Comparable to such artists as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits,
multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Richard Swift won much
critical acclaim and a growing fan base with the albums The Novelist
and Walking Without Effort. Both albums were re-released in
one set by indie-label Secretly Canadian in 2005. And his latest release
Dressed Up For The Letdown is sure to keep critics and fans
listening as 2007 unfolds. Hybrid Magazine had the privilege of interviewing
Swift (and yes, he is related to late novelist Jonathan Swift).
Hybrid Magazine: What led to your decision to do the particular
story you did with The Novelist? And by that I mean the certain
time period, which I'm guessing is the Roaring 20s?
Richard Swift: Yeah, around there. But also the idea of the
isolated writer writing on nickels and dimes so tell a little about
that. It wasn't anything that was, like, completely thought out at
the beginning. I started kinda collecting these songs that I was starting
to write. And I started to see kind of a line that was running though
all of them. And then I started to kind of adapt lyrically and musically
to that form, in a sense. I don't know, it's just that era. I don't
know what it was to be honest (chuckles).
HM: I thought maybe you had been reading authors of that period,
Fitzgerald or someone of that time.
RS: Well yeah, certainly. That's always kind of going on,
you know. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Yeats, folks like
that. And even, I don't know, maybe I just felt like I had to get
it out of my system, in a sense. Part of the fidelity in the recording
quality is because being a studio musician for part of my life I was
just so sick of being in studios that were taking hours on drums sounds.
It was just awful, you know what I mean? So I think a lot of people
have the cart before the horse. At least, in The Novelist I
was trying to get the songs before the production, what have you.
And I don't think the production is like shitty or shoddy or anything.
But I didn't go in thinking 'I want to make a record about a specific
writer.' I think I was trying to tell loosely my story and I'm sure
other people. Partially my grandfather Clifford Swift. Tell
part of his story.
HM: So on the song "Ballad of Clifford Swift" is
the voice I hear speaking /singing supposed to be your grandfather?
RS: I don't know, I mean . . . it's kind of . . . I don't
know if I'd necessarily think of it that specifically. I think that,
yeah, part of it is. Part of it is me. Part of it is friends of mine
that happen to be novelists. Part of it is even Jonathan Swift, the
18th century writer. And part of it, you know, in a more general view
of things, it's kind of like everyone's trying to just make it by
with nickels and dimes and do it the best they possibly can.
HM: Right. Well, you know how there's that romanticized stereotype
of the isolated author in New York City but in reality that kind of
life is an awful one to actually live and not romantic at all?
HM: What books have you been reading lately?
RS: Gosh... I'm trying to think... Candide by Voltaire.
I just picked it up but Notes from Underground... I'm actually
right now reading some books by this Swedish scientist-philosopher
Emanuel Swedenborg. He was an 18th century philosopher and scientist
and theologian-what have you. And kind of mystic. It's definitely
interesting. It's a lot of material to digest, so it's hard for me
to put it into this nice and easy succinct sentence. But yeah, I find
it very, very interesting.
HM: Do you read quite a bit of philosophy anyways?
RS: Yeah, certainly. I mix it up quite a bit, you know. I
do read quite a bit. Not as much as some, and a lot more than others.
But I try to keep it nice and open for the most part.
HM: Were you an English major or anything like that?
RS: No I never went to college or anything. But in high school
the only thing I was really interested in was English. And then I've
always been somewhat fascinated with Jonathan Swift, who is . . .
my 6th great uncle. Yeah, he was raised by my 6th or 7th great grandfather.
But yeah. So, I've always known since I was a kid that was a part
of my heritage. Not just Jonathan but a slew of Swifts after were
writers and musicians and what-have-you.
HM: Another favorite artist of mine, Pedro The Lion,
you know, led by David Bazan, uses stories in their songwriting.
Do you know David Bazan at all?
RS: Yeah, definitely. We've done tours together and have hung
out quite a bit. I just talked to him a couple weeks ago about some
possible tours coming up. I think he and TW Walsh are working
on something right now. I'm sure it will be real good. Dave's singing
has gotten . . . I mean, he's always been kind of a fantastic singer
but he seems to really be pushing himself even more.
