Tell me how you got into the music business initially.
SS: In 1980, when I was 21 and a senior in college, I wrote a song called Like A Rose. A “friend of a friend knew a friend” who turned out to be Irwin Schuster, one of the most respected song pluggers in the music business and the Executive Vice-President at Chappell Music. I got an appointment to see him and went into his office, which had an incredible view of the Hudson River.
He put on my cassette of the song, stopped it after about 20 seconds, rewound it and played it again. This time, he stopped the song after about a minute and rewound it. The third time, he played the entire song. As I watched this process, I nervously hoped that he liked the song. When he was done listening to it, he offered me a contract on that song and said that he wanted to take it immediately (after I made a slight change in the original demo) to Charles Koppleman, who was looking for a song just like this for his client, Barbra Streisand, for her comeback album.
When I returned to college the next week, I was unsure as to whether I would get a cut – probably a single – on Barbra Streisand’s record. It turned out that it came down to two songs: mine and a song called Coming In and Out of Your Life written by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, which she chose. I didn’t mind losing out on the opportunity because it gave me the confidence, at a young age, to play in the big leagues.
You’ve been a prolific songwriter for many years, and also produced such high quality albums under The Red Button and your own name. Tell me a little bit about the songwriting process for you.
SS: I have no serious recording equipment at home. All I have is a 4-track cassette-type thing. I usually put on the headphones attached to this device (which is set-up in my room at home or on the piano) — and start indulging whatever particular mood or feeling I’m in at the moment. I play some chords and sing whatever words come out, not thinking about whether they make any sense. Instead, I concentrate on the song and whether I enjoy singing it. If I don’t enjoy it, then I throw it away. If I do enjoy it, I keep going. Sometimes, I only write 45 seconds of a song and then I’ll add pieces to it later. I’m very much about making the song the best that it can be. I love recording these little demos of my songs, as they get written. I think they are the best versions of them actually. I worry about the studio and all that technical stuff later. That’s what engineers are for. Having to worry about where a buzz is coming from on Track 2 is creativity-killing in my book and why I’ll never go for having anything even remotely technical. For me, it’s about a guitar, a mood/feeling and a simple 4-track CASSETTE recorder that records when I hit “play/record.” Simplicity always wins the day with me.
Will you be touring in support of Watercolor Day?
SS: I know I’ll be playing IPO in LA, mid-summer. But, I am very seriously thinking of putting together a 4 or 5 piece thing and playing my songs out – stuff from Instant Pleasure, Watercolor Day, The Red Button and perhaps some snippets of some songs that I wrote for other artists. Stay tuned!
I heard another The Red Button album is due soon. What can you tell me about it?
SS: It’s good (if I do say so) and it’s not all-jangle.
You’ve played The Cavern in Liverpool. As a fellow Beatles fanatic who has never been there… what’s the experience like?
SS: It was somewhat nerve-racking for me. Although it’s not the original Cavern (it’s a few feet from the original, but it’s made to look and feel exactly like it), it’s really cool. I walked in the night before I was to go on, saw all of these amazing bands and thought: “I’m going to suck and they’re great – I must find a plane out of Liverpool, quickly!” so, I went back to my hotel room, practiced even more and it went off great. It was a real “life” moment for me. Very thrilling!
You are a man of so many multiple talents. Tell me about your Beatles film A Year In The Life. I saw the trailer and wonder when this will be released. Just to interview all those people seems incredible.
SS: Thank you! Actually, I’ve reverted back to the original title, Beatles Stories (must fix it on the trailer), but I don’t know that I’ll be able to use the name “Beatles” in the title.
The project took me five years from the time that I interviewed May Pang in late 2004 to my last interview with Sir Ben Kingsley in 2009. I’ve been editing it as I go along. It has been extremely thrilling, especially hanging out at Norman Smith’s house all afternoon. (The Beatles’ original and longtime first engineer.) He was 84 when I filmed him. He had ALL the stories; so, I just went song by song. He was a very warm man. I could understand how the young Beatles just loved him.
I asked most interviewees for 15 minutes of their time, but they all ended up talking on film for around an hour. Some of the best stories weren’t the stories they originally told! Each interview was cut down to about a minute and 20 seconds. Fifty-five stories in a little over 90 minutes!
On to another love of yours, baseball. There is so much great content on your site, especially your ball collection. What is your favorite baseball team and all-time favorite player?
SS: When my first son, Julian, was born in 1994, the baseball players went on strike. Missing the game, I just started writing letters to, mostly, former players: Al Kaline, Ted Williams, Whitey Ford, Duke Snider…and they all wrote back with really neat letters about their lives on and off the diamond. Those letters, with their permission, turned into the first of my three books,Baseball Letters. (The other two are Every Pitcher Tells A Story and Something to Write Home About.)
It was then that I started to collect baseball artifacts. My prized possession is the baseball that went through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. It’s currently on display at the Mets Museum at their ballpark, Citi Field.
You’ve interviewed so many celebrities in sports and music. What would Seth Swirsky the interviewer ask Seth Swirsky the musician?
SS: I’d probably ask myself what drives my creativity and the answer would be that I love putting things into the world that were never there. Whether people buy it is of no concern to me. I love to sing songs that make me feel high. Whether they are mine or someone else’s, it does not matter. When I don’t hear songs like that, I try and make my own. Being creative makes me feel completely engaged and alive!
Thanks so much for your time, Seth – I can’t wait for the next album!