Phil Swann’s career in entertainment has spanned over 30-years as a performer, songwriter and producer. His songs have been heard in television, film and have been recorded by numerous recording artists including: Clay Aiken, LeeAnn Womack, Blake Shelton, Josh Strickland and Lee Greenwood to name only a few.
For the stage, Swann is the composer of the hit Off-Broadway musical, Play It Cool. Other shows include: The People vs. Friar Laurence, the Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet – nominated for three Jeffrey Joseph Awards including Best New Musical (recently published by Samuel French, inc); and, DeLEARious, Garland Award winner for Best New Score.
A former staff songwriter and producer for DreamWorks, Swann’s production credits include, Helen Slater, Laura Hall, Kelley McCleod, and Daniel Nahmod.
Swann is also a favorite speaker at various organizations throughout the United States and Canada, and his creative workshops have been embraced by The Songwriters Guild of America; the Nashville Songwriters Association; BMI; and ASCAP. He currently teaches a class on the art and craft of songwriting at UCLA as well as sits on the Board of Advisers for the school’s Music Production Program.
Thank you for agreeing to the interview. I am taken by the list of your impressive accomplishments. Can you give us a bit of your early journey?
Thank you, and thank you for asking me to do this.
I was raised in a small town in West Virginia called, Milton. I was that annoying little kid who sang all the solos in church, school, etc; I had rock bands, wrote songs for girls, all the usual stuff. But it wasn’t until the summer between my junior and senior year that things got serious. I got my first professional job in an outdoor summer stock show. I was completely bitten by the showbiz bug. After high school I moved to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. And, the journey began.
How did you manage to make music your career?
I’d been in New York for about a month and I had yet to get a job. A classmate heard me playing all these WWI, WWII songs on the piano like I used to do at the American Legion back in Milton. It turned out he managed a restaurant in the East Village and offered me $50 bucks a night to come play at his bar – I was all over that. So, I was in New York to be an actor but I ended up feeding myself and keeping a roof over my head by playing music. Next thing I know, it’s 30-years later and it’s been my career.
You have been songwriting, performing, and producing for over 30 years – and teaching, what would you say to a new songwriter, or songwriter/performer, that is essential to being a successful songwriter these days?
Here’s an answer I’ve never given to that question: be somebody people want to work with. Yes, yes, of course, you need to learn your craft, practice your art, be focused and diligent in your business affairs, but truly, when it comes down to it, you must be somebody people want to work with. Look, it’s no big secret that the music industry has undergone cataclysmic changes over the past 10-years, people like me have talked at nauseam about it. But even with all of the new ways songwriters can create and distribute his or her work without the need of big multi-national record labels and/or publishing companies, to have a meaningful career, one still needs to be nurturing relationships with other people – many other people actually. And the fact of the matter is people don’t like crazy, neurotic, high-maintenance, boring, grumpy, completely off-their-rocker egomaniacs. Life’s just too short. I can’t tell you the number of meetings I’ve sat in where you hear something akin to: “Yeah, he’s really, really talented but boy is he a handful. Let’s not, who else we got?” Honestly, it happens a lot.
I am sure there’re a ton of songwriting folks who would love to have a chat with you about this thing we do. Tell us a bit about the focus of your seminars and workshops, and how to get there.
I’ve enjoyed teaching for more than 15-years now. The big secret is this: I’m sure I’ve gotten more out of teaching than I’ve ever taught. You probably know how that is, Ken. It’s very inspiring to be around talented people talking about, dissecting, exploring and experimenting with songs; discovering structure in new ways; realizing why a “nature” metaphor might work lyrically in that particular bridge; messing around with cadence and leading tones and all that subtle stuff that makes music really cool. It’s been a wonderful education and inspiration for me. I hope the students have felt the same way. As for the focus of my classes, it’s a mixed bag; yes, we deal with songwriting 101 stuff like structure, form, rhyme, etc, but we also deal with what I like to call the magic of songwriting; the mystery of the art.
Most of the time nowadays I just teach a class at UCLA. I still travel from time to time to do the occasional weekend workshop for various organizations but most of the time I teach my songwriting class at UCLA. As a matter of fact, my latest class started this fall quarter, Monday, September 19th. The class is called Songwriting for the Commercial Market. All one needs to do is call UCLA Extension, department of Music & Entertainment Studies, and enroll in the class (I believe you can also do it online). It meets on Monday nights. It’s great fun.
What does a songwriter need to do these days to sell their songs? What, in your opinion is the best avenue to take for today’s songwriter?
