I was absolutely heartbroken this morning to learn of the passing of Richard Swift, singer/songwriter, producer, musician, and all around talented guy. I was lucky enough to sit down and talk with him shortly after the release of his 2007 album Dressed Up For the Letdown, which was in my opinion his greatest creative moment. But he was a restless sort, and although his star was on the rise, he quickly grew tired of it, and decided to follow his muse into directions that seemingly frustrated those expecting him to follow the seemingly assured path of him becoming this generation’s Randy Newman. RIP to a truly talented and gifted artist.
My chat with Richard Swift was, well, swift. An international phone call for fifteen minutes might not seem to be enough time to ask everything I’d wanted to ask of the wonderful Mr. Swift, but surprisingly, we had a lot to talk about in terms of his excellent new album, Dressed Up For the Letdown. In comparison to his previous release, 2005’s double-CD reissue The Novelist/Walking Without Effort, Letdown is a stripped down, stark, honest, and at times quite humorous collection of pop songs. That it’s also a bit of a concept album about the darker side of the music industry, well, that makes the record even more fascinating. I’m quite happy that I had the few minutes I had to chat with him, and I think his comments are insightful and interesting.
Is Dressed Up For the Letdown a conceptual album about the darker side of the music industry?
Yeah, kind of. I certainly was going through a lot of bullshit with the music industry at the time I wrote it, so yeah, it’s definitely my journey over the past four or five years, although I wrote it in the last year and a half. (Laughs) But yeah, it’s definitely a critique of the business and the state of the world I see.
Does a lot of it date back to before you were with Secretly Canadian?
Yeah, it does. Some of the songwriting does; some of it was…you know, thinking about it, I think I had almost completed most of it concurrently to signing with Secretly Canadian. Actually, Dressed Up was one of the cards that I played to get the deal with them. (Laughs) It’s kind of funny; as soon as I finished the record, by that point I had really sort of stopped giving a shit for the most part, and then things just kind of picked up. Literally, within days, essentially, I’d thrown up my hands in frustration and I said, “Well (sigh), let’s see what happens.” Then Secretly Canadian called a few days later, and life started to go up for me there.
Wow, that’s amazing. It’s a great story, considering the frustrations you’d had.
I certainly don’t regret any of that time. I would never want to go back, because I had some serious mental problems for a few years, and now I’m better. I’m back, I’m healing, I’ve got some good labels releasing my records—records I don’t have to change at all, records no one has a say in except for me. Realistically, it’s why it took me a while to sort my label thing out, because I wasn’t what certain labels were looking for. Certainl labels were offering me total shit deals, yada yada yada. Everyone has a routine; now mine’s worked out, I’ve stuck with it, and things have sorted themselves out.
It seems less of a “I hate the music industry” theme than it does a call to focus on one’s own musical ability.
Yeah, that’s certainly true. I don’t think much of the record industry–I hate to use the term “necessary evil” because I don’t really believe in that concept, but yeah, there would be no point for me to bitch about the record industry. I’m just pointing out things. There was a day and age where people like Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Neil Young–man, Neil Young was a fucking pop star! He was a huge pop star back in the day! People either forget about that, or they just don’t know. In this day and age, stuff like that is really impossible to find in “pop.” There are guys who are kind of on the fringe, like the folk and the freak-folk scene–but they don’t touch sincerity, pop appeal, and the weirdness of Neil Young. We live in a day and age where a person like Neil Young coming along is highly unlikely. In talking about my album, I think I was–I can’t say “proven wrong” because I kind of had things work out in the end. I don’t think I’d want to make a record that was just me all bitching about the record industry. I think the record finds me reaffirming myself, defining my principles, and sticking to it. There’s obviously frustrations that come along when you’re doing work you think is good and you take it to people who say “It’s great, it’s wonderful, but if we could do a couple of remixes, tweak it here and there, do a really nice rock video, and if you cleaned up your look and your shit, it’d be even better.” I got a lot of that bullshit. I wasn’t going to budge on any of that. I wasn’t going to. I make my records a certain way, I want my songs to sound a certain way, and nobody is going to come in and mess with it.
“Richard Swift is an artist. Richard Swift is not a whore.”
(Laughs) Exactly. That’s the thing. If I was in it for the money, I certainly wouldn’t be on this end of the music industry. People like me aren’t making loads of money. I’m to the point now where I am able to pay my bills and pay my band and can live from just writing songs. That’s…pretty rare. I’m fortunate.
The one song that really stuck with me was “Artist & Repertoire.” Was it based on actual things A&R men told you?
Well, in a way. Not just for myself, either; I think it’s true for hundreds of people in my situation. Some A&R guy isn’t going to tell you that you sound a little trebly in the second chorus. They say things like, (phony-sounding voice) “Oh, the looooook…..the look isn’t quite right. Let’s tweak it here and there, make it better.” I just waded around until I caught up with labels that not only would put out my records, but would put out my records without changing anything. None of it. The artwork, none of it. None of the sound, nada. “Artist & Repertoire” is based from my experience, but I don’t think I’m unique at all. Not just in the music industry, too; there are people who do great things but get shot down by uncreative people who think they know how to do it “better.” It’s a frustration, and it’s very trying on you.
I think Dressed Up for the Letdown is a record an aspiring musician should listen to.
Oh? Cool, man. When I made The Novelist, it was kind of a private lesson to myself. Letdown is a bit of a warning letter, in a way. I think it’s pretty encouraging, too. At the time, I was grappling with life or death issues. I was going through anxiety and panic attacks that were lasting months and months and months, and I went through massive bouts of depression. It was a really dark time. The record is kind of about dealing with that shit and sticking to my guns, and not giving up my principles. I think if you’ve got it, you’ve got it, man. I think if you have to work too hard at it to make it happen, it’s not really there for you in the first place. I kind of knew the whole time that it would work out. It was just a matter of being patient. But I’m not unique in what I’ve gone through. People have gone through this sort of thing since the beginning. There’s always been the struggle of the artist versus business and how the two can coincide and coexist, or if they even can at all.
Personally, my point of view of it is if you want to play the game, you cannot complain about what happens to you.
Yeah, you’ve got to know what you are getting yourself into. I think everybody comes into the business a little blind. I’m kind of glad I went through the things I did, because now I have a perspective on it all. My relationships with two wonderful record labels and the music industry is pretty healthy. I’m very thankful, and I feel rather fortunate to have such a great group of people helping me out, but at the same time, if the label dropped me tomorrow, I don’t think I’d be too heartbroken. I’d be bummed, but I’d keep going, and I’d still have my career. I’d still make music. That’s all that matters.
Donations to his family can be made here: Medical Fund For Richard Swift.