A Soundtrack for Me and You: An Interview with Swan Dive
(Originally published at PopMatters but only half the interview is currently up on their website. This is the full interview.)
It’s been a life-changing 5 years for Bill DeMain and Molly Felder since the last Swan Dive album, but their new music is still warm and enveloping, often wistful and nostalgic, and always memorable.
“Korea avoid damage by Nashville love duo.” (Bing online translator version of text from Korean press release for new Swan Dive album)
Bill DeMain and Molly Felder are in a good mood. It’s the week the duo, who record as Swan Dive, release Soundtrack to Me and You, their 10th album of melodic pop soundscapes. It’s been five long years since Mayfair, the previous Swan Dive album. Five years of life changes for both members, including DeMain losing most of his possessions in an apartment fire, starting his own business leading walking tours of the musical sights of Nashville (Walkin’ Nashville), co-writing and performing with an array of other musicians, and releasing a solo EP. Felder moved with her husband and young son to an idyllic small town hours away from her Swan Dive partner, only to eventually return to Nashville.
Despite, or maybe because of these events, DeMain says of the new album, “A few of our longtime fans who’ve heard the record describe it as ‘classic Swan Dive,’ which I take as a good sign, but also to mean that there is the right combination of melody, poetic lyrics, spirit and soul. I hope so anyway.”
Melody, poetic lyrics, spirit and soul is a good way to describe the music of the duo. It’s warm and enveloping, often wistful and nostalgic, always memorable. With a firm foundation in Bossa and Bacharach, they haven’t shied from exploring the pop tropes of the 70’s and 80’s as well, in addition to folk, electronica, and the occasional foray into disco, soul and ragtime, always with an identifiable “Swan Dive sound.” A craftsman like approach to songwriting and recording has carried them through consistently strong albums, with popular early songs like “Circle”, “The Day That I Went Home” and “Girl on a Wire”, to “Tender Love” from their last album and the new Everly Brothers-influenced “Good Things”, which they’re planning on filming a video for soon. They’ve also appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and won Best Pop Album in the Independent Music Awards twice.
Bill and Molly spent part of a warm summer evening talking about the new album, the events of the last few years, working with other artists like Teddy Thompson and Don Henley, the origins of Swan Dive, songwriting, other musicians they’re listening to these days, and why they’re more popular in Asia than in their home country.
Was there ever any question as to the future of Swan Dive in the years since your last album?
Bill: I think we probably both knew that at some point we would get back together and make another record, but I think a lot of it had to do with geography. Molly at that point was living in Indiana, you know, after we made Mayfair. And I was playing in a couple of other projects – a kid’s band and a side project band (Crackerboots). When she moved back here though, I think the motor started back up again. We started singing together and learning new songs and we got asked to come to Korea and then we got a new licensing deal, so I think it had a lot do with geography and that she was away and then she came back. We just sort of picked it up again, you know?
Molly, why did you decide to move to New Harmony, Indiana and eventually back to Nashville again?
Molly: Because we were visiting there a lot and my son was 18 months old and we thought we would move to a small town so he could just sort of experience that type of environment, where everybody knew him. Which they did and they still do. It was just sorta, honestly, like living in the Andy Griffith Show. It’s a really, really beautiful place and we miss it very much. We still love it and we visit a lot but I missed Bill and I missed Nashville and my sisters were all moving here to Tennessee so we decided to come back, and I’m happy to be back.
On the new album, do you each have particular favorite songs?
Molly: My favorite song on the record is called “Missing”. I love that one and I love Bill’s vocal on it and I love the feel, that keyboard part that Larry Goldings did (Bill interjects “the Wurlitzer”). The Wurlitzer! It’s so awesome! And our friend Jim Hoke did some flute parts on there and he just wanted to keep going, he never wanted the song to end. He just wanted to keep going and it’s beautiful. I love everything about that one. That’s my favorite on the record.
Bill: I think I like “Soundtrack to Me and You” and “Star-Crossed Lover” the best. It’s not only because I like the songs a lot and because they say things that were personal and important, but I felt like those two songs might be two of my favorite vocal performances that Molly has ever done.
You recorded the album in a few days in January of this year. Was it a quicker album than usual to record?
Molly: It was fast.
Bill: Yeah, it was pretty fast. I mean, we cut pretty much all the tracks live with the band in the studio over the course of 6 days and then we worked on it at home a little bit for a month or two just doing some overdubs. Then we went back in and mixed it, so I think all told in the studio about 10 days.
