Half Lit

"At the time I was as depressed as Nick Drake," singer-songwriter Richard Swift says about the recording of Walking Without Effort, the dark half of his dual 2005 release (along with The Novelist). Speaking from San Francisco at the beginning of his latest tour, Swift is anxious to talk about his acclaimed double-disc debut. The recordings were self-released in 2001 and finally picked up for national distribution by Secretly Canadian last year. Each effort is a distinct work, with Walking serving as the lo-fi acoustic little brother to the meticulous and conceptual Novelist.

"I think both records are charming and honest," Swift says, and despite his youthful lack of modesty, the assertion is difficult to contest. "Half Lit" and "Losing Sleep," two standouts from Walking, make the case for Swift as a songwriter on par with Tim Buckley and Randy Newman, creating sophisticated arrangements that highlight his melodies and poignant lyrics.

Mixing ragtime, pop and jazz, The Novelist recalls the work of Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks. Set in 1938, the disc is a 20-minute examination of a lost time, complete with authentic-sounding hiss. Even the packaging evokes a reissue from a different era.

"I wanted to cause a bit of confusion," Swift says. "That's just the way I am." But such perplexity suits him--he seems to relish the image of a loner and an outsider while ironically touring with a full band.

"It's a completely different feeling," Swift says. "But the guys respect my songs, and we are tight in terms of friendship." Adapting the songs from demos recorded solo in his bedroom to the fuller arrangements of a five-piece has proved better than Swift had imagined.

"Live, the music is definitely more Kinks than it is Nick Drake," Swift says, again referencing the late manic-depressive folk icon. Yet despite the melancholy of his material, Swift doesn't see himself as overly gloomy.

"A lot of artists get attention for putting their emotions out," Swift says. "But I try to maintain an equal balance of the positive and the negative." Songs such as "Lovely Night" from The Novelist bear out Swift's claim: "'Cause tonight it's going to be a lovely night/With everybody looking oh so nice," he sings with a romantic and stylish flair that's a far cry from some of the sad sacks to whom he's often compared.

With a new effort, Dressed Up for the Let Down, already recorded and a side project, Instruments of Science and Technology, showcasing his love for Krautrock, Richard Swift stands on the precipice of major recognition. Good thing too: "Music is all I do," he says. "I have to make my living being myself."