My heart sank when I heard that Richard Swift passed away last night. Naturally, I sought refuge in the web; I needed to know more about a man who, for many, proved to be as elusive as his career. My investigation led me to an article in The Stranger. It contains an outboard link to an obscure Jessie Baylin 4-track EP, an intimate collaboration with Swift called Pleasure Center. It’s a great example of the proliferation of Swift’s genius as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and engineer.
I quickly cue it up. You should too.
I fell in love with Swift’s raw, soul-infused Rock and Roll back in 2010 when my friend Jeff handed me a copy of Atlantic Ocean.
Atlantic Ocean is some of Swift’s best work. Songs like “The Original Thought”, “The End of an Age” and “The First Time” showcase an artist at the peak of his game. These anthems of change reached us at the perfect time in our lives while we crossed the threshold of our thirties, and in doing so, Swift unwittingly shepherded us through this passage.
As we embraced the changes, Swift’s back catalogue gave us a library to ponder, simultaneously mourning and celebrating the mistakes of youth; all those failed relationships, the silly posturing of twenty-somethings who thought they had most, if not all of the answers.
His next release, a collection of songs titled Walt Wolfman is a mixture of raw, stripped-down percussion and vocals that punch and squeal like beat poetry. It’s the perfect derailment to Atlantic Ocean’s finely crafted pop sophistication.
I whinged in envy when Jeff told me he’d be seeing Swift in a brief but rare appearance at the Satellite in Los Angeles. Seeing Swift live was a rare treat, one that few people outside of the circles he ran with could say they’d witnessed. When Jeff returned, he rehashed the experience, saying the crowd wasn’t receptive to Swift, a trend that reportedly plagued his career as a solo musician. His acerbic, often self-deprecating songs didn’t appeal to a generation of disaffected concert-goers; they just didn’t seem to get him.
His earlier work is a sonic document to the trials and revelations of a working artist in the record industry. While tracks like “Most of What I Know” and “Artist and Repertoire” detail the pressure to perform and conform physically and stylistically, Swift resigns from the stage altogether in “The Songs of National Freedom,” saying, “I made my way in to the spotlight just to realize it’s not what I want.”
Swift had all but retreated from the stage.
He sought refuge in the background as a sideman, producer and recording engineer. It comes as no surprise that Swift really flourished here, lending his talents to friends and collaborators like Damien Jurado, Foxygen, The Black Keys, Jessie Baylin and, most recently, The Shins, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats and The Arcs. Swift’s genius and raw talent splintered off into these projects, infusing his brand of lo-fi, soul-infused Rock and Roll into them.
I find a wave of posts on Instagram that mourn his passing.
Walkmen ex-pats Hamilton Leithauser and Pete Bauer, and singer-songwriter Kevin Morby share their own personal tributes, highlighting the unbridled nature of Swift’s being. Morby’s contribution includes a beautiful anecdote about a track they worked on together while finishing up City Music.
Morby states, ‘Dry Your Eyes” is the only song where it’s ‘just the two of us.’ On the sparse, two-chord track, Swift’s tender falsetto hovers ghostlike above Morby’s Lou Reed-inspired vocals. Morby says (it felt like) “I had won the lottery — being able to work with one of my heroes one on one like that.” Morby continues:
“Back in the control room while we were mixing the song he panned the vocals hard right, saying ‘let’s do something that in twenty years we’ll look back on and say why’d we do that?’”
This subtle, secret gesture seems to answer all concerns about his shift into the background. with Swift at the switchboard, all is well.
Back in May, Swift’s Instagram posted a promising update about a new album titled The Hex to be released this November. Shortly after, a Gofundme page was erected revealing Swift had been stricken with a life-threatening illness, and lacking medical insurance, a common problem for artists, his family reached out for support. This same page has since been switched to read the Richard Swift Memorial Fund.
With this forthcoming release and a wealth of behind the scenes material that include hidden gems like Morby’s, Richard Swift leaves us a legacy that is sure to be long and lasting.
And with each new discovery comes an equalizing tone documenting the realities of a producer and touring musician battling substance abuse. The more I read, the more I learn how Swift lived life like a wrecking ball; in the end, his body just gave out from the onslaught of abuse.
These dark revelations uncover more than vices: they expose the war that Swift was waging. In the midst of his battle, he gave us true moments of brilliance. Now, with his posthumous album The Hex on deck, he’s giving us a window into the final chapter, and with it, one final farewell.
- Swift defends this decision to take up as a session and sideman in a recent interview in Tape Op, citing financial and professional opportunities as his reasoning.