If you have even a passing interest in indie rock, it’s almost guaranteed you’ve heard several things Richard Swift left his mark on musically.
A consummate producer and multi-instrumentalist based in Cottage Grove, he played and toured with the Black Keys, the Shins, Wilco, the Pretenders, Marco Benevento and many others.
At his home studio, National Freedom, he recorded and produced stars like Damien Jurado, Foxygen, the Fruit Bats and dozens more.
Add to that seven solo records and several EPs, and you have one long, lovely trail of songs to follow.
A musician’s musician, Richard Swift said something to a British journalist in 2007 that revealed how little he valued the spotlight for its own sake.
“I respect the hell out of so many people that are making music and have made music,” Swift said. “But, you know, my thing is my thing. I could hire great piano players and guitar players, but I’d rather do it myself. That’s how you become a better musician.”
Swift’s persona as a rock ‘n’ roll lifer set him apart in just about any room. Eric D. Johnson got to be friends with Swift while playing in the band Vetiver and asked Swift to play keyboards occasionally in his current band, Fruit Bats.
He remembered Swift’s ever-present Johnny Cash styled black suits.
“We all went to the beach,” Johnson recalls of a Fruit Bats trip to Oahu, “… all in our swimsuits and he was on the beach in ‘the Swift outfit’. Didn’t go in the water. He looked like an alien. It was so funny and awesome.”
National Freedom, the space where he recorded and jammed with friends, was not unique from a technological standpoint. Swift often used decades-old equipment and low-down techniques that left other engineers baffled. Its secret was its design, accommodating a musicians’ perspective.
“I’ve never set up a microphone anywhere without thinking of that space,” Eric Johnson remembers. It was, he says, “very simple, from the principals of where you start with engineering and recording. He was just an artist who happened to record.”
For years, the studio lacked the engineering booth that’s a standard feature of most studios. Swift ran the board from inside the studio, until just a few years ago.
The resulting catalogue of work Swift leaves behind is breathtakingly wide in scope, from the soulful, post-pop sounds on his solo albums, to a lush, country-inflected feel on a Foxygen track, to the high polished gloss of Pure Bathing Culture’s “Pendulum”.
Musicians talk about Swift’s incredibly strong intuition. His ethos called for getting the idea for a song right up front, after which production could run its course very quickly. Dan Hindman of Pure Bathing Culture talked about a session for Damien Jurado’s album, “Maraqopa,” and the song, “Nothing Is the News.”
“I played the guitar solo, Hindman remembers. “We came into the studio and sat down. I imagined he had a lot of ideas. But all that happened was Richard said, ‘Are you ready?’ And I said, ‘Sure’, and he turned on the tape. Long story short, he took the entire pass and that’s what’s on the record. I said, ‘What are we going to with this?’ And Richard said, ‘We’re done.’”
Hindman says Swift had an intuitive gift for adding fragile, lovely details to a song, with exponential impact: a little keyboard fill on Pure Bathing Culture’s “Silver Shores Lake”, that played not so much as a solo, but as a commentary in dialogue with the song and its lyrics.
Eric D. Johnson adds, “He just made everything sound magical.” An ability to lighten the mood in a room and share his excitement about a song could power up a session. “He was not afraid to be real simple.”
The result is a hypnotic, atmospheric jam that you can get completely lost in. If Swift’s method was a high wire act, he was such a magnetic personality with such a reliable sensibility that musicians kept coming back for more.
Swift died at a hospital in Tacoma. His family declined to specify the exact cause of death, but his final illness appeared to have involved a lengthy hospital stay. Fans from as far away as England and Italy and Ireland have chipped into a crowd-funded campaign to defray the family’s medical expenses.
In the end, Swift’s big lifts for so many musicians have touched off an outpouring of grief and admiration. Many fans and band mates have recalled a 2011 performance at Pickathon, the annual music festival at Pendarvis farm that featured many Swift associates over the years, including Sharon Van Etten, Nathaneal Ratliff and the Night Sweats, Damien Jurado and others.
Terry Groves, one of Pickathon’s partner-producers, says starting around 2010, Swift became one of the festivals’ most informed and reliable allies.
More than one bereaved friend has compared the loss to that of Prince or David Bowie, in that Swift was so talented on so many levels. But Groves offers a different take.
“He was … significant for so many great artists,” Groves said, “nationally and internationally.” And it’s that quality, his generosity in producing and playing with other artists, taking photos for them or working on album art, that cemented his legacy.
“It felt like Richard was there for a lot of other people,” Groves said. “When you lose a person important to so many people, it’s way more personal than losing an icon who’s untouchable.”
This article has been updated.