Searching for a Better Summer: An Interview With Swan Lingo

Daniel White speaks to the D.C. artist about Guy, Go-Go music, and his new project 25 Minutes.
By    July 9, 2020

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Summer has always had a mystical quality to me. Maybe it’s the sense of freedom from not having to wear bulky winter clothes, or go to school, or the delirium brought on by countless hours spent aimlessly cruising in the heat. This summer is different though. I’ve been bunkered down in my house for months due to the pandemic, and for the past month, I’ve watched as the United States faces the repercussions of hundreds of years of slavery and systemic oppression. What’s normally the season for uninhibited personal expression has now become something far darker and almost sinister.

Somehow, Swan Lingo’s latest album, 25 Minutes, still manages to conjure some of the wonder of summers past. 

I first met Swan Lingo nearly a decade ago, years before he had adopted his artist moniker, when he still went by his given name, Shepsu Baker. It was 2012 and my first summer living in Washington D.C. as a quasi-adult. He was fresh out of high school at the time and rapped a bit, but there was little evidence he would go on to make any serious inroads to becoming a recording artist. 

It was the end of President Obama’s first term, and still a few years before Chocolate City completed its transformation into Vanillaville, U.S.A. Go-Go, a hyperlocal strain of funk music, still defined much of the city’s swagger and musical output, with people sporting New Balance shoes and Helly Hansen jackets. Teens practiced the genre’s companion shuffle dance on public transit whenever they got the chance. Back then, before the realities of paying rent had quite caught up to us, our main priority was finding enough people to put in for a bag of weed sizable enough to get the whole crew high.

What stood out to me most when I first met Swan was his almost irrational confidence — both in himself and in his belief that the universe would somehow work things out in his favor. If he brought $5 dollars to a session, there was no doubt he was smoking all day. That confidence — often expressed in his songs as a humble hopefulness — has been much needed this summer. 

Swan would be the first to tell you that he isn’t the best singer, but his music has a comforting, emotive quality. One of his early releases, “Luv Is Tru”, is as much a self-love mantra — the kind you repeat over and over in the mirror on darker days — as a love song.

Swan Lingo surfaced in late 2015, when a lo-fi demo popped up on Bandcamp after Shepsu moved down to spend a few months in Richmond, Virginia. Though his early efforts were heavy on the Dean Blunt and Spooky Black influence, they showed real promise. Those demos caught the ear of Los Angeles based producer Shlohmo, and Swan Lingo was added to the WeDidIt roster, where he put out 2016’s Spirit Plug EP and 2018’s Wonder What. By the 2018 release of Night Angels, produced by GothBoiClique’s fishnarrc, Swan Lingo had traded the boy-in-his-bedroom singer-songwriter approach for a more emo-pop style (see the two Lil Tracy features, and the trap drums and guitar loops present throughout). 

On his latest record, 25 Minutes, Swan Lingo has ditched the glossier stuff and is back to the basics: dreamy songwriting sung moodily over washed out beats. This time around, the now 25-year-old has sprinkled in some throwbacks to the R&B that he grew up on. Lines like “We’re not talking all night long, when we meet we’re making love” stick out as a nod to songwriters like Aaron Hall and the Casey brothers of Jagged Edge.

While silky R&B throwbacks are all over 25 Minutes, there’s a swagger to the vocals that is uniquely D.C. Like Swan Lingo, most Go-Go vocalists aren’t known for their singing chops, but are more celebrated for their energy above their technical abilities. Go-Go evolved into a kind of call-and-response party music that often takes notable hooks and melodies and remixes them into fresh takes. UCB’s “Sexy Lady,” for example, marries a Tupac adlib from “Lost Souls” with the original keyboard riff from The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove”. UCB’s vocalist, Tre, strains at times to hit the notes on “Sexy Lady”, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel every word any time I’m in the car on a warm day and hear the hook. 

Swan Lingo taps into some of that energy when he’s belting out warbly tunes like “Candle” or “Drama Queen”. “A Go-Go singer can just be the guy around the way that had a pretty alright voice, but they can hit the right melodies and just crank,” Swan Lingo told me during a recent Zoom call. “You can definitely touch people and affect people with your voice, and it doesn’t have to be the best voice.”

While his hometown is definitely the root of his identity as an artist, being in D.C. also chips away at some of the Swan Lingo mystique. One line in particular sticks out on the song “Manguito,” because I’ve never known him to be shy: “What if I’m reminded, would that bring it back? I feel so subconscious when I’m in the lab.” 

As Swan Lingo, he finds much of his confidence by singing in the anonymity of a private studio session — away from the trappings of recording at home and the revolving cast of characters looking to record or just have a good time. Many of those friends are still the same ones that were around that summer that we spent searching for endless combinations of people to throw down five dollars for weed. For 25 Minutes, he traveled back and forth to New York City last summer to record with producer Rusty, hoping to spark some inspiration out of state and put himself in the best position to record without hassle.