HM: Well, one thing that David has been a victim of is listeners
projecting his stories onto him personally. You know, someone listens
to Control and assumes David is a backslidden alcoholic who
cheats on his wife. And I've read your complaints of people doing
the same thing with you and The Novelist. So how would you
prefer people to approach your writing? Granted, there's freedom you
have to allow the listener, but what would you suggest as a more careful
RS: I don't know, it's a tough thing. It's like, with Kerouac
writing On the Road and how it was illegal for a number
of years and he couldn't get it published and all this and people
kind of missed the whole idea of what that book was. They all thought
that it was him going out and living this crazy life and loving it.
But he was really commenting on the downfalls of some of those lifestyles.
And I think in my songs and my writing there's certainly a lot of
me in there and there's a lot of projecting things on other people.
But yeah, it's hard for me to say. I've never really listened to music
in that way, in terms of the storyteller always telling the story
about him or herself. So I've always kind of come to it pretty open
minded. But it's hard for me to say because the next record which
I'm finishing up right now, there's some personal stuff on it. There's
a song called "Artist in Repertoire" one of the lines is
"Sorry Mr. Swift." It's got my name on it . . incredibly
personal stuff. I think that with The Novelist I think that
what I was trying to say was, yeah, the kind of situation I'm in or
was in is really tough. But I'm also not the first person to go through
it, in terms of being unpublished or unheard of.
HM: Is writers block part of the struggle that the album deals
RS: Yeah, definitely. I don't know if I've ever had writers
block per se, but I've definitely had "writers doubt" where
I'll write stuff and kind of step back and look at it and think it's
just shit. I think that's almost more where the "nickels and
dimes" thing comes from. It's trying to put the little bits that
you know together, and it turns out great sometimes and not so great
HM: For sure. Well, in my album review one person I compared
you to was Tom Waits, and not just his sound but his whole style of
storytelling and songwriting that he does so well with. But with Tom
Waits, nobody knows how he is personally at all because you can't
tell if he's being personal just telling a story that's fiction.
RS: Yeah, exactly.
HM: But with your work, especially on Walking Without Effort,
the second disk in the collection, it sounds quite personal. It sounds
like you're singing to us.
but even with Tom Waits I think there's some
incredibly personal things or else he wouldn't be able to sing that
stuff and have it be so believable. I think he definitely exaggerates
the truth and what have you. And I think The Novelist is about
as far as I go with that sort of thing.
HM: Are you a Tom Waits fan?
RS: Yeah, I mean certainly at one point... I really like Swordfishtrombones
earlier stuff as well. But sometimes I feel with Tom Waits
is great, his songwriting is great... I feel like sometimes his gimmick
gets a little tired in a sense. I mean, I could only do that for like
20 minutes on an EP I can't imagine doing it for twenty years, necessarily.
But he's certainly got his own thing going on. And I've seen him live
and it was a fucking phenomenal show. I thought it was gonna
be just drunk and depressing or whatever but it was a crazy circus
and it was really a fantastic show.
HM: When was the concert?
it was right after Mule Variations came
maybe five, six years now. Around '99 or something.
HM: Alright, I have horrible Attention Deficit Disorder so
I apologize if my questions have no continuity.
RS: Oh, I'm the same so it's fine.
HM: But the one song I thought was really the best track
I can see this song becoming a fan favorite which I know is a pet
peeve to the artist
but "Not Wasting Time." I play
it for people and they just look mesmerized in response, like they
know exactly what you're talking about.
RS: Oh, funny.
HM: You know, it's an easy song to relate to. How it speaks
of how humanity as a whole is pretty depressed for the most part,
and how most people sincerely want to do better for the most part
but keep making the same mistakes over and over. I'm just wondering
what the context of the song is.
RS: I don't know if it was anything different than what I'm
feeling today. Just trying to sift through all the information you
get as a person these days and find what the truth is
seems like it's getting harder and harder these days. And
so funny that you mentioned that song because I haven't really ever
performed that live. I don't
you have to realize that Walking
Without Effort I recorded like in the first week of March in 2001
and then I did The Novelist. So Walking for me is four,
almost five years old. And The Novelist is 2½ to three
years old. And I've just been
I just finished my new record and
I basically got two other records I'm finished with. One that's completely
done and one that's completely written and just ready to be recorded,
HM: Are the new ones more Lo-Fi or studio?
RS: Well, Walking is studio. It's more like Walking
Hi-Fi but 1971 Hi-fi
73 Hi-Fi. And on the record
after that, I don't know, I'm thinking of doing it all on 8th track.
It's gonna be more of a kind of minimal record rather than this next
record that's coming out. But kind of going back to "Not Wasting
Time." That's just one of those songs I wrote in a matter of
minutes late at night. I suppose it's the way I was feeling then and
sometimes feeling now. Just looking for something real.
