Teddy Swims: Rags to Riches

Photo by Gus Black

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Musical theater courses in his veins. When Jaten Dimsdale, known professionally as Teddy Swims, slinks his way down the sidewalk like Macklemore with “Broke” or pours his pain into the sweeping blues ballad “Bed on Fire,” he frequently demonstrates a flair for the dramatic. Raised on the work of Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Keith Sweat, he also pulls upon musical theater roots to inform much of his work. His vocal talents certainly speak for themselves, but he goes much deeper than most. 

Even with “Somebody Should Kiss You,” a downtempo confessional, there is driving emotion and character that sprouts from his soul. “The emotion is what guides you into the song. I remember so much in theater, there were times where you knew you could sing a song—but sometimes there’s this character to deliver,” he observes. “I got used to doing a lot of character singing and understanding that this character probably wouldn’t sing as pretty as I would sing.” 

A Conyers, Georgia native, Dimsdale was born into the quintessential football family and played on his high school team. In 10th grade, however, everything changed when he joined musical theater with his buddy Jesse Hampton. “A spark happened,” he recalls. He soon made the tough decision to quit football altogether and follow the music. But breaking the news to his mom was even tougher. She melted into a puddle of tears, crying, “‘Why would you do this to us? How could you do this?’ Then, she came to my first theater performance, and I think I might have had like two lines or something, and she saw me onstage. Right after that, she was like, ‘Oh my God, baby. I’m so sorry. That’s where you belong.’” 

Dimsdale first appeared onstage in Damn Yankees, a 1955 musical/comedy based on the Faust legend about a baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil. Later, he landed a lead role in Children of Eden, as well as various parts in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and Much Ado About Nothing. “I love straight plays and Shakespeare,” he says. His last high school performance was in a production of Rent, his “favorite show of all time,” he effuses. “Still to this day, I can sing every song of that show, front to back. If you told me to put on Rent right now, I could probably do a one-man show. 

“I definitely had supportive parents through this whole thing. I know for a lot of people out there, they don’t. That’s not to say I haven’t struggled. I definitely did have some moments,” he adds. “My mom always—of course, as any parent should—would encourage me to have a backup plan.” He dabbled in cosmetology right out of high school, but quickly realized he “kind of hated it,” he says with a laugh. 

Dimsdale began uploading covers to YouTube in 2019. The first, a sultry take on Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You,” was a test, simply to see if he could find an audience; needless to say, it was the first of many viral videos (it currently has nearly six million views). Then, his second try, an iteration of “Someone You Loved” by Lewis Capaldi, drew far higher numbers, eventually collecting more than 17 million views. This musical experiment continued throughout the coming months, including performances of Chris Stapleton, Amy Winehouse, Khalid, and H.E.R. songs. By summer’s end, he was a YouTube star and now boasts almost two million subscribers and several hundred million views. A year later, he signed a deal with Warner Records and released the irresistible “Broke,” a song later given a second life in a collaboration with country star Thomas Rhett. 

On his debut EP, Unlearning, a shape-shifting, seven-piece offering released earlier this summer, Dimsdale pretends to know what he’s doing, at least for the time being. “I’m still as clueless as I was,” he says with a hearty chuckle. Bluesy snarls play against full-chested belts, and Dimsdale often teeters just over his breaking point. Those jagged edges are as affecting as his smoother vocal lines. Even though it has been a number of years since his musical theatre days, he brings a rich understanding of the human condition and what elements propel a story forward. 

“There’s people that can sing all over the place and do all the riffs─and I can riff with the best of them, I’d like to think─but there’s a difference from taking that risk and displaying that you know how to sing very well and actually using one single note to push an emotion,” he says. “Like when you bring a nice note up to crescendo with vibrato and it just creates an amazing impact, the dynamics of your voice can really carry an emotion so much more than the ability to do a run or sing as pretty as you possibly can. Sometimes, the swell in the singing or the break in your voice can carry the biggest emotion. Sometimes, the biggest mistake that you make while singing can be the best part of the song. That’s the most important part of the song. It’s not the singer. It’s not the guitar. It’s the song itself.” 

