ‘come save me from my solitude,’ but they turn the corner of my mind, and once again I’m left here staring at the sky.” Of course, now that she’s back in Palenville, London is the place she’s missing. Isn’t that always the way?

Lyrically, Swenson doesn’t get overly heady or philosophical. Her goal is to stir emotion by what’s relatable to everyone, so her songwriting mostly centers on love and relationships. Hardly anyone is a foreigner to this message from “Sunlight”: “Golden sunlight streamed through your window and fell into my eyes on that parting afternoon while sleeping by your side. / I kissed your sleeping lips before leaving your house for the very last time. / I know I’ll never sleep without your skin pressed against mine.” And sung with the most darling of voices, this sort of material is sure to rouse a few feelings. “The kinds of songs on the radio that you relate to, I want that to be my music,” she says. “I don’t want some pop hit that people hum along with. I want my music to touch people.”

She admits to steering clear of political themes, expressing some sentiment for her entire generation. “In general, we’re not protesters. It’s not true for everyone, but we’re generally not politically active. We complain quietly, but we don’t do anything. We sit around on the couch and watch television, which is probably a bad thing. I don’t get into politics too much, though I feel like I should.”

Now 20, Swenson is choosing songs for an album and is nearly ready to hit the studio and work with a producer. She’s got an eight-song demo of acoustic cuts, but she wants to go for a more intricate sound with additional instruments. “I’m hearing fiddles and orchestral things. Definitely some strong rhythm sections. midi [musical instrument digital interface] does amazing things.”

Swenson’s not sitting around with her fingers crossed, however. She knows how the world works and she’s got backup plans. Two weeks before the Colony gig, she earned a degree in elementary education from suny New Paltz. Her ideal situation would be to make a living off her music and score enough cash to start her own school. “Education is one of my passions,” she says. “The only way to change the future is to change the youth by educating them and giving them a good background.” Swenson’s also looking at a career as a dj. “I can’t think of a better way to make money,” she says. “I love hip hop. I’m not sure why my music turns out the way it does.” This highly motivated woman may attempt to do all three at once. “I don’t know what the future holds, but if I don’t try, I’ll never forgive myself,” she asserts. “I’m trying to keep as many doors open and experience as much as possible. I’ll just let my life lead me.”

Stardom gets my vote, and she certainly has what it takes. She’s up on that stage, confident, uninhibited, passionate, lost in her own voice. The melodies swirl around us like cream. Yes, it’s wickedly cold out, but Swenson is hot. For bookings or to hear a few MP3s, visit - Chronogram

"Valen - Rock and Roll Baby"

Palenville-based singer/songwriter Valen is a self proclaimed "rock and rollbaby" who grew up listening to the endless train of musicians that recorded in her parents studio The Turning Mill and judging by the bittersweet lyrics coupled with crystalline vocals she picked up a thing or two. Armed with a trusty acoustic guitar, she's making the cross-Atlantic rounds and while theJewel comparison is tempting, Valenain't just another girl with a guitar.

Tell us a little about Valen.

I was born in the Bronx and lived like a gypsy in the early years. We were always moving. My parents exposed me to many different walks of life. This collage of a foundation has helped me learn to just go with flow. I think that the constant state of change and adjustment forced me to grow up quickly. When I was five my family moved upstate. My mom felt it was important I spent my childhood in a place with trees and fresh air. I went to school at the Woodstock Children Center where I studied all the basics as well as theater, sign language, and dance, to name a few. Definitely a hippy school. I loved it there. My parents ran (and still run) a multimedia music and art studio. I grew up surrounded by musicians. When I was little I was involved in various theater and dance groups. I was born a performer, never shy of an audience, unless it was my family! When I was 15 I started to play guitar. I remember the first time I learned to strum rhythmically. I ran downstairs like: "Mom I can play guitar!!!" After that I couldn't stop. I began writing songs and played my first gig with some friends at the Woodstock Community Center. Since then I have played many shows locally and abroad, in New York, Los Angeles, and London. I have also hosted a few open mics in the area. I love playing live shows. The energy I feel when I am on stage is incomparable. Lately I have not been playing out because I am recording my debut album at the Turning Mill. My music when listened to raw sounds like folk/rock, singer/songwriter kind of stuff. My producer Black Rain adds a really nice twist with his hip-hop R&B flavor. I am very excited about this project, which will hopefully be done this Spring. It has taken me years to get where I'm at and I feel really ready for whatever comes my way.