HM: Alright, I hate asking this kind of question because it
turns people off but I'm curious . . . what are your religious beliefs?
I mean, "Not Wasting Time" sings of you "looking for
the heart of God." And I know you've been a member of Starflyer
59, who are Christians.
RS: Yeah. Well, it's hard to say because I was raised Quaker
for the most part, so those are the beliefs that I have which is more
of a... it's not at all like California Christianity. I'm certainly
not quick to label myself that. But certainly
it's hard for me
to even put a label on it these days. It's like... especially now...
I'm reading this Swedenborg stuff and listening to a lot of Bob
Marley (laughs). I guess it's just kind of a mixture of many things,
but yeah... in terms of organized religion or giving a bunch of money
to a church... I really don't support personally. But I certainly
support individuals trying to find some sort of spirituality for themselves...
some sort of truth.
HM: Right... And it's just like
if you say Christianity
now you just get all these associations with American Patriotism
the Republican party...
HM: And also in regard to salvation... so many Christians
could meet a wonderful, loving Buddhist and claim he's going to hell...
That bothers me.
RS: See it's stuff like that I just... anytime anyone asks
me that I will flat out say "no, I don't believe that."
It bummed me out one time... I remember one time right after George
Harrison died a friend of mine and I were talking and he's a devout
American Christian... he goes to a Four Square Church. And he was
like, "Man, I loved his music but it's just a bummer that guys
burning in hell right now." And I was just like, "what???"
You can call your God loving but someone who would predestine someone
to burn in hell for eternity... those things don't add up at all in
my mind... And it is tough... I don't agree with the religious right
either and politically, I disagree with a lot of Christian Republicans.
It's tough for me to say. I don't want to knock anyone for their Christianity,
it's certainly something that... especially being a studio musician
and being hired for Christian sessions and going in and like... having
it be everything other than what I would think "Christian"
would be [writers note: Richard emphasized he is not referring to
Starflyer 59]. I mean, the Christian Music industry is a crazy farce
for the most part. It's a shame. Again, if those people want to be
involved with that stuff that's great. But I'm telling you... I've
seen the depths and the depths and the depths... and I want no part
HM: Now, in regards to Starflyer 59... who would definitely
share your disdain for the Contemporary Christian Music industry...
how long were you with them?
RS: Probably about 10... 11 months. I actually did all the
photography for the inside of [their album] Old. Other than
the front cover of the guy standing at the door.
HM: But yeah
I remember when I first heard "Not
Wasting Time" I immediately played it for Ken Heffner,
who is in charge of the concert series at Calvin College in Grand
Rapids, MI. Calvin is a Christian college but one that is definitely
not intolerant of people of differing faiths. And the concert series
there is about as un-CCM as you can get. You know, Low has
played there, Sigur Ros, and even Starflyer 59 and Pedro did
a show together there. He hadn't heard of you at the time but was
impressed with your songwriting and the spiritual resonance of that
song. Then during a Jeff Tweedy concert at Calvin I told Ken
that you were in Starflyer 59. He was pleasantly surprised. But yeah,
I think a lot of people sharing religious faith of some sort could
connect with the honesty of "Not Wasting Time" regardless
of your own beliefs. Especially that line: "looking for the heart
of something real."
RS: I think that's the whole idea of anyone... what's happened
is we've marketed this name "God" and these images of Jesus.
It's like... because, "Oh because your version of Jesus or your
version of God looks somewhat different than my version or idea of
God, and that means either I'm on the wrong side or you're on the
wrong side or someone's on the wrong side." And it's like...
I'm not looking for the name of God. I'm looking for the heart of
something real... or the essence and the true center of something
that's loving and good. And I think that people do get caught up on
separating... [finding] reasons to separate themselves from other
people, which doesn't seem Christian to me. So I think a lot of people
whether they want to admit it or not or whether they can even put
a name on it... I think a lot of people are searching for a sense
of something. Some people call it God... And I'm... honestly, I'm
not going to be so... I just think that a lot of the world, let's
say, a lot of the Christian world just has things wrong. And the only
reason I can say that is it's pretty obvious it's not a [mainstream]
organization that's committed to love and loving your neighbor. Growing
up in Minnesota I went to nothing but rural churches growing up
or 30 people tops. So, that seems more of a healthy thing.
