It's hard not to start throwing around Bruce Springsteen references when discussing Minneapolis-based songwriter John Swardson. With gruff, grizzly vocals about the loneliness and suffering of the everyman, Swardson's new album, Silver Dust, paints a portrait of a sensitive yet masculine working-class troubadour. There are songs about watching storms roll across the plains, meeting friends at a corner bar, and speeding down the highway.
In short, Silver Dust is so very Springsteenesque.
Which isn't to say that Swardson is ripping off the Boss or even subconsciously mimicking him. Instead, the two musicians share some key traits that are difficult to ignore. Both excel in the art of storytelling, phrasing things plainly and letting the meaning nestle in between the lines. Both sing folk music that's actually rock music and even a bit country, and both are fascinated with the idea that our suffering is what unites us as music fans and as people.
"It's easy to feel isolated and lonely," Swardson explains over chicken Caesar salads at the Green Mill in Uptown, one of his favorite bars. "A lot of the songs are about that and how we all feel that way, and even when it seems like we're not, we're all together, we're all going through the same stuff and traveling down the same roads."
Swardson speaks softly and grins politely between sentences. Dressed in a faded jean jacket and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap, with a scruffy, inch-long beard, his image complements the down-home nature of his songs. In life, Swardson is the type of dude who would come bail you out if your car broke down on the side of the road; in his music, he's the type of songwriter who can guide you through the other kinds of breakdowns in life.
"I said it's okay, no one expects you to be on your way/We're all meeting up at the CC tonight/I know everybody would be glad to see ya," he sings on "Home," and it's a familiar scene, a group of old friends meeting up for a night of drinking at the neighborhood bar.
Swardson has a knack for crafting vivid stories, a talent he attributes to his creative writing studies in high school and college. "I really try to be visual and try to be universal in what I write," he says. "So people can relate to it and feel it and smell the song and feel the colors of the song. All of that comes from a creative writing background. Creating a setting and a time and place."
The act of turning his stories into songs came naturally, as he followed in the footsteps of his favorite musicians. He says his biggest influences are Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, and (surprise!) Bruce Springsteen, who all embody the same style of straightforward, narrative rock that Swardson employs. Listening to these songwriters helped him learn how to "pour it out in a simple, passionate rock format," he says. "Not over-thinking it, just letting the songs speak for themselves. Learning the simplicity of rock 'n' roll."
Silver Dust alternates between barebones acoustic tracks and more fleshed-out, electric-guitar-heavy songs. Recorded in his friend and producer Chris Coyne's basement in Uptown, the album has a loose feel to it that accentuates the simplistic nature of the music. In fact, it's on his sparsest tracks that Swardson really shines: The most poignant song on the album, "Ride Along," is set to a slow drum beat, with a simple electric guitar part layered over the strumming of an acoustic guitar. And it's all the song needs. Swardson's poetic lyrics are given the spotlight and the instruments are merely a means to convey his message.
"Have you ever seen fires flicker from the windows of a long-distance train?" he half sings, half breathes on "Ride Along." "You ever felt someone there when they're gone?/If I drive, will you ride along?"
Sweetly simple, yet achingly sincere, Swardson has mastered the art of tugging at the listener's heartstrings while maintaining a masculine stride. It's a tricky balance between soft and hard, sweet and strong, but Swardson seems to walk the line with ease.
JOHN SWARDSON performs a CD-release party with Stook! and the Evening Rig on THURSDAY, MAY 22, at the 7th ST. ENTRY; 612.332.1775