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Published: 11/11/2013

John Swihart: Composed by Nature

By Kay West

Millions of people have heard and been touched by John Swihart’s music, but most would be hard-pressed to come up with his name. And that’s fine by him. “I am very happy being anonymous,” says Swihart. That makes him a rarity in Los Angeles, one of the most fame-seeking cities on the planet. “The celebrity thing does not appeal to me. I would not want to spend one minute of my work day thinking about anything other than what I’m trying to do or the project I’m working on.”

What Swihart does is put music to the visual medium of the moving image on screens small and large. Projects he has worked on include the films New In Town, Youth in Revolt, The Great New Wonderful, Employee of the Month, Daltry Calhoun and Napoleon Dynamite. For its duration, Swihart has composed the music for the hit comedy "How I Met Your Mother" (with the exception of the theme song, written by the show’s creators).

His busy, prolific and very successful career as a soundtrack composer began in Boston, where he spent “the second 18 years of my life.” The first 18 were rooted in Bloomington, Indiana, with regular forays to Europe and Asia accompanying his physicist father on sabbatical.  “I wasn’t studying music then, I was really young,” he says. “But I think when you live in another part of the world it has a lasting effect on you that may not reveal itself until many years later. You get to see how other people live, their culture and society, and be in a place you don’t know the language.”

He did play music even if he didn’t study it, first the saxophone and then the guitar through high school.  Swihart’s East Coast residency began at Berklee College of Music, where he was immersed in that intense and diverse creative community, intrigued and inspired by his peers’ curiosity and passion for exploring other musical cultures.

After graduation, he did the various bands thing, supplemented by the odd jobs thing (house painter, bike courier, roadie, club audio).  Two fellow Berklee grads steered him toward more mature career paths---one had a studio and was doing commercials and asked Swihart to do some work with him. The other had a post-production facility. “I ended up moving in to the building and becoming the audio guy, but I was really there to get my start as a composer for commercials and whatever else I could get my hands on.”

As it turned out, opportunity was right there for his grasping. “We had interns from Emerson College, a film school in Boston. They were making this short film and asked if I wanted to do the music for it.  As soon as I started doing it, it was—for lack of a better word—fun. When I was getting started I was doing a lot of corporate videos for employee training, that kind of thing, not very fulfilling. Doing this work with the film students was immediately very satisfying and rewarding. I felt like I was participating in making something really interesting.”

Like many great life decisions, the move to LA was motivated largely by desperation. “It was really obvious to me that composing for film was what I should be doing, and I was pretty good at it. You don’t grow corn on Wall Street, and you won’t become a successful film composer in Boston.”

As soon as he made the decision to move to Los Angeles, he got a call from the producers of the Boston production of the Blue Man Group letting him know an audition he felt had gone miserably had in fact paid off with an offer that eventually sent him to Vegas for an eight-month run at the Luxor.

When his wife was offered a job in advertising in Los Angeles, that sealed the deal and the couple was soon residing in the City of Angels.  Swihart took the money he had socked away and the hardware he had accumulated and set about building a studio, working on every project that came his way. He kept in mind the encouragement he had received from a Hollywood producer: “If you’re good at what you do, people will find out and will want to work with you.”

True enough.  When a documentary about motorcycles he was scoring was set aside by its producer for a film project, he offered to introduce Swihart to that director. “The producer brought the director over to my studio. They saw my studio and my stuff and I was the guy they could afford so I got the project.”
The project was Napoleon Dynamite, which debuted at Sundance in 2004, went on to become a cult phenomenon and a career-changer for Swihart.

Ten years later, he has an impressive catalogue of film and television work created in his own studio eight houses downhill from the home where he and his wife live with their three children.  “I walk the kids to school, then go in the studio from 8-5, then I walk home for dinner and to spend time with my family.  Usually I go back to the studio about 8:30 and work until 11:30 or so.”

Television work is on a much tighter schedule than film work, though he says every job in whatever medium is different, and always a positive challenge. “One of the great things about what I do is I get introduced to so many instruments all the time. There is always something new to figure out how to use.”

Though his work routine and lifestyle seem rooted in Midwestern normalcy, critics have described his sound as ‘somewhat eccentric.’  Swihart is fine with that. “I think so much of what we do depends on what we get hired to do. Work begats work. If you’re hired to do something different or slightly eccentric and you do it well, you’ll be hired to do something  else eccentric. I’m very fortunate that I was hired for such a weird comedy and had something like Napoleon Dynamite as my calling card for a long time. It also allowed me the freedom to do other things creatively different.”