HM: And it's not just a religious thing or anything
I found your CD very confessional. Everybody wants to put on a face
of perfection, but we're all pretty screwed up and it would be much
healthier if we admitted it. Alright, now, again here's one of my
Attention Deficit moments, but in another interview I recently read
you moved to California recently.
RS: I moved here about four years ago. I'm married and have
HM: I read this really interesting article about your home
in Minnesota before moving to California, and how you lived a much
less "modern" life than that in California. Like you split
your own wood and
RS: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I have a really crazy family situation.
When I was seven my step father and my mother decided to kind of pull
a Neil Young and get back to the land . . leave California
and get back to the land. And so we did that for a number of years
in Minnesota. We lived in Utah for a number of years and we lived
in Oregon for a number of years. But when we lived in Minnesota it
was, like, truly family living in the woods on a river. Having to
raise our own animals for sustenance. Milk cows. Split firewood and
stack firewood. Bring in firewood every two hours so people can build
fires. I find all that stuff invigorating. I kind of hate being in
California. I want to move soon. I've kind of been fighting it but
I just realized I'm not a city boy and not a city person. I don't
know. I really honestly miss that. You know, building fires at night
in the wintertime and it being too cold to want to go outside for
too long. My whole life has been filled with that.
HM: Do you have a lot of negative views on modernity? On technology
RS: It's not like I'm trying to be a retro artist. It's not
like Lenny Kravitz or something . . . stylized 60s. I make
the music that I like. I guess I do listen to music mainly from that
era . . . from the 60s and 70s. But yeah, I think there is part of
me that fights modern music because I fight a lot of modern thought
that goes on. I'd say especially in Southern California. Like my wife
and I just got rid of our TV. We for the most part are vegetarians
and we raise our kids on that. And you know, part of that isn't .
. . well, it does gross me out to eat flesh. And I don't eat eggs
or drink milk. A lot of it is there's useless killing going on. The
amount of animals that we're killing to keep this world running is
not needed. Again, that's people's choices
but I don't want to
be wrapped up in it. And that's just a small part of what goes on.
And it seems crazy how eager people are to go on television, or to
get the fast buck or the fast name. I'm just not interested and have
never been interested in that. I was talking to a couple majors [record
labels] about putting out records and ended up going with Secretly
[Canadian] because I have 100% artistic control. It's a 50/50 split
with them. It's super fair in terms of how record deals go. And it
also remind me of labels... of that mentality of a record label putting
something out and you kind of being into that label overall knowing
they have a good track record. Same thing with Secretly. They have
a great track record. They have a really good artist list that I trust.
HM: And I hear there's a good sense of community there.
RS: I'm all about building community. Those are the only things
that are gonna last. Our friendships, our relationships. Our lover.
Whoever it might be. All this other shit, all these fads, all this
other stuff is gonna fade away... no one's ever gonna fuckin' remember
it because we're all building our lives on pop-culture . . . and pop-culture
as we know it has only been in existence since a couple years after
the TV was invented for the most part. And then we were really bombarded
and it really got out of control. My kids were like "why are
we getting rid of the TV here." I'm like "what the hell
. . . you've only been watching it for 4 years, it's only been on
this planet for maybe fifty years. I've been watching it for 28 years."
HM: Yeah. I love movies, but TV... I'm shocked reality TV
is still popular and still on. It's lasted longer than the Backstreet
RS: Even movies... it's very rare that you stumble across
a great movie. I don't even feel like I have time for great movies.
HM: So when you write songs, what's your average day? Do you
write better in the morning? Night?
RS: I don't have any schedule. I wake up and work. But there's
no separation between work and life necessarily. I don't limit myself
or anything like that in terms of writing, you know. And I don't think
of it as so mechanic either, as to "here's my writing time"
or "this is my room for writing." It's just constantly going.
HM: Are you doing music full time at this point?
RS: I've been playing music full time for seven years, since
I was 21. I've been doing a lot of studio work and what have you.
For my solo stuff I've been doing less and less studio work and more
. . . you know, getting more checks for record sales or publishing
. . . whatever. Those monies are starting to come in.
HM: For your concerts do you play with a band?
RS: Yeah, I play with a band and I do two or three songs solo
in the set. Depends on how long the set is. It's normally me, Eli
Thomson who plays bass for me and kind of a slew of other characters.
It's a five piece band total.
HM: Is there anything else you absolutely want readers to
RS: No, just the music, really. Let that speak for itself.
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