Like many musicians, Jeff Southard got his start on a toy piano. “Ever since then, it’s been obvious to me that this is what I’m going to do, regardless of anything else.” He graduated to a real piano, switched to the trumpet and eventually settled on drums in the sixth grade.
“I started recording really early, too. I got the little brown Fisher-Price cassette recorder. I recorded songs and recorded with friends.” He quickly outgrew the Fisher-Price recorder, and moved on to a mixer, acquired more equipment, and now does the majority of recording work on his computer.
Southard’s interest in recording led him to start Swoon Records in 2010, which he runs from his home in South Tacoma. His living room has a couch and a coffee table, but the focal point of the room is his mixing console and tape duplicating machine. Sound reinforcement panels cover the walls.
After working as a drummer, Southard had to take a full-time job, one that required a lot of traveling. “That kind of put an end to being in bands. That’s when I started getting more serious about recording.” He started recording friends in his house around 2005, and it wasn’t long before strangers started requesting his services.
Makeup Monsters’ Nervous Case (2012) was the first album that Swoon released. The label has grown in the last few years, with more than 30 releases from a roster of 21 artists, nearly all of whom have ties to the South Sound. “Crooked Numbers” by the Unlikely Friends — a band whose members hail from Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle — is Swoon’s most recent recording. It was released on January 12, 2018.
Southard cites Sloucher’s Certainty as the label’s biggestsuccess. “It’s the best-selling record we’ve ever done, and I’m so glad. Jay [Clancy] was in Makeup Monsters and he’s also the frontman of Sloucher. He’s recorded tons of projects in this house over the years, and it’s really good to see him get some traction on his own record.”
“Jeff and Swoon Records have been a saving grace for the Pacific Northwest music scene of the last ten or so years,” says Clancy. “It’s a one-stop shop for bands who need to record, mix, master, manufacture and distribute their music, who might not have had the chance otherwise.”
Swoon now supports itself, but given the rising cost of living, Southard still has to keep a day job. “I set the alarm an hour or two early to get some things done before I head out to my day job. Typically, that’s packaging things up, getting ready to ship and dropping them in the mailbox on the way to work. I’ll be printing packaging, burning CDs, putting everything together.” Southard does duplication work for other local artists that aren’t affiliated with the label, producing CDs, tapes and packaging.
Clancy says, “The resources for musicians in Tacoma are severely limited and Jeff has singlehandedly addressed that problem, all while holding down another full-time job.”
The cost-of-living increases are affecting not just his business, but the musicians he works with too. Southard observed that “it’s become a lot more difficult to make any money at a gig unless you’re very popular, and people have to work two or three jobs in addition to finding time to be creative.”
“It hits musicians hard because it can be difficult to be creative and productive if you’re stressed out.”
As to his hopes for the label’s future, Southard says he’s in it for the long haul. “It’s a guessing game to see just how big this operation can be and still support itself. I’m not trying to blow up and then fizzle out.”
Clancy believes that Southard’s passion and generosity are key to the label’s future: “It’s people like Jeff that will give bands of the future the chance to have their music heard in an increasingly saturated and unpredictable business.”