Jim Swim is a multifaceted artist living in Iowa City. Born in Davenport, the sound behind the rapper/singer/producer’s work isn’t easily definable, nor is it entirely linear as he moves from project to project. Speaking of his 2018 In It With You EP, for example, Little Village’s Luke Benson called out the project’s “deceptively well-crafted lyrics,” “rich sonic soundscape[s],” and “laidback tone.” In another review on the site for 2021’s New Tattoo EP, Dr. Dawson commented on the release’s “psychedelic rap sounds that can be jammed in the car or on the dancefloor.” Among other topics, the following email exchange focuses on his lyrics, how collaboration has shaped his sound, and a pair of upcoming collaborative works with Alyx Rush and Avery Moss. Jim Swim has several upcoming dates (complete listing below) including a solo performance Saturday, April 22 at Ecofest in Cedar Rapids, as well as a full band performance at Gabe’s in Iowa City, along with Halfloves and Bella Moss.
villin: There’s a thread of collaboration which runs through your body of work, whether that be past efforts with Blookah, ADE, or the Soultru EP you recently produced and appeared on. What is it about working with other artists that you find so attractive?
Jim Swim: Collaboration is everything in music. Music is such an efficient means of connection, and creating with another person can take you to an extremely genuine and open place very quickly. I love that. Many of my closest friendships are the direct result of musical collaborations.
Making a song with someone is a conversation and a quest, and I love aiming toward some shared inspiration or principle when I collaborate. It could be a song that we both love that we are using as a reference, or just a general idea like, “Wavy with a lot of bounce and wonky hats,” that we use to guide the exploration. I always learn a lot from the people I work with, and we wind up with music that neither of us could have made on our own. It’s a product of our combined nervous systems.
villin: How has collaboration helped you grow as an artist?
Jim Swim: I think most of my growth I’ve experienced as an artist is the result of collaboration, directly or indirectly. I learned Ableton watching Nick (Blookah) produce, and have enjoyed trading tricks and tactics with him over all the years since he first showed me how to arm a track. I’ve gained the courage to sing and develop my melodic ideas working with incredible vocalists like Mary Bozaan, ADE, Avery Moss, and Alyx Rush. I learned how to write guitar melodies that were catchy but also ache-y from being in a band with my friend Alex Fischels. I’ve grown as an arranger and producer building songs for Terrance (Soultru). I get inspiration and affirmation talking about the poetic power of great rap with Ahzia, and listening to the conversational wisdom of his verses while we record his songs. I’m incredibly lucky to have crossed paths with so many artists in this relatively small town who I love and admire.
villin: How did you link up with Alyx Rush and Avery Moss, and are some of your personal takeaways from working with each of them on the respective releases you’ve got lined up?
Jim Swim: I heard that Alyx was dating Blake Shaw, I think, and looked him up on Instagram. I listened to a video where he was singing and was blown away by his tone and emotive delivery. I asked him to hop on a show we were doing at Gabe’s, and that’s where we met. I had some lofi R&B type beats I’d made that I couldn’t do justice to as a vocalist, and asked him to come over. We found that we had similar tastes both as fans and as artists, and it was really easy to write lyrics and parts together. He also is just an incredibly sweet and funny person who is fun to spend time with. Alyx is always willing to experiment, but also has a deep sense of who he is as an artist and how he wants to sound. He is a perfectionist, but also willing to take risks, and I find that combination to be really motivating and inspiring as a collaborator. In our new EP, we wanted to make songs that still had some of the hazy, moody textures from Fruit to the Knife, but with a lot more bounce. The four songs we’ve made (plus one remix of “Gimme Life”) have a lot of wave and bounce to them, and I think they’ll be great for a summer release. I’ve grown a lot as a vocal producer working with Alyx, mainly because creating textures with his voice is ridiculously fun. I hope to keep working with him as long as we both live here.
I met Avery in a much less likely and more funny way. I dated Avery’s current partner, Mary Bozaan (also an incredibly talented artist), for four years before they got together. Mary and her sister Sarah both do this super rare thing where they can just stay close with exes and introduce the new people they are dating to them and everyone can be friends. So I met Avery through her. Avery has one of the most mighty brains I’ve ever been around. They have an incredible knowledge and passion for music of all genres, and what makes them really special to me is that they have a ton of heart to go with their intellect. They feel music with their whole being and love bopping around on a dance floor as much as intellectualizing about the texture and timing of Manny Fresh’s drums or the complications of Lou Reed’s character. They are an incredible sound designer, keys player, arranger, singer and producer, and the overlap in our tastes is really interesting. Our first EP probably existed a little more in Avery’s sonic world than mine, but our next one swings more toward mine. We both love sounds that are pretty, bass sounds that are groovy and nasty, and drums that bounce and slap. I love working with them and am super bummed they are moving to Chicago this summer. I’ve learned an immense amount about mixing, sound design, and melody writing in their good company.
villin: In an interview with Iowa Public Radio, ADE shared his admiration for your poeticism. Are there any lyrics from your upcoming projects that you’re particularly fond of?
