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The Life and Death of Richard Swift

His work with the Black Keys and the Shins made him one of rock’s most valuable sidemen and producers, but addiction brought him down

richard swift

Rachel Demy

On May 7th, 2018, Richard Swift posted a black-and-white image of his recording studio, National Freedom, to Instagram. Situated in a converted barn behind his home in Cottage Grove, Oregon, the studio was full of the tools of his trade: a triple stack of keyboards, the custom C&C drum kit made especially for him by the company, a Coles 4038 ribbon microphone on permanent loan from the band Death Cab for Cutie, a typewriter and a sea of vintage guitars. “‘THE HEX’ NOVEMBER // 11 songs performed by me for family and friends,” the caption said.

For years, Swift had been working on a series of songs dedicated to those closest to him: his wife, Shealynn, daughters, Madison and Kennedy, son, Adrian, and the legions of friends and colleagues who had been affected by his destructive behavior of the last few years. He planned to make two records in 2018. The Hex, which was released digitally by Secretly Canadian in September (and later on CD and vinyl), details Swift’s struggles, and his journey through tragedy and loss. Its planned follow-up, The Fix, would chronicle the path forward through those dark places.

In the months leading to that Instagram post, Swift had canceled recording sessions at the last minute, or had become unreliable or unconscious during those in progress. He’d become so combative with his family that they had moved out. The pair of albums were meant as an olive branch, and a turning point in his struggle with alcoholism. A commitment to getting better.

Less than two months later, he died.

During his life, Swift was an unlikely triple threat: a prodigious solo artist, studio whisperer and accomplished sideman. He transcended humble beginnings as a Christian artist to become a visible indie-rock figure steeped in the dreamy, orchestral aesthetics of Harry Nilsson and Burt Bacharach, and later the raucous sounds of Captain Beefheart and Howlin’ Wolf, before either were fashionable in the new millennium. He then pivoted to become an in-demand producer and supporting musician, recording albums by the Pretenders and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, and touring with The Shins and The Black Keys.

The Hex tells another story about Swift’s last years. Some of its songs had been released on his Tumblr as early as 2011, while others are previously unknown. Each word and tone testifies the immense talent of a man who was a friend to so many, a father, husband, brother and son, an unrelenting joker, another poignant tragedy in addiction’s grasp. How a little boy from Orange County became one of indie rock’s most admired musicians is all there, in a gorgeous and crushing swan song that plays out with the drama and richness of the black-and-white aesthetic he celebrated.

The thing about Rich is that he wasn’t just great at drums or piano — he was better at everything than everybody,” says Dan Auerbach, who started his side band the Arcs with Swift in 2015. “He was better at synthesizers. He was better at singing harmonies. He was a great guitar player. He was an incredible bass player. He could build a track from nothing to completely finished in an hour. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Swift was born Ricardo Ochoa on March 16th, 1977. His parents, Wendy Swift and Enrique Ochoa, met while working at a Mexican restaurant in Orange, California. Swift was bilingual from age three. After that marriage ended, when he was four, Swift’s mother married Harold Behr.

According to his older brother Kevin, from Behr’s first marriage, Swift endured verbal abuse about his weight, ethnicity, sexuality and more from his stepfather. Kevin could relate to the treatment Swift endured, and the two boys bonded over their love of music, a safe haven from the tumult they felt at home.

“My dad came out very damaged [from the Vietnam War], and plus he was beaten as a kid,” says Jonathan Behr, Swift’s younger brother. “I think that he definitely carried on some of that cycle with Richard.” He adds, “I don’t know where the line between discipline versus abuse is or was in that scenario, but I know that Richard was traumatized by it.”

His struggle with anxiety presented itself early on. Rides in the family car were a trigger, when Swift became so nervous that he’d vomit. The pain and unease he swallowed for for much of his childhood caused stomach problems; they also presented a vicious cycle of desiring approval he’d never receive from Behr.

In 1994, the family moved to Cottage Grove, where Behr became active in the Quaker church. Swift met his wife, Shealynn, while he was a junior at Child’s Way Christian School, a private school in nearby Dorena. “We actually bonded over the fact that I was better at video games than he was, originally,” she says. “I’d never met anyone like him. He was so passionate, and I wanted to be around him all the time.”

