A lighthouse stands in the distance at sunrise, far beyond a multitude of waves in the foreground. A woman, weathered by time and exhaustion, is polishing a wood floor beside a figure who slowly rocks a baby in her arms. Her face is ashen grey, her eyes unmoving.
So begins the 2017 music video for “Mirrors,” a song written and recorded by Charlottesville cellist, guitarist, and vocalist Wes Swing. An eerie and gripping exploration of desire and regret, the video is a fictional take on a real 19th-century lighthouse keeper from Newport, R.I., named Ida Lewis. In the video, she explores a relationship with another woman in a dream but is (literally) pulled away by the ghosts of her past.
“She was a historic lighthouse keeper, lived alone, saved like 20 people from drowning over her life—just a total badass,” Swing, 36, tells DCist.
Both the drama and unrest in the video typify the work of Swing, who will perform in D.C. on Friday as part of a lineup with other experimental musicians at art space RhizomeDC.
The cellist, raised in Clifton, Va., began his music career at age 4 when his parents signed him up for violin lessons. As a teenager, he made a brief foray into rock music, picking up the guitar and continuing to sing, something he claims is his “secret favorite thing to do.” But when he got to the College of William and Mary in 2000, he finally had a chance to explore the instrument that intrigued him most: the cello.
“It matches the timbre of the human voice, and I think because I love to sing so much, it really felt like the right instrument to play and sing together,” Swing says.
Though he has released two albums and has a third in the works, Swing seems just as enamored by process as product. He has improvised accompaniments for dance performances; scored a live reading of excerpts from Invisibilia co-founder Lulu Miller’s forthcoming book; created a short dance film for Experimental Film Virginia (in which he directed some footage by playing his cello rather than talking); and regularly performs with a technique that multiplies his harmonic output. Using a loop pedal, Swing can record and immediately play back melodies on stage, layering them as though he's a whole chamber group of musicians.
This sort of augmented repetition is used to full effect on Swing’s 2017 album, And the Heart. The first track, “Missing Winter,” begins in a whisper, with Swing singing wistfully over finger-picked guitar. But what starts as a pleasant but fairly standard coffeehouse indie-folk piece quickly transitions into something much more monumental, with more layers of sound. The strumming stops and a lush harmony of sustained cello notes enters. Swing’s voice soars above, singing “Oh, missing winter” over and over while new layers of sound—live drums, vocal harmony, electronic beats, synth pads—push the song toward a powerful climax.
Swing's experimental thinking extends to all his projects. A recent one, Now/Now, is a collaboration with visual artist Bolanle Adeboye, who has created album artwork for Swing and is also his landlady. In the interactive workshop, Swing and Adeboye offer community members a cathartic experience.
“People would come into a room, they would write down how they were feeling, and we would create a visual tapestry and a live musical score to represent everybody in the room’s emotions,” Swing says.
Funded in part by a grant from Charlottesville SOUP, run by nonprofit New City Arts, Swing and Adeboye have brought the project to several locations, including presentations at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind and a juvenile detention center in Charlottesville.
The concept grew amid the frustration and sorrow that struck Charlottesville residents a year ago, when clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters at the Unite the Right rallyin downtown Charlottesville turned deadly.
“It hit the town really hard and it was devastating. And it still is,” Swing says.
In the aftermath, Swing says he and Adeboye wanted to create a community project that promoted mental health awareness. Just as he finds inspiration in the process of music-making and performing, he also finds and spreads healing that way.
“You can have feelings and you can put those feelings into something that’s beautiful and make something from them.”
Wes Swing performs at RhizomeDC on Friday, 8 p.m.-11 p.m. $10 suggested donation. Andrea Pensado, Chris Strunk, Concentric Circles also performing.