When we caught up during quarantine, Swan Lingo was on his apartment balcony in D.C., smoking a joint of exotic weed (shout out to NBA villain Zaza Pachulia) with his du-rag flapping in the wind. To him, 25 Minutes is an opportunity to dip into the roots of Swan Lingo and to get some things off of his chest that he’s been sitting on for almost a year. Daniel White

How have you been holding up during the quarantine? What’s it like putting an album out right now?

Swan Lingo: I think it’s great, it’s giving me more attention from people who wouldn’t normally tap in. The quarantine is just forcing everybody to just stay in the house and go on the explore page and interact with what other people are posting on their stories. I’m getting some good feedback right now, but it hasn’t really affected my life in the grand scheme of things. Taking advantage of the slowness.

It is like a blessing and a curse. There’s a lot of people who are saying artists should be more creative and take advantage of the “free time”. I know for myself, I was just laying around in the bed, depressed, but I’ve been able to bounce back and get productive. How’s that been for you?

Swan Lingo: I haven’t had access to any studios recently. This project was recorded all in New York and this was over the summertime. I’ve been sitting on these songs for a while, just kind of figuring out what to do with them; how to drop ‘em, who should I drop it with, who’s really going to help me capitalize on what this EP can really establish for me. I really want to make my mark now. Besides that, I haven’t really been making any new music.

You’ve been active with the roll out for 25 Minutes, how’d you choose to release this with Cinematic?

Swan Lingo: Cinematic offered me the most creative freedom amongst the options I had. I had a couple distribution companies, but they don’t really offer you label services. Cinematic is a label so they’ll give you playlisting, press, shit like that. And that’s just because the release got pushed back, but everything is a blessing in all reality. You give up a little bit in the percentages, but it’s worth it with what you receive.

How important is it to you to have label services?

Swan Lingo: It’s very important, because I don’t have any bloggers or press people in my back pocket that I can just hit up to write up a story on this album. I wish I did. I wish I had videographers and stuff like that. It also allows you to connect with people who might know producers over here in other worlds of music that I’m not hip to.

How was the recording process for 25 Minutes? Especially with this being your fourth project.

Swan Lingo: This one I was focusing more on R&B. I want to establish myself more as an R&B singer. I’m just switching it up and it’s really more of my roots. I grew up listening to that type of music, like Jagged Edge, 112, Aaron Hall more recently. But basically, in New York I was working with my man Rusty  the whole summer. I met him through Gothboiclique, he was on tour with Tracy and then we linked. He was sending me beats and I finally decided to go up there. I was going up there every two weeks throughout the whole summer, from like the beginning of May to October. He did about 95% of the album and my man Smitt [JohnnyWalker] produced “Drama Queen.”

That’s funny you mentioned Aaron Hall! I remember you were the first person to put me on “I Like” back in the day and I had never really heard of Guy. I’ve checked out some of your Instagram Lives and you’re usually on there playing a ton of R&B. You’ve got this verse at the end of “Voices”… That’s some real 90s R&B flow right there! What went into writing that?

Swan Lingo: [laughs] I tapped into my influence, real love making music, because people aren’t out here loving any more. These guys are making music trashing women these days pretty much. Ain’t nobody celebrating women no more. And you can still be nasty and be respectful about it. It don’t gotta always be creepy or something, it could just be like … “Yeah … I want you, and I know you want me to.”

Speaking of celebrating women, you’ve pretty much been in one relationship for a long time right?

Swan Lingo: Yeah! We’re still together.

You’ve talked about heartbreak in past interviews and your music. Where do you find the inspiration for that if you’ve been with one person consistently?

Swan Lingo: I love my boo [laughs]. You know what I’m saying, clap it up, round of applause for my girl, I love. But in that there’s been issues, there’s always problems in any relationship. We’ve been together for about eight years on and off. We’ve been broken up for extensive amounts of time. A year here, four months there, so I’ve had other relationships. All of my songs aren’t about her necessarily, the majority of them are, but I have other experiences to feed from as well. Being in love with someone, I guess you always want to write a specific type of song. But sometimes when you’re writing a lusty kind of song, it’s not always about your girl. Once you learn how to write an R&B song, there’s like a certain way to write it. I don’t know how to put it into words.

It’s like you’re writing to the general idea of “HER,” not necessarily one person.

Swan Lingo: Yeah. It’s just “HER.” I don’t necessarily have to be channeling about one specific person, I just know how to write love songs at this point.

Reading some past features on you, people were describing you as a rapper … You don’t necessarily consider yourself a rapper do you?

Swan Lingo: No, but I can rap. [laughs] I can fuck it up!

Growing up in D.C. a lot of y’all, in my experience, were in Go-Go bands. How did you develop a sense of musicianship? I know you’ve told me your older sister had a lot of influence on that.

