Ramp;B hero Swamp Dogg gets an AutoTune-up from Midwest masterminds of Bon Iver and Poliça
He still pronounces their bands “Bone Eye-ver” and “Police.” He’s also still not quite sure what they did to his record.
But Swamp Dogg is grateful to Upper Midwest musicmakers Justin Vernon and Ryan Olson — of Bon Iver and Poliça, respectively — for giving him a dramatic sonic makeover, amounting to one of the year’s unlikeliest collaboration albums.
“What they did is exactly what I’ve wanted and tried to do myself for a long time,” said the Los Angeles RB vet alternately known as Jerry Williams Jr. “I just didn’t have the level of technology and information to do it.”
What they did is apply AutoTune and other electronic vocal gadgetry to the 76-year-old singer’s vintage sound.
Flagrantly titled “Love, Loss AutoTune,” Williams’ new album was produced by Olson with heavy input from Vernon. The two longtime cohorts from Eau Claire, Wis., were given a green light to experiment and modernize Swamp’s sound, and they did not go about it subtly or meekly.
If you’ve ever imagined what a T-Pain blues record would sound like, or how Bon Iver might pass as an old RB singer — and kudos if you have — this album might be the nearest thing. Some of the more prominent reviews of the record seemed to rue the idea but appreciate the results.
Rolling Stone said the album “seems like a stunt dreamed up for NPR listeners” but added, “Even when his voice is coated in effects, it remains idiosyncratic, quirkily adenoidal.” The New York Times wrote: “Swamp Dogg can still be heard with his unadorned voice, as a longtime soul man. But just as often, the vocals are squeezed, nasalized, multiplied, pitch-shifted or radically disembodied.”
Talking by phone from his home in Los Angeles last month ahead of Thursday’s gig at the Turf Club in St. Paul, Williams said he was just as surprised as everyone else by the end results after Olson and Vernon went to work on the record. He had flown up to their neck of the woods in 2017 and last summer for performances at Vernon’s Eaux Claires music festival.
“I went in the studio with them one day, and they played me what they were working on,” he recalled. “I didn’t even realize it was my record.”
Williams actually spent little time in the studio with Olson or Vernon. He had already recorded the songs himself in Los Angeles, working with his regular producer of recent years, MoogStar.
Acknowledging that none of his recent albums have sold well, he said he was open to trying something very new when some mutual acquaintances in the music biz suggested the hookup with the dudes half his age up in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“I just gave them the tracks,” Williams recalled. “They stripped it all the way down to my vocal, and then they built the record all around that.”
He purposely stayed out of the way. “I didn’t need them to tell me what they were going to do. For one thing, I wouldn’t have understood it. I have a mind for writing and creating, but I don’t have a mind for technology. So I left that up to them.
“Ryan said, ‘Hey man, do you mind if we try something? If you don’t like it, you’ll still have your original recordings.’ ”
In the end, Swamp said he more than “liked” their makeover.
“I was blown away, just shocked,” he said, and then went down a long and quite charming rabbit hole about how he had been trying to find ways to manipulate his vocals going back decades.
“The first time I tried this, there wasn’t AutoTune. I was trying it in the ’70s. We were doing all kinds of things to the mic. We used, like, pieces of wood full of stuff and wiffle [balls] and all kind of dead-sounding things. But it didn’t sound musical at all. I was reaching for it, but my arms weren’t long enough.”
The original Dogg
Williams got his start as a rather straight-ahead RB singer in his native Virginia in the late 1950s, first recording in his teens as “Little Jerry.”
He failed to make much of a name for himself as a singer but enjoyed success as a writer and producer, landing songs with the likes of Johnny Paycheck, Irma Thomas and Z.Z. Hill.
Still trying to make it as a singer, he decided to change his stage name to Swamp Dogg in 1970, and proceeded to release a series of rather psychedelic and ambitious concept albums in the vein of George Clinton’s P-Funk that at least earned him a cultish following.
“I was tired of just being Jerry Williams,” he said of his name change. “ ‘Jerry Williams’ worked OK as a writer and producer, but I needed something that was more controversial or got more attention as a performer. It shocked a lot of people at first.
“Even now, even though Snoop Dogg is big, they still want to know why I use the name. And I have to let them know that I gave birth to ‘the Dogg.’ I used it first.”
The tracks on “Love, Loss AutoTune” reflect this varied past. The album opens with a dramatic, orchestrally tinged cover of a Nat King Cole song, “Answer Me, My Love,” which Williams said he wanted to sing going back to a high school talent show. It also includes a stylish cover of the American songbook standard “Stardust.” Conversely, Williams sounds like he’s channeling P-Funk and street hustlers in “$$$ Huntin’ ” and gets downright raunchy in the R. Kelly-like “Sex With Your Ex.”
“Sex is one of the most joyful, beautiful things we get to experience in life,” he said of the latter song. “I don’t know why there aren’t more songs about it.”
His personal loss
Williams has been living for the past decade and a half without his longtime wife and manager, Yvonne Williams, whose death in 2003 reflects the “loss” part of his new album’s title.
“She was the love of my life, for sure,” he said, but she also was “always pushing” him in his career. For that reason, he believes Yvonne would have applauded his newfound AutoTuned sound.
“She recognized the appeal of hip-hop before just about anyone I know, and she would’ve loved that I was trying something new,” said Williams, who’s been sampled by a smattering of hip-hop artists over the decades.
While he was confident his Upper Midwest cohorts Olson and Vernon will show up for the Turf Club gig and maybe a few other shows, Williams said he’s prepared to perform his bold new album tracks with or without them.
“We were given a shopping list by Ryan, so we have all the equipment we need,” he said. “It’s gonna be fun.”
It sounded like the Swamp man is already having a blast enjoying the wider attention off this record.
“It’s a bit like coming back from the dead,” he said. “I know I’m going to lose some fans with this record, but the way my last two albums sold, there aren’t that many of ’em to lose. I believe they’ll come back once they start hearing how other people like it.”