That’s a tough one, there’s no single answer. It really depends on the songwriter, doesn’t it? Also, the industry is in such a state-of-flux that any advice I give now could be completely obsolete by 2:30 tomorrow afternoon. I will offer this thought however. A songwriter can self promote to a large audience like never before. But that’s both good and bad; if the songwriter isn’t ready then he or she is basically doing writer / artist development in a VERY public way. That can be dangerous career-wise because it’s really hard to un-ring a bell. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. When I was coming up, I was given the chance (and the anonymity) to be bad. Songwriters nowadays don’t have that luxury. You can become very public, very fast. And, once opinions are developed they’re very hard to change. That’s why I encourage songwriters to surround themselves with people they trust who’ll tell them the truth about their work before they go Youtube / Facebook / Myspace / Reverbnation crazy with it. That’s why a good songwriting workshop is invaluable; a safe place to road test your work before spewing it out to the world – literally. As the joke goes: “The good news is nowadays anyone can make a CD, the bad news is nowadays anyone can make a CD.”
I had a wonderful time listening to your new album, just released in May of this year, “Stale Scotch and Cheap Cigars.” I wouldn’t call it a concept album, but it has an unforgettable flavor of smoky, red leather, served manhattans, hoppin’ nightclubs and great old musicals; one that brings the delighted listener to a different time and place. What made you take the time and effort to write and record this album?
Ha! Thank you. I love your description of the album! “…smoky, red leather, served manhattans, hoppin’ nightclubs and great old musicals…” Fantastic! Spot on. Why did I do it? I guess it was an appropriate way of dealing with midlife crisis – certainly cheaper than getting a Lamborghini and a 19-year old girlfriend, right? But, seriously, there were several factors that led me to make the record. It’d been years since I’d made a record for myself and it just felt right. Also, I had been yearning to make this type of record for years and could never find the time to do it. But ultimately I think the driving factor was a desire to release some songs I’d written that I feared would never see the light of day if I didn’t do them myself. I had a bunch of “old” sounding songs in my catalogue that I thought were pretty good and I wanted them heard. As it turns out, I ended up taking half of those songs off the record and wrote a half-a-dozen new “old” sounding songs to replace them with. Ah, the writers life.
You write in multiple genres, how did you come to write and record this style of music?
I’ve written in about every genre you can think of. I spent a lot of time in Nashville in the 90’s writing for the country market but I’ve also written quite a bit of rock, jazz, R & B, Broadway, world beat and every sub-genre of those genres. That’s actually one of the things about my career that I’ve enjoyed the most. I love studying styles. I love finding out what makes a genre, a genre. Music is music. It’s a big, beautiful ocean and I like to swim as deeply as I can in it. It’s also had the added benefit of keeping me employed all these years. When they ask, “Can you…” I reply, “You bet!”
But “Stale Scotch and Cheap Cigars” is a bit different – it’s all about vibe. I wanted to capture an era more than a genre – kind of that early-to-mid 60s, NASA Apollo program, everybody smokes, Playboy Club, black tuxedo, Mad Men, cool saloon-jazz kind of thing. It was a feel and atmosphere I wanted to zero in on. It dictated how the album was to be recorded too. I was very clear on what I wanted to do; cut it live, with players playing together in the same room, no tricks, little to no over dubbing or audio processing, strictly old school. We even did the vocals at the same time we cut the tracks. Two mics on the piano, one on my voice, light us up, count it off and here we go. It was quite fun…and a little bit scary if I’m honest.
Is this the style that is closest to your heart?
It’s one of the styles closest to my heart. I’m putting out another CD next year that is completely different than Stale Scotch. Hey, I’m not 20-years old, I don’t have an image to protect thus I get to do whatever I want to do…musically, at least. That’s about the only upside I can think of about getting older in the music business. (Laughs)
Your arrangements and assessable lyrics are fantastic, giving a nod to what came before but with some nice modern colorizations. What is the thing about this album you want the listener to get?
At the risk of sounding like my dad, I fear we’re not “writing songs” anymore as much as we’re “making records.” Don’t get me wrong, the records we’re making sound amazing! Technology continues to blow my mind and there are some very gifted producers and engineers making those records – hell, they’re practically scientists! But sometimes I miss the pure and simple craft of songwriting. You still hear it occasionally but more and more it’s about the production and less about the crafty-ness of the song. Here’s what I mean; I believe the great songwriters from the Tin-Pan Ally era created pop songwriting as we know it today. They were just such fine craftsmen and women and we’re still basically doing what they perfected…just not as well, at least I’m not. I think it’s forgotten that they had to write songs that would be hits from the sale of the sheet music. The songs had to work on paper alone! So, I guess that was my goal: I wanted to make an album of songs that could sell via sheet music. I probably didn’t accomplish it but that was my goal. I tried.