Swan Lingo: For sure. I guess it all started with me playing African drums when I was like three. Then the singing, my sister used to listen to Destiny’s Child and Jagged Edge. I wasn’t buying these albums, she’s older than me so she was doing all that back in the early 2000s, late 90s. It started there, but then I would also sing around the house and around 11/12, that’s when I go introduced to Go-Go. The way they sang, it wasn’t necessarily your traditional way of singing. A Go-Go singer can just be the guy around the way that had a pretty alright voice, but they can hit the right melodies and just crank. So, it just gave me the confidence to just kind of sing as a career because I know that those guys weren’t the best singers, but I know the energy that they can bring from there voices singing, it was just like oh this can be done and you can’t definitely touch people and effect people with your voice and it doesn’t have to be the best voice.

Right, it’s like as long as your energy is connecting with the audience that kind of all that matters, to a point.

Swan Lingo: That’s all it is! And I can sing. I’m not the best singer, but I can sing. It’s just the way I think I sing is what resonates more than like my actual ability to sing.

For the We Did It releases, like Wonder What, you were going out to LA a lot and this one you were going out to New York. What does it mean for you to leave DC to record? Is it easier for you to record away from home?

Swan Lingo: Oh it’s way easier to record when I’m away. For one, the flight over there is inspiring, then being there is inspiring and then being in the studio out there, and then finally actually getting one, getting a song that you know is gonna stick and you’re actually going to use it. I feel like every part of it is just like inspiring and every part of the trip matters. Starting with the flight, it’s just a whole different vibe. When you’re recording at home, it’s like, I’m going down the street to record this song, it might be a banger, it might not. It’s not as exciting and going to New York and knowing how many people became successful doing the same thing that you’re doing now. It makes you feel like you’re taking that next step to something more grandiose than staying at home. Because we don’t like have an industry. We know what going to Hollywood can do for you, we know what New York can do for you. DC just doesn’t have that infrastructure quite yet. It’s not all about making music, let me say that. Going to New York, you know that people can further your career in a real way. Out here, not that people do it, but we aren’t tapped into the industry the same way. People can’t just take your dreams and make you a superstar out here.

I feel that, when you touch down in LA, it really feels like La La Land.

Swan Lingo: It does! Anything is possible.

Speaking of African drums, I remember I was doing a party at a club one time and you showed up with your Moor ID card. Did you grow up a Moor?

Swan Lingo: No, I didn’t. Me and my mom just started claiming our Moorish identity. We’re all Moor’s traditionally as black people. Might as well just claim it. If everything goes to shit, having that sovereignty bruh, yeah. It can definitely come in handy.

Now that you’re four projects in, what’s changed musically between Spirit Plug EP, Wonder What, and now?

Swan Lingo: Perfecting my voice. I definitely took that more seriously. Leveling up my sound as a whole. I feel like my sound was very of the times and I had to get older and realize it’s not about the times. You listen to all the great artists and they transcend past the time they were in. And it’s also like, I might even switch it up on the next one — I’m just a musician that resonates with what sounds good to me at that moment. But, it’s all going to be on the line of R&B, euphoric, tranquil type sounds, where you really feel it emotionally. From Spirit Plug, I was just kind of getting started. Wonder What, I was just recording with my man Jelani [Kwesi], and I was just making up beat stuff because I wasn’t really confident enough to sing just yet, I was kind of just rapping. Then the Fish Narc project, that was experimenting with Rock infused trap. Now, I’m doing completely what I want to do. I feel confident enough in my voice to do certain things and in my singing abilities. Imma always strive to get better.

My favorite track on 25 Minutes is “Manguito” and you have this one line: “S.” Can you break that one down?

Swan Lingo: There’s sometimes when I’m in the studio and I’m very confident, and then there’s sometimes where I don’t know the people. If people bring people that I don’t know, I do be self-conscious, I don’t be really trying to sing for real, I really got to get warmed up. When I’m just in there with people that I know, I’m just comfortable off rip. I don’t have to warm up. But I realize when there’s other people in there, Im like let’s go smoke or something, lets wait until these niggas leave or something. I have no problem when I perform live. It’s just when I’m in the studio. There’s a lot of humming and figuring out what you’re doing. It’s like when people are in the studio, you can show the world your highlight real, but the niggas that were in the studio will be like “nah, you had a hard time cuz.” [laughs] That’s why I don’t really like people I don’t know in the studio…nah.

Is that why your projects are so short?

Swan Lingo: No, that’s not intentional. It’s short because the rest of the songs I made just didn’t make the cut. They weren’t good enough to go on this project. That’s maybe because I don’t stay in New York or Cali where I get the best studio time or studio mixing. If I could consistently be in the studio, I would easily put 15 songs on the album, but for the duration of time that I’m in New York, you can only get but so many GOOD songs done. I’m not about to bore my fans with seven good joints, that I know could hit, and five songs I could have done without.

Anything else you want to say about the album?

Swan Lingo: I just hope people enjoy it. Take what you want from it, because there’s different vibes on it. I think there’s something for everybody on there, so rock out, feel me? I just want people to appreciate, I’m not expecting anything.

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