They got hitched in 1997, a year after she graduated, and had their first child, Madison, the following year. “We were headstrong, productive people right from the start. Especially due to the fact that we got pregnant on our honeymoon,” she explains with a laugh. They had three children by 2001.

Mar 16, 2007 - New York, New York, USA - RICHARD SWIFT (born RICARDO SWIFT OCHOA) is an American singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and short-film maker. (Credit Image: © Rahav Segev/ZUMA Press)

Richard Swift in New York, 2007. Photo credit: © Rahav Segev/ZUMA Press

By this time, starting in the late 1990s, Swift was a visible figure in the Christian music scene of the Pacific Northwest, leading worship in regional churches and touring with a Christian group. On weekends he played with a band associated with the controversial evangelical men’s group Promise Keepers. In 1998, he released his first CD of original worship tunes, under the name Richard Ochoa & The Windrose Band. It helped to land him a record deal with Metro One, a Christian label headquartered in Newport Beach, California.

Swift began traveling from Cottage Grove to Southern California to record his debut as a Christian solo artist, which was released under the name Dicky Ochoa when he was 23 years old. Through those sessions, Swift met bassist Elijah Thomson, noted drummer and solo artist Frank Lenz, and other musicians from the area who were happy to talk shop. He also connected with recording engineer Gene Eugene, who ran an independent studio, The Green Room, in Huntington Beach, where Christian indie bands like Starflyer 59 and Plankeye worked.

“When I met him I was beginning to produce and engineer records, and I was like, ‘This guy’s an ace in the hole,'” says Thomson, who’s now a member of Father John Misty’s touring band. “I would hire him for everything I was working on, and he did the same for me, for many years.”

Like Swift, Thomson and Lenz had grown up in the Christian faith and — as Thomson puts it — were exploited by that scene for their musical talents. These new friends, like many of Swift’s older friends and his brothers, were feeling burned by their time in Christian bands. “Being involved in worship is a really good way for someone to want to leave the church,” Jonathan Behr explains. “You see more of the insidious aspects of the way people prepare their emotional manipulation of crowds, and the practiced prayer vamps. You see how hollow a lot of it is.”

Through the Green Room, Swift met his longtime recording collaborator Chris Colbert, who engineered records for Christian rock bands Breakfast With Amy and Fluffy. “He was just a four track recorder at home,” Colbert said. “Me and a few other engineers would help him learn how to self record and he just ran with it.” When Eugene passed away unexpectedly in 2000, Colbert was called in from Nashville to help finish projects that were in progress. He would go on to record about half of Swift’s solo records.

In the months spent in Southern California making new friends and crashing on couches, Swift saw the benefits of life in a more urban locale. In the fall of 2001, shortly after the birth of his third child, Kennedy, he moved his family to a small apartment in Long Beach, California, where the rent was cheap.

Swift, Lenz and Thomson began working on Swift’s secular debut, The Novelist. Recorded to four-track in Swift’s kitchen in Long Beach, the album reflects a years-long questioning of his faith and a desire to work beyond those boundaries. For the album, he changed his stage name to Richard Swift. The reasons were complicated. According to friends, area industry folk had told Swift that as long as he performed under the name Ochoa, he would encounter prejudice: Labels would assume he was a Spanish-language artist, and he wouldn’t even get past the slush pile at secular rock labels.

After hearing the new songs Swift was writing, Jeff Cloud of Starflyer 59 offered to release them on his label Velvet Blue Music, which issued a hand-packaged version of The Novelist on CD in 2004, along with a series of singles. Swift later packaged this album with another, Walking Without Effort, and titled it The Richard Swift Collection Volume One.

At least one copy of the album made it to Luna Music, an Indianapolis record store. “I was looking at the new release wall, and it was an instant connection,” says Chris Swanson, co-founder of the storied Midwestern indie label Secretly Canadian. “It was contemporary, but had all the accoutrements of a classic album. The aesthetic was perfect. I listened to it on repeat the next couple of days.” A few days later, he contacted Swift about signing to the label, and in 2005 Secretly Canadian partnered with Velvet Blue Music to re-release The Novelist and Walking Without Effort as a double album.

