Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Richard Swift Was A Sonic Revelation, Right From His First Single

Richard Swift worked with everyone from The Shins to The Black Keys, but his earliest single signaled something special.
Lance Troxel
Courtesy of the artist
Richard Swift worked with everyone from The Shins to The Black Keys, but his earliest single signaled something special.

The 7-inch sat in my college dorm room, unplayed but displayed — a bright pink foldover cover with red lettering and a crude drawing of two dashing men. There wasn't a way to hear the songs outside of a turntable (at the time, still sitting in my parents' living room), no digital copy available. When you mail-ordered a record, you listened to the record, not the MP3s from a download card.

Richard Swift's <em>Buildings in America</em> 7-inch, featuring a drawing by Swift himself.
Richard Swift's Buildings in America 7-inch, featuring a drawing by Swift himself.

When I finally brought the record home from college one weekend, I accidentally played it at the wrong speed. I'm huuuungry, huuuuuungoveeerrrrr / Yoooou're an angeeeeelit slowly slurped, coincidentally mimicking what a hangover feels like (not that I knew anything about that at 19, still very much a goody two-shoes). Whoops, flipped the speed to 45 rpm.

"Buildings in America" was the first song I heard from Richard Swift — the producer, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter who died today at 41 — and it felt like an old-school, lo-fi revelation warped to the present day.

Originally released by Velvet Blue Music, the pops in the vinyl were just as much an instrument as the simple drum-machine, throwing off the beat just a hair. Curled into layers of acoustic guitar were the low-high harmonies of Richard Swift and Frank Lenz, a frequent collaborator of Swift's in those early days. What the heck is he singing about? I'd puzzle over surreal phrases like "You're a plane crash, blister fever" or "I played your heart, but I broke two strings" and guess that it was a love song — but a broken one, punctuated by the semi-sacrilegious proclamation: "Jesus Christ, you're a lovely thing." It all felt so out of time, as if Swift stumbled down a cobblestone side-street and found himself in a steampunk Tin Pan Alley.

But just a little more than halfway through "Buildings in America," the foundation crumbles into blown-out synths, thwacked drums and a girl-group-inspired call-and-response — it's a wall of sound, blasted apart in slow motion. It felt like a magic trick committed to vinyl, and every time I returned the needle to its beginning (at the right speed), there was another secret layer hiding in the grooves, waiting for my ears to find it.

"Buildings in America" would eventually be re-recorded for 2007's Dressed Up for the Letdown, but that record didn't include "Jimmy," a B-side which nodded to Swift's roots. When he was 15-years-old, he befriended members of the stylistically unclassifiable Christian rock band Adam Again. Its singer and guitarist was the brilliant engineer and producer Gene Eugene, who owned Green Room studios in Huntington Beach, Calif. "They were big heroes," Swift told Tape Op. "He turned me on to Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Sly and the Family Stone. It really changed my life. The first time that I ever really recorded music was here in this space."

"Jimmy" was a cover of Lost Dogs, an obscure Christian rock supergroup of sorts, which featured Gene Eugene and members of The Choir, The 77s and Daniel Amos. Swift is reverently faithful, retaining the chiming sweetness of the original, set to the tick-tock of a metronome. It's a song about old friends, recorded as tribute. (Gene Eugene died in 2000 in his studio of a brain aneurysm.)

Those first four 7-inch singles from 2002-2005, all released through Velvet Blue, were not only the first promising inklings of an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter, but also of an inventive producer. You'll always know when Richard Swift was behind a song, from his short-but-crucial stint as the keyboardist for Starflyer 59's Old to producing The Shins' worthy return Port of Morrow and Sharon Van Etten's Are We There — not to mention his rewarding musical relationships with Dan Auerbach, Valerie June and Damien Jurado. His retro-to-the-future sound never felt old, but lived in and lived through.

The recognition of his genius has felt validating in the years since, from those limited-edition singles to one of the most trusted producers of the most selective artists. But I'll never forget the first time Richard Swift expanded my ears with little more than a drum machine and a few guitars.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Listen to the Viking's Choice playlist, subscribe to the newsletter.