MI dream-folk group For Wishes has created the sleeper of the year with the delicate and emotional I Will Burn Your Winter. Headed by Steve Swartz, who is also in the dreampop group Au Revoir Borealis, For Wishes is delighting music listeners with its debut release of lingering guitars, poetic lyrics, and subtle arrangements. Swartz answered some questions for us, proves himself to be the thoughtful and engaging person his music portrays him as.
For the readers and music lovers out there who may not be familiar with you, who are you and how did you get your start in music?
I’m just a guy from Detroit with music in my blood and a handful of instruments. My father was a jazz bassist for a number of years and my mother’s side of the family is well stocked with guitarists and banjo pickers. When my mother was pregnant with me, she could feel me bounce around in her womb when her and my dad were at concerts. So it was pretty well defined from the beginning that I would be into music. Plus my parents played records around the house when I was growing up and took me to quite a few concerts. As a kid, I would also make guitars out of plywood and rock out to songs on the radio or on tapes that I had in my room.
I started learning to play instruments around the age of ten. First trumpet and then guitar. I stuck with trumpet for about 8 years, but ended up finding my voice with guitar. That’s been my main instrument for the last 16 or 17 years.
College was when I started getting serious about music. I listened to everything I could get my hands on and played relentlessly. I fell in with a group of friends that would ultimately comprise the members of Au Revoir Borealis. However, this wasn’t really a conscious thing. Playing music was just a natural extension/expression of our friendship. It was really just the fruit of our time together. Most any time we get together, music just happens.
Why did you decide to record under the name “For Wishes”? And how did you come up with that name?
For Wishes kind of evolved over time. It’s basically an outlet designed to be whatever I need it to be or express at any particular time. I always have musical ideas floating around in my head and some of them are very different from what I’ve been doing in Au Revoir Borealis. This is an outlet for those ideas.
The name For Wishes was settled on after writing it down on a piece of paper one day and leaving it on my desk. My friend Mike saw it and told me it would be a great band name. As we discussed the nature of the lyrical themes I tend to explore, “For Wishes” seemed to be a perfect fit. I’m interested in a broad range of ideas, but most of what I write is surrounded by a sense of longing and wishing for better things. I recognize that the world is not a perfect place and that there’s only so much that people can do to try to fill in the cracks of life. But we continue press on and wish for better things. Sometimes this leads us somewhere great and sometimes it gets tainted with our own selfish lusts. For Wishes is a medium to explore both the good and bad sides of wishing and yearning as it evolves and mutates in my life and the lives of others around me. Plus it sounds a lot cooler than “The Steve Swartz Band” and it gives me some sort of facade to hide behind.
What is the process you use for writing songs?
Song ideas usually come to me the way ideas might come to a journalist or fiction writer. I overhear a conversation or witness an incident between two people that takes on a life of its own in my imagination. Observation and listening are major factors for inspiration. From what I can tell, inspiration doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s always a catalyst that sets things in motion, but one’s eyes and ears have to be open to catch it. So I write what I observe and hear. Sometimes an idea is born from me trying to make sense of the triumphs and messes in my life. Either way, I try not to force it. I try to wait for inspiration because that’s where the best stuff comes from. Rarely can I set out to write in a specific direction and force myself to get there. I usually have to go along for the ride and see where the idea takes me.
As I come up with musical ideas that match the tone or vibe of a particular set of writings, I work up melodies from there. This is why most of my songs don’t feature a lot of rhyming. They’re mostly lifted from journal entries because most of the time, I’m more interested in telling a story and creating interesting musical arrangements than finding the perfect lyrical meter or rhyming phrase. Sometimes it’s far too confining to have a set rhythm or rhyming pattern for every line and other times it’s the perfect element.
How different is it to write your own songs, as opposed to writing songs for and with Au Revoir Borealis?
