Every Ending Is A Beginning For L.A. Rapper Swoon

swoon music

In Conversation With... Otis Mensah

As of late, I’ve been thinking about the constant that sees itself repeated in art I love. I wanted to identify the specific elements that tend to surface in the creative work of artists I gravitate towards, and how that intangible quality transcends genre. What I discovered was my love for “poetic vulnerability” – the striving for unadulterated honesty, even if it means plucking feathers from one’s own ego or self-image. Even when it’s awkward or unprofitable.

I found that poetic vulnerability isn’t always manifested through lyrics alone, but can take an abstract form, through the sound and sonics of an artist. This is the feeling I got from L.A. creative, rapper, producer—artist—Swoon. We got together over Zoom, after I fell in love with his incredible multi-dimensional art. Embodied through his project An Ending, we got to speaking about his approach to the creative life.

Watch: SWEAT – Swoon

Before we delve into the music and your creative philosophy – who is Swoon and what is Swoon to you?

Swoon is the outlet for me when it comes to music, specifically, and anything the music encompasses – music videos or the short films that will be coming in the future. It’s a name that I got from one of my favourite songs by the Chemical Brothers called Swoon that I’ve just always loved.

Overall, what I’m addicted to is being creative, having an outlet for expression. And it’s not always 100% just music. But Swoon is everything tied to the music and I think that’s why I felt the need to come up with a moniker for the project, because this is one side of me, and even though I think it has the potential to express every side of who I am, I don’t think it encompasses all of who I am as a creative.

The definition of the word Swoon is to feel faint from something, especially from extreme emotion – and that’s kind of how your music felt to me. How much of your creativity is your outlet to channel emotion?

A lot. I think that’s very, very true and a great observation. When it comes to what I’m trying to express, it is often rooted in emotion. Sometimes it’s personal, sometimes it’s more observational in nature, sometimes it’s just what I’m feeling on a particular day or what I see that people are feeling. I’m definitely an observant person. I’m very interested in what’s going on in people’s heads and hearts – what are people feeling, why people are feeling those things. I’m interested in contradiction and how we tend to contradict ourselves with what we want and what we need or what we feel and what we do – different things that seem like they don’t make sense but do when you see them through a human lens. I always think to myself, “what would an alien think of all this?” They’d probably find it all pretty absurd, but it makes sense to us because we kind of get each other in this way.

I’m always trying to find new lenses and ways of looking at the same things.

I’m always trying to find new lenses and ways of looking at the same things. I think about how our emotions have been the same for hundreds of years – we fall in love, we get angry, we feel sadness. All these things tend to be the same but the context around them, the way that society changes and people change around them, recontextualizes it always and that’s what’s interesting to me. I’m talking about the centre part that never changes, but I’m trying to adjust the perspective always and find new perspectives based on the context. Whether it’s politically or just in my personal life, I’m thinking what does this emotion feel like or sound like through this particular lens.

I feel there’s a wider theme of vulnerability in your music – it’s quite the phenomena, how the sonics and sound of your work feels so vulnerable. How intentional it that?

That’s one of my favourite comments to receive, especially when you talk of the sound being vulnerable because that’s quite an abstract thing to wrap your head around sometimes – how music can sound honest or vulnerable. But you’re totally right, and that’s 100% my goal. That’s what I care about more than anything – being honest. I think a lot of people tend to misconceive what it means to be vulnerable and honest – there’s a difference between being honest and being confessional.

You don’t always have to be confessional to be honest. Honesty, to me, is portrayed in my decisions. The lyrics and the vocals are a big part of it, but I really come from a production background. I’ve been a producer for longer than I’ve done anything else in music, and because I’ve spent the longest with the production there’s the least about of buffer between what I’m actually feeling and how I get it out. I think of it the same way as someone who’s maybe played guitar their entire life – the more your fingers get used to it, you don’t really have to think about it anymore. There’s less of a wall there is between what you’re trying to express and the tools you’re using to express it. I think production is the place where I’m the least blocked off, because that tends to be the issue, right? Everybody has things that are worth expressing. It’s just about finding the tools that allow you to express them in the way you want.

