“Authenticity Is Really Important” Swindle Interviewed

The creative process and his TV score project...

South London artist and producer Swindle has had an undoubted influence across UK music in a career that has spanned over fifteen years. Growing up in a musical household whilst also being influenced by the pirate radio stations of the 1990’s, he has been able to combine all of these influences into his own production style, making for distinct, inimitable soundscapes that move effortlessly between jazz, grime, and funk amongst other genres. This has led him to work with some titans of UK Rap, from the first pioneers of grime in Ghetts and D Double E to the new generation of artists such as Loyle Carner and Kojey Radical.

Recently, Swindle has worked on the soundtrack to Queenie, a Channel 4 adaptation of Candice Carty-Williams’ 2019 novel. I spoke to Swindle about his career to date, the creative process of creating a score, Black representation on mainstream television, and the next steps in an already trailblazing career.

Can you talk to me about the start of your musical journey?

I guess it comes from growing up in a family that played music. My dad plays guitar, and I kind of grew up playing with instruments like toys, I suppose. All my earliest memories are kind of playing piano or guitar when I was really little, then I started making beats when I was about 12. I started learning how to sequence when I was about 12. That was my entry into music. 

Would you say your Dad was one of your biggest influences?

Totally. He taught me how to love music. He never pushed it on me but he kind of instilled that in me and I was exposed to lots of great music quite young. Lots of jazz, soul, funk. It’s always kind of been part of my life, really.

You said you started making beats at 12 years old. At what stage did you start believing that you could make this into a career?

Not until I was in my early 20s, to be honest. I used to come home from school and make music. That was always just part of my routine. It wasn’t till I got to college that a lot of people my age were starting to rap and MC, and Grime was new. You know, things like Lord Of The Mics had come out, and I’d seen kind of what was going on in Grime for the first time. But even then it wasn’t an obvious career choice for anybody. Even through making my first mixtape with people like Ghetts and Big Narstie and others, it was still like a hobby. We would sell our mixtapes at independent stores, or even just on the high street. But it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s and I started to see rewards further afield then like my local area that I thought maybe I could work towards this and build a career.

You’ve got quite a distinct production style. How would you describe it?

I would say my production style is using modern technology but with traditional techniques and sensibilities. I still look to people like Barry Gordy, Quincy Jones, Nile Rogers as the greatest producers. Dr. Dre as well actually. But I put it through today’s lens, and with today’s kind of sonic spectrum. I love the sound of live instruments, and I love the tradition of musicality. I love the traditions of black music and I just exercise them with today’s tools.

Across your career you’ve been able to span multiple eras of UK rap, from grime to drill up to the present day. What do you make of the scene right now and how do you feel like you can contribute?

It’s an interesting time to take a question like that. I feel that no matter who I talk to in the industry at the moment there’s a kind of undercurrent of maybe a little bit of frustration, because, you know, so much value has kind of been lost, and so many different routes to monetize music have been lost. I think that is affecting the creative process for a lot of people. 

Where once people would kind of thrive off of being unique, maybe more people are encouraged to kind of fit in.  We’ve started to lean more towards making music that fits in a playlist or making a type beat, whereas I’m from a generation that did the opposite of that. Everybody wanted to kind of build their own sound and you could recognize someone’s production just by hearing it without a producer tag. You could tell that’s DaVinChe or that’s Jammer, or and before that, that’s Roni Size or that’s Goldie. 

But I think that there’s lots of positives in the accessibility and the fact that people are able to, if they want to put the work in, communicate with their audience directly, and cut their own path. I’d encourage people to understand that you don’t always have to be the biggest thing in the moment to be relevant and actually, building relationships and a network and community is, I think, a better way to build a career that lasts 20/30 years.

And in your network you’ve worked with some of the greats in UK music, from people like Ghetts to the younger generation in Kojey Radical and Loyle Carner. What is the experience like working with these kinds of talents?

I always look for people that I’ve got something in common with creatively. It might just be how much they care about the music or if they listen to similar music to me. I’m always drawn towards artists that are willing and able to be honest in their music and, and create from a place of real creative satisfaction. So when these people pop up, I think we see something in each other that we have in common. That’s what we end up hearing in the music. Especially someone like Kojey Radical because we share so much in terms of creative ethos that it’s hard not to make good music with him.

I also wanted to discuss the changing role of the producer in rap music today. Do you feel like there has been more of a push to the forefront in recent years?

Yeah, I mean Quincy Jones had albums that I have on vinyl that I still listen to. They’re like encyclopaedias, you know? Same with Herbie Hancock and so many great records are produced by the musicians. I feel like it’s full circle. In 2007 when I released my first mixtape, it didn’t even feel like it was any kind of novelty to be doing that. Later on being a DJ and producing my own records to then play out and sell my own vinyls – everything like that has always been the driver to my career.