For me, the song writing process is very similar. In Au Revoir Borealis, some of the songs are sketched out individually and presented to the group for development. Other times we get an idea while jamming at rehearsal. With For Wishes, I sometimes get an idea in my head and then I work it out. Other times, I’ll be relaxing with my guitar at the end of a busy day and a chord progression will come together that’s interesting so I explore it until it feels like something more concrete. However, the big difference is that when it comes time to think about recording these songs, I don’t always have a full band to help arrange all the parts like in Au Revoir Borealis. The thing that works best for both Au Revoir Borealis and For Wishes is that a song should not be forced. It should be a fairly natural flow. If we’re wrestling with a song and it’s not fitting together, we usually put it on the back burner until it eventually clicks.
Describe for us the recording process of “I Will Burn Your Winter”. How hard was it to record an album as essentially a solo artist with studio musicians?
It was challenging and liberating all at once. Before this recording, I was used to working with other people in developing the arrangements as well as having an engineer on hand to record us. But there wasn’t any of that for this record. I had to record and produce this one myself since there was no budget for an outside engineer or producer. Fortunately, I work as an engineer at a recording facility and have a small studio at home. So between those two places, I recorded and mixed the whole record.
Since I was going to have to do most everything on my own, I decided that the songs needed to work when stripped down to one instrument. This way the song still translates well if I have to perform them solo. So I spent a lot of time making sure the arrangements worked with just one guitar. After I recorded the demos, I realized that the demos sounded pretty good. So I just started listening to see where I felt the songs could go and started adding parts as I felt inspired. Along the way I saw certain opportunities where friends could contribute and enrich certain songs. So I invited Steph (Au Revoir Borealis) to sing on a couple songs as well as play some piano. Mike (Au Revoir Borealis) came in and helped with a lot of miscellaneous percussion. Plus he has good ears and helped me produce the record. Phil Zott (The Great Fiction/Au Revoir Borealis) played all of the drums.
On the last track, I thought it would be fun to get a bunch of friends together to sing. Windy and Carl own a record store here in the area and they allowed me to come and record a bunch of people singing at their store. I did a second session with more people at the studio. For me, it was a very special way to close the record. Several friends singing in one accord. Definitely an album highlight for me.
The lyrical content of “I Will Burn Your Winter” is intimate and beautiful. What lyrical themes did you endeavour to communicate through your lyrics, and what inspired these lyrics?
As far as themes go, I didn’t really make an overt attempt to have a common thread running through every piece. However, once I had about half the record recorded, I noticed that a lot of the lyrical ideas explored a sense of isolation and brokenness. Some of this was due to some personal struggles and therefore some of the lyrics came from a very personal place. Then there are some other songs that explore that same space between other people or between myself and God. The title is intended to suggest that I (we) have to be proactive about building bridges into one another’s lives in order to reverse the relational winter that has crept into much of modern society. This sense of cold separation because we have to do whatever it takes to get ahead or look successful while trying to hide ourselves from others because we fear vulnerability. These are very general statements, but they are very real to the human condition. I think everyone has to deal with it from time to time and this album is part of my way of sorting out how I need to overcome those things in my life. To discover how the selfish part of me hurts precious areas of my life.
As a person of faith, how do you feel that your faith interacts with your music?
Faith is a very fluid thing when it’s allowed to move properly. Usually when I write, I don’t have an agenda. I try to let whatever is in me come out naturally. Because of that, some songs have a more obvious reference to the things that I believe and others just explore different themes that I happen to find relevant at the time. However, because of my particular worldview, I feel that it’s important to be honest with what I write at all times whether it be pretty or hideous. There’s the passage in the Bible where it says that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. I truly believe that. So for me to completely shut my faith and beliefs out of the process would be to create completely heartless music and I have no interest in doing that.
Are you planning on playing some live shows for “For Wishes”? If so, how do you plan on taking this material on the road?
I would like to take this project out on the road. There’s already been some interest in me going to Europe to perform, but we’ll see. I’ve been talking with Gary Murray about doing some stripped down acoustic shows together here in the Midwest. If I can gather some troops together to pull the band thing off, I’ll do some shows with a full ensemble. I’d like to vary it up. Some acoustic and some full band shows. We’ll see what happens. I’m kind of waiting to see what kind of response delvelops before I make too many plans. The response has been favorable so far, but promotion hasn’t really kicked in yet. We’re just starting to get a plan together for the next phase while I begin rehearsing all the songs. Plus I’ve already got new stuff I’m working on as well as wrapping up the next Au Revoir Borealis release.