The sound of the music being vulnerable and honest is very, very important to me, and that’s the criteria I have when I’m listening back to stuff that I make. I’m not as concerned with making “good music” which sounds absurd to say – and I mean, I am – but what I mean is that anyone can make something that sounds good if you know how to use the tools well enough. Whether it’s an instrument or production or whatever, you can make a good beat or a song that’s impressive. But that’s not my concern as much. My concern is with exciting myself, having fun with it first and foremost, but then being honest – maybe even feeling a little uncomfortable by being a little bit too honest. Because that’s what excites me when listening to music – when you can hear the vulnerability, you can hear the rawness, even sonically, and that’s what I want to inject into my music. It’s maybe the most important thing to me.

Honesty, for me, transcends genre –  it guides what art I consume and what I create. How much does genre play a role in your creativity and does genre matter in 2020?

I think genre is probably both the most and least important thing, and what I mean is that so much of the sound of my music comes from being an avid listener and consumer of music, a fan first and foremost. Having grown up obsessed with all kinds of artists and genres, I find joy in different musics and sounds. Maybe I’m just a romantic when it comes to music. I always say you could show me a documentary about any artist that I don’t like and I could still fall in love with them, because there’s a constant humanity in every kind of music whether it’s metal, rap, electronic, indie or whatever – and that humanity separates the honest music that I find exciting from what isn’t exciting. It tends to not have as much to do with style and genre. But what does stick sonically is the style and the genre.

When it comes to my music, I’m not thinking about what music I’m going to create. I’m just utilising what has been imprinted on me. Styles definitely do inform what I’m trying to do, but I try to absorb them in more of a subconscious way.

What I’m married to is my creativity more so than any actual piece of art.

I’m very adamant about letting the music speak for itself. I don’t mind other people labeling the music – like, whatever you need to do to help it make sense – but I just don’t think it’s by job. I have this sort of interesting relationship with my music, because I feel like what I’m tied to it and what I’m married to is my creativity more so than any actual piece of art.

I have this philosophy that when I make my music, that’s all that belongs to me. What I own is the process of creating the song. That’s what I live for. That’s what brings me joy and that’s what I get to have control and free reign over. Once the song is done and is created and I’ve put it out into the world, I really don’t feel like it’s mine anymore. First off, I definitely don’t have control over it anymore. And I think that’s what people’s issue tends to be – they wish they had control over the outcome or whether people are going to listen to it. But you really can’t control that, and that’s the nature of putting it out there. You have to embrace that and accept that. I honestly don’t go back and listen to stuff I’ve released very often. It’s not for me anymore, because I’m only going to look at it from a lens of having created it, and so I’m always looking to the next thing. I try not to marry myself to any one particular product because at the end of the day, that isn’t me anymore. It’s like diary entry, and I’m not as concerned with going back and reading past pages as am with writing new pages.

Lets talk about your EP “An Ending. There’s something ambiguous and philosophical about the title. I wondered if you could speak on that?

The name came from another song that I really love called An Ending, A Beginning – it’s this solo piano piece that I’ve always loved, but I love how the title has this ambiguity to it, and how I can keep coming back to it and finding new ways of thinking about it. The EP was something that I’d been thinking and talking about making for a long time. It came from a phase in my life when I was doing a lot of creating. I spent a good 8 years just making music, but I never really felt ready or right with trying to push the music out there – it just didn’t feel like me enough, so I kind of spent that phase working on the craft and trying to get it right. Once I did An Ending EP, it sort of felt like the thing I’d been trying to make for a long time – like a beginning of a new era. But I felt it was appropriate to call it An Ending because it was an ending of the phase that came before – it’s an ending, but it’s a beginning, you know. Every ending is a beginning. The plan is to have a trilogy of EPs. This one is An Ending, the one I think will come next year is called Something Wicked, and then after that there’ll be a third one called The Beginning. So that will be an entire cycle that will all be connected.

