At first, it's difficult to imagine the similarities between teaching high school English and singing radio-ready pop songs. But for Sara Swenson, the two go hand in hand.
"I think, in both respects, you're trying to engage and connect with an audience in a meaningful way," Swenson tells me. She has been teaching since 2004 — three years before she began making original music, in 2007, which was followed by her 2008 self-titled debut. Her interest in teaching came first, she says, but now she loves both sides of her dual life equally.
"A lot of being a teacher is being an entertainer and trying to get the content across in that way," she says. "I'm always trying new things and borrowing ideas and making them my own — figuring out creative ways to accomplish and communicate what you're trying to do."
On her latest album, Runway Lights, a lot of what Swenson is trying to communicate comes across in big, sweeping arrangements. These songs are rich and varied, with lush, bedroom-y synths, bighearted horns and soul elements. Swenson's voice is a versatile instrument, one she can push to a delicate, flickering falsetto ("Sometimes I Hold You") or keep at a playful soprano ("Good Boys Win").
Lights is a much different record from her previous two, which were folky, stripped-down affairs. That's because, Swenson says, she had a lot more room to consider the music this time around.
"I moved abroad to the U.K. in April 2012 to be with my now husband," she says. She smiles as she utters that last word, still getting used to saying it. "Runway Lights was entirely influenced by my move, in that all the songs were written in that time period when I left the States and was living in London and in Belfast, Northern Ireland. That was the setting of my songwriting time. I quit my teaching job, and I had time to think about things in the world around me and the experiences I was going through, and I had the time to put that on paper and in song chords."
She goes on: "The whole album is really just documentation of that time in my life, which was crazy — moving abroad and adjusting to a new relationship, and eventually getting married and finding how to live without the comfort of friends and family around me. It was a really rich time for me to be creative."
Sitting in the crowded Broadway Café, wearing a breezy summer sundress with her blond hair pulled into a loose bun, Swenson looks casual and comfortable — and like the least likely candidate for a whirlwind romance abroad. When she talks about the 18 months she spent overseas, she laughs a little shyly, as though she can hardly believe it, either. In a way, Swenson says, that's why Runway Lights is so important to her. It's a way of remembering a period in her life when she took a risk.
"When you move abroad, you experience life a different way and can feel things differently," she says. "That's what I wanted to say to people, and that's why these songs feel important: They are life lived." She taps her fingertips to her chest, over her heart, for emphasis. "This wasn't me trying to come up with rhyming words. Don [Chaffer, Swenson's producer] described these as high-stakes songs, where there was always something on the line, whether they were joyful or not. There's some honest experiences in there, and that's what feels important to me, sharing that with people."
Swenson and her husband moved back to Kansas City in December 2013, with a stop to record Runway Lights at Chaffer's Nashville studios, just two weeks before she finally settled back in her hometown. Now, Swenson splits her time between teaching English at the Northland Career Center in Platte City and working on her music. Both remain integral to her identity.
"There was a year where I took off teaching to do more touring, and I saw myself as the same person when I was full-time in a classroom," Swenson says. "And when I was in the U.K., I missed that — being with kids on a day-in, day-out basis. There was a point once when it was getting hard to do both, and I thought about stopping the music. That depressed me. I remember thinking that I had to make this decision, and I just couldn't make it. So I'm still here doing both."