Don Swanson | Article by Dan Radke

Arriving at Don Swanson’s home in Corona Del Mar, it didn’t take long to realize I was in the presence of a real musician. It wasn’t the fact that I interviewed him in his home studio. Or even how upon sitting he tweaked some settings on his Apple computer, picked up his nylon string guitar, and sang me the title track of his most recent album, At Crystal Cove. It was when I asked him to elaborate on the difference between soft-toned sine wave sounds and the more edgy sawtooth sounds, and he sang his explanation. “It’s like awwwww, versus neeeeee.” Forgive the current medium, but trust me when I say it made perfect sense.

Don Swanson identified with being an artist at an early age. His first favorite instruments to work with as a child? Crayons. “[I had] my prized 72-piece Crayola crayon set. I knew back then that the 64-piece set was big, but only a true artist had the 72-piece set.” At the age of eleven, even before girls were on the pubescent horizon, he switched out crayons for a cool set of drums, and the guitar soon followed. His family nurtured the artist within as his father was an artist and his brother a musician. The creative atmosphere even extended to his community. “The neighboring town had the very young Van Halen brothers playing the same school dances as us,” he said. “There was never a shortage of competition and inspiration.”

In the 80s, Swanson became half of The Telling, a band he formed with his ex-wife, Sheri Swanson. She provided the angelic vocals and he brought a nylon string guitar with the soft, ‘awwwww’ tones. They produced three albums, one of which, Blue Solitaire, sold 40,000 units and contained the hit “True Gold.” “We were very interested in creating something that was atmospheric in quality,” he said. “We took a painterly approach.” They also got a little innovative, letting their unborn daughter add some sounds of her own. “We slipped subtle sounds into the music, like the fetal heartbeat of our daughter. I remember the doctor thinking it a bit different that I brought a recorder along with on a day to check the progress of the baby.” (Photograph by l Gina Sabatella)


Don broke out on his own and released his first solo album, At Crystal Cove, early last year. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Orange County’s geography, Crystal Cove is a beautiful expanse of trails, cliffs and sand between Newport and Laguna Beach. “I visit it periodically to stay in touch with myself and nature,” said Swanson. The album is also influenced by Brazilian music, but not completely. “At best, it’s an American’s interpretation [of Brazilian music].” The end result is a soft, lofty performance. His gentle sine wave sounds will give you a musical tour of Crystal Cove from a comfortable bed hovering above it. Many describe the sound as ‘chill,’ but Don takes slight issue with the description. “Underneath lies some deeper elements,” he said. “[But] in all honestly, it’s mostly a matter of the heart. That’s where this stuff comes from.”

Currently, Don tours with the band Cafe R&B, playing drums. But when he’s not touring, he’s working on his upcoming album. “I’ve really been on a songwriting spree lately. Nothing brings me greater satisfaction than to be able to create a new song. Like they say, they’re like children, and I’ve really been making some babies lately.” He’s switching it up this time around, as he wants to test the songs out on live audiences, then cut the album. Be on the lookout for Don Swanson and his live band this summer. Until then, you can check out his current album at

Melanie Morgan Shatto | Article by Dan Radke

At a cozy gelato cafe in Long Beach, CA, Melanie Morgan Shatto is giving me photography tips. She talks about light direction, background, subject placement. In two minutes she ups my picture-taking game ten-fold, but I can tell she’s only sharing the dregs of her camera know-how. Shatto’s gotten photos into People and In Style magazines, plus she works at Santa Monica College, contributing to one of the best photography programs in the country. She shares how she got to where she is today, what the inspirations are behind her work, her experiences teaching at Santa Monica College, and how to take better pictures with that cute little camera phone you got there.

Her Road
She got her start with a bachelor’s degree in art, not photography. “I didn’t have a very technical background like the one we give at SMC,” she said. Shatto honed her skills after graduation, landing a job at a local studio in her native Pennsylvania, essentially hurling herself into the deep end of the pool. She did catalogs, portraits, and shot weddings, all with medium and large format cameras. “I had a lot of on-the-job training,” she said.