There appears to be a commentary on apathy, self-perception, and how they’re intertwined with the internet. Is that a conscious commentary or is that just where we’re at in 2020?

The state of the world in terms of technology and the internet – the internet specifically and how it affects the way we live – has just always been fascinating to me. I guess it’s part of our today, the way other generations had the Vietnam War, or these other cultural moments where everybody was paying attention to the same thing. I think we’re in one right now. The matrix of the internet is the thing that everybody is connected to, whether you’re conscious of it or not. The weird thing about it is that not enough people are acknowledging it for what it is, and how much it is affecting or changing our lives or the world. If everybody was deeply aware how much this is changing and impacting our lives we’d be freaking out all the time. It’s like the existential crisis of the 21st century.

There was a line in the EP that really stood out to me – “Sometimes I wish I had that white male confidence, you know that walking through the street with no common sense.”  I want to ask how themes of masculinity, race, and politics play a role in your work?

Themes of race, sexism, and gender overlap and connect in a lot of ways through the work. I don’t really view them as political things, and I don’t view myself as being political when I bring them up or try to actively inject politics into my music. I’m not as concerned with expressing them or observing them through a political lens as much as I am through a personal and emotional lens. What’s always been most interesting to me is how all these things affect us emotionally and personally and the psychology behind them. That line specifically, “Sometimes I wish I had white male confidence, you know that walking through the street with no common sense,” was just a direct reference to what happened in a moment. I saw a specific white guy walking in the street and it left that impression on me. I wasn’t consciously trying to make a deeper statement, but referring to a moment that stuck with me. But I was aware that the reason that the moment had that impression on me stemmed from growing up in America as a Hispanic person, and growing up around white people, and that dynamic being something I always had to be aware of. It’s not like there’s any hatred there, but my relationship with white people is something that I’ve had to be aware of, and I never had the option of not being aware of.

I always felt like there was this plethora of things that I could draw from and be inspired by creatively, and that I didn’t always necessarily have to let my race or my culture define that.

Also, for me growing up in LA as a Hispanic person, there’s a big Latino and Hispanic population. I mean, it used to be Mexico, so there never hasn’t been. So there’s a lot of interesting culture dynamics here in this city, and it’s very diverse, because a lot of people from all over the world tend to come here. The thing that I’ve always noticed is that even though there’s a large population of Hispanic and Latinos here, and the culture is very present, artistically Latinos and Hispanic people tend to be pigeonholed with what they can do, or what is accepted or expected of them. That’s always been weird to me. Growing up, I‘ve always really loved my culture and been in touch with my culture, which came from my family. But I think outside of that, my love for music and concerts has always led me to meet lots of different people, cultures and races. So my interests creatively didn’t always just stem from my heritage. That was just one part of what it was. I always felt like there was this plethora of things that I could draw from and be inspired by creatively, and that I didn’t always necessarily have to let my race or my culture define that. I feel that right now, there’s a lot of successful Latino or Hispanic artists, but most of them tend to be pretty pigeonholed. You know, you tend to be a Reggaeton artist, and I’ve always had a bit of chip on my shoulder perhaps about wanting to break that mould, and to show that that’s not necessarily all that there is for people of my heritage.

Watch: An Ending EP – Swoon (Full Visuals)

Thank you so much for speaking on that. I’d love to touch more on An Ending EP. I love the visuals for the project. I felt it was very intimate, and fitted. How much attention do you pay to how your music is represented visually?

A lot. The visuals are the other side of what’s truly important to me. It’s an interesting dichotomy, because I’ve never been concerned with image, but I’ve always been concerned with the visuals that accompany the music. It’s not so much about how myself as an individual is represented – whether or not that just means I’m not a huge selfie-taker or that I’m not super interested in being present in the visuals myself. I care a lot about the visuals. I direct and write them all myself, together with a few close friends, and film has always been something that I’ve loved. I’d never had the opportunity to film anything, so when I started putting out music, I was like here’s my opportunity to start directing things and put my love for film to use. I’m trying to create and curate a world of the stuff I like, and what I would have loved to have come across when I was younger.

