“Swim Test” – the latest single from Cassandra Violet Wolken McGrath (the L.A.-based singer-songwriter better known simply as Cassandra Violet) – was inspired by her father, but as the COVID-19 pandemic took a deadly turn in Los Angeles, the song has taken on a new meaning.
By day, McGrath is an English teacher at a high school in Boyle Heights, an L.A. neighborhood that’s been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. “My students are the most resilient people I know. They’re amazing. I know that we’ll get through it, but it’s very hard,” she says. “Everyone needs a little morale boost right now… as the pandemic is dragging on further and further, it’s feels like we keep sinking.”
In that respect, “Swim Test” is a way of cheering on people as they try to move forward through incredibly challenging times; it was inspired by McGrath’s father. “Sometimes dads can be kind of a mystery, and there’s just a