By Simon Roberts
“IF YOU WANT TO MAKE LOVE OR CRY, I’M YOUR GUY” – Teddy Swims
You may not know much about Conyers, Georgia or a guy named Jaten Dimsdale, but the American singer-songwriter Teddy Swims will let you know who he is, and what it sounds like when you earn your musical chops playing Hip Hop, R&B, Metal, Pop-Punk, Country, and Soul anywhere that would have you between Atlanta and the Atlantic Ocean. Teddy Swims, born Jaten Dimsdale, tells us about how his overnight success wasn’t actually overnight, and how playing cover songs is critical to learning your craft. Read along with us as Swims talks us through his early years with his irrepressible good nature, thoughtful kindness, and charming southernisms that left our man in Phoenix wishing he had more time with this artist you should be listening to.
Simon Roberts, Inked Magazine – How would you describe your music in the beginning and its evolution over the last few years?
Teddy Swims – I’d say it’s definitely gotten more vulnerable and honest. I feel like the older I get, the further I get from who I thought I was. It has changed a lot from what I thought I would want and what I thought I would want to make and what I thought I would want to sound like. I want to be continuously evolving. So, I don’t know if I’ll ever find the sound you know, that I’m looking for, or was looking for. But I think it’s grown a lot. I think the way I would always describe music that I’ll make, and I know it to be consistently true is that I think we’re either making love or we’re crying about losing love, you know, and that’s really all there is to it. So, if you want to make love or cry then I’m your guy.
I think people have this idea that cover music, and bands playing cover songs when they start out is a new thing. Some iconic songs like Jimi Hendrix version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, or Whitney Houston “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton, and almost anything Joe Cocker ever recorded, are the seminal versions of those songs. Where do you see cover music in the music zeitgeist?
I love the Beatles. The Beatles themselves were big cover band, they’re the Beatles, for God’s sake. The best band of all time.
Well, I would argue that Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude” is better than the Beatles’ original version. Once you’ve heard Mr. Pickett belt that out, you can’t listen to the Beatles version anymore. It also didn’t hurt that Pickett got Duane Allman to play guitar on that track.
Do you think covers were part of your evolution?
I think when I was coming up, I never intended on doing the YouTube covers. June 25, 2019, was the first one we did, and I wanted to pay homage to Michael Jackson, because it was the 10-year anniversary of his death. So, we did “Rock With You” to just kind of like, pay homage and we uploaded it on YouTube and Facebook and it just started going crazy. So, we’re like, wow, man, I guess we gotta keep on doing cover songs. I was singing in restaurants and bars with my buddies that I still play with today. JJ and Jesse and me were playing like three hours of cover songs in little bars in, God knows where, Georgia. We would play in any little town that would have a shitty little bar that would have us. We were splitting like 150 bucks, three ways, you know, and God forbid you have a drink, because that comes right out of your pay. So, I think playing covers definitely changed my life. The more you learn, the more you write, and I think we’re all just regurgitating the same ideas. There’s nothing new under the sun. So, I think they’ve helped me become a writer and get to know my own voice better. I feel like the best covers come from people hearing music so differently. They attach their own feelings and their own memories to those songs. Doing a lot of covers has also set me up for a lot of self-comparison in my life too, because I’d covered some of the best songs in the world and then compared my version to the original. Like, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, by Bonnie Raitt for instance. What an amazing song. I was moving towards my own original tunes, and it was harder for me to give myself anything because I was like, man, if it’s not as good as this song. And it’s not as good as this. It is too hard to compare yourself to icons and their songs like that. That hasn’t been good. For me. It’s a constant self-comparison to some of the greatest songwriters, and songs of all time, which has been just super negative for me.
People see you and the success you’ve had, and they only see this overnight sensation. It sounds like it didn’t really happen overnight.
Yeah. We started out in every shitty bar between Athens and Atlanta and anywhere else that would have us.
I understand that you are a real student of the voice as an instrument.
Yeah, I think I think it is the most communicative, most perfect tool. When it comes to the voice, it’s the one thing that is truly, totally yours. Nobody else sounds just like you, talks like you, has the same emotions as you, the same memories, the same situations, and circumstances as you. All of this is part of how you sound. Your voice is also so dependent on how you treat it. You know, did you smoke last night? Did you go out and get drunk all night? Were you yelling and screaming? Are you under the weather? You know, it’s like, this voice is such a beautiful instrument and such a communicator. I do whatever I can do to learn about this voice and protect this and get the know this better and better and better. I think it’s everyone’s duty that has a voice to figure that out. Because it’s the only thing that’s truly yours. If everybody’s eyes are closed, or we all look the same, this would be the only thing that would stand out.
Where does your breadth and depth of musical style come from?
