Eric Swanson’s Mix

Paul Whyte

With the upcoming Homegrown festival, it seems fitting that a compilation featuring local artists would come out in conjunction with it. There’s a lot of influential people in the Twin Ports’ music scene, but it’s fair to say that audio producer/engineer Eric Swanson has made his mark in the area. I’m not exactly sure how many CDs I’ve reviewed in over four years that have involved Swanson, but his name pops up pretty often in liner notes. “I’m just a guy who likes to make records,” says Swanson. Swanson has become well known in the area for his work with Sacred Heart Music Center, where he has been bringing to life musicians’ projects and overseeing shows at the church-turned-venue/studio since 2001.
Swanson grew up in Duluth, but in his thirty years of working with music, he has traveled and worked extensively throughout the nation. In the ‘80s, Swanson was a live sound engineer at legendary venues out in Los Angeles such as Whisky A Go Go and The Roxy. He has also worked in studios ranging from full-blown professional setups to small home projects. He has spent a good amount of time out on the road as a tour manager and sound person. Since he’s been back in the Twin Ports, he has used his knowledge to help many musicians take their music from ideas to recordings. Says local musician Breanne Marie about her experience working on her first studio album, “Six Strings of Peace and Sanity,” with Swanson at Sacred Heart, “It was my first album and I felt like a tiny annoying kid at a teenagers’ party. But he was such a gracious person and very patient and straightforward. He has all this experience, and I felt kind of scared going in and working on the album, but he was like, ‘This is this,’ and he made things easy.”
After all his years of working with music and helping musicians in this area, Swanson makes an appropriate candidate to have one of his own “mix” compilation albums. Other public figures such as Shaky Ray Records founder Mark Lindquist, Homegrown founder Scott “Starfire” Lunt, and Duluth’s mayor, Don Ness, have been given the honor of having their own mix. The distinct artwork of local cartoonist Chris Monroe has exclusively been used for each of these handful of compilations covers. Each of these releases, including Swanson’s, can be downloaded for free by visiting
The thing I like about these compilation albums is that they carry the spirit of Homegrown. That spirit is a number of things, but part of it is a celebration of this area’s thriving music scene and the people in it. “I had so much stuff to choose from. There’s people I could have put on there or should have, but I picked what I liked,” said Swanson on his choices for the compilation. This is an understatement, in a way—there will be around 200 bands playing at this year’s Homegrown. That’s what the organizers decided, down from more than 300 entries. It’s important to know that there is a whole world of music dwelling right in this area that doesn’t exist on mainstream radio. This area is also very giving. The compilations are free, many shows in the area are either free or have a cover of around $5 year-round, and a weeklong Homegrown pass is $25 or free if one volunteers.
All right, enough about Swanson and the inspirational “there’s a cool music scene up here” pep talk. Swanson knows his music, so what did he pick? The compilations starts with the solid, straightforward rock of the Little Black Books’ song “Whisky So Soft.” This legendary band consists of Mark Lindquist, Ethan Thompson, and Bob Olson, a line-up of musicians who go back a ways in Twin Ports music. Likewise, the next track keeps up the energy with the well-known rock band Cars & Trucks’ “Shoulda Woulda Coulda.”
I’m not going to mention every track on this album, but it’s safe to say that everything is some of the most exceptional music to come from the area. The compilation chills out a bit with the track “Wise Lorolina” by Coyote, featuring the vocals of Jerree Small. (Small actually also has her own “mix.”) Staying on the softer and laid-back side, Amy Abts’ “Approach and Attack” is almost as sentimentally sad as it is pretty. Abts was the first act of the first Homegrown, and she’ll be back playing it this year after some years away.
There a few acts featured on the album that I’m not too familiar with, and it goes to show that these mixes can turn anyone on to something they not have heard before. Bill Meier’s “Trustafarian Princess” throws some humor into the mix. This funky number is easy to relate to for those who have ever been to what I fondly call a “hippie festival.” The title says it all. It’s about a free-spirited young woman who is well-funded and isn’t brought down by things like student loans like most people.
It was also nice to see some music that I certainly know well. Tracks such as Mary Bue’s “Cosmopolitan,” off the album “Apple in the Ocean,” and Three Song Sunday’s “Unabashedly Crazy,” off of “Don’t Be Sad on Me,” often get played on my iTunes playlist. When asked if he had any input on the choices he made in his compilation, Swanson said that he played a role in almost all of the tracks in one way or another. Swanson engineered Bue’s “Apple in the Ocean” and is credited with mixing and mastering “Don’t Be Sad on Me.”
I was glad to see Greg Cougar Conley’s song “Billy Bumblebee” on this mix. It made me think about when I first heard the track and reminded me of the importance of college radio stations for promoting local music in the area. DJs like Walt Dizzo have pushed local music since they first went on the air. Dizzo, who has been the Homegrown festival director for the last three years, has also been hosting a radio program on KUWS 91.3 FM for around a decade and now also works with The Current down in Minneapolis. While these compilations are terrific, a really great way to learn about new music, especially local music, is to tune in to stations such as KUWS and KUMD. The Playlist is also a wonderful program on PBS that highlights what is going on in the area as far as music and the arts.
Many people make up the local music scene, and everyone who is involved in it plays a little part in it. With the weather warming up, it’s now fairly easy to go out and watch live music by local musicians most any night of the week. Of course, this upcoming Homegrown festival is the largest event in the Twin Ports that features local music. Pick up a Homegrown field guide or check out the Reader’s calendar and go to something you’ve heard of, or perhaps be pleasantly surprised by a new artist that you’ve never heard of before.


Paul Whyte

A South Shore native and University of Wisconsin-Superior journalism graduate. Lifelong musician, and former open mic host. Passionate about the music scene and politics.

View more of Paul Whyte's work »