I think that, especially just in the way that the industry is today, as a producer, I think it’s important for you to build your own catalogue and your own audience, and never find yourself in a position where you’re relying on other people using your work for you to be able to contribute to the landscape of music. I thought it was great when I saw M1OnTheBeat releasing his own project, the same with Steel Banglez too. I think it’s an amazing thing and I would encourage more people to do it.

You’ve just worked on the soundtrack for Queenie, a new Channel 4 and Hulu show. How did that come about?

I worked on another program called Champion that was on Netflix and BBC. Candice (Cart-Williams) who wrote Queenie worked on that show as well and we just struck up a really good creative relationship. When she was working on Queenie, she called me and said, “Look, I really need you to kind of come in and help me tell the story sonically.” She really loves music, she really understands music. I really understand what’s important to her. We’re both coming from South London and that was really important. Authenticity is really important to Candice and that’s also really important to me. It was very organic, to be honest. My relationship with Candice is almost like my relationship with any artist that you see me work with.

How do you think that close relationship impacted your creative process?

Candice is someone that I can send an idea to in the middle of the night and go, “what do you think of this?” She has great taste in music which she shared with me, and that was kind of the first point of call. I was just listening to her and taking her lead. I guess when I work with anybody the first thing I do is just try and listen to them and understand their vision. I often say to people if I can understand your vision, then I can paint it, and yeah, I’d like to think that’s what we did together.

Is there anything else in particular about the series that spoke to you and made you want to get involved?

When writing it, I found that actually I have quite a lot in common with the characters. Seeing the family dynamic, the grandparents, you know, the Caribbean household – these were all things that I can relate to. There’s lots of parts in that story, episodes six to eight especially, that just really resonated with me, So writing music to those scenes felt really natural.

What did the process entail for you?

For the most part I’m watching the scenes while sitting at the piano and I just play what I feel. Sometimes I just record the first take, and I feel like often the first kind of emotion that comes to me whilst watching is probably the right direction to go in musically. Even tracks that are built up of 808’s and synths or horns or whatever, it usually starts with me sitting at the piano and just watching the scene and playing along, kind of instinctively.

The series itself dives into some heavier topics, including microaggressions between black and white families and trying to find your place in the modern UK space. Obviously it’s on Channel 4 and being streamed on Hulu – how important do you feel it is to have these kinds of subject matters on mainstream TV?

It’s massively important and I feel like the response to the show is testament to that. When I was younger, even subconsciously, if I saw a show with Black people on it I would tune in. Even watching Top of the Pops I would be waiting for a hip-hop or R&B song to come on and get excited about it. It’s amazing for me as an adult that these shows exist and it’s normal to have on TV, but I also get to play a part in it. When you see scores of people buying the book or even the response to Queenie in America, it shows that people want this kind of media. It’s about time really, but also it’s perfect timing. 

Your work as a producer is inherently collaborative but is this kind of project more of a solo focus?

Definitely. A lot of my early work was very insular and it was only in the last two albums that I started sharing the creative process. For the first 10 years of my career, I was making beats on my own in a basement in Croydon, so expanding from that has been exciting but bringing it back to just being alone in a room has been quite interesting and fun for me. Getting back to writing music all day on my own in the studio was like getting back in the gym, to be honest.

You do work with Bellah on the soundtrack however. What was it like working with her?

It was wicked! She’s really cool, really funny. She’s just as charming in real life as the character she plays in the show. We wanted to do something special for the finale and for the final scene of the series. That was Candice’s idea. My daughter Lola recorded Bellah which was pretty cool. There was a nice exchange where she was inspiring my daughter and she could learn her craft and how to record vocals. I feel like it was a really nice way to tie up the series. 

Is this something you’d want to do more of in the future?

Absolutely. I’m working on more as we speak and it’s something I want to pursue. It’s something that all of my favourite producers have done at one point in their careers. I’ve learned from this experience that it’s a viable route for someone who has come from the underground. You can start in grime and work your way into TV and music which I haven’t seen done before. If you put your mind to something and learn your craft you will be able to contribute. All the techniques I’ve picked up that help tell a story and build tension are already naturally working its way into production on my songs.

Finally and on that note, it’s been three years since you dropped your last album. Do you have any plans to drop again soon?

Maybe, maybe not. At the moment I’m just working on what feels good. I’m really proud of my catalogue and my albums but the game is changing rapidly around us. I am someone who is led by my ideas. I won’t put out an album because I think it’s time, I will put out an album because I have an idea that I want to get off my chest. I don’t really have an answer for you, but I will say that I am always working on music and there will never be a day that I’m not contributing something. 

Queenie is on streaming now.

Words: Joe Simpson

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