Normally when a singer writes a song about their financial status it is filled with braggadocio. It’s second nature to hear artists rotely recount how many Bentleys they own, the vintage of champagne they prefer and the copious stacks of hundreds they sleep on at night. Teddy Swims—a tattooed teddy-bear-come-to-life with a voice that will make your jaw drop to the floor—goes the opposite direction, marveling at his newfound deliverance from the bottom.
“When we wrote ‘Broke,’ it was right before the pandemic,” Swims says. “We had just gotten off our tour and it was our first time out in L.A. It was coming from that place of ‘I just came up on money.’ Finally, we had made it.”
As he was sitting in L.A. and waiting for the rest of his team to drive out from Atlanta, he started to fully grasp how different things were going to be from here on out. The band was getting ready to record and the label wanted to put them up in an AirBnB in the hills for a month. The cost? $30,000.
“I broke down at the time because I was so angry,” Swims recalls. “No, absolutely we’re not going to spend that kind of money, I refuse to spend that kind of money. That’s my little brother’s college tuition coming up this year, I can’t spend that kind of money on an AirBnB.
“They told me, it’s in the label budget, they’ll take care of it,” Swims continues. “They had to break it down and be like, ‘It is important because this is the way we get the word out, make you bigger and make the change that you want to change, to be what you want to be.”
Swims is getting his first taste of how things are when you’re signed to a major label. How could he not be experiencing some sort of culture shock when the recording process goes from finding time when the whole band can get together between jobs to hanging out in the Hollywood Hills for a month putting together an album?
While the video for “Broke” plays to his childhood fantasies about how to spend the money—who doesn’t want their own ice cream truck?—the real-life Swims has his priorities straight. “Most importantly, the song talks about the comradery of spending it together,” Swims says of his sudden largesse, “knowing it’s not going to last forever. Ultimately if we make the wrong decisions now… you only get one shot at this. If you don’t have your family with you to enjoy it, at least blow it and fuck it up together. Then when you ruined it together, you still got each other.”
For his entire life, Swims has been surrounded by interesting people who had an enormous effect on his musical taste. His grandfather was Pentecostal preacher, so gospel music influenced him from the start. While he would later gravitate more toward soul, R&B and rap, the music he found in church always stayed close to his heart. “All of our band is very into gospel and grew up playing in church,” Swims says. “There are no better musicians in the world than musicians who start out at church. That voice… it isn’t about singing, the performance you’re trying to give is for that person. It’s making that person feel and believe. There’s something about the conviction that’s powerful.”
Singing in church is the obvious ingredient in Swims’ musical background, but the other source of inspiration is far less common. After his parents divorced, Swims was angling to live with his dad so he could attend fourth grade alongside his cousin. After finessing things, the two ended up in a classroom together with a teacher who would change his life.
“We had this teacher, her name was Ms. Berry,” Swims explains. “She was a really sweet lady, but also mean as hell. She was a sergeant in the Army and really strict. But I remember she would always tell us if we came back from recess, shut up and did our work, she would put on the greatest hits of Al Green.
“For me, that was it,” Swims continues. “I was asking my cousin, ‘Who’s Al Green? Why are you guys so excited?’ They’re a bunch of fourth graders, they shouldn’t have known, understood or been excited to hear Al Green. I just remember hearing, [sings] ‘I I I I, I’m so in loooove…”
His life was forever changed by the romantic stylings of Al Green. He ran home and had 50 different questions for his father about Green and the entire world of music he had just been introduced to. Where many parents would raise an eyebrow and wonder just what exactly was going on in Ms. Berry’s classroom, Swims’ father took the opportunity to introduce his son to Marvin Gaye, Boys II Men and Keith Sweat.
“He was like, ‘Soul, baby? I got you a little soul,’” Swims says. “He started buying me CDs, showing me Keith Sweat, and showing me 2 Live Crew and all this cool-ass hip-hop and shit. I had no clue that this stuff really existed. It took Ms. Berry playing Al Green in the fourth grade and I’ve never been the same since.”
A lot of things have changed since fourth grade for Swims, but his love for soul music never faded. As a budding musician, he found himself singing in bars for $100 a night, drawing inspiration from Al, Otis, Sam. All the legends.
Swims understands that as a white man he has a fine line to walk when covering the work of Black artists, particularly when you’re singing for more than tips and beer money at a local bar. This was at the front of his mind when he made the bold decision to release a cover version of Marvin Gaye’s iconic “What’s Going On.”
“There’s always a fear that somebody that looks like I do and sounds like I do may be appropriating a culture,” Swims says. “As long as I make sure I do a song like that justice and I make sure to put the money back into the hands of the people it belongs to. All of the money went into the Black Lives Matter movement and the NAACP.“I am so blessed and honored and grateful that I did grow up on Black culture and Black music,” Swims continues. “I just always pay it forward, show love and respect, and always thank the Black community for where I am.”
The United States was at a crossroads when Gaye recorded the original. The concept for the song sprung from an act of police violence witnessed by Renaldo Benson, a member of the Four Tops, at an anti-war protest in Berkeley. The parallels couldn’t be any clearer.
“That song means more now than ever,” Swims says. “Something has happened to make people finally wake up and realize Black lives really are at stake here. We really have to stand up and speak out.”
Swims was horrified to realize that an especially egregious case of police brutality happened to Shali Tilson in his hometown. Tilson suffered from bipolar disorder and was arrested on a misdemeanor charge. Nine days later he was found dead in his cell. Autopsies revealed that he had injuries to his skull and bleeding in his brain, and the cause of death was blood clots resulting from dehydration.
“Nobody’s been arrested or held accountable for it, and this happened in my hometown, Conyers, two years ago and I had no clue about it,” Swims says. “We’ve reached out to his family and tried to put a little bit of highlight on that situation. I say all the time, we hear about the George Floyds and the Breonna Taylors, but how many times in small, little towns are things getting brushed under the rug? Especially small, little Southern towns where stuff like this is happening and nobody’s hearing about it. It has shaken me to my whole core.”
As Swims discusses the subject you can hear the pain and frustration in his voice, but it is in that voice that there is also power. He jokes about how people are often shocked to hear his voice coming out of a big, tattooed white guy, but at the same recognizes what he can do with it.
Music is the only place, especially with your voice, where you have a thing that’s truly yours, that’s different from anybody else,” Swims says. “It’s bound by what’s around you—your weather, your climate, what’s happening in your life. You can speak something and say it in a way that can lead people together and still ring true for years and years. Music is like scripture, it’s food for the soul.”
His voice has brought Swims to a place in life that he never thought he would be. Now that he’s here he won’t be wasting any time bragging about his riches, he’s too busy sharing his good fortune with his nearest and dearest. Swims is hoping that someday in the future a fourth grader is going to run home to their father, wanting to know who Teddy Swims is after a teacher opened their ears to a brand-new musical world.
“I just want to bring people together,” Swims says. “If I could have anything come out of my music, it’s that.”