For Dan Swinimer, the key to a successful musical collaboration of any kind is mutual respect. “First of all, respect everyone,” he says. “Unless they give you a reason not to, why wouldn’t you? Secondly, the power you give artists, writers or young producers when you give them confidence and a reason to carry on, is unbelievable.”
The Victoria, B.C.-based songwriter, producer and owner of Manicdown Productions has plenty of experience that supports that approach; writing, producing and touring with bands including 99.3 The Fox’s Vancouver Seeds contest winners Superbeing and Beyond the Fall as well as Todd Kerns, before ultimately joining the band Jet Black Stare (JBS) in 2007.
“We signed with Island/Def Jam and everything seemed great,” he says. “Our first single was Top 30 in the U.S. Then the recession hit and it literally ended almost overnight. We were opening for the biggest bands in the world and then it was over.”
It was a tough pill to swallow, but along the way, Swinimer met people whose belief in, and respect for him fueled his confidence. “That’s why I went from being a terrible songwriter to having some success,” he says. “Giving people respect is the right thing to do on many levels and – if you need to look at it this way – it’s good for business because it empowers people to do better work.”
“I will never work with people that I don’t want to work with. I don’t care how talented they are or how much they’ve got going on.”
Constantly cutting someone down, he believes, drives potentially viable artists out of the business. It nearly happened to him. “I came back after the last JBS tour with my tail between my legs,” he says.” It was pretty much a Spinal Tap kind of tour.” JBS were also touring Canada where they had very little in the way of a live draw. “So promoters were basically screaming at me that we were getting paid too much,” he says. “It was a humiliating experience.”
Following that tour Swinimer decided to get out of the business. Shortly thereafter, however, he wrote a song, “Welcome to the World,” for his four-year-old daughter. It was the first time in a long time he was writing purely for pleasure. He sent it to his parents, they sent it to Swinimer’s cousin, Stephanie Beaumont, a successful country singer in her own right, and she sent it to Ron Kitchener, head of RGK Entertainment and Open Road Recordings.
That changed everything. On the strength of subsequent songs Swinimer sent to Kitchener, a series of writing sessions in Nashville were arranged. There, he stayed at the SOCAN House, and met and befriended professional hit songwriter Tim Hicks, an artist he’s written with numerous times since.
“I was excited after I decided not to let music hold me hostage anymore,” he says. “It freed me of stress, but now I had this opportunity and decided to give it a try, but with one iron-clad rule: I will never work with people that I don’t want to work with. I don’t care how talented they are or how much they’ve got going on.” His mission statement, one he’s cleaved to since, without exception, is “Love what you do and love who you do it with.”
Case in point, his first signing to Manicdown Productions in 2011 – a development deal with 17-year-old Madeline Merlo, during which he secured Merlo a recording contract with Open Road and a publishing deal with Nashville’s Rogue 11 Publishing. Merlo’s first two singles, “Sinking Like a Stone” and “Alive,” produced and co-written by Swinimer, became country radio hits in Canada, earning Swinimer and Merlo a Canadian Country Music Awards and multiple British Columbia Country Music Awards nominations.
“The things I look for in an artist, I think, are different from what some other people look for,” says Swinimer. “Madeline is sweet, kind and obviously has talent, but she also has something I feel I’m sensitive to: when she walks into a room it’s like somebody flicked the lights on. It’s a charisma that she doesn’t have to try for, the kind of thing you can’t teach.”
Although Swinimer spent most of his life working in rock ‘n’ roll, he grew up in an environment suffused with country music. His dad was an avid country fan, and he spent time every summer in Nova Scotia with musician relatives – including his great uncle, Fiddlin’ Jim Swinimer, a Nova Scotia Music Hall of Fame inductee who toured with Hank Snow.
Early love of rock notwithstanding, since his time in Nashville, most of the people Swinimer’s developed and written with are country artists, and include Tim Hicks, Heather Longstaffe, Elizabeth Lyons, Billy Currington. Lanie McAuley, Danica Bucci and Jojo Mason.
The path that led to signing to a development deal with Mason in 2014 was the result of a strange series of events. “I had a co-write during the day,” says Swinimer, “and we were arguing about a line, ‘sipping moonshine out of a jar,’ which I did as a kid, but the guy I was writing with didn’t think it made sense. That night I go to this Christmas party, Jojo shows up and pulls a jar of moonshine out. So I started talking to him, taking selfies and sending them to the guy I was writing with.”
Like Merlo, Mason just had something. “He lit the place up and completely changed the mood,” says Swinimer. “Everyone was drawn to him.” Although Mason was a country fan, he’d never sung for anyone before, but based on the energy that Swinimer saw in him, they arranged for a session.
As it turned out, Mason also had an exceptional voice. “I’d like to take credit for his vocal ability,” says Swinimer, “and have people assume that I was a genius in taking this guy who’d never sung and converting him into a singer, but I can’t. We worked on the details, but 90 percent of what you hear of Jojo Mason, he had before I found him.”
“A big thing with someone who hasn’t done a lot of writing is, you have to convince them that there’s no such thing as stupid ideas.”
Providing opportunities for young, talented artists is immensely important, Swinimer says. When he started working with Madeline Merlo, she wasn’t a songwriter. He suggested she work on her songwriting, explaining that it would be a different experience singing her own words, and that the more skills she had, the easier it would be to make a living in music.
“A big thing with someone who hasn’t done a lot of writing is, you have to convince them that there’s no such thing as stupid ideas,” says Swinimer. “Some of my best ideas have come from my worst ideas. It happens often.”
Conversely, playing the egotistical “I’ve had success and you haven’t yet card, he says, is counter-productive. “I respect people who’ve had success,” he says, “but once you’re in the room working together, just get the best out of the person sitting across from you. And the first, most important thing to do in order to get the best from them is to make them feel comfortable; to value their ideas and make them confident and brave enough to not fear throwing out an idea that doesn’t work. You need those ideas. They’re not going to be what we’ll use, but they may change my thinking about something.
“It’s the end result that counts,” he says. “Everything you do is aimed at getting a result that you can be proud of and maybe will resonate with people. I work with a lot of artists who don’t have a ton of experience as songwriters. Watching them grow – that development process – is part of what I take the most pride in.
“Madeline’s become an amazing songwriter and one of my favourite people to write with, but the first time we wrote she was quiet and nervous. I had to dig to get ideas out of her. Now she’s amazing, and writing on a lot of her music. You get this fatherly feeling of pride when someone you’ve worked with, who you’ve watched work hard and struggle, grows and becomes successful. So that decision I made in the early days, to only work with people I wanted to work with, because I stuck to it, meant everything changed in my career and my life.”