By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
In the stylish video for Jack Swing’s new single, “Get What’s Mine for You,” the band members — frontman Isaiah Ross, drummer Alex Nelson and bassist Rowdy Kanarek — engage in regular, everyday activities: Eating a nice meal, relaxing at the beach, playing guitar. In each case, however, something about the setting is more than a little bit … off.
The video’s silliness lands, in part, because of the buoyant skillfulness of the song itself. But altogether it hits something that isn’t always so easy to achieve: a cohesive aesthetic.
For the video, frontman Isaiah Ross wanted to loosen things up a bit. A video from last year, for the song “Monkey Around,” featured suits and a dramatic storyline. “With this, I wanted to embrace the themes of the song in a light and visually pleasing way,” he says. “I think we’ve always had a track jacket kind of look, probably because of how much anime I watched as a child. So I definitely wanted to embrace that, to keep things colorful and fun.”
“Get What’s Mine for You” is the title track from Jack Swing’s new EP, which comes close on the heels of the 2019 EP Supermoon. But in the space of that year, the band has taken a noticeable step in a direction that feels more comfortable, something palpably itself.
Where Supermoon was looser, grungier arena rock, Get What’s Mine for You tightens things up, moving towards slightly cleaner tones, fuller arrangements, and a more confident swagger. Ross has described taking “an almost Strokes-ish approach to … Stevie Wonder songwriting,” which shows up here in the form of heavy soul hooks, sharp garage-rock edges, and urgent, athletic vocals.
“With Supermoon there was a lot that we were trying to achieve as a band,” says Ross. “On Get What’s Mine, we had taken that time to achieve all those things. … Just that difference in experience and looking at the band with a very serious professionalism: I think it was a huge shift we had that year.”
Ross — who started Jack Swing in 2016 as what was more-or-less a solo project — has been active in Pittsburgh’s DIY scene for years, playing in bands like Brightside and Skull Kid. At one point, he recalls, he was in six bands at once.
But his first forays into music were as a rapper, which makes sense since his mom was the first female rapper from Pittsburgh to release a record, under the name Jazzi Love (“Now she’s a principal,” Ross says, fondly adding that the students call her the “Rapping Principal.”) It wasn’t until he was around 9 years old that he remembers first hearing rock music.
Nowadays — while Jack Swing is most certainly a rock ‘n’ roll band — Ross has what he calls a “strained” relationship with the genre. “The things I wish that I got from rock music I’m actually finding myself getting from hip hop and rap,” he says, noting that, since that’s where he started out, there’s always some element of that genre in his songwriting. In some ways, he says, hip hop today embodies the same rebellious spirit as classic rock icons like Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix. “A big thing for me with Jack Swing is bringing those hip-hop themes and feelings and emotions to a band, with it still being a rock band, without necessarily rapping. Still giving that rhythmic energy and that same kind of emotional progression that I feel like I get with a lot of hip hop.”
Lyrically, Get What’s Mine For You deals in the complex and often painful present. “There’s a lot on all people of color’s minds right now; even bigger than that, just all people,” Ross says. He, too, had a lot on his mind when writing these songs, but “Get What’s Mine …” in particular was an attempt to find a framework of empowerment.
Making music, or playing in a band can sometimes seem frivolous. “It almost feels like, how can you dedicate yourself to something like this, with so many things going on? It was this realization that, regardless of what’s going on, you kind of owe it to yourself to find ways to achieve these dreams that you’ve had for so long while finding ways to be present in the fights that you feel you need to fight socially.”
The EP was released by Walker Records, which Ross, along with his friend Matthew Williams of Brightside, launched earlier this year. Coming up in the Pittsburgh indie-rock scene, Ross recalls, “to see [another] person of color in any of these settings … I was very surprised. Which, for a while I thought was super normal, but the older I got [it was] like, ‘This is weird.’”
Lately, though, he’s seen that shift. “In recent years I’ve been seeing a lot more diversity … just a much more versatile scene all around,” he says. “It has a long way to go for sure, but it’s been really cool to see that progress particularly over the last decade or so.”
He hopes that Walker Records will be able to contribute to that growth. “One of the biggest things that we wanted to focus on was finding these diverse acts. Cause there really are so many of them in Pittsburgh, so many cool people doing cool stuff that just don’t really get [the attention] that they deserve.” The label’s first release by an artist that isn’t one of Ross or William’s bands is Kids Like Me, an EP from Swampwalk, Anna Hale’s wonderful gameboy-beat-based, lo-fi electro project.
“Pittsburgh is a very old-mentality kind of town in a lot of ways,” Ross says. “I think one thing that helped me [as an artist] was learning to look bigger than Pittsburgh. It gets to a point where it feels super unmotivating when you’re looking at how the Pittsburgh music scene handles things on a day-to-day basis, or even long term. It’s like, why am I doing this here?” For him, the antidote has been to go see how things are done elsewhere, and then bring new ideas back to the local scene.
“I feel like there’s a lot of work to be done in the Pittsburgh music scene,” Ross adds. “There are a lot of good people at the heart of it who are pushing to make that happen.”