21 Apr Rockmommy Jennifer Hill on SWAN Day Legacy and More
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
Musician Jennifer Hill possesses the kind of radiant energy that can lift you up on a cold, rainy day. Whether she’s belting out a piano ballad, smoky jazz cover, or sultry techno-pop number, the Connecticut-born singer-songwriter — and professional vocal coach — breathes life into the airwaves.
But while the rockmommy’s battle scars aren’t always evident to the naked eye, the depth and permanence of her collective traumas are a connective tissue that infuses itself into her art, activism, and feminist-minded endeavors. This includes, most notably, the creation of SWAN Day CT in 2008. While the acronym may conjure images of a graceful bird gliding across a lake or Bjork’s iconic 2001 Academy Awards gown, it’s actually short for Support Women Artists Now, an international movement launched by Martha Richards, the Founder and President of WomenArts.
In short, SWAN Day is an event that takes place in early spring for the purpose of showcasing women in the arts who are continually sidelined by male-dominated acts in mainstream arts events (like Warped Tour, or dozens of other daylong festivals throughout the country).
The idea resonated with Hill, who saw an opportunity to bring the event to her home state for the first time in 2008, when her older daughter was just five. Fifteen years and a ton of hard work later, the event has elevated the lives of hundreds of female artists who performed (including Jennifer’s daughter Scarlett) and rocker mamas across the state.
“She and her talents are not only a product of myself and the training I’ve given her but also a product of being around SWAN Day,” Jennifer tells Rockmommy.
An after two back-to-back post-Covid virtual SWAN Days in 2020 and 2021, the show is returning to a live setting again on Saturday, April 23, at The Free Center in Middletown, Connecticut (6 p.m.; 52 North Main Street, Middletown CT). The event, as always, will feature prominent female musicians (including June Millington of the ’70s band Fanny) as well as dancers, artists and craftswomen.
We recently caught up with Jennifer to chat more about SWAN Day CT 2022, and how artists like her are inspiring the next generation of rockers and music-minded daughters.
Rockmommy: It’s a big milestone anniversary for SWAN Day. As you reflect on the legacy of the event, how has it impacted you personally as a musician and mother?
Jennifer Hill: As a mother this show has been in effect since my first child was five and since before my second child was even born. That means that both of my daughters have essentially lived their lives watching other women artists support each other. They have been in an environment of strong women for a very long time and I think that has shaped them not only with their talents but also with how they view the world. My daughters were lucky to also have the support of all those swans almost like aunts to them.
My daughter Scarlett was really into Canyon (one of our singer songwriters who performed for many years in SWAN) and she would follow her around and always sit in front to watch her sing. Now Scarlett is 20 and has her own music out and some of the swans have commented to me, “Omg she is so good and just starting… I’m almost jealous how good her first song is.” Then I reminded them that the reason why she was so good coming out of the gate is because she has been surrounded by really impressive talented women since she was five years old.
She and her talents are not only a product of myself and the training I’ve given her but also a product of being around SWAN Day. She performed at the 10-year anniversary when she was 15 years old and she performed with her own original songs because that is the only way that anyone gets to play SWAN is if they have their own original music and my daughter also had to live up to that in order to play.
Personally how it’s impacted me has been an entirely different thing. When you are the person who runs the show, picks the acts, manages the event and produces it is not easy to escape certain things. When I started this event I was considered a darling in the music community and I was booked so often that I didn’t even have to do much booking for myself the phone usually just rang. Once my show hit about five years and the momentum kept getting bigger it put me as competition with other festivals. The ones I used to play at.
Rockmommy: How did you initially find the artists you featured at the event? What was your vision?
Jennifer Hill: My vision was to have a multi-genre multimedia fest because I wanted to make sure all of my friends who are talented women could participate. We are the first festival in Connecticut to incorporate on stage painting, burlesque, dance, theatre, DJ, art gallery, and vendor village all under one roof. We can proudly say we started the movement of these multimedia events for our state and were the blueprint for so many after us.
The other issue with being a woman in the arts is that half the time you’re so underrepresented that you are all over different parts of the state performing which means you cannot support each other by going to watch each other because you’re playing somewhere an hour from them.
Rockmommy: How has the event grown over the years?
Jennifer Hill: When we started [with our first event] in 2008 we had a small club and small attendance. By 2018 we were filling theaters with 500 in attendance. The cool thing is as the event grew so did the recognition of women musicians in the community. You can actually see by looking at the Connecticut music awards how Swan Day Connecticut impacted the Connecticut music scene because almost every woman nominated or who won was a Swan (someone who had been promoted through the event and/or discovered there) before their win. We have been featured in articles all over up and down the East Coast.
Rockmommy: What impact did Covid have in 2020, and how is this year’s event similar or different?
Jennifer Hill: Covid threw us into a loop as we were just about to put on our event that March. So I scrambled and got the acts from that show to do online streaming from their homes. We broke up the acts into two a week and did SWAN mini concerts each Friday for two months.
This year we decided we will try to go back to being in person. We will also be streaming it live because unfortunately there are still restrictions on how many people can come into the building and this is one of the smallest capacities we’ve had. So that will be interesting to deal with but we will make it happen. We always do!
Rockmommy: What are you most excited about for the 2022 event — and 2022 in general?
Jennifer Hill: First of all I’m very excited that I’m sharing a stage with June Millington (of the early ’70s band Fanny). She is a legend in music and if you don’t know about her it’s not because she wasn’t working her butt off it’s because it was the wrong time for women. She was recently inducted into the New England Music Hall of Fame.
I was introduced to her by my mother swan Martha Richards because she thought that we had a lot in common and wanted to connect us. I teach music to 20 girls a week at my house and I am a musician singer songwriter full time and June has two schools for women in the arts: Institute for the Musical Arts [IMA] in Goshen, Massachusetts, and IMA West in California — and she’s a singer/songwriter full time.
She is what I aspire to be and what I try to do on a small scale. Every year I teach my students about recording and they get to do one song with me. June teaches girls about recording all the way from the beginning drumbeat through the engineering process with a very impressive barn that holds a breathtaking studio that has the best smelling control room I’ve been in. She is the next level. Meeting her has been one of the greatest gifts of this mission. I am truly thankful that Martha thought to connect us.
I am also super excited to hear new swan Calendula live and to see the artwork of Ukrainian artist Oksana Tanasiv. I saw Oksana on the news talking about Ukraine and how her family and friends were there amidst this war. I really wanted to be able to help in some way and I wrote to her to see if she would like to be featured this year in Swan Day. She accepted and I decided that unlike most years where we cover the walls with 20 to 40 artists work we would just dedicate the entire space to her work. Everything she sells goes to the people in Ukraine.
Rockmommy: Do you see the SWAN Day event expanding, perhaps moving to larger venue or a multi-event format, in the future?
Jennifer Hill: I actually see this event becoming smaller and more intimate. I’ve been doing two different stages and over 18 bands in one night for so long that I’m a bit burnt out of doing something so big by myself. After 15 years I need to take care of my career. I have a new album coming out that I’ve been working on for a year with Vic Steffens at Horizon Studios in New Haven and along with that comes a music video and promotions so I will be putting all my focus on that for the next coming year.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.