She also got a lot of invaluable experience working in labs, beauty salons for pictures, and highly recommends it for people looking for a career in photography. “Spend time in a lab. At least 6 months. Either printing, or working in quality control or customer service. You learn an awful lot in those areas.” Labs are also a great place for connections. “[I met] every photographer in town,” she said. Some recognized her talent, leading to more jobs, more contacts, and more experience.

Her Inspirations
Shatto’s real passion is her art. Specifically, nature—she likes getting her lens up close and personal to plants. A big reason for that has to do with her move to Los Angeles in 2002. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have culture shock moving out here,” she said. “I lived in the woods. I had deer and bears. I moved from that to Hollywood and Vine.” While a lot of people may be distracted by the buildings, the celebrities and the colorful ads, Shatto was distracted by nature. “I didn’t know what the names of any of the plants were. So much of what I saw reminded me of Dr. Seuss. I started to study the trees and the flowers that grow year-round here.”

Melanie also has a spiritual side. She spends a fair amount of time on mandalas. According to Mandala by Jose and Miriam Argüelles, mandalas are a traditional design often utilizing the circle, a symbol of the cosmos, and the square, a symbol of the man-made world. They generally exhibit a center, radial symmetry, and cardinal points (the major points of the compass).

Tibetan monks make sand mandalas, 2-D representations of 3-D spaces. The very process of making these mandalas is meditative, promotes healing, and encourages enlightenment, so the creation of the mandala is just as important as the mandala itself. Shatto approaches her mandalas with similar intent, except she starts with a camera. “Once I have something interesting in that original image, a flower or shell, or a landscape, something with texture and color, I make a mirror image and put it together.” Then she layers and rotates those mirrored images and plays with the opacity of each subsequent layer. She uses various techniques to emphasize and de-emphasize the patterns that occur, spiraling upward and outward with each layer. “Sort of like the spiral sequences of life,” she said. “Every time you have an experience, you come to some level of understanding about yourself and the way you see the world, you go through the same processes in life, over and over, each time reaching a new level,” she said. “Physical and mental processes, synergized.”

Her Teachings
Shatto has been teaching at Santa Monica College since 2005. “The students are an inspiration. Especially with the excitement they bring to class,” she said. “They come for a fun art class, which is what they get, but they also get a lot of technical information and creative know-how.” She’s also learned a little bit herself, as the coursework forces her to get reacquainted with old processes and keep up-to-date with new technology and equipment. “They say you never really know something until you teach it, and it’s the absolute truth.” Shatto has a high opinion of the photography program and her co-workers. “They get a broad education in photography at Santa Monica. I’m honored to work with so many talented photographers and great instructors.”

Her Tips
Back at the cafe, I have a proposition for Melanie: to teach me how to take a proper picture of her, using nothing more than my camera phone.

“Pay attention to light,” she says. “It sets the mood of the image and is married to how the viewer relates to the subject.” The type of light you use should be relative to your subject. Hard, direct light provides high contrast and sharp shadows that you can use to enhance character like leathery wrinkles. Soft, diffused light is more flattering for skin, good for photographing babies and glamour. Side light can increase three dimensional qualities, while front light will flatten things out, a common strategy for beauty portraits.

Melanie glances over her shoulder. “Check out what the background looks like.” 

I study everything that’s behind her. “There’s a yellow wall. Some pictures.”

Without turning around, she says, “But also Christmas lights, a light switch, other people. You need to position me in the frame in a way that none of that is distracting.” Elements in the background can draw the eye away from the subject, especially if those elements are brighter. “It’s a physical response,” she says. After mastering your background, you can use it to draw attention to your subject. “But that’s level two.”

We walk outside to get a less distracting background. Melanie positions herself in front of an off-white wall. “The most common mistake beginning photographers make is always putting the subject dead center,” she says. “Imagine a tic-tac-toe board on the viewfinder and move the main subject toward one of the intersections. You’ll find more pleasing balance and visual interest.”

I line up the shot, excusing myself to a local patron I’m hovering over. I snap the photo. It comes out good, worlds better than my usual photos. And that’s with Melanie only sharing the dregs. I can’t imagine getting to level two.

If you’d like to contact Melanie or purchase any of her work, visit