I read that projects and albums are important to you, and your work feels very conceptual. Even when it’s just a single, there’s a whole world you build around it. Which 3 albums stick out in your head as being monumental?

Projects are very important to me, I’ve always had a love for albums and had a romantic view of them since a kid. Every part of it, like watching videos of artists going into the studio, or living together to work on this one project – all that kind of stuff. I grew up being obsessed with that, so that’s what I’m trying to go for with my music. How you can expand on a story or a world through a group of songs is so important to me.

So which albums come to mind? God, there’s a lot. As for albums that inspired me and changed my perception of what an album could be, one would be Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd, for sure. It still baffles me how well they were able to create a world just sonically. I mean, the album cover has a part to play in it, but if you were to just listen to the music and how expansive and vast that world is, it’s insane and that’s so interesting to me. When I create a project, the music is one part of it, but then it’s the visuals, the imagery, the fonts, the strategy. I love all that, but it’s very inspiring and I’m endlessly curious about how Pink Floyd built a world purely through the sound.

I think a lot of people tend to misconceive what it means to be vulnerable and honest – there’s a difference between being honest and being confessional.

Another one would be Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. It’s such a cohesive album. It’s stylistically all over the place, but somehow fits into the same world, and that’s something I’m interested in. It makes sense for an album to be cohesive if it’s all the same genre, but with someone like Kanye, who has this vast sonic pallet – yet the album feels like it’s part of one soundtrack. I think it’s amazing. Another thing about Kanye – I know he has his errors –  but his personal appearance and where he is as a person is a part of the project. It’s almost like he changes character through each album – the way he dresses, how you can see a photo of him, and just by the way he’s dressed you know around what period or album he’s on. The evolution is insane. He’s never trying to retread the same ground, which is iconic.

The third one is Blonde by Frank Ocean. I mean first off, it’s just a well of inspiration, and every time I go back to it there’s always something new I notice. What keeps it in my mind as an inspiration, is sort of the opposite from what the other albums have done for me. Blonde feels like non-calculated expression. Every song is a statement in itself, and sometimes it doesn’t necessarily feel like they’re all coming from the same place. Stylistically, it’s all over the place. But what makes it so amazing is the ethos, what he’s expressing, and the vulnerability. It taught me that not every through-line of an album has to be concrete. The through-line could just be the vulnerability, the mentality, and through that alone it can create a fully-formed world.

Maybe the first two albums pull me far in one direction, but the final album balances me out and reminds me that a project doesn’t have to look or sound in one particular way.  

Where do you feel you’re at now, as a creative, and as a human, in the midst of this global pandemic?

I plan on releasing new music, I have a new project I’m starting to dive into which I’m so excited about. On a personal level, I can’t wait for all this to end so I can see my friends and start going to shows again and stuff like that. I’m really excited to start playing live shows. I mean, I’ve never really been a live show person – I’ve always been a studio rat as someone who just stays in the studio on that side of things. But starting to think about live shows, and that extension of these projects, and what I’m trying to say and express, is something I can’t wait to dive into.

I’m always looking for the next inspiring or exciting thing. That’s what matters to me. I always said, if music ever becomes just a job then you’re probably never going to hear music from me again, or at least until it becomes exciting again. I don’t fall into the trap of being pressured to always put stuff out. We could talk about that forever with the whole internet thing. That’s the pressure on artists these days – they feel like to be relevant they’ve got to always be there. But I just don’t buy it. I still believe in quality over quantity. I just think we’re in a time where people can see through inauthentic art, so if I buy into the pressure, and start to rush my art, then it’s not going to sound authentic. It’s not going to be me, I’m not going to feel good about it, and they’re not going to feel good about it. It’s a lose-lose situation, so… I take my time and try to find what’s exciting. And one day it might not be in music, it might be in something else. But until then, I’m here.