INTERVIEW: Singer / Songwriter Seth Swirsky
Singer/songwriter Seth Swirsky’s accomplishments in the music industry are vast and far reaching; spanning a 30-plus-year career. Swirsky has written hit songs for Al Green, Michael McDonald, Olivia Newton John, Air Supply and Taylor Dane. This prolific artist has also directed the award-winning documentary “Beatle Stories” and is a best-selling author of “Baseball Letters.” In recent years, his debut album, “Instant Pleasure” won Independent Pop Album of the Year at the 2005 Los Angeles Music Awards. The first singles off the two “The Red Button” albums — “Cruel Girl” and “Caught in the Middle” – were named “The Coolest Song in the World” on “Little Steven” Van Zandt’s syndicated radio show, “The Underground Garage. Watercolor Day earned Song of the Year honors at the 2010 Hollywood Music in Media Awards. Swirsky is also a modern expressionistic painter with gallery show scheduled for this fall in L.A.
SoCalMusicToday.com spoke to Swirsky who is promoting his new solo album “Circles and Squares” which will be released on friday August 19. Not only did Swirsky discuss and explain the inspiration behind the LP and his influences, he also talked at length about what lead him to become the multi-faceted artist he is today placing a high premium on fearless, honest and raw self-expression that frees him creatively every step of the way and shared the valuable advice he would give to independent bands and artists today.
What came first, becoming a songwriter and musician or a modern expressionist painter?
When I was 7, I literally begged my parents for a guitar. I had to play it. Of all the relationships that were meant to be in my life, the one with my guitar has been the most long-lasting! I came to painting in my late ‘30s although my mother is a fabulous realist painter, in oils. I grew up with it. The smell of turpentine to me is like a time machine back to my childhood!
What leads to both areas of creativity for you? How has that enhanced both areas of your artistry overall?
I simply love (and live) to create—whether it’s interior design ideas for my home, or titles of as-yet unwritten books or songs, my mind is set to be creative. I always have two paintings going at once. When I pass by that room in my house, sometimes I dip in and get out a brush and work on both. When I’m in my music space, I’ll sit down at my piano or pick up a guitar and just play and see if something pleasing happens. It’s always about pleasing, just me—an audience of one. I never think about who will see it or hear or read it, if it’s a book I’m authoring. I just care that it resonates in a personal way with me. When you’re trying to please too many people in your head, the work gets watered-down and it doesn’t feel FUN—and enjoyment is what you must have yourself if others are to derive that from your work.
You’re a successful pop songwriter for other artists. What is different for you when you approach your own process in writing songs or versus coming up with hits for others?
I wrote many, many songs for recording artists during my ‘20s and ‘30s. I could never figure out why I wasn’t quite happy with that seemingly fantastic “job”—getting paid to write for your heroes growing up! It was because, I later realized, it felt like work. And it was hard. Now, there’s nothing wrong with hard work. but, when I write for myself as a recording artist, I just have to connect with what I’m feeling, not what, I’m trying to guess, the recording artist I’m writing for, is feeling and wants to express. Thus, writing for myself as an artist is a much freer discipline. And I like having as much freedom as I can when I create (anything!).
Your musical heroes play a significant role in ‘Circles and Squares’,The Beatles and Beach Boys predominantly but I understand it’s a template and starting point for you and staying current, of course. Would you say this is more subconscious or conscious when you’re writing and arranging the material on the new album?
I never think to myself: “I want to express this or that.” I just allow whatever I’m feeling to come out and then I shape and mold it. For instance, when I start strumming a guitar and I like a new melody I’ve come up with, I start just singing anything —without thinking. As I continue, I notice that I’m forming phrases that come from my unconscious that want to come out. For example, when I wrote “Trying To Keep It Simple”, I didn’t think, ‘I want to write a song about letting go of my more complicated way of living’… BUT, I just started to sing those words: “I’m trying to keep it simple/I don’t have to be a Beatle/in order to be happy/I just need someone to love me.” What a revelation, I thought! I didn’t know I felt that way. Songwriting is therapy, right? That’s how my themes develop — from the inside (of me), out. And because I am unafraid of what’s beneath my own surface, I can tap into it and express it through whatever art form I’m working on. If you want to create something that resonates with others you can’t be afraid yourself. That’s why people look to artists who can help articulate feelings they have but can’t call up.
Why would you say the first two solos albums by John Lennon and Paul McCartney resonate so strongly for you that you want to incorporate their approach with ‘Circles and Squares’?
Both Lennon and McCartney’s first solo albums after the historically huge phenomena of the Beatles, were stripped down, simple works. They really showed each artist at his core: Paul, at home, playing all the instruments, lots of hummable melodies. John with deeper more penetrating personal lyrics. They were both incredible solo albums to me. I was ten when they came out. I think, without being aware of it, my goal was to make my own “post-Beatles”, solo record (said with a chuckle, of course). ‘Circles and Squares’ is very organic — lots of themes from my life— relationships, my relationship with anxiety and panic episodes — discovering a deeper love with a woman… those two records absolutely are the template for my record with a touch of the Beach Boys thrown in and a few other influences.
Would you say the new album is progression or a continuation in some way from your first two releases and or a complete departure?
A complete progression. I think I was a little stiff on my first record. I like the songs a lot, but I was too concerned with getting everything perfect. It wasn’t quite loose enough for me. While much of it gives me ‘Instant Pleasure,’ I wish I could do some of those songs now, in the looser mode I’m in. the same goes for ‘Watercolor Day’. I think some of the songs came off well, but again, I was too inside some of them, going for ‘perfect’ a little more than going for ‘feel’. With ‘Circles and Squares,’ I just said, ‘screw it— this is how it sounds, mistakes and all and it’s just a record.
For me personally, less concern with perfection is a huge progression. Also, I had a lot of fun in the ‘details’ of each song. I never like putting down the basic tracks. That’s boring to me, but a house needs a foundation before you start putting the furniture in it. I thoroughly enjoyed all the little guitar riffs and piano melodies that are in many of the songs. On my other records, sometimes a well-known musician came in to do a lead guitar part or a vocal backing part. On this record, with rare exception, I did all of it—and thoroughly enjoyed it.
With your expertise in the music industry and longevity in the business what advice would you give independent bands and artists just starting out? How have you adjusted or adapted to the changes in this business over the years?
Have fun making the music YOU make. An audience of ONE. Remember that. Write and make your songs for YOU. YOU should LOVE them. Not your fans, not your significant others or your mother, yourself. Hustle — know which platform gets your music out there most and make that happen with NO excuses. Always find a way.
Do you have adage or a mantra you go by in life and music that keeps you going and inspired creatively and why?
The great surrealist painter Salvador Dali once said, “Every Morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy — the joy of being Salvador Dali — and I ask myself in rapture: what wonderful things is this Salvador Dali going to accomplish today?”
To me, every day is a blank canvas and I never know what I am going to create that day. What I do know is that I know something will get started, worked on, or finished. That’s what gives my life meaning.
www.seth.com – to buy the album, also available on iTunes and Amazon
Facebook fan page: https://www.facebook.com/Seth-Swirsky-39992357757/