With the intensity of Nick Cave and the intimacy of Johnny Cash, UK-based Scott Swain turns our heads with his unique sound. We speak to the singer-songwriter about his new EP Isolation, being a solo artist, future plans and favourite smells.
OSR: Why did you choose to become a musician?
Swain: I think I suffered with existential anxiety from a very young age and recall as a child often asking my mother what my purpose was. Her response was often that I’d have to find out for myself and that time would eventually tell me. Then one day I saw a picture of my grandad (who I’d never met as he died before I was born) and he was holding a guitar. Something about the image really resonated with me. Soon after I got a hold of a guitar and started tinkering. The rest is history.
OSR: You previously played in several bands. How does being a solo artist compare to being in a band?
Swain: There are pros and cons to both. As a solo artist, I have a lot more freedom to do whatever I want to do without much compromise. I can also get things done in the timeframe that I want to get things done (which is often ‘by yesterday’), rather than having to find dates that suit all band members and other such frustrating delays. However, as a solo artist, there’s a hell of a lot more pressure on your shoulders as you have to do everything!
OSR: Do you believe your style differs from the bands you have performed with?
Swain: Absolutely. 100%. My previous bands were very rock or indie and when writing songs I didn’t pay too much attention to style or vibe. It was simply a question of does it rock? With my solo stuff, there is a really strict criteria of which songs are good enough and which are just ok. Of the songs which are good enough, there’s then the further criteria of does it have the right vibe? And then, is it musically interesting? I think it’s fair to say that my solo stuff is an evolution of sound. The way I think of it however is that I’ve spent years trying to find my voice/style, the thing that sets me apart from other bands and musicians and I’ve finally found it. I still however have a lot of exploration to do in this newly found territory.
OSR: What can you tell us about your EP Isolation?
Swain: Isolation was mainly written and partially recorded during lockdown. I was really impressed with the ingenuity of my producer (Chris Coulter) for how he managed remote recording without losing any quality of sound. It was super fun laying down drums when the three of us (me, drummer, producer) were in separate locations. We used a live feed and managed to still keep energy and a vibe.
I like exploring dark issues when writing music and this is definitely prevalent in Isolation – there’s a dominant theme of abuse in different guises. Nevertheless, musically whilst I wanted some darkness I also wanted songs to have a more upbeat sound/tempo to counteract the darkness. Often, dark lyrics will accompany slow solemn or melancholic music and so I wanted to flip this.
OSR: What do you hope people take from Isolation?
Swain: This is a tough question to answer. I think it’s really important that people take away from music whatever they want to. Often there’ll be something that strikes them more than other bits in the music and this is an extremely powerful subjective experience.
So, let’s say with my song ‘Skeletons’, whilst I might want people to think about systemic structures in society and how these are often easily abused by those in power and therefore need to be challenged at every opportunity, people may not want to this message away from the song because they feel there’s a different message in the song.
Ultimately, I’d be elated if people liked the vibe of Isolation and felt that I’m doing something interesting.
OSR: Which do you find more challenging: melody or lyrics?
Swain: Another tough question. Often melody and lyrics come hand in hand for me. I may have some idea of a melody when creating new songs but this will usually change the moment lyrics come to me. That said, I tend to spend more time crafting lyrics than I feel I need to with the melody. Both of these however will be tweaked as the song is recorded and produced. For instance, when listening back I might feel that the melody is too obvious or safe, or a lyric may not have enough punch.
OSR: What is your favourite smell?
Swain: 😄 I have chronic sinusitis so my sense of smell is lousy. I’m going to say fresh coffee is my favourite smell but recognise that this is because my body is addicted to the stuff and so my brain most likely lights up its reward pathway like a firework display on New Year’s Eve and releases all sorts of happy chemicals because it knows it’s going to get its fix.
OSR: What advice do you have for new artists?
Swain: I’d say spend time crafting your songwriting skills before you play live, rather than simply playing any old song that you create. Also, whilst you might be greatly influenced by a particular band, try and do something different and work hard to create your own sound that’s not like your favourite band. When I was a kid everyone wanted to sound like Nirvana and so they did. There was an entire generation of English singers who were forcing this really weird, strained American vocal style when they were singing. Honestly, during this time, every male singer I knew was desperate to sound like Eddie Vedder. These days, every band and their grandmother are trying to sound like the Arctic Monkeys!
I’d also strongly advise new artists to not play live until they have at least some basic proficiency of playing their instrument. I recently had the painful experience of witnessing a gig where the artist had a good voice (but didn’t really know how to use it), and quite simply wasn’t ready to be playing the guitar live as she was constantly making mistakes. It didn’t help that she was playing an electric guitar when her music was quite soft and somewhat soulful. An acoustic guitar would have easily complimented her sound rather than the electric guitar she was using (which was actually a guitar normally used by metal and heavy rock musicians).
Lastly, just have fun! What’s the point in doing music if you’re not loving it.
OSR: Describe yourself as a person in one sentence.
Swain: I’d say: someone who is compassionate but surprisingly introverted and prefers the company of dogs over humans.
OSR: Do you have any future plans for your music?
Swain: I’ve a few plans: there’s a couple of songs which I’d quite like to finish off and release over the next six months to a year, and a few songs that I’m currently writing that I’d love to record and release. Beyond that, I feel like I’d like to take a long time off where I could delve into new styles of playing. For instance, I’ve recently had a resurgent interest in gypsy-jazz and would love to spend some time mastering this guitar style. Watch this space!