For records that we’ve made in the studio [that time frame] is pretty normal. There were a couple of records there, like Until, and William and Marlys that were just made at home on a computer. Those things take longer because you kind of piece them together.
Soundtrack to Me and You is available digitally, but that’s the only format so far outside of Korea, where a label has issued a CD version. Will there be a vinyl or CD release for the rest of the world?
Bill: We’re talking to a label in London right now that wants to license the record for early next year, so we’re hoping that works out. We’ll let them do the CD’s and vinyl.
Molly: Which would be really awesome because that cover deserves to be enlarged.
About that cover art – it’s a really nice piece of work. What’s the story behind it?
Bill: It’s by a Spanish illustrator named Pere Millan and this is the third record he’s done for us. The first one he did for us was for an EP called Words You Whisper that we made for a Spanish label called Siesta and Pere was sort of their in-house art guy. He did the cover for that and we loved it and stayed in touch with him. Then he did Mayfair a couple of years back and we hired him to do this one too. We’ve never actually met him and he doesn’t speak much English but he has a really intuitive feel for our music and we didn’t give him much direction on this one at all, we just sent him the music. In fact, it was a second version – he did a version that he turned in first to us that we liked but we felt like he could go further with certain elements of it. And he did.
Going back to that Korean CD release, why do you think you’re more popular there and in Japan than in North America:
Molly: I’m sorry, we can’t answer that [laughs].
Bill: I think it’s really a matter of circumstance that, in 1997 when we first went to Japan, we kind of made a big enough splash that it reverberated and continues, amazingly, to reverberate a little bit through Asia. So, we had a bigger presence there than we had anywhere else in the world. Why that happened initially, I think, was just serendipity and the fact that the Japanese like things that are very melodic that have a melancholy undertow, like The Carpenters, and we kind of fit in that groove and that’s why they liked us initially. I think we’ve just been really fortunate to find that audience over there that continues to care enough about us to make it worth it for us to continue to keep making records.
Let’s talk a bit about Swan Dive’s origins. Neither one of you are from Nashville originally?
Bill: No, New Jersey.
So, what brought you both to Nashville originally?
Molly: Music! When I was 19 I came up here with some friends from Texas and decided to stay.
Bill: I would say I came here because of music, but like a lot of people who move to Nashville, I didn’t expect to stay. It was more just sort of an experiment that I thought might last a summer, but I met so many great songwriters and then met Molly and just really ended up loving it here. I still love it here. It’s really a great place to live if you’re a songwriter.
How did you two meet?
Bill: We met through a record store. I worked at Tower Records when I first moved to Nashville and Molly’s younger sister was a buyer for a record label and she’d come in there all the time and we struck up a friendship and she introduced me to Molly.
Molly: I was in a band in college – we practiced a lot, but we never played anywhere. And then when I moved to Nashville I sang background for a lot of different people and then I just thought I would like to find someone that could write songs that were original that I would be able to sing, and met Bill DeMain and went to his house and he had a list of songs and I still have it. A sheet of paper and it says “Songs for Molly” on it and he just started playing them. He lived in a little carriage house in Bell Meade. I have stars and checks and little exclamation marks all over it because I loved all of them. So we started…our first gig was at The Bluebird Café. We’ve played there many, many times since.
Now that you were playing live, you needed a name. Where did the name Swan Dive come from?
Bill: I remember we had a long list of names we were considering, as you do when you form a band. And, you know, what seems like a brilliant name at 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday the next morning seems like the worst name ever, so we had a lot rejects. I think “Swan Dive” just seemed to fit the kind of music we started to make and it was easy to remember.
Molly: I remember we were thinking about just “Swan”, and I remember saying “I’m not really sure about that and you (Bill) said “So you’re not really goin’ for the swan dive” and I went “but I like that!”
The majority of Swan Dive songs have been co-written by you, Bill, with other artists such as Marshall Crenshaw, Jill Sobule, Pat Sansone, and Daniel Tashian (to name just a few). What is it that makes you prefer writing songs with others?
