Al Swainger’s Pointless Beauty is a United Kingdom, Bristol based producer and composer who is well versed in the arts of classic sounds. Al Swainger’s Pointless Beauty has recently released an original album titled “Hearts Full of Grace”. Which contains some unique jazz, groove and meditating tunes. We had a few questions and answers with him where he talks about his creative process, inspirations and about the release. Below are exclusive details on Al Swainger’s Pointless Beauty and his new release.
Photo credits: Emma Holbrook / Elmar Rubio
What’s the story behind the name Al Swainger’s Pointless Beauty?
For me Pointless Beauty is a slightly ironic title acknowledging that not everyone likes the same things and that that’s ok. It doesn’t matter. If people react positively towards something they are happy to identify it as ‘beautiful’. Equally if they have a negative reaction, or no reaction at all, they are often quick to dismiss those things as ‘pointless’. It’s such a subjective thing. Not all things that I would regard as beautiful are joyful or happy – the beauty lies in the idea of emotional stimulus for me. We celebrate these things on their own terms for their own sake as we perceive them. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Pointless Beauty is an acknowledgement of our right to openly enjoy it wherever we find it. I’m not really interested in being part of a specific genre so it’s a title that also describes the eclectic way I approach making my music.
When did you decide to pursue music as a career?
I don’t know that I ever decided to pursue music as a career as such. It’s more of an ‘I think, therefore I am’ kind of thing. I remember reading Vernon Reid saying in an interview long ago that there’s two types of musicians: those that do it because they find they’re good at it and it’s a job for them and those that have no choice. I’ve always felt like one of those that have no choice – it’s too fundamental to who I am. I change the type and way I make music fairly often to keep it fresh but it’s always the thing I have to get back to.
How would you describe the music you typically create?
Cathartic, I guess. It’s always about exploring a mood or emotion through sound. I improvise a lot and the sounds that come out are very reflective of where I am emotionally at the time. I reflect on it a lot to structure it but it always comes from quite a raw and personal place in the first instance. My music also tends to pass through quite a few moods in each piece so the genres shift around accordingly. The first track on Hearts Full of Grace (The Way Back) has elements of soul, jazz, EDM, rock and Latin for instance. It’s not a contrived thing, it’s just where I feel the music going. The lives we live are not simple things reflecting only one emotion in each situation so why should music be like that? Pieces of music are like short stories to me and should take you on a journey. It’s not music that reveals everything it’s going to do in the first 15 seconds, you need to spend time with it.
Who (living or dead) inspires you as an artist and why?
So many people! I tend to be most inspired by artists that are driven to reinvent themselves. The ones who need to explore more than they care whether it pleases the audience they already have. Miles Davis, David Bowie, Radiohead, Bjork all seem pretty fearless in this respect and they are just the first ones to spring to mind. You could take records from any of them from different parts of their career and use them as examples of fundamental shifts in direction that have been unpopular with critics when they came out but hailed as works of genius years later. The work was always good but it took time to catch up with how to understand and listen to it. There’s a really strong creative personality at the centre of each of them that makes their body of work make sense even though all the stylistic changes. My Pointless Beauty project has made albums in a lot of different styles now with shifting lineups and I can only hope that part of what I appreciate about the artists I mentioned makes sense about my own approach in a similar way.
What’s your creative process like?
I tend to start by improvising. I pick up an instrument or have a tune in my head or mess with an fx pedal and record. I listen back and reflect and develop and then maybe bring in other players when I get to a point where I hear things happening that I know are outside of the way I can play. I get them to improvise with the ideas that I’ve had. Some ideas are fixed and I notate them and things have to be specific but there’s always room for the players to input their own personalities around those moments. I’ll usually then work with a whole bunch of takes and sculpt that further into what I hear the finished album as. There’s a lot of listening and reflection. I always try to listen like I’m in the audience and think about how it makes me feel. Is it exciting, relaxing, melancholy, euphoric and so on? If you only listen through the ears of the performers then you won’t necessarily keep the attention of people who don’t perform themselves. It’s important not to be precious about your ideas, I think. ‘How does it make me feel?’ is the most important consideration for something really satisfying.
What feelings or reactions do you hope to arouse in people who listen to your music? Are you surprised by the reactions you get?
I hope to engage a whole range of emotions. Wonder, melancholy, joy, stress, anger, frustration, peace, calm, freedom. There’s so much music that is kind of intended as a form of Prozac, it seems to me. Life is tough and a lot of mainstream music has become written to paper over the cracks with happy pills and pretend that it isn’t. Part of the reason I write instrumental music is that it doesn’t tell you what to think. When there are lyrics there’s already someone else’s story to latch onto. That can turn into pretending that it’s your own story too. When there’s just a title you have to think ‘what could this mean’? The music then becomes an emotional encouragement to help people unravel their own stories and thoughts. I think that’s why people describe my music as ‘cinematic’ so often. We’re used to instrumental music in films being used as emotional reinforcement for scenes in films. What if people have to just hear the music and reflect on their own lives without any additional interference?