Jim Swim: ADE is a good writer, too! We always have a blast writing raps together, and laugh way too much while we do it. That man is a fiend for the innuendo. There are a lot of lyrics on upcoming projects that I feel connected to, mostly because I’m still in the same space as I was when I wrote them. The second half of the second verse in Avery and I’s song “Stretching” is a favorite…
It’s water, man
The guru said let it move through ya
Or do it your way if it suits ya
The sound of the song is a sutra
Pulling me through like a doula’s hand
The ritual magic is too advanced
The ghosts in the room came to a dance
Been pulling my roots up from ruined lands
It’s true that my dreams led to foolish plans
Been caring way less who I’m cooler than
Tuning in what was it you were saying?
Been losing the message with too much to reckon with
Let’s make it new again
And then the first verse of the single I’m releasing April 27 captures a lot of the anger and disgust I’ve had toward our elected officials and the internet grifters who capture minds for them…
It’s all backwards
Look at all these nasty tax-cheat masters
Machine gun oil rig smokestack laughter
Extract every last bit then abscond after
If the data leaks tip a cap to the hackers
Have to see the limbs on the strings of the actors
The mad-eyed captain said we must go faster
He just built a bunker near the megachurch pastor’s
They’ll be living lavish in the case of disaster
villin: When thinking of yourself as a musician, do you think of yourself as more of a vocalist, lyricist, a producer, or is it all one broader outlet for you?
Jim Swim: I was really considering making a producer alias for the music I make with Alyx and others when I’m not a vocalist because I was worried the difference between the music I make with him and my solo stuff would confuse people if they were just clicking through my Spotify or whatever, but I ultimately decided I’d just keep it one name. It really all comes from the same place and I think it all has the same musical DNA. I don’t think the roles are separate, really. I might be the main vocalist on Avery and I’s projects, but they help me think of vocal melodies and I help them think of synth lines. Vice versa when I work with Alyx. I’m just trying to be an artist overall and learning other skills has opened up more doors for collaboration and expression. I do still feel like a beginner as a producer/mixing engineer, though, and am most comfortable being a lyricist and vocalist.
Plus I just really don’t want to have to manage another social media account. I would not be on socials at all if it weren’t for music.
villin: About two years ago you appeared on the Englert Theatre’s Best Show Ever podcast, speaking in large part about an essay you wrote on the nature of artistic success. In that piece of writing you speak of a “false binary” that exists, where “successful artists live off of their art; failed artists get day jobs and become hobbyists.” It’s interesting because for many creatives, I feel like there’s a lot of value placed on this holy mountain of doing art as a profession, as if that in itself is a worthwhile goal. I’m wondering how your relationship with your own idea of “success” as an artist has changed since you wrote that article.
Jim Swim: It honestly depends on the day and hour you ask me. I still get hung up and feel like I’m a failure sometimes, or compare myself to other artists and feel uncool. I’ve spent a ton of time doing this one thing, and I’m nowhere near where I had hoped I might get to when I started. The myth of “making it” is really insidious in the way it colonizes artists’ brains, and can add a toxic undertone to an otherwise pure pursuit. That said, I’ve made all kinds of songs that I’m proud of and have experienced so many moments of genuine joy in the process with people I love. I enjoy making songs now more than ever. When I get to sit in this green chair that I’m in right now, in sweatpants, in my little room, I feel free and full, and sometimes, powerful. I was talking to Ahzia a while back about songwriting as a path of self-discovery, and that’s what it is for me. I learn more about what I think and feel through making songs. It can be incredibly satisfying, just saying what you mean, and finding a sound that suits the feeling. It’s cliche, but it really is incredibly therapeutic. I believe that any practice that makes us feel more curious, connected and human is worthwhile in a society that is working harder than ever to alienate us from ourselves and one another, and maintaining it is a success.
villin: How does performance and sharing your music with others in a live setting play into your concept of success, or your relationship with a feeling of creative achievement?
Jim Swim: The first musical activity that really lit me up was freestyling and jamming with friends. I think performing with other people in front of other people is what music is all about. The energy generated is priceless. I’ve turned into more of a studio rat over the past few years, but every time I play a show I remember what it’s all about. I’ve let myself get down at times about what shows I do or don’t get, or just feeling too old for it in a very young town, and I think that’s driven me in part to stay in the studio working on the craft, but whenever I do go out and do a set, I am lifted for like three days after. Over the next couple months, I’m going to get to perform some of my songs with an incredible band (Blake Shaw, Avery Moss, Anthony Worden, and Justin LeDuc), and I am really excited about that (April 29 with Halfloves and Bella Moss at Gabe’s, and then June 3 at the James Theater with Ahzia and Alyx Rush). I think sharing the songs we make is essential to the creative process, whether that’s in an arena with 50,000 people, or even a single friend. Sharing/releasing/performing completes the process, for me, and helps me start it over again feeling renewed. Honestly, I played a few songs for Avery a couple weeks ago and the feedback they gave me made me feel like I “made it,” because I knew they understood and felt what I was trying to express. It was a high, and it was just us two.