Bill: Well, I wrote songs by myself for a good 10 years or more before I ever co-wrote a song, and at the same time as doing that, which, you know, is a very solitary pursuit, I was also doing journalism which is a very solitary pursuit. So part of the reason I started co-writing, honestly, was just to get to hang out with some of my songwriter friends and have some social time. But I think the more I did it, the more I realized: One, you can be more productive because if you write with a lot of people you can just finish more songs. Two, I found that there’s a kind of chemistry that happens with certain people, that you kind of bring your strengths to the table and they pick up or maybe you have a weakness and vice-versa. So, for instance, I work with David Mead a lot and I mean, David can write fine on his own but we seem to have a really good partnership where his melodies always seem to fit with my words. It’s almost, if I could be so bold, like the Elton and Bernie thing where it seems as if the roles are very clearly defined. You get a better song when you find somebody who can do certain things maybe in a better way than you can.
In fact, you were recently in California for a songwriting project with Teddy Thompson.
Bill: Yeah, it was for a duet project between Teddy Thompson – Teddy of course being Richard and Linda Thompson’s son, and has worked with Rufus Wainwright – and a great singer named Kelly Jones. So, they’ve known each other as friends for a while and I’ve known Kelly for a while too but I hadn’t met Teddy. So we all, this year, started writing together for an album project that I describe as sort of Everly Brothers meets Conway and Loretta. Their voices sound beautiful together and the three of us just kinda have this songwriting group going. I’m going to New York in two weeks to do another week with them and then they’re gonna come to Nashville in November and make the record here. I don’t think I’ll perform on it at all. In fact, most of what my contribution has been up till now has been lyric writing, but I’m really enjoying it because the songs are great and their voices sound beautiful together. They’re songs that I probably wouldn’t have written otherwise, you know?
You’ve also done a fair bit of music journalism, Bill. Do you find writing about music informs or influences your own music?
Bill: I don’t do a whole lot of music journalism anymore, but the way that that was true was in the old days when I worked for Performing Songwriter. I used to interview hundreds and hundreds of songwriters and a lot of them were my heroes, like Neil Finn, David Bowie and Billy Joel. I’d get to ask them about their creative process and always in those interviews there would be something where I’d think “hey, I never thought of trying that”, or “that’s a great way to look at it”, or some sort of affirmation that would come in handy down the road, so yeah, there’s definitely a direct back and forth influence.
Molly, you’ve written or co-written the occasional Swan Dive song. Do you have any desire to write more?
Molly: Oh, I just do it for fun. Bill has so many songs that it’s so hard just to pick from those alone, that it’s not really necessary. It’s fine if it fits and works out, but I’m not just dying to have one of my songs on the records. We just have so many great ones from Bill that I’m happy.
You recently worked with Don Henley, correct?
Molly: Well, that record is supposedly coming out in September but I don’t know if it will and I’m not even sure I’m on it because he recorded, I think, five years worth of songs and I’m not sure which ones will be on there. But, that was an amazing experience just to have the headphones on and have his voice coming through, getting to sing with him. He’s just a really sweet guy and that was a highlight of my career, definitely. He was a super nice, generous person. Always talking to people about Swan Dive – really, really nice.
It’s often noted that some of Swan Dive’s prime influences are Burt Bacharach, Joao Gilberto, Sergio Mendes, Paul McCartney, and Fleetwood Mac. What are you guys currently listening to?
Bill: I like Roddy Frame’s brand new record, the guy from Aztec Camera. He’s made a beautiful solo record. I like Teddy Thompson, who I’m writing with, a lot. I’ve really been listening to his music. I like Jenny Lewis’ new record The Voyager – it’s really good. Stevie Nicks is about to release a record that’s sort of lost songs from the vault and I heard this song by her the other day called “The Dealer” and it was fantastic. It sounded like it might have been from the 80’s and she’s never released it. I never stray too far from Marvin Gaye, Frank Sinatra, Prefab Sprout and all that stuff I love, but there’s a lot of good new stuff too.
Molly: What I listen to at home… I’ve got an old record player, it’s got tubes in it, it’s an old RCA, it looks like it’s from the 50’s or 60’s. I paid 50 cents for it at an auction. I play old records on that and what I’ve been playing most of the time is Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Elton John, and I love this record by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard called Pancho and Lefty. I’m havin’ fun ‘cause I’ve got a lot of old records but I haven’t played them in a long time – they’ve just been in a box, so I listen to those.
You both listen to a variety of different things. Are there styles of music you’d like to explore with Swan Dive that you haven’t yet?
Molly: We talked about doing a whole country record and we have a lotta songs that are country…you know, “Swan Dive country music” and we haven’t done that yet.
Bill: Maybe that’ll be the next one.