As the record title suggests, Dimsdale, who comes from a screamo, hardcore band background, including stints in ERIS and rock outfit Wildheart, had to unlearn what he thought he knew about life and what was actually unfolding before his eyes. “I feel like the older we get, the further away we get from who we thought we were. I’m seeing that more and more in my life. One thing that I’ve realized about my own career, as I’ve been trying to define who I am or my sound or what I’m trying to be, is I find myself sometimes getting frustrated,” he says. “I compare myself so much to other people. I set myself up for failure in a lot of ways because, who knows, maybe to somebody I am that amazing. But I just hold myself to this standard that I will probably never achieve in my own mind. Even if I do achieve it to the rest of the world, I will always consistently hold myself to this place. 

“I had expected it was going to be so much different than it is now. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, and I’m so glad to be where I’m at. And I’m so thankful for the pandemic in the way that it shaped me and opened my eyes to a lot of things. We’ve all had to unlearn what we thought was right or what was expected,” he continues. “There were times where somebody would love all of my ballads. I would be with writers and they’d be like, ‘We just need to write ballads. You could be the male Adele.’ I would be so offended. I’m like, ‘Well, I love ballads, and I want to be the ballad guy, sure. But I don’t want to just be the ballad guy. I’m so much more than that. Like, how dare you love me.’ I would find myself like that all the time. I can’t tell you who I am. But if you tell me, ‘Teddy Swims is the best ballad singer ever,’ how can I then say, ‘How dare you love me for my ballads?’ I just had these expectations of the way I wanted people to see me.” 

An existential thread appears woven into the record’s foundation. What originally began with a batch of 150 songs emerges as a compact, seven-song player fluttering between sunny, arena-worthy anthems and introspective examinations of self. “L.I.F.E.” throbs with a synthetic heartbeat before erupting into such poignant lines as Sometimes it ain’t easy, but that’s just life. His voice is warm, perfectly laced with a palpable world-weariness drawn out of his own experiences of hardship and pain. With guitar moment “Will It Find Me,” written with Wrabel and Ian Kirkpatrick, Dimsdale laments, “I’m trying to be enough to miss.” The song, swerving away from his larger-than-life persona for a moment of sharp vulnerability, “encapsulates this journey of me trying to find myself and figure out what the hell I’m trying to do or say with this platform that I’ve been given,” he notes. 

Dimsdale basks in the moment. He’s radiant, speaking emphatically about life, love, and songwriting─or whatever other topic happens to pop up in conversation. When talking about a recent session out in Los Angeles with will.i.am, founding member of the Black Eyed Peas, he pulls back in deep reflection, almost gathering up his thoughts like collecting rainwater from a midsummer thunderstorm. “He said something to me that was the most beautiful thing and what I’ve been trying to put into words for forever. It was hard for me to write songs that weren’t based on an intention. To me, I think that emotion will always create emotion. If you’re feeling emotional about something, or you hit an emotional chord, it brings a certain emotion out of you, like a certain chord progression.” 

“I was always thinking that emotion always creates emotions, so make sure we write from an honest place of emotion. Sometimes, you can write a song with intention,” he adds, after another pause. “You could walk in and say, ‘I want to write a song about this today,’ and you can get a good song. But intention doesn’t create emotion as much as emotion creates emotion.” 

But will.i.am proposed a different way of thinking about and conceiving a song that flicked the switch in his brain. “He said, ‘Well, surely, it’s not the intention─but what if you were intending for a certain moment? When I was writing ‘I Got a Feeling,’ I was going to baseball games, football games, and I noticed that every time I would be in any of those kinds of places, I would always hear the same songs.’” 

“He said, ‘I just knew that if I could write a song that would kind of land into that playlist that it would not only live forever, but it would be a part of those moments in somebody’s life. Think about a particular moment in your life or somebody’s life, and write to that moment.’ That’s what the beauty of songwriting truly is─capturing a moment rather than an emotion.” 

Teddy Swims makes his presence known on Unlearning─and we are all ears. 

Photos by Gus Black

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