By the time his solo LP Dressed Up for the Letdown was released in 2007, Swift and his family had grown tired of the desert climate of Southern California, its traffic and high rent. Both he and Shealynn desired to move closer to where’d they’d grown up. So they rented a house down the street from Swift’s sister Lori, back in Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Swift’s then-brother-in-law Keith had converted their barn into a recording studio, and Swift eventually rented the space. He filled it with instruments and gear he’d amassed from thrift stores and friends, some of it functioning, some of it half-functioning. Rather than bother with the way equipment was supposed to be used, he pieced it together until it produced a sound pleasing to his ear. The wobbly, unlabeled, intuitive sound chains he created by trial and error, and with the help of Chris Colbert, came to define Swift’s music and the albums he produced for others. When his sister divorced and remarried, Swift and his family rented and then purchased the house where National Freedom remains standing today.

Swift, backstage, while on tour with the Shins in 2012.

Swift, backstage, while on tour with the Shins in 2012. Photo credit: Rachel Demy

As dedicated a music-maker as Swift was, humor was perhaps his greatest and most natural gift. “I don’t know that I’ll ever meet anyone funnier than Richard,” Auerbach says. “He could do all these accents. Sometimes he would talk for 30 minutes as a teenage girl.” After walking away from religion, Swift referred to God as Space Beard. And evidence of his comedic shorthand is on nearly everything he touched—from his favorite catchphrases, “too easy” (sometimes written 2EZ) and “fug yep,” to the hundreds of hashtags and memes he created on the spot in conversation.

When Swift’s most commercially successful solo album, 2009’s The Atlantic Ocean, was released, he’d had spent much of his young children’s lives on the road. “It was like we were raised by a single mom,” daughter Kennedy says. “It’s just the way it was. Dad went out and made money, and mom stayed home with us,” her sister Madison adds.

When Swift broke his finger working in the yard in 2010, it limited his ability to play music. But rather than slow down, he ramped up the schedule at National Freedom and elsewhere. “Broken Finger Blues,” which appears on The Hex, was written a few days after the cast came off his hand. “My body is broken/My body is bruised/Try to remember/What it’s like not to lose,” he sang, the song’s girl-group melancholy suggesting the hardworn battle to healing.

In 2011, Swift hit a lucky break: Though he’d grown tired of touring as a solo artist, he couldn’t pass up an offer to join the Shins. After meeting James Mercer at a wedding, Swift joined the road lineup of the Portland-based band that year, playing guitar, keys, synths and percussion, as well as singing backing vocals. Playing gigs like Outside Lands in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, with guaranteed crowds and pay, was a marked improvement from the more modest shows he played as a solo artist. Around the same time, Swift began a fruitful relationship with Secretly Canadian and its sister labels, producing and recording several albums for acts like Damien Jurado and Foxygen.

Auerbach met Swift at his Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville during the sessions for Valerie June’s 2011 record Pushin’ Against a Stone. Swift had been recommended by a mutual friend for drums, keys and backing vocals. “It was red hot, right when we met,” says the Black Keys frontman. In 2014, Swift joined the Keys’ touring lineup, contributing bass and backing vocals; the following years, he and Auerbach began the Arcs with noted soul revivalists and producers Leon Michels and Homer Steinweiss and Amy Winehouse bassist Nick Movshon.

Swift’s reputation as a sideman grew in tandem with his demand as a producer, and he soon branched out beyond what’s traditionally thought of as indie rock. The self-titled 2015 album that Swift produced for soul music act Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats was certified gold in 2017. “Richard would say, ‘It’s like you’re my twin, man. It’s like you’re my lost brother,'” Rateliff says. “I just kind of fell in love with his personality. Aside from music, we also connected over loving to drink too much.” The two became collaborators, friends and confidants.

“He could do anything it seemed like, musically, and I think it was because of his ability to really listen…it was his super power,” says Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, who made his 2017 solo album Care with Swift’s help. “In playback, he made sure there was no looking at a screen. There was no talking. No phone. It was this reverent moment.” Bazan recalls that during the six-day session the two smoked copious amounts of marijuana, but says there weren’t any major disruptions to speak of. “He wasn’t drinking at that point in his on and off struggle,” he adds.

