Jetty Swart never intended to be a musician. But when the self-described “introvert” arrived in New York City for a graphic design internship in the early ‘90s, her need to connect swung her path in a completely unexpected direction.
“I didn’t know anyone, but I had this accordion.” Shy around strangers, the young Dutch woman discovered she had no problem playing and singing in front of an audience.
“I don’t know where it comes from. Maybe when we were kids, we were not able to let out all these things because we were too shy,” she speculates. “But then we found out a way to over scream all that like, hey, here am I! And then, oh, that works.”
Soon enough, Swart was attracting crowds on Manhattan street corners and local bars.
After finishing a degree in design, Swart moved to France, and began picking up both the local language and creative collaborators. She billed her act as “Yeti,” a playful nod to the silent “J” in her first name.
“The people in France are very appreciative to musicians. So first I started in the streets, then I started get enough repertoire to play in bars and then from there stages. I had a band and then we started touring. I got an agent, a booker. I just had to open my emails and get on the train and play.”
In 2010, Swart was performing at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland when she met her now-husband Louis Pearl, an American, who performed as “The Amazing Bubble Man.”
“We fell in love and I started playing music for the bubble show.” Playing accordion and flute, Swart relished the freedom of not being the center of attention and the looser performance style the kid-friendly bubble shows allowed.
“I improvised a lot, obviously because bubbles never last and kids do impromptu things, so you got to go with it. It’s been great.”
The couple landed in Portland in 2014, and soon found themselves woven into the fabric of circus acts and Bohemian arts collective that make Portland so “weird.”
Swart tweaked the name of her act to “Jet Black Pearl” – a loose translation of her name Jetty (Jet), Swart, meaning “black” in Dutch, and Pearl, her married name. In her new incarnation, Jet Black Pearl began appearing at local venues such as Miz Kitty’s Parlor and the Alberta Rose Theater, and providing musical accompaniment for the popular bubble shows at the Clinton Street Theater.
“It’s not easy to make a living here, definitely not. I was a little bit spoiled in France,” Swart admits. “But there are some nice musicians and they showed me around and I was like, well this, this is a nice place, nice, good community.”
Swart and Pearl settled into a yearly routine of performing at local venues and more lucrative European tours, playing as many as 100 shows at festivals and venues across the continent.
In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Work for performing artists dried up and the couple’s extensive European tour scheduled to begin in April 2020 ground to a screeching halt.
“There we were (with) nothing to do. But you know what? There was something, like knowing that everybody was in the same boat and it was there’s something so huge going on and we couldn’t do anything about it. I somehow I got really inspired by it,” she recalls. “I started drawing, I started making little videos, I started painting furniture. It was a sad time, but at the same time being creative really helped me.”
One of Swart’s creations is “Aunt Gertrude,” a pinched-faced, middle-aged blond in heels who just wants to be loved. Perhaps a little too badly.
“In some ways she’s the opposite of Jet Black Pearl. She behaves very well usually. But sometimes when people do all the effort to behave very well all the time, there’s this part of them that doesn’t get enough out, so when it comes out it comes out explosively. That’s Aunt Gertrude.”
One example is Swart’s video of Aunt Gertrude covering of MC hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” The character’s buttoned-down stiffness, combined with her odd, pearl-swinging dance moves evoke guffaws reminiscent of Liz Lemon.
Over the pandemic period, Swart also improvised dances in an empty room and created a vivacious redhead singing the mysterious lyric “Ooooy Valya,” which when played backwards comes out as “I love you.” The resulting videos were posted on social media and soon attracted lots of followers.
“Frankly I did it just for myself for fun and for my own purpose to not get depressed. But then people started sending me emails like, hey, thank you so much. You’re lighting up my days.” Swart was surprised but also inspired by the reaction.
“It’s just silly stuff, you know that I put out there but apparently silliness and stupidity can take the edge off life.”
Jet Black Pearl performed along with “The Amazing Bubble Man” at the Alberta Street Pub in Portland on Sunday, Oct. 17 at 12 p.m.