Talks the influence of folk, writing songs and life as a road warrior
Patrick Sweany is as authentic as it gets. His gut punching lyrics and whiskey-drenched guitar riffs starkly contrast mainstream’s current status quo. Soulful tunes and songs about life’s ability to shiv us with heartbreaking circumstances boom effortlessly from his vocals and guitar. While i-Tunes and the airwaves are infiltrated by affected pop-rock hybrids that are shadows of the great alternative music they try to imitate, Pat’s craft, work ethic and commitment to grounded story-telling has made him a popular independent artist on notable streaming sites. These new platforms have had an enormous impact on Pat’s career while his tireless touring schedule continues to bolster his prolific road warrior status. The juxtaposing paths working in concert have earned him a position on countless playlists and Nashville stages respectively. His substantive sound is both unique and familiar.
Sweany, a professional rocker with blues influence and folk roots, is a Ohio native who currently lives in Nashville. Sweany is a former band mate of Dan Aurbach and also has two albums produced by the Black Keys front man. Kindred to Junior Kimbrough, Gary Clark Jr., and the aforementioned Black Keys, Sweany earns his Pandora “thumbs ups” and every round of applause he gets across the country. His creative process, touring schedule, and overall approach convey a “get it done” working class mentality.
Before his show at Williamsburg’s The Knitting Factory, I had the chance to talk to Pat about his influences, song development and his nurturing road habits.
How did your life in music begin?
My dad was a finger-style guitar player and singer. He was into folk stuff and always played it around the house. He played in a folk group in church which was which was pretty progressive for a catholic church thing back in the 70’s and 80’s so I dug that. He had a buddy in the group and after rehearsal they’d get together and jam. I took to it right away, that was the start of it and I never really looked back. My Dad was really encouraging. I really loved music at that point; from a young age I loved just listening to records.
Who were you listening to at that point?
A lot of folk stuff that at the time I didn’t know wasn’t exactly cool, then I started to get into blues; Lightnin’ Hopkins and Leadbelly. I was also listening to 60’s NY folkies that were into blues like Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, DaveVan Ronk — who were all of the Washington square original folk singers. I’d just sit and read the backs of those albums and loved learning about the old stuff. At the time, the albums were so cheap, you go could out there and get them for a quarter — I bought a lot of them.
Thematically, your music centers on real people and everyday problems with varying degrees of dreadfulness. Why is it so important for you to tell that story?
A true story is always much more interesting then fiction, at least it is to me. I feel as if I’m going to put my name of it and I’m going to say these things it’s got to be real and its got to be my point of view of a situation. It’s a short-cut to make you look good in situations. I probably did that once in one song but it was an early lesson because now the song is not interesting to me anymore — it just didn’t hold up. I figured out I had to say the real thing. Trying and winning or being cool is not something that most people can relate to and a lot of times that’s fiction. More people can relate to the feeling of “almost made it, but not quite”. That’s a story we can connect with because it’s real. This thing that I put my name on, its got to be what’s happening in my life-the real thing. That’s my point of view. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have a project that takes on different narratives — a lot of writers do that and I think its masterful, but for me its got to be what’s happening in my life.
Can you tell me about your song writing process?
I’m always collecting little riffs or melodies and collecting little words and phrases. I compile those until it’s time to make a record. Lately, it’s been about eight weeks out that I shut everything down, go into full on hermit mode, wake up in the morning make coffee, start writing and put it all together. Songs used to take a lot longer. It was a meandering process with the business of life. I need a deadline and parameters. I think you can honey comb in from something, that’s the more interesting thing — something with detail and something people can look closely at. It doesn’t have to be all things to all people.
The last two records I used a drum machine where I figure out the tempo first. That’s been immensely helpful. Phrasing and the way you say it is almost more important then what you’re saying.
The business is so different and I used to rally against it and talk a lot of shit about them. I still don’t think the royalty rate is fair on certain sites, but I still benefit from it. Exposure is a big thing and if it I wasn’t on there I don’t know if I’d have the career I have. I still think they should be more transparent and honest with their business, it would make it better for the music community. Even something as simple as having access to the marketing data or if an artist could link their catalog or website to the streaming site when their song is played because when most people hear “Them Shoes” they don’t immediately identity it as a Patrick Sweany song. Having said that, I don’t know if we’d be having this conversation if not for those sites.
Is touring as big of a challenge as it seems and has it changed at all over the years?
I enjoy the traveling and I’ve got my routine. We’re not crashing on couches anymore. Things have changed a little; you can’t party all night and get behind the wheel at 10am to drive to the next show anymore. Like any job you have your routine. I do most of the driving on the road. I’m in the million mile club now. I’ve driven to the moon and back in the last 20 years. It’s not a unique club in Nashville though. The way I see it, I’m responsible for these cats that play my music and care for it. I’m in charge of their safety and I want them to enjoy themselves. It’s kind of a benevolent dictatorship, but we’re all friends and everybody gets along. We show up and we show up on time.
Both Sweany and his talented band were intensely dialed in. With precision, they put on a badass, old school rock and roll show. As the end neared and just before singing “Them Shoes”, Pat solidified his persona as a grateful and humble artist by declaring- “This one’s been really good to me, hope you enjoy it”.
With a new album coming in 2017 you can bet that Patrick Sweany will continue creating evocative music that delves into the complexity of everyday challenges, loss and lives lived firmly in the grasp of the grind.