When Jaten Dimsdale started putting cover performances on YouTube under the name Teddy Swims in 2019, he tried everything from H.E.R. to George Strait, just to see who was listening. “It turned out that people were liking everything, or they just liked the personality. . . or my voice,” Dimsdale says, calling from his home base in Atlanta.
As a marketing strategy, it was a smashing success: With his animated, skillful performances, the bearded, tattooed 28-year-old singer has amassed more than 1.5 million YouTube subscribers and nearly 200 million views of his videos, plus a deal with Warner Records.
While this overwhelming support didn’t necessarily make it any easier for Dimsdale to define his sound, it did demonstrate that he would have a diverse group of fans excited about whatever he decided to do. It also lined up with his mission of uniting different kinds of people through music.
“We ended up bridging gaps for people,” he says. “Maybe the 50-year-old man from Georgia, out on the farm, may have never heard a Summer Walker song, or may have never heard a Frank Ocean song, but because he loved my George Strait cover, he listens to it and he’s like, ‘You know what, I actually really like this song.”
Growing up in Conyers, Georgia, an eastern suburb of Atlanta, Dimsdale was a self-described “late bloomer” when it came to discovering his musical ambitions. “I was playing football forever,” he says. “My whole family is just football, football, football. Singing changed everything for me.”
High school musical theater provided him an avenue into performing. Offstage, he would review YouTube videos of his favorite singers with a couple of supportive teachers to help develop his vocal technique and presentation. “Singing is more acting than it is singing a lot of times,” he says.
Though his voice is naturally suited for a mixture of silk and grit that goes well with R&B and soul music — “My dad put me on the good stuff, like Marvin and Stevie and Keith Sweat and Al Green, all these monster singers,” he says — Dimsdale also spent time screaming in Atlanta-area post-hardcore bands like Eris and leading the rock outfit WildHeart. He also performed Sixties soul covers with another group and Eighties hair metal songs with yet another. His guiding principle was to sing just about anything to bring in a little cash and get him out of his job waiting tables at Chilis.
The Teddy Swims project was born around 2019 when a producer friend, Addy Maxwell, suggested that Dimsdale come rap over some beats he had been making. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m not a rapper, but sure, we could give it a shot,’ ” Dimsdale says. “It was just a silly SoundCloud rap song.”
That was enough to land Dimsdale and Maxwell an opening slot on a nationwide tour. He adopted the stage name “Swims” from internet forum-speak, making an acronym for Someone Who Isn’t Me Sometimes — it was a way to perform in character if needed. “Teddy” came later and was a holdover from Dimsdale’s youth, thanks to his large frame.
A boundaryless approach comes through in Dimsdale’s original songs, which blend elements of hip-hop, R&B, country, and classic soul. His first release, “Night Off,” had the slinky, seductive feel of Miguel, while the follow-up, “Picky,” sounded like Jamiroquai mixed with electrofunk and Dirty South rap. His recent single “Broke” has the caffeinated bounce of hip-hop in its celebration of newfound wealth but sports a melodic hook that nods to Motown’s classic songcraft.
“[‘Picky’] put us on the right path of what we were trying to do, which was shove as many fuckin’ things together as possible,” Dimsdale says. “ ‘Broke’ was a better shot at that.” As further evidence, country performer Thomas Rhett showed up on a remixed version of “Broke” that came out in October.
As a white man working in predominantly Black styles of music, Dimsdale has tried to maintain an awareness of the space he’s taking up and show solidarity. Through his YouTube videos, he’s attempted to highlight social justice causes. Amid the protests that broke out mid-2020 after the killing of George Floyd, he recorded a version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and donated the proceeds to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund.
A full album hasn’t been announced yet, but Dimsdale and his backing band, Elefvnts, have been busy stockpiling new recordings and trying to figure out the best way to assemble them. The producers with whom they’ve been working represent a cross-section of contemporary pop, R&B, and country and include Julian Bunetta, Justin Tranter, Dave Cobb, and Dallas Davidson.
“We’re probably sitting on 150 songs or so now,” Dimsdale says. “We’ve been writing and writing. They all go from left field to right field, from hip-hop to ballad-town. It’s been hard to pick the ones that not only feel like they’re the most honest, but to also feel like we picked the ones that are cohesive.”
Part of the struggle also stems from Dimsdale’s ability to sing seemingly anything and make it convincing. He can nail the soft, wounded tone required of something like “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” but can also belt with power when the song requires it. Teddy Swims’ latest single, “My Bad,” is a slow-burning R&B ballad, full of limber vocal runs and a pleading chorus (plus a clever, pro wrestling-inspired video). But if the YouTube experience has taught Dimsdale anything, it’s that his voice and positivity can connect many kinds of experiences.
“I want people to come to me if they want to turn up, but I also want them to be able to listen to me and cry,” he says. “I want to be able to be an entire human, not just one feeling. I hope I can be perceived as such — that you can see every part of me and every part I struggle to integrate into everything I can.”