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Why Richard Swift Was an Indie Rock Treasure

Richard Swift, who died this morning (July 3) at the age of 41, was the embodiment of a musician’s musician. He hit the road as a member of the Shins and the Black Keys. He had a hand in recordings by dozens of artists, among them not just the Shins and Dan Auerbach, but also the Pretenders, Kevin Morby, Sharon Van Etten, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, Damien Jurado, Foxygen, David Bazan, Tennis, Shannon Shaw, and Guster. He also leaves an impressive solo discography, which he began recording during off-hours in the L.A. studio where he cut his teeth, in the early 2000s.

But you see, Swift was also a particular kind of musician’s musician. Once he’d earned enough to support his young family, he stepped away from the industry machine and opened up a small home studio, National Freedom, in central Oregon. As he sings on “The Songs of National Freedom,” “I made my way into the spotlight/Just to realize it’s not what I want.” His solo endeavors were less those of the artisan than the auteur: No mere strummer, he had side projects and pseudonyms, following his idiosyncratic muse from sophisticated cabaret-pop to gut-punching blue-eyed soul.

There was a warmth to Swift’s recordings that can’t be explained simply by his love of the 4-track recorder. “I think that being able to make friends with a new band, and hopefully help them have a really great musical and life experience, is more the goal than making a hit record,” Swift told Tape Op in a 2017 interview. “What you can control are knobs, faders, and being a nice person. I think it’s listening to music, as well as listening to people and their ideas. Being open.” Delving through all of Swift’s projects is a daunting task, but here are 10 songs that show his creative and collaborative gifts at their best.


Richard Swift – “Losing Sleep” (2005)

Swift’s limited-pressing debut, 2003’s The Novelist, introduced a studio whiz who was equal parts precocious and ambitious, striving for pre-rock‘n’roll grandeur by DIY means. The follow-up, 2005’s Walking Without Effort, aimed even higher, towards the ornate pop of Burt Bacharach and Van Dyke Parks. That same year, the two albums were released as The Richard Swift Collection Volume One by Swift’s longtime label home, Secretly Canadian. “Losing Sleep,” from the latter disc, remains a gorgeous standout, as intimate and rich with melody as XO-era Elliott Smith.


Richard Swift – “Would You?” (2008)

Swift refined his emotive folk-pop on 2007’s Dressed Up for the Let Down, with the self-referential “Artist & Repertoire” paving a way for the games Father John Misty would later play. The following year’s Ground Trouble Jaw EP was a stylistic breakthrough for Swift, leaning more towards vintage soul. “The Bully,” which Cults would later interpolate on “Bumper,” exhibits more of Swift’s self-lacerating humor, but “Would You?” is Ground Trouble Jaw’s stunner: a lavish waltz that floats on a cloud somewhere between Nuggets and the Delfonics.


Richard Swift – “Lady Luck” (2009)

Another Ground Trouble Jaw song, “Lady Luck,” may actually be Swift’s most familiar. He re-recorded it for his next proper album, The Atlantic Ocean, and it has since been used in ads and on TV shows. It’s not hard to hear why: Sounding like a grit-caked update on Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday,” the song marks the point where Swift’s studio obsessiveness yielded his most inviting results.


The Mynabirds – “Numbers Don’t Lie” (2010)

With the success of his solo work, Swift also grew busier as a producer. Particularly head-turning early on was his work with the Mynabirds, whose singer Laura Burhenn went from mild-mannered power-pop with the band Georgie James to doing her best Dusty in Memphis on the Mynabirds’ debut, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood. Swift played guitar, bass, and percussion as well as sang backing vocals on the album, which he co-produced with Burhenn at National Freedom, and “Numbers Don’t Lie” is a gleaming highlight.


Laetitia Sadier – “One Million Year Trip” (2010)

Stereolab’s frontwoman also stopped by National Freedom, for her first proper solo album, The Trip. Swift produced and performed on several tracks, including the opener, “One Million Year Trip,” which mixes hypnotic krautrock with strikingly personal lyrics. It was here that Swift demonstrated his astonishing versatility as a collaborator; never making it about himself, he wisely put Sadier’s vocal performance right out front.


Damien Jurado – “Working Titles” (2012)

One of Swift’s most fruitful collaborations was with the observational singer-songwriter Damien Jurado. Swift produced a winning streak of four Jurado albums—2010’s Saint Bartlett, 2012’s Maraqopa, 2014’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, and 2016’s Visions of Us on the Land—and the two shared equal billing on a covers LP, 2010’s Other People’s Songs Volume One. Maraqopa’s “Working Titles,” where gospel background vocals lift up Jurado’s stark strums and wide-eyed musings, is a song worth returning to again and again.


Foxygen – “Shuggie” (2013)

The members of Foxygen have made no secret of the influence Swift had on them when he produced their debut, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. Exhibit A is “Shuggie,” which effortlessly flits between moody lounge-pop and sing-along glam-rock, with a jagged funk breakdown thrown in.


Pure Bathing Culture – “Pendulum” (2014)

Swift produced, mixed, and lent percussion, keyboards, and drum programming to Portland band Pure Bathing Culture’s debut, Moon Tides. One of National Freedom’s less-heralded gems is that album’s dreamy opener, “Pendulum,” which sounds more atmospheric and homespun than other groups evoking Fleetwood Mac around this time.


Hamilton Leithauser – “I Retired“ (2014)

Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam + Richard Swift? It happened. Swift played drums all over the Walkmen frontman’s solo debut, 2014’s Black Hours. On the magnificently rumpled howler “I Retired,” produced and co-written by Leithauser’s future album collaborator Rostam Batmanglij, Swift sang backing vocals, too. Presumably that’s him in there among the “shooby doo-wops.”


Kevin Morby – “Dry Your Eyes” (2017)

Kevin Morby, of Woods and Babies, said he’d recorded “Dry Your Eyes” several different ways but never thought it was right until the version he did with Richard Swift for last year’s City Music. “We had this concept, we kept saying, ‘Let’s do something we might one day regret,’” Morby told All Songs Considered. “My favorite part of this process, though, was watching Richard do a three-part harmony with himself. That’s him singing backup.” It’s a fitting benediction from an already missed mainstay of the independent music world.

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