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John Swan

John Swan
March 15, 2008 | Author: Greg Phillips

swanee1At the launch of John Swan’s 2007 album Have A Little Faith, the inner suburban pub was chock full of  friends, family and media. In fact it seemed the entire cast of the recent Countdown Spectacular had come to see the amiable Swan perform with his band. Such is the high esteem in which John Swan is held by his peers. As he sang one of his biggest hits “Lady What’s your Name”, it quickly became apparent that this guy had lost nothing. In fact, I wondered if he had ever sung this well before.  The light and shade and pure emotion he injected into the song was the sign of a man in control of his voice … a performer clearly enjoying himself.

Anyone who saw the gripping interview with his brother Jimmy on ABC’s Denton will know that for most of Swanee’s music career, he was far from under control, usually too drunk to notice if he was singing well or not. I asked John if he’s noticed a physical change in his singing voice since giving up the hard living lifestyle …

“My voice is stronger now than what it’s ever been,” John explains.  “I’m singing better. The one thing I will say is my confidence was shithouse when I had to get sober. I started to have panic attacks and god knows what else.  I started taking drugs at fourteen and drinking then too. I was playing in a band with guys that were 21, 22 and they did what 21 and 22 year olds did, which is great but you wouldn’t let a fourteen year old do that. You’d kick his ass. Unfortunately my parents weren’t there to say  ‘John this isn’t acceptable behaviour’ … so  you just did it.”

Sadly, as John got older, he didn’t get any wiser. This was rock and roll in Australia in the 70s and 80s, a world where drugs and alcohol were easily accessible and he was at the epicentre of it all. Bands toured hard, playing most nights of the week commuting between Sydney and Melbourne. There was no money around, so alcohol was currency. There was no time for sleep due to the travel and that’s where the drugs came into it. It was a viscious cycle that was difficult to get out of. Thankfully John has not touched a drink now for six years and is enjoying his music on a completely different, and much more vivid level. The choice was either change or die. One of the pivotal moments responsible for the change came from an unexpected source.

“One of the reasons I am sober is because of Bon Jovi. They took the time at one of their big parties in Sydney to grab hold of me. They sat me down and said, mate, you’re going to die. Later my wife said didn’t you find it amazing that those guys had every woman in Sydney down stairs wanting them, and they take you upstairs to spend time with you? They have been through it and been lucky enough to get out of it. Everyone has their demons.They aren’t music heroes of mine but I certainly respect them. But at that gig they did ‘Working Class Man’ as the encore and my little brother Alan was in the support band so it was one of the best nights of my life.”

Another event which helped to rekindle Swan’s fire was the recording of the album Have A Little Faith for the Liberation Blue label. The record company brief was that it was to be a mix of old and new material, a simple solo recording featuring voice and guitar, but external factors resulted in it being far from stark. The goal posts changed when producer Mark Moffat called from Nashville wanting to know if John would do some vocals on a blues project he was putting together. To cut a long story short, the vocals and guitar that John had recorded for his acoustic album ended up in Moffat’s Nashville studio. Seasoned Nashville session musicians working next door kept asking who owned the powerful lungs they were overhearing. They liked what they heard and offered their services to the album. Consequently, Liberation’s planned acoustic album turned into a full band effort featuring some wonderful musicianship in a combination of country and blues flavours that took everyone by surprise.

John also has a renewed energy for song writing, spurred on by the acquisition of a new Maton guitar. “I’ve got the baby Maton that Diesel designed. That sits on one side of the couch and I have a bigger one on the other side. It’s like seeing a nice set of girls legs. I go to walk past, and I just can’t help but stop!  Maton turned up with a  guitar for me and it’s been the best thing. I’ve had Gibsons and everything but because I was always out of my brain they meant nothing to me. So it’s great having a really nice guitar.”

We all know that John Swan can sing, but boy, can he talk! He’s a passionate man, and most of the time his excitement is aimed, not so much at himself but at the young up and comers he teaches at JMC Academy. Swan is well aware of the knowledge he holds. He’s an excellent singer, knows the scientific side of the voice and wants to pass it all on.

“The first thing I said when I went to JMC was that there’s not enough emphasis on performance here. It’s very good having the kids who can articulate the music and they know what a demi-semi quaver is, but they can’t communicate this through their playing. Technically they’ve got some scales, but they’ve got no skills at actually playing. They might play a great scale at a fantastic speed, but they can’t play a pentatonic scale, which is the basis of all guitar solos.”

He’d also like to educate kids more about what NOT to do as a musician and he sure has the experience to do that as well. “Do you know how hard it is for me to get into a school here and talk to the kids? I want to talk to them about education and drugs, because I’ve made all the mistakes that they’re going to make. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Denton thing the other night. I tried to be as frank as I could without making it sound like it’s some sort of badge of honour. It’s certainly not. It’s a disgraceful way for someone to ruin their life. And I’m grateful that I got out the other end alive and I don’t want anyone else to have that misery.”

It seems John’s lack of guidance as a youth has sent him on a quest to guide others. Although his parents may not have always been there to steer him in the right direction, there were some simple but valuable life lessons that Swan’s dad did instill in his boys. His father passed away in April last year. He was never an expressive man but there is one moment that remains etched in Swan’s mind …

“We were playing a big festival at Shepparton and it was huge. My dad had travelled down from Rainbow which is out in the bush in Victoria. This place was gigantic, great big oval and there was a huge big stage and it was raining.  Right up the other end there was a whole bunch of people standing around huddled under big umbrellas and the bands are playing away.  I said well I’ve got no idea what to do to win this crowd over so what I’m going to do is enjoy myself.  The band are saying “play something really fast, play something rocky to get them down the front.

I just thought, you know what … and I could see my dad standing up there … I’m going to do a song that I heard my dad doing once. You could hear the guys in the band saying we’re going to die in the ass here.  So I got them to do it … we did ‘Crying Time’, the Ray Charles song. My dad came down all the way from the back of the oval and he walked through in the rain and he’s soaking wet.  He had his glasses on and rain was running off them and he stood right down the front and had his hands in his pockets and he looked up over the top of his glasses and just nodded. He turned around and walked back with his hands in his pockets and that was it.  It was one the best concerts I ever gave and it was one of the most important moments in my life because I did exactly what he’d always told me to do and it got to him.  That was his way of saying … if that’s what it takes to be happy in life … if you follow that, then you can’t go wrong.  It was a really valuable lesson and I want to be able to pass that on to the kids.  To say to them it doesn’t matter about goals, you do what you do and you do it well, and the rest will follow. All you have to do is be true to yourself.”

Enthused by the response to his 2007 album Swan’s main goal now is to re-invent himself as an artist that can cut it on his own. He’s looking forward to helping Mark Moffat complete that blues project in America, and hoping he can do another album for Liberation in the not too distant future. I learned many things about John Swan that day, one of the quirkiest being that he and Jimmy used to play in a pipe band together.  I also learned that you can ask to see the photos at your own peril!
What I discovered  most however, was that John Swan is a passionate man. He’s doing what he enjoys most in life, is sober enough to appreciate it, and like his dad said, everything else will just naturally follow.

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