Richard Swift (1977-2018): A musician’s musician, remembered as ‘playful, thorough, fearless and exhilarating’

Richard Swift
Richard Swift

On a winter night in 2011, Richard Swift greeted an old journalistic acquaintance outside the Silver Lake club then known as Spaceland with a smile and a nod. “Ready to give these hipsters a night of Tin Pan Alley?” I asked him, referring to the style of music he liked to say that he made. He laughed.

The occasion was a Swift solo performance, opening for rock bands Everest and Red Cortez. It was just Swift and his keyboard, except for being joined on a couple songs by his old friend, Everest (and now Father John Misty) bassist Elijah Thomson. Swift had cut his music teeth in Southern California, including playing with Starflyer 59 on the brilliant “Old” album, but not many in the exceedingly chatty crowd knew him. Oblivious to it all, Swift was heavenly. And at the end, he stood up, grabbed the mic and absolutely silenced the crowd by singing “Lady Luck” (if memory serves) a cappella, nailing all the song’s very high notes. It was stunning, tender, playful, surprising and wry. Like all of Swift’s music, it felt like it came from a make-believe place. And you felt lucky to be invited for a visit.

When Richard Ochoa Swift died last week at age 41, though, he was saluted not just for his own music, but as a muse, a collaborator, a friend and a musician’s musician.

“He was the funniest person I ever knew and the most instinctive musician I ever worked with,” says one of his frequent collaborators, Orange County-based songwriter-composer-producer Frank Lenz. “We would spend hours/days recording at my place laughing and trying every crazy idea we could come up with, both of us and Eli trying to outdo each other. We made so much music together, it became the fabric that all my creative output would be made out of.

“WWDD … What would Dickie do? I can’t believe he’s not around to send music to. I’m 10 years older than him and he was always my elder, more savvy, more hip and more together. I was with him when Shea told him she was pregnant with Kennedy. We were peas in a pod … It’s really too much.”

Richard Swift

Swift, who is survived by his wife Shealynn and children Madison, Adrian and Kennedy, died after a long struggle with alcoholism, his family disclosed this week. “It’s ultimately what took his life,” they said in a statement from the family, his record label Secretly Canadian and his management company. “With the support of family and friends and the assistance of MusiCares, Richard had checked himself into rehab for multiple stays over the past two years, but his body gave out before he could overcome the disease. He was diagnosed with hepatitis and liver and kidney distress in June. Multiple hospitals worked to help stabilize him over the course of that month, but his body was unable to heal and, per his wishes and with his family’s consent, he was moved to hospice care. Richard passed in the early morning of July 3 in a hospice facility in Tacoma, Wash.”

Swift, who was born in California and reared in a Quaker family in rural Minesota and Utah, moved to Southern California as a teenager, finding kindred spirits in the artists who hung out at Huntington Beach’s legendary Green Room studio owned by the late Gene Eugene. Later, through Lenz, he met musician Wayne Everett and bonded over Eugene and his legacy.

“Dickie and I talked about that shock—of losing someone so influential in our lives, and so unexpectedly. With a kind of childlike honesty, Dickie had a way of bringing you into his thoughts and feelings, like he was still trying to find the words to describe how he felt,” Everett says. “I quickly learned that this was how he approached music, too. As he got more involved with those recording sessions with Frank and me, he started experimenting, toying with sounds and instruments and tones, searching for the right way of expression. His openness to ideas was playful, thorough, fearless and exhilarating. And his wit was infectious and silly.

“Then one day he suggested that I completely change the rhythmic feel and tone of an entire song. I remember he shared the idea in the most respectful way, knowing he was destroying something dear to me. I was completely frightened by the idea of revamping the song, but by then I trusted his vision. It was a singular vision, it turned out. Within a few hours, he’d reworked it, and with Frank we all polished off a song that ended up far better than it would’ve been had I completed my original vision for it.

“I’m pretty sure this isn’t a unique story. His family lost a pillar. We lost a friend. Music lost a genius. It’s devastating to think that we won’t have the chance to hear what he does in the future. And it’s unbelievable to have to refer to my friend in the past.”

Swift would go on to work with a multitude of artists as a producer and collaborator. He was a touring member of the Shins and the Black Keys. Dan Auerbach paid tribute via social media: “Today the world lost one of the most talented musicians I know. He’s now with his Mom and Sister. I will miss you my friend,” he wrote.

His L.A.-based agent, Adam Katz, said of Swift, who was working on new music and planning to release it in November: “Today, I lost a friend, client and creative inspiration. I don’t really know how to articulate my sadness and anger, grief and frustration. Suffice to say I was honored to have represented him and so, so sad and frustrated he’s leaving us with so much left undone.”

The list of music artists whom Swift in some way touched is stunning: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Damien Jurado, Born Ruffians, Jessie Baylin, Foxygen, Ruby Force, Tennis, Gardens & Villa, the Pretenders, the Arcs, Lucius, Houndmouth, Kissing Cousins, Hamilton Leithauser, Springtime Carnivore, Pure Bathing Culture, Tijuana Panthers, Ray LaMontagne, the Mynabirds, Sharon Van Etten, Kevin Morby, Laetita Sadier, Valerie June …

Pitchfork itemized some of Swift’s exploits, calling him an “indie-rock treasure.”

Of his work as a producer, Swift once told Tape Op magazine: “What you can control are knobs, faders, and being a nice person.”

Starflyer 59 in the early 2000s: From left, Richard Swift, Jeff Cloud, Frank Lenz and Jason Martin

All the people who knew him in the days before Swift and his family moved to rural Cottage Grove, Ore., would testify to the latter.

“The whole thing is very sad,” says Starflyer 59 main man Jason Martin. “He was very funny and very talented. That was a long time ago now [“Old” came out in 2003], but I look back on that small window we had playing and hanging out together very fondly.”

Jeff Cloud, then the bassist in Starflyer 59, also runs the independent record label Velvet Blue Music, which released Swift’s earliest work.

“Some of the most fun times in my life have been with Swift … and I don’t mean on stage, I mean sitting in the back of a van driving across America discussing theories and ideas,” Cloud says. “I’m extremely proud of the many projects we worked together on. The first four 7-inches I released for him are pure gold as far as I’m concerned.”

||| Stream: Our favorites from the catalog of Richard Swift