You are known for having great taste in music and always recommending terrific bands in your email updates. What CD’s are you currently listening to these days? Anything you’d like to recommend?
This is tough because I’m constantly in DJ mode. I listen to just about everything. I’m always jumping around on CDs or making mixes for people for different occasions. I can spend hours in record stores if I have the time because there’s so many fascinating records floating around out there. The most consistent rotation right now is Starflyer 59 – Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice, LN – Drawn By Swans, LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A. – Arular, Markus Guentner – 1981, Kaito – Special Life, Rhythm and Sound – With the Artists, Ryan Adams – Cold Roses, Bark Psychosis – Codename: Dustsucker and most anything on the Kompakt label. I’ve also been really digging a lot of the old Studio One reggae stuff as well as some Brazilian music. Artists like Sugar Minott, Delroy Wilson, Dennis Brown, Frankie Paul, Jorge Ben and Belbel Gilerto. The stuff that Seu Jorge did for The Life Aquatic soundtrack was great as well.
If you could work with any artist, who would it be, and why?
This is tough. There’s a couple that come to mind. I’ve already worked with Gary Murray, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat because he’s so talented and also such a great chap to be around. Tom Waits is another. I love listening to his records. His writing is interesting and unconventional and his sense of arranging and production is always fascinating. I like his work aesthetic and constant willingness to experiment with sounds and song structures. Real Gone was one of my favorite records last year. A total joy to listen to. I think it would be very educational on so many levels to work with him.
How do you address the challenge of communicating your ideas, heart, and passion through music?
For me, the challenge comes with context. The whole spectrum of the human experience has been written about a million times. Bob Dylan once said that the world don’t need any more songs. To an extent, that seems quite true. However, I think hearing similar themes in new contexts can be somewhat affirming and refreshing. We humans tend to forget some things easily. My dilemma comes when I’m exploring an idea and constantly questioning the direction I’m going in. I don’t want to repeat myself or anyone else. If I know that I’m moving in a familiar direction, I try to steer away from it as best I can so that I don’t add to all the redundancy that’s already flying around in the market place. The other challenge is that some people don’t share the same perspectives that I do and don’t find any validity in the things that I choose to express. Not everyone cares about the views I may want to express so sometimes I have to wear my heart on my sleeve in the studio and then guard it a bit when I share it with the general public.
What is the secret of communicating the deep things rooted within your soul through music?
I think it’s one part being honest with where you’re at personally and another part being faithful with the little scraps of truth, clarity and talent God has afforded each of us and then allowing God to make up the difference. Everyone has a voice. An inner part of them that holds certain things to be self-evident and sacred. I think that as long as one protects that and allows that part of them to breathe and grow, communicating the deeper things rooted inside will be rather natural.
What is the best and worst thing about being an independent artist?
The freedom to make a song the way you want without someone else’s subjective opinion impeding on your vision is the best part of being independent. However, having to pay for everything out of your own pocket while continuing to pay the bills and put food on the table can knock the wind out of one’s sail quick.
What is in the future for For Wishes? and Au Revoir Borealis, too?
The future for both musical entities is uncertain. There will be a new Au Revoir Borealis recording. I do know that. All of us in the group are determined to finish the project. It’s a very long story, but there’s been an number of setbacks to the release that have been beyond our control. Sometimes life just takes over and doesn’t quite let you do things the way you’d like to. However, we don’t have that much left to do if we can coordinate everyone’s schedules. That’s a big priority for me over the next several months.
For Wishes will hopefully be playing out and seeing some of the country. I actually have about half of another record written for For Wishes, but I’m not eager to jump back into the studio since I’ve been practically living in one for the last couple years. I am planning to expand the For Wishes Web site with studio notes and thoughts about each song. Plus I’ll be adding some remix opportunities as well. Should be fun.
Any other comments?
Thanks so much for the interest and support. It really means a lot. Folks like me wouldn’t go anywhere without folks like you. If anyone’s interested in buying the album or checking out some mp3s, they can do so at www.forwishes.com. Thanks for the time.