swan lingo's emotional lo-fi will steal your electronic heart
Get to know the DC native whose richly layered ambient tracks sit somewhere between Daniel Johnston, Lil B, and Aphex Twin. As we premiere his new home movie music video, ‘luv is true,' find out how the WEDIDIT crew got on board.
Swan Lingo's "luv is true" music video bears a similarity to Gummo. Some of its grainy VHS scenes read as homages to the cult film's persistent opening shots; others — imaginary football plays inside of a graveyard, sunglasses-obscured exchanges with a businessman walking a poodle — seem to be more light-hearted spiritual offspring of Harmony Korine's grimly humorous directorial debut. But the lo-fi singer and multi-instrumentalist behind "luv is true" hails neither from Xenia, Ohio — the tiny, Tornado-ravaged town where Korine set Gummo — nor Nashville, where he shot it. Swan Lingo, born Shepshu Baker, calls Washington, DC home.
A few distinct musical movements have bubbled up in America's capital city: Go-go — a splinter subgenre of the early 70s funk explosion — remains a massively popular regional sound, though the city's hardcore punk scene has waned since its apex in the 80s. These days, gritty rap reigns supreme. It's tricky to determine whether 21-year-old Swan is influenced by all of DC's sounds and styles, or none of them. He makes ambient electronic tunes that combine experimental keyboard synths, hip hop leaning drum hits, shoegazey guitar riffs, and evocative vocals that move fluidly between song and speech. It's like if Daniel Johnston, Dean Blunt, Elliott Smith, New Order, Aphex Twin, and Lil' B played a game of tag — weaving, bobbing, chasing, colliding, running out of breath, starting up again.
It's this forward-thinking genre experimentation that caught the ears of WEDIDIT — the high school friends turned creative collective cooking up some of today's most progressive electronic sounds. Its core members Shlohmo, Ryan Hemsworth, RL Grime, and D33J deal equally in syrupy remixes, sprightly kawaii synths, and industrial darkwave. So how does Swan's music fit within their universe? According to WEDIDIT label head Nick Meledandri, "Perfectly. He makes emotional music that feels uniquely his own. WEDIDIT has never made sense when people have tried to put it in a category or genre because our influences and interests don't stem from one place. Swan's music is the same." On July 1, the LA-based collective will release Swan's four-track EP Spirit Plug, from which "luv is true" is lifted.
"luv is true," directed by susdante
The forthcoming record follows Demos, a collection of four songs Swan released on Bandcamp in the fall of 2015, when he swerved out of the regional rap lane to pursue a more experimental sound. A classically trained percussionist who began African drumming at three years old, Swan grew up worshiping Lauryn Hill after his mom turned him on to neo-soul, jazz, and funk early. "I went to a small, very cultural African school on Georgia Ave from pre-K to fourth grade. We had to wear dashikis and learned a lot about Ancient Egypt. My first CD was [by] Parliament-Funkadelic," he recalls.
Later, he became captivated by the melodic guitar structures of bands like Beach Fossils, Wild Nothing, DIIV, and Craft Spells. "In DC, everyone's a rapper, everyone makes rap beats. I was trying to do ambient style instrumentation because I like to express emotion through my music; I don't like to just say shit that I don't really care about," Swan explains. So he moved a few hours south to Richmond, Virginia, where he began crafting a new kind of sound. "Richmond really helped expose me to different musicians and different instruments." Demos emerged, and eventually, WEDIDIT found it.
"I woke up one morning and saw that Shlohmo had followed me on Twitter," Swan explains of his WEDIDIT origins story. D33J had met Swan's friend Wifigawd through Kane Grocerys and Marcy Mane of non-conformist cloud rap label Goth Money, and brought Wifi to record in the WEDIDIT studio. "I'm guessing Shlohmo was listening to Wifi's music, went on the Portal Boyz Soundcloud — which is a collective I'm a part of in DC — and got hip to my music through the page. He really liked it! Me and Nick have been in contact ever since."
Just as he did on Demos, Swan made all of the beats and played all of the instruments ("except the guitar parts") on Spirit Plug. "Each [of its songs] is a bit different from the last," Meledandri says of the EP, and he's right. Spirit Plug opens with bubbling hi-hats and closes with a gorgeously simple loop that almost sounds like Nguzunguzu playing Spanish guitar. Though its production is so richly layered, Swan says the record is about pushing his vocals into new territories without overcomplicating their emotional affect. "The whole thing feels very personal, like someone's allowed you to read their journal," says Meledandri.
If there's any parallel through all of Swan's work — from the very first rap song he recorded in middle school to "luv is true" — it's his drive to create from a raw, real, and vulnerable place. "I hope people understand that it's all about emotion," Swan says of Spirit Plug. "I was going through my first breakup so it was a real heartbreak moment, and that's what I was singing about. So I want people to listen not for production quality or whatever, but for what I'm trying to say and how I'm expressing it through my voice. I felt like I was gonna cry a lot making those songs, but I had to reach that point to make it real. It has to be real, it can't be manicured. You've gotta feel it."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Zachary Chick