Teddy Swims, a tatted man with punk rock spirit and a silky soul voice, talks with HL about his many ‘juxtapositions,’ his commitment to social justice, and his new EP, ‘Unlearning.’
An intriguing sight greeted viewers of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert at the start of May. The musical guest came on wearing gold-tinted glasses, beige slides, a pinstripe-jersey under his military-green jacket. When the camera got close, viewers could make out all the face tattoos peeking out from under the bandanna wrapped around his head, as well as the ink on his hands and the massive gauges in his ears. But at that point, they were focused not on what Teddy Swims looked like but what he sounded like. As this Conyers, Georgia native began to sing “Bed On Fire,” a powerful voice rang out as he delivered this sweeping, soulful ode to all-consuming love.
“When I see people, they’ll always say, ‘look, I love to show people your voice, but I always like to hold the camera – “don’t look, just hear him sing first and then tell me what you think he looks like, all right, and then look, here he is. And they’re like, oh!’” Teddy said while speaking EXCLUSIVELY with HollywoodLife. “And they always tell me like, ‘people trip out when they see what you look like as opposed to your voice,’ it’s such a juxtaposition, I guess, is the word.”
That juxtaposition is one of the elements on display in Unlearning, Teddy’s debut EP, out today (May 21.) The release with “L.I.F.E.,” an inspirational, atmospheric track coupled with a vocal performance that seems plucked out of a gospel service (a video for the track, depicting Teddy pondering his existence against a gorgeous scenic backdrop, drops the same day.) After “Bed On Fire” comes “Blowin’ Smoke,” a thumpin’ funk bassline threading itself around Teddy’s silky professions of how he’s legit with his complements towards his lady friend. That funk caries on to “Broke,” Teddy’s team up with country star Thomas Rhett. Unlearning blends in elements of country, twang, R&B, funk, and soul to create a seamless experience of joy.
“I’m just a lover, lover, lover of the science of the voice and the body. And that’s why I love all types of music,” says Teddy. He’s not – to borrow the phrase – ‘blowin’ smoke.’ Teddy (born Jaten Dimsdale, adopting the internet slang “SWIMS” — ‘Someone Who Isn’t Me Sometimes’ – as a surname) never limited himself to genre or scene when he began performing. This high school football star found his voice while performing in school musicals – again, another juxtaposition – and soon dove headfirst into Atlanta’s punk, metal, and rap scenes. His father turned him onto the music of giants like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Al Green. With all these ingredients, Teddy had all he needed for a breakthrough. He just needed that spark.
In 2019, he found it. That year, he started posting covers to YouTube, and his rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” started to gain traction online. Many more covers followed, and he continued to build a following that was eager for every new upload. That same year, Teddy rapped over some beats that his producer friend, Addy Maxwell, was making. The song caught the attention of the right ears. Fast forward to 2020, and he’s signed to Warner Records. A year after that, he’s performing on The Late Show and about to drop his first EP.
At the heart of Unlearning is “Till I Change Your Mind,” a song Teddy tells HL “means a whole lot to me.” The song, released in March, sees the politically-minded Teddy confront racism in America, particularly White privilege and how it’s not the BIPOC community’s responsibility to end systemic oppression in this country. “Sorry that I’m coming at you this strong / Never had a feeling that was this strong / Should have never taken us this long / To right this wrong,” he sings on the bridge.
“This song is written to, I guess you could say, the small town mentality,” Teddy tells HL. “The mentality that I see a lot in my hometown that I grew up in about 30 minutes east of Atlanta. We were just a small town, and people tend to think just because things aren’t happening right there. And that if you’re not paying attention and you’re so lucky and privileged not to have to worry about those things that are going on with COVID and with racism in this country, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It absolutely is happening, and it’s happening right around you and right in front of you.”
Teddy then brought up the case of Shali Tilson, a 22-year-old that grew up in his hometown – “he went to a different high school,” he says – who was arrested and jailed on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge for nine days in 2018, per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He died from “blood clots that formed in his lungs due to dehydration,” according to an autopsy. Shali suffered from bipolar disorder and was on suicide watch, which meant that he was to be checked every 15 minutes, but a video released in 2019 showed that wasn’t the case, with medical personnel and staff ignoring Shali for hours. A grand jury investigation into the case produced an 84-page report that concluded no one person was responsible for his death, per 11Alive News. Instead, the “medical, mental health and jail staff, through complacency, reluctance, assumptions and lack of procedures, training, leadership, and adherence to policy, failed to recognize and adequately address the mental state and physical decline of Shali Tilson.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to hang out and meet his family,” said Teddy. “I remember hearing about it on the news and my county, but thinking that there was something should’ve been done about that, and still nothing’s happened. Nobody’s been accountable. It’s been just brushed under the rug. And it really had me thinking, how often is this happening in small towns all over the place.”