Your lyrical take on “Jazz Is A Special Taste” is wonderful and cleverly reflective. I especially like the idea of living life in the ‘notes you don’t play’. How did you come to write this piece?
There are two songs on the CD from my musical, Play It Cool; “How Do I Go Home Tonight?” is one; “Jazz Is A Special Taste” is the other. I have to give my collaborator, Mark Winkler credit for that title. He had the idea to connect the concept of jazz to living an authentic life, and it works well in the story of the show. Not everyone digs jazz. Jazz is not easy to understand. Jazz is not for everybody. Jazz (like life) is as much what you don’t play as what you do play. It’s a special song, I think, both lyrically and musically. The music is accessible but still a little twisted and outside – much like myself (laugh).
“Slow Dance” and “How beautiful Is The Night” showcases your warm clean vocals and are just musically mesmerizing. I get the feeling you really enjoy singing this style of song – did I get that right?
Thank you. You got that very right. Good ears, Ken. It’s funny, people kind of tilt their head when they ask me who my musical influences are and I reply Dean Martin. But, it’s true. Of course, he’s not the only one but he’s certainly one of them. You know, when I was a kid, I used to watch the Dean Martin Show on TV. Every week there was Dean with his buddies, sporting tuxedos, laughing it up, smoking, drinking, gold diggers all over the place. I liked that. I thought that’s what show business was. Oops.
“In Another Place” and “The Power Of Us” (loved the harp), have a theatrical feel; I can hear them on a stage, or in a film. This is a particular style of writing. When you write do you write from a pre-determined concept – from a format – every time you write a song?
Sometimes, yes, especially if you’re writing on assignment for film or TV or the stage; often in those situations you know exactly the style you need to ape going into the project. But when you’re just doing your everyday songwriting gig the style usually doesn’t reveals itself until you’re in the process of writing the song. I co-wrote “The Power of Us” with the legendary songwriter, Paul Williams. With that song, Paul and I had no idea what the song was going to be when we started – we just had an idea of what we wanted to say with the title. The theatrical / movie score feel of the song evolved from me loving the Mancini / Mercer masterpiece, “Moon River.” You’ll no doubt hear the influence of that song when you re-listen to “The Power of Us.”
“Middle Man” is great fun and great storytelling. You gave it a Dixieland-swing arrangement, I could even hear it as a rock piece – but that’s just me. Tell us about the arrangement.
“Middle Man” is one of those songs I wrote days before going into the studio. I think because it was new I didn’t have time to talk myself out of recording it in a Dixieland style. I love Dixieland but had never done it before and really wanted to give it a try. I might have chickened-out if I’d had more time to live with the song. Sure glad I didn’t. Oh, and I agree with you; I think it could work great with a rock or country track. That would be fun to hear.
Right now, you have a musical called, “Play It Cool” running Off-Broadway. Tell us about it.
“Play It Cool” is a jazz-musical that takes place in 1953 in an underground club in Hollywood. The lyricist is Mark Winkler and the book writers are Larry Dean Harris and Marty Casella. I’m the composer. It’s currently running in New York City at The Acorn Theatre on 42nd Street. It’s a great cast that stars, Sally Mayes, and it’s a really cool show. I’m very proud of it. I wish everyone could see it.
I understand the play had many workshops. Explain that process to our readers.
You write a show then you put it in front of a small audience, usually for free – the actors are on script and the orchestra is a piano player. You find out really quickly what’s working and what’s not. You go back and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite then do again. It can be grueling but also invaluable. Eventually, producers get involved, who get other producers involved, who get yet more producers involved, and if you’re lucky, you get a production; usually somewhere small and out of the way where you can fly under the radar. After that, you go back and do more rewrites. The producers might want more workshops. If they do, you go back to square one. Then, if you beat odds not unlike those of an eight state power ball lottery, you get a bigger production in a bigger city. “Play It Cool” has done that nine times over the last 7-years. Like I said, it can be grueling.
How is writing for the theater different from writing commercially?