Kevin Morby, who co-produced his 2017 album City Music with Swift, remembers that period differently:  “He wasn’t doing that well,” says Morby. “He was going through a hard time. But he was one of those people who made you feel like a best friend, and we were able to go deep and quickly lock into a groove.”

In March of 2017, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius traveled to Cottage Grove to prepare for a session they’d  booked with Swift, for their 2018 album NUDES. “We stayed up all night listening to hundreds of songs, for probably ten hours,” Wolfe says. “We talked about life experiences. There was a real kindred spirit.”

But Swift exhibited a regular pattern of blacking out after drinking tequila from a coffee mug during that session. “It’s so hard to talk about, because in that moment, he was my new friend,” Wolfe continues. “I knew there was a problem, but so did everybody.”

Dan Auerbach, Leon Michels, Nick Movshon, Homer Steinweiss, Richard Swift and Kenny Vaughan with The Arcs performs during the Radio 105.7 Holiday Spectacular at the Tabernacle, in AtlantaRadio 105.7 Holiday Spectacular - , Atlanta, USA

Richard Swift performs with Dan Auerbach and The Arcs during the Radio 105.7 Holiday Spectacular at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, 2015. Photo credit: Katie Darby/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Swift was more financially stable and had greater recognition than ever by this time, but he was also reeling from a series of traumatic events. While he was on tour with the Black Keys in September 2014, his mother Wendy died suddenly, which, according to Shealynn Ochoa, prompted a deep depression and pattern of self-medicating. A year later, the Arcs were in Paris the night of the terrorist attack on The Bataclan; their show was less than three miles from the site of the shooting, and the band had to escape to Italy amidst the chaos. The same month, his sister Lori died after a battle with cancer. His stepfather died two years later.

For someone so rare in his talents, and so unique in his point of view, Swift’s alcoholism was textbook. He’d drank heavily before this period. Afterward, he became stuck in a loop of anxiety and depression, lying to friends and family about just how much he was knocking back. According to family, he blamed his problems on everything but drinking — from the recent deaths to a bipolar self-diagnosis.

Swift attempted in-patient treatment at The Clearing in Friday Harbor, Washington in January 2016. When that didn’t stick, he tried out-patient treatment in January 2018 and again in April. “He would participate and everything seemed perfect, but he refused to truly live it,” Shealynn says. “It was kind of like when he was a kid with Christianity. He questioned it constantly, but no one would have ever guessed that because he was leading worship.”

In June, Swift was hospitalized for 11 days in Springfield, Oregon, where he was diagnosed with hepatitis. As soon as he was released, he left Cottage Grove for a fresh start in Tacoma. On Father’s Day, he was admitted to the ICU there. His liver and kidneys were failing. The three rounds of dialysis he endured were excruciating, and he decided against further treatment. He died in hospice care on July 3rd, surrounded by family.

Today, walking into National Freedom is like entering a museum of Swift, a tactile lesson in his way of working, his aesthetic and sense of humor. The front room of the windowless, low-slung building serves as the main recording space, and is stacked with gear, animal taxidermy, a punching bag, a globe and old suitcases. The back room houses Swift’s recorded collection, organized in bins and sorted by alphabetical cards. The bathroom is covered floor-to-ceiling in kitschy Jesus paintings. There are old sticks of palo santo on the table where he created legions of drawings and artwork, and where he absent-mindedly left the apples he used to smoke marijuana. On the day of this visit, Swift’s ashes are sitting near his record collection, waiting to be scattered during a family-only memorial that took place in September 2018.

As he did so many years ago at the Green Room, Chris Colbert, Swift’s longtime studio tech, will keep National Freedom running in Cottage Grove. He tells me that he’s working on a few updates, including an updated Pro Tools rig and new mixing console, but intends to keep the autodidactic nature of the space intact for those seeking the Richard Swift sound. “I’ve always strived to make things sound interesting as opposed to technically correct, and we have all his gear,” Colbert says. “We want to maintain the janky, half-broken stuff to maintain that sound.” Daniel Hindman and Sarah Versprille of Pure Bathing Culture have already worked on new songs in the space. Their old friend is gone, but the sound lives on.

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