I’m always deeply moved by the reactions I get to my music. It’s not for everyone but the people who do respond to it tend to really love it. I think because it’s so personal and intimate for me to share that that resonates with people who are looking for something a little deeper than is often pushed in the mainstream. I don’t know that I’m surprised so much as relieved to find I’m not alone in seeing the world differently.
What is the best advice you’ve been given in relation to music?
I’m not sure anyone ever gave me this advice but I remember reading it somewhere and it stuck in my head:
“In the battle between the river and the rock, the river will always win. Not through strength, but by persistence”. Confucius. I think that’s great advice, whatever you’re driven to do, when things get hard.
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of music?
Are all hobbies about escapism? Maybe, anyway, I’m quite a nerd for tv, films, books, graphic novels and video games. I’m pretty fixated on RPGs with video games – I like exploring the open world types rather than sport or first-person shooters. I’m a sucker for superhero films and comics. I have a REALLY low bar for how good they have to be to get me to watch them! I just discovered the author N.K. Jemison and she’s writing some really original takes in the sci-fi genre. I’m a huge fan of sitcoms and comedy drama series… White Lotus, Hacks, Umbrella Academy have all been recent series that I’ve really enjoyed. I like things that involve me in an alternate narrative to take me away from my own brain, I guess.
What has been the high point of your career so far?
Probably getting to tour my own music and having such a warm and positive reaction to it. It’s not the easiest thing to get promoters to gamble on original music – especially in a jazz context it seems – so to do a program of Chick Corea greatest hits alongside my own compositions and have an audience respond that my music was the highlight of the evening was pretty special.
Which musician would you like to collaborate with?
The natural inclination is to think of the people you admire most but they’re often the people who also have the most similar approach. That’s generally not a good combination as you’re too similar for it to really work in practice. I love to collaborate with people who do things I’m not good at or will challenge me to look at things differently. I’ve had some really satisfying collaborations with vocalists as that’s not something I do myself. Although I really enjoy writing instrumental music, I can get equal pleasure from framing someone else’s approach. I’m always open to experimenting though so who knows what’s round the corner?
What accomplishments do you see yourself achieving in the next five to ten years?
I’m such a terrible planner. My focus has always been on experimenting and discovering what I’ve been up to at the end! I’ve been making Pointless Beauty since 2014 and this is the first time, I’ve even got round to really promoting an album properly… There are five studio albums, a whole bunch of singles and other side projects available on my bandcamp at music.alswainger.com already for instance. Reception for the new Hearts Full of Grace album has been really positive though so I’m confident we’ll be touring at some point. The best way to find out when is going to be by following my bandcamp account or joining my mailing list at alswainger.com and you’ll hear about that and future projects as they emerge.
What is “Hearts Full of Grace” all about?
The title for the album was inspired by a Martin Luther King quote: “All we need to serve… is a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love”. I found this led me into a meditation on our place in the universe and how we strive to bring meaning to it. It helped remind me that however invisible and inadequate we feel at times, we never lose the power to enrich each other’s lives. No positive action is too small.
I think the way I contribute to those around me is by offering time and perspectives for reflection through art. To be outwardly healthy we need to be inwardly aware. Each of the tracks is crafted to represent narrative fragments of my reactions to the 2020 pandemic but also echo feelings I’ve had for much of my life. Navigating isolation is a huge theme amongst those experiences but I hope they offer a form of catharsis for people listening too.
The last track, Remember the Sky, is inspired by the poem ‘Remember’ by Joy Harjo. It’s intended as a final invitation to be at peace. An invitation to remember the value of community. An invitation to look beyond ourselves and feel freed.
Who and how many people worked on it?
I had a team of people I greatly respect working on this with me. Jon Clark (drums) is one of the most versatile and sympathetic players I know. Not many drummers will sound as great on an ambient soundscape as a driving samba! George Cooper (keys) also has an incredible rhythmic perception and has an incredible gift for comping on funk and odd time signatures. Ant Law (guitar) has a ferocious technique and you can hear him really take off on tunes like Two Steps. Gary Alesbrook (trumpet / flugel) shines throughout with the most haunting, lyrical and funky playing. We recorded in a blend of Crescent Studios in Swindon and my own home studio Other Compass. The album was mixed and mastered by Alex Killpartrick who I got in touch with after hearing his work on the first Snow Poet album. He has really detailed ears and an incredible clarity to his mixes that I just love. His mixing on my previous album After & Before is also amazing. All the artwork and sleeve design was done by me as well as playing bass, synths, programming, producing and editing.
If you had one message to give to your fans, what would it be?
Be the river!