Richard Swift - even to look at him, he positively emanates with a vintage, good-time, entertainer persona. They don't come around often, the ones with that kind of pure showbiz class, which dusts itself off and gets on with the show, and to hell with it all. But Richard Swift (even his name sounds like it was meant to be up in lights) is one in a million. His new album Dressed Up For The Letdown presents his all-round winning combination of talents, whether it is in the studio, at the song-writing coalface, and not least of all onstage, where his sparkling charisma lets you know he's in control. A holy trinity that materialises only so very rarely.
Now, after the kind of setbacks that would floor lesser mortals, this most distinctive of artists can finally be said to have arrived. No journey worth taking is going to be an easy one, but for Richard Swift, the path to success has been rocky indeed. His trials, we'll come to momentarily. Right now, though, let's address his new album, Dressed Up For The Letdown. The follow-up to his albums Walking Without Effort and The Novelist, (released by Secretly Canadian and issued together as a double-whammy in 2005), Swift's new recording unveils a suite of songs that recalls the much-loved sounds and senses of classic songwriters, where you feel yourself unfurling and reclining, basking in the knowledge you are in a safe pair of hands. From the divine melodies of Burt Bacharach, to Van Dyke Parks' winsome orchestrations, the rolling, vaudeville-side of Paul McCartney all the way through to the timeless essence wrought by contemporaries Rufus Wainwright or Elliott Smith - all these spring to mind, but we refer to them here merely for early guidance - soon you will recognise an archetypal Swift moment when you hear one, and all references will drift away.
Because Richard Swift, you see, is the real deal. He does it all. A multi-instrumentalist and producer (and short film maker), this is someone who has intimately considered every detail about how to present his material, and this album sees him doing so to magnificent effect. It is an album that deals with having your expectations raised right up, only to have them dashed at the last minute. Who among us has not been there? And it's about having the maturity to come terms with that, and rise above it. But, perhaps best of all, Swift's perspective is shot through with bittersweet humour - he's the kind of guy who follows up a potentially mournful line like "We're all alooooone" on 'Kisses For The Misses', with a jaunty 'Ba-dup-pa-pah!"
"I feel very grown up by it all," says Richard of his tribulations. "I don't regret any of it, but I went through a period of massive self-doubt three or four years ago. I think it was just frustration: not having any sort of money, and not having any kind of support. And when the panic attacks started, things really started to spiral, because I was like, 'Well, how the fuck am I supposed to get anything done now? Let alone record music!'"
Whether it's the muted fanfare of the opening title track, the awesomely eerie love song 'Buildings In America', or the wry assessment of himself and his achievements that is 'Artist & Repertoire', it's impossible to not be charmed, wowed and supremely moved. These funny, touching songs comprise Swift's aspiration to create something that will endure, and to stand alongside the greats. For Richard himself, in fact, they represent something of an epiphany.
"Before it, I had reached a point where my expectations were lowered, which is really dangerous," he says. "So I had to kick myself in the ass. It's so weird, it's not like I went to a 12 step programme. It's hard to explain: one day, the light simply returned."
For Richard, music is pretty much all that matters. A self-taught musician, Swift has always carried his own compositions around with him, even from his childhood on a remote, music-less, Minnesota farm. From his teenage years, he began to experiment with recording techniques on his step-brother's four-track recorder, and developed his own compositions. By age 15, he'd started on a voracious quest for quality listening - from My Bloody Valentine to Nick Drake and Paul McCartney - which would come to prove formative for him.
After a short period spent in early 90s band Starflyer 59, Richard's keyboard skills became more and more required for studio session work, and he began to put together the songs which would comprise his first album, a collection called Walking Without Effort, released in 2001. As Richard worked on songs for a second album, The Novelist, and on an electronic project called Instruments Of Science And Technology, his period of being courted by the music industry began in earnest.
There he was - dressed up to be let down. And he was, time and time again. He even wondered if, with a wife and young child to support, his pursuit of music was not simply selfish.
"I could probably have learned other trades, and maybe been happy or tricked myself into thinking I was happy," says Richard, "but I honestly believe my purpose in life is music."
Anyone who has had the privilege of seeing Richard live will testify to the fact. He has impressed crowds across the US, making a big splash at this year's SXSW, where he transformed a potentially average in-store appearance into something truly revelatory. Since then, he has toured the UK twice in 2006, with My Morning Jacket and Two Gallants, appeared at Rough Trade Covent Garden twice and performed select headline dates to ever growing audiences. He will also head out on tour in the US David Vandervelde in April 2007.
"I don't want it to be just seen as a record of me bitching, and 'all the music industry is fucked'," says Richard. "But the record is about my relationship with the record industry and how I let circumstances get on top of me - but also how I had the whole situation turn around. Once I got my confidence back, and I had my family cheering me on, my health was returned to me."
Well, perhaps. But frankly, a talent as big as Richard Swift's was always going to win out in the end.