This might upset my friends who only write musical theatre but, for me, in some ways writing for the theatre is easier than writing a 3-minute commercial pop song. Don’t get me wrong, songwriting is hard no matter what kind it is, and the two genres absolutely have their own disciplines and require their own unique skill sets. In musical theatre, for instance, you need to drive plot, write in the character’s voice, be sensitive to the emotion the scene is asking for, be more adventurous with structure i.e. where as pop songs are mostly AABA or ABAB form, musical theatre demands more diversity of structure. But in musical theatre, unlike the 3-minute pop song, you have information supplied that doesn’t have to only live within the song itself; you have a book before and after the song; you have characters that are defined through dialogue and action; you have scenery and costumes and lights, etc. When you write a commercial pop song, all that reality has to live within the 3-minutes of that song. It’s practically impossible when you think about it. Yet, it’s done over and over again by songwriters everyday. Now “Play It Cool” is only my ninth musical. And, with each one I learn new things. So I’ll admit, I don’t know what I don’t know and I’m sure Mister Sondheim would have many issues to take up with me about what I just said. But that’s how I feel today.
Writing a musical, or writing for a musical, is a selective niche for a songwriter, and not easy to get into. How did it come about for you? Do you have advice for anyone who wants to work in theatre?
Know your craft. It’s no different in that respect to anything else. Study, practice, hone, get in a good workshop and really, really, really study the art form…because it is an art form. Know it so well you can teach it. Writing for the stage has its own rules of the road and you need to know them before embarking on the journey. I’ll also add that writing for the stage requires a decent music vocabulary – much more than being a pop songwriter – especially if you’re writing the music. And even if you’re a lyricist, a basic understanding of music theory is pretty much required.
As for how I got into it, well, I got lucky I guess. I had been writing songs for years with some success and an opportunity arose with a friend of mine in Hollywood. He’s a comedy writer out of The Second City and he came to me with an idea about the Romeo and Juliet story as a twisted musical comedy. His name is Ron West, genius comedy writer, and we wrote a show called, “The People vs. Friar Laurence, the Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet.” Eventually, it was picked up by The Second City and ran at The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in Chicago where it was a huge hit. After that, I was in.
You teamed up with Mark Winkler on the songs for the show. How do you find writing with a collaborator different than writing alone?
It depends on whom you’re writing with. With Mark it’s easy; he’s a great writer and real pro who’s been around as long as I have. I’ve been blessed to collaborate with many, many, great songwriters over the years that I have not only made up wonderful tunes with, but have also taught me so much about the craft of songwriting. Co-writing with someone good, likable, creative, inventive, funny and etc can make the arduous task of creating something out of thin air, a joy. Then again, there are other times where that process is Dante’s nine circles of hell. And, I’ve spent more than my share of time in hell. But I’m not naming names.
I noted in your bio that you were a staff writer for DreamWorks – tell us about that job.
It was your basic songwriting deal. They were my publisher; I wrote and recorded songs, and they pitched them. It was the kind of deal that was pretty common up until a few years ago – not sure how common they are now. I was writing for the brilliant publisher and song guy, Steve Bloch, at Southern Cow Music. He was able to put together the deal with DreamWorks. I was there until the company sold in 2005. I was really churning out a lot of songs back then; sometimes two, three songs a day. I’d walk into writer’s rooms and meet my co-writers (mostly young artists) for the first time and walk out two hours later with a song. It was nuts. It was like getting a Masters Degree in songwriting. You really had to be on your game. We were also in the studio producing stuff all the time. Write all day, record all night – it’s like they gave us the keys to the studio and said, “Just come back with a hit.” What can I say, there was a lot of money around back then – record companies were doing well, publishers were doing well. It was great. It was kind of like the wild, wild West. Ah, the good ol’ days.
What’s next for you?
Well, I have a UCLA class starting up so I’m looking forward to that. I have another show in the works that I wrote with two-time Academy Award winner, Al Kasha; it’s called, “In A Booth At Chasen’s.” It’s a musical about the 2-year courtship of Ron and Nancy Reagan. It’s a very interesting story and you’ll be hearing more about it soon. Also, I plan to release another CD next spring – half the record is pretty much finished and I like the way it’s sounding; can’t wait to write more for the project. And there are a few other little masterpieces I have in the works that I can’t speak about right now but they involve putting words and music together and hopefully making something that matters.
Thank you Phil for your ease and candor and taking the time from your busy schedule to have this chat. Dave and I love your music and wish you all the best.
Thank you, Ken. This was my pleasure.
|1. Slow Dance Slow Dance
2. Jazz is a Special Taste
3. How Beautiful Is the Night How Beautiful Is The Night
4. The Middle Man
5. In Another Place
6. Parade of Wonders Parade Of Wonders
7. How Do I Go Home
8. The Power of Us
9. The Man You Made of Me
10. If I Could Start Anew
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