Richard Swift, Prolific Songwriter and Producer, Spent Life Searching for Perfect Sounds

Richard Swift
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

Richard Swift performs onstage during day 2 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 14, 2012 in Indio, Calif. 

Richard Swift could do everything. The producer, mixer, studio boss, touring musician, and prolific songwriter in his own right, tragically passed away Tuesday (July 3) after a battle with an unnamed “life-threatening illness.” He was 41.

Swift’s imprint has been indelibly left on the indie rock community, as the four-track connoisseur evolved from a struggling solo artist to a producer who shaped records for Damien Jurado, Laetitia Sadier, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Kevin Morby, Foxygen, and many others.

Most of the records were created in Swift’s studio, National Freedom, located in Cottage Grove, Oregon. Swift lived in Oregon as a teenager, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a solo musician, and eventually settling in the Pacific Northwest to make albums in his studio. He died in Tacoma, Washington.

Swift’s solo work found a small, yet passionate group of followers, as the songwriter distributed homemade CDs of his debut album, The Novelist. That record was paired in conjunction with Walking Without Effort, and eventually re-released as The Richard Swift Collection Vol. 1 by Secretly Canadian, which would grow into Swift’s support system as his career switched tracks and expanded in all directions.

While Swift was creating solo music, he found growing success as a producer and touring musician. He played with The Shins and The Black Keys, and his National Freedom studio would serve as a creative stomping ground for Secretly Canadian artists and any musician with a desire to work with a hands-on producer of Swift’s caliber. While Swift’s list of accomplishments is long and varied, his work is all neatly tied together by a unified thread, namely the pure excitement of sonic creation and its pervasive spirit through every song he encountered as either a writer, producer, collaborator, or mixing engineer.

Swift’s first official release, The Richard Swift Collection Vol.1, is a carnival of sounds, warped pop filtered through a four-track before being fragmented by an endless hall of mirrors. Swift’s voice comes in waves and layers, droning and morose, like Julian Casablancas drenched in the powerful heat of the San Fernando Valley instead of an endless New York night. "The Novelist” is a somber look into Swift’s psyche -- all minor keys and whining strings and lines like, “Nobody cares anymore.” It’s melted and lo-fi, yet oddly tuned into a refined sense of style. Even without the means to properly record himself, Swift always had a grand vision of what he wanted to say.

His first proper record for Secretly Canadian was 2007’s Dressed Up for the Letdown, an ambling mix of precise folk and sprawling Americana, all wrapped under the heavy gauze of Swift’s growing production skills. This album is infinitely more crisp than his four-track collection, touching on Beatles-esque pop on “P.S. It All Falls Down” and a wonderful twist of movie soundtrack rock on “The Songs of National Freedom.”

A year later, Swift released Richard Swift as Onasis, a collection of EPs that served as an experimental playground for the songwriter. In later years, his production work and sessions with other musicians would allow him that freedom, but in this instance, it’s striking to see him work on his craft in live time. It’s near alchemy, the tweaking of misplaced toys until a previously unseen island becomes the destination. Shortly after this LP, Swift slowly began inching towards a heavy focus on production, working with Damien Jurado on his Saint Bartlett LP. Saint Bartlett is unendingly lush, a mirror of the Pacific Northwest environment both he and Jurado called home. And with these early efforts as a producer, Swift slowly began to realize his unmatched talent for recording drums.

At the time of his death, Swift was the J Dilla of indie rock. He tracked drums that many imitated, but none could replicate. It’s a skill that comes from years of precise tinkering, growing out of a desire for perfection and excellence. The drums can often be regarded as a less melodic instrument than others in a band setting. Swift always -- whether as a producer or a songwriter -- made his drums sing.

Swift also help usher in the careers of indie upstarts like Foxygen and Kevin Morby, helping the former turn their unsubtle homages to the Rolling Stones and '60s rock into something dynamic and, eventually, original. When Swift began working with Morby, the latter was already an established singer-songwriter with a distinct sound. On Morby’s latest LP, City Music, Swift served less as an active co-creator and more of an advisor, pushing Morby to the most precise and bountiful iteration of his sound.

While Swift will always be more celebrated for the work he did with others than his solo output, his death will -- as cruelly as it always does -- invite re-evaluations and reconsiderations of his songwriting prowess. His last two LPs, 2009’s Atlantic Ocean and 2011’s Walt Wolfman, are perhaps two of the stronger works he’s ever been involved with.

Atlantic Ocean was recorded at Wilco’s Chicago loft and deftly blends his sardonic wit with electronics that poke and prod, more experimental in the mix than many could get away with. With Atlantic Ocean, Swift took on the role of mad scientist, blending various potions to see what fit. It’s a delicate, elegant mess.

A year before Walt Wolfman was released, Swift did serious fractural damage to his left ring finger, causing doctors to stress the chance that he’d never be able to play guitar or piano the same way again. Swift recovered, and Wolfman spins his sonic identity towards doo-wop and noisy, junkyard pop. It’s a brief record -- more of an EP than a full-length -- but still a stunning encapsulation of all the avenues Swift was intent on exploring. Walt Wolfman was the last record he made for Secretly Canadian, and it’s fitting that it hinted at a new universe he’d just begun to explore.

Swift was an inventor disguised as a musician’s musician, an eager student disguised as a producer. Richard Swift was a man who loved a great song.