Well, I definitely think that I’m a product of my environment. I am also someone who wants to learn how to use my voice in different ways. It’s always been that way for me. I want to just be able to master this craft. Also, I grew up in Georgia, where I think it’s really musically the prime place for anyone to grow up. We have everything from the best of hip hop, the best of soul music, the best of country music, and the best of rock music. Everything has come out of Georgia. I was very lucky that my mom’s side of the family was super Pentecostal with my granddad on that side of the Pentecostal pastor and the music that that included. My dad’s side provided very different musical experiences. I feel like I got a both sides of the coin on a lot of different things in life and got exposed to a lot of good music and good things. I just fell in love with music and the craft and the communication that it is. I think I’m just very lucky that my family and my friends and growing up with who I did, where I did, and the circumstances I had, I think I’m just very, very lucky that I guess, I listened to music, and that was the only thing I ever wanted in my life.
Do you think that all these different influences helped you to get along with so many diverse people?
I mean, I’ve never met a friend that ain’t my best friend. I literally tell people all the time, if you can’t get along with me, you must be just like a real piece of shit. You know? It’s not hard to get along with me man.
How do you keep that kindness alive in an industry that is notorious for changing people?
I’ve been playing with the same cats since I was 12 or 13 years old, and we stick together no matter what. We always say that it’s family first. We build a bigger table not a taller fence so we’re just family. Your family keeps growing if you do it right.
There’s a song in there somewhere, isn’t there?
(Laughs) Yes sir, you bet there is.
When you look at the trajectory of your career, can you look at pieces of music or moments and see when you made choices that were key to your success?
Totally man, I can definitely see how it was coming together. That first cover on YouTube changed the course of everything. And then all of us decided that we should keep on doing this. Then I asked all my buddies to give me six months. I knew that if we could just focus on this Teddy Swims thing for six months, we could make something happen. So, we all moved into this five-bedroom house. I think it was like 10 or 11 of us living there and others would come over during that time. time. We built plywood walls to split one room into two rooms. We built two studios there. I mean, we lived and worked there for six months trying to make this happen. We all had regular jobs and would work on music together when we got home. We wrote songs, recorded covers, filmed covers, printed and distributed merch, all out of the garage. We did that first cover June 25, 2019. On December 24, 2019, one day less than six months, I got signed to Warner records. Then I put all my best pals on salary, and we made it through the pandemic together. We were able to be together and create together in quarantine. That situation really helped us a lot because it was a time when people couldn’t work with people in the studio. That time stuck together ended up being a blessing for us. There have been so many times in my life where I feel like things like that have just happened. My career has been full of those, “thank God “moments. I think when you’re on the right path and you’re walking with purpose or an intention that all those moments are going to continue to happen and happen more often.
How do you keep things going when you aren’t having those moments?
I mean it goes back to the intention of my footsteps and promises made to my buddies. I didn’t always know how to keep the promises I made. My motto has always been to make more promises. I make promises, and then have to find a way to keep them, because I am not going to lie to my buddies and fail to keep a promise. We are a family, and they will always help me keep promises to people. We work together to back up my commitments at all costs. I think it’s the best thing ever.
So the guys are sort of like a promise fulfillment team? You are out there making promises, and they have to figure out how to make them come true?
Yeah, that’s exactly what happens. If they were all sitting here, they would be dying laughing. Man, you get people like that in your life who will protect my heart and don’t ever want me to change. I get to be a big man-child during this time, and they protect me and let me be who I am.
When you are given this permission, or time, to do what you want, how do you continue to evolve and grow as an artist and person?
I feel responsible because I have a platform and something positive to say. I feel like I have a responsibility to touch people’s lives and interact with as many people as I possibly can in a positive way. It has been a blessing to give something positive to people. Something that really stuck with me and might be why I’m still doing this, happened when I was a kid. I had his pastor come to me and he said, “Look, Teddy, you got blood on your hands. There is something special in you and you’re going to do whatever it is that God has called you to do. God wants you to talk to his people and lead his people. I see the way you influence people around you, and you need to figure out right now what it is you’re going to influence them for. Whatever happens, if you lead people to the Lord, or if you lead people in hatred, or if you lead people to yourself for your own fulfillment, you need to decide what it is that you want say to them and where you are going to take them”.
That must have been pretty heavy for a kid to hear?
That was deep for me when I was ten, but it is something that I have carried with me in my life. It has made me very intentional in the way that I speak to people and interact with them. I want them to know that they have all of me and my attention right now. And it’s just us. And at this moment, right now, you’re the most important person in the world. Your time is valuable. Thank you for letting me have it. You are valuable and powerful. I just want people to feel magic is real and that people are innately good and want to do the right thing. I think there’s just not enough of that in the world. And so, I’ll always be working on just making sure people feel like, “Hey, this is still a good place”, and we can get it together.
What advice would you give a 16-year-old Teddy Swims?
I would tell him to be patient and to calm down. I’ve got patience tattooed on my face, because it’s still something I have a hard time with. I would say to be calm, it’s all it’s all coming in its own time. Timing is everything, man, because if I would have gotten this success when I was younger, I’d be so cracked out right now. It’s coming when you’re ready for it. I would say to that 16-year-old to sit down. You’re not ready for this yet.