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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?

RS: Exactly.

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 approach?

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 with?

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 other times.

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.

RS: Yeah…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…the earlier stuff as well. But sometimes I feel with Tom Waits…it 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 once…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?

RS: Gosh…it was right after Mule Variations came out…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…and 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…and it seems like it's getting harder and harder these days. And…it's 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, basically.

HM: Are the new ones more Lo-Fi or studio?

RS: Well, Walking is studio. It's more like Walking fidelity…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...

RS: Sure…yeah, exactly.

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 of it.

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…20 or 30 people tops. So, that seems more of a healthy thing.

HM: And it's not just a religious thing or anything…but 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 children.

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 and such?

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 Boys.

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. Great cinema.

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 hear?

RS: No, just the music, really. Let that speak for itself.

-Justin Stover


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