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“We hear about the Breonna Taylors and the George Floyds, but how many people are there that we’re not hearing about?” he continued. “How many times is this happening? And so Shali and his situation really convicted me because I’ve always considered myself as an ally — and I believe that I’m strong on Black Lives Matter and what it means and creating equality in the world — but I never knew that it happened right next to where I was born. I never knew that that was happening right here. And how privileged was I to not know about that? It just really, really hurt me and convicted me and made me think.”
“So this song, ‘Til I Change Your Mind’ is my message to people who are so lucky to be in a place where they’re not experiencing that and seeing that all the time, because just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Teddy’s political side has “definitely always been a part of me,” and he’s aware of his place as a white artist performing R&B and soul. “I am heavily influenced by Black culture and Black music,” he says. “And I, for one, who looks I do and who sings I do, I never want to be… It’s easy for somebody to think that it’s cultural appropriation, but to me, my heroes of my life are Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, James Brown. Those are the guys that I grew up on that I love so much.”
“I have never in my mind understood how you could hate somebody because of the color of their skin. Anytime that I’ve ever had the opportunity to stand up and say something, I’ve always been there to do it,” he says, adding that he never wants his “privilege to be the thing that deters me” from doing the right thing.
“It’s always something that I am probably overly conscious of because of who I am and the music I make and what I look like,” he adds. “I always want to make sure no matter what that I am in support of Black culture and Black music and Black businesses. Those things are important to me because they’re important to my upbringing and the people that I love who are close to me.”
While “Till I Change Your Mind” is included in Unlearning, one of Teddy’s recent singles – “My Bad” — isn’t. The video for the song is perhaps the perfect introduction to Teddy Swims: a soulful, up-tempo bop about the struggles of love, paired against Teddy getting the daylights knocked out of him (while as his Magic Dirty persona) in a wrestling ring.
“I grew up with three brothers, so that was what we did. We beat the hell out of each other on mattresses, copied the moves, and did everything,” said Teddy, who adds that wrestling was “a big part of our family” growing up. “And I had a couple of buddies that you saw on the video, Damian Bennett and Tyler Cullprett, that have pursued wrestling and are professional wrestlers now around Georgia and the Southeast. It was great to be able to call them and get them to show me around the ropes and to be able to get in the ring for the first time ever.”
“After I got out of that ring, man, I was just so fired up, so fired up,” he says. “But one thing that I will say is I was in the ring all day trying to get this sequence down for the video, you know? And then I busted my in there, so exhausted, so sore for the next three or four days, just for it to be like 10 seconds of the video, maybe five seconds of the video you see wrestling happen. And I was like, ‘damn, I feel I busted my ass, and y’all only put that little bit in there? But it was amazing, man. And I definitely can say now, I’ve always respected the sport of wrestling, but nobody can say it’s fake.”
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Everyone will say Teddy Swims is the real deal following Unlearning. As for what the rest of 2021 holds, the sky’s the limit. An album is on the horizon, as is Teddy Swims Presents: Swimmy and the Valley of the Last Song, an all-ages graphic novel featuring Swimmy The Bear and the elephantine versions of his bandmates (a nod to Elefvnts, the R&B/Soul/Progressive Rock band Teddy plays with) arriving this fall. Teddy will play the first nine shows on the Zac Brown Band’s comeback tour, kicking off on Aug. 05 in Holmdel, New Jersey. There’s also the possibility that Teddy could drop the thrash record of the year by the time 2021.
“Obviously, my old crushes growing up when I was in high school and getting out, doing metal,” says Teddy. With the divisions between genres more pours than ever – and everyone from Willow Smith to Olivia Rodrigo putting out pop-punk songs – it’s not beyond reason to see Teddy teaming with a metal act for a future release. When asked for dream collaborations, he fires off a few “bucket list” bands. “I’m a huge Chiodos fan, man, Craig Owens,” says Teddy, before adding Circa Survive (“Anthony Green’s one of the best vocalists of all time”), Asking Alexandria (“Danny Worsnop is one of the most incredible vocalists”) and more to the list. “There’s just many, Matty Mullins [of Memphis May Fire]. I’d love to work with all of them guys, man. Garret Rapp from Color Morale. That’s my roots, I love, love, love, heavy shit, man.”