What sets you apart from every other girl with a guitar in this business? Did you ever think about being the girl with the drums instead?

I have actually tried my hand at the drums. I can play one beat, but not very well. I think what sets me apart from other girls with guitars is my love of hip-hop, which goes back to the whole drum thing. There is something amazing about a simple, powerful beat with a deep, melodic bass line. The process of recording my CD has given me the chance to meld together aspects of folk/rock/pop, which is how my songs come off dry, with my first love hip-hop. I think this new sound will appeal to a wide audience. I want to captivate people not merely with eye candy and hot beats, but with messages that they can relate to. My songs are about what it is like to be human. We all share similar experiences of love, lust, frustration, pain, joy, sorrow, etc... I usually write when I am in a highly emotional state, good or bad. That is when I am most inspired and least inhibited. I feel it is this raw emotion combined with a little something you can nod your head to that will set me apart from other singer/songwriters.

When you were younger you were involved in a lot of singing/acting troupes. Do you think you'll ever try combining both again?

Definitely! I have always dreamed of putting on an elaborate stage show with lights and dancers, pyrotechnics, and whatever else. I think that would be so much fun, but for now I play solo. I actually applied for grant with Dutchess County Council of the Arts so I could put on stage performances with local musicians, artists, dancers, DJs, etc... Unfortunately my
proposal was not accepted due to the negative opinions of one of the judges towards local talent I wanted to involve. I think that it is a real shame, but I am not bitter. I believe that everything in life happens for a reason.


This is a very testosterone-driven scene, how does it feel to be one of the few and far between young females making music?

I'm not sure if I agree with you there. I think there are a lot of talented women on the scene who are making names for themselves. I've had the honor of performing with many of them including Alana Orr, Victoria Levy, Bar Scott, Amy Helm, Anna Cheek and others. I feel lucky to have such a great musical support team in this area. Woodstock is home to many musicians as well as music lovers, which makes it a great place to perform. Once in a while there is a little sexual discrimination, but I don't think it is intentional. For example: one time when I was hosting an open mic and a guitarist came in. I asked him if he wanted to sign-up for open mic and and he replied "where is the guy that runs this thing?" I just kinda laughed and told him that I was the "guy." I'm used to that sort of thing from when I DJ. People never expect to find a girl in the DJ booth.


Who are your musical idols?

hmmm...that's a hard question. I've never really thought about it. When I was really little I absolutely loved Cindy Lauper. I dressed up as her for Halloween when I was 3. I don't think my music sounds anything like hers but she definitely rocked my world.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by life and the people around me. I write songs about what I know. By doing this I feel I am able to relate to my audience in a real and personal way. I think people sense the honesty in my music. Most songwriters will tell you that strong emotions usually bring out the best songs. You just get in that zone. When I am feeling really bad, writing a song allows
me to feel my emotions and work through them. So in a way, my music is my therapist.

In your career you've explored other cities, what draws you back to this

Maybe it is the "curse of the Catskills." It has been said that if you spend one night sleeping under the Catskill Mountains you will always come back. This is my home, always has been and always will be. I love to travel whenever I can. Curiosity is human nature. My favorite place that I have been to is London, Camden Town especially. I plan on owning a flat there one day. The next place I want to check out is Australia. I'm not sure why. I've just always wanted to go there. No matter where my travels may take me I will call this place home.

Keep an eye out for the debut album by Valen, scheduled to hit the scene soon. In the meantime enjoy a little ear candy at To get in touch with Valen, write directly to her at

- Scenery


The acoustic version of the title track "Alive" can be heard on 100.1 WDST and 98.1 WKZE.
Woodstock Film Festival CD • Taste of Woodstock CD
Genya Ravan- Fly me to the Moon
ESP-Disk Woodstock Collection and Rock Collection


Feeling a bit camera shy


Valen was a rock-n-roll baby with a with a hunger to perform. Born in the Bronx, she was the child of a punk rocker and a groupie. At age 15 she picked up the guitar and immediately fell in love. She began writing songs and playing at local venues.
At 18 Valen traveled to London to study music, where she spent six extraordinary months gigging throughout the city’s finest and dingiest clubs. This is when her music really began to flourish. Valen came home with many new life experiences, in addition to a slew of songs inspired by adventure, solitude, and wonderment.
Back in America, Valen is recording her debut CD. This album intertwines different styles of music from folk to hip-hop. This is the kind of music that stimulates your mind as well as your ears. The title of the album is "alive" and means just that. It is a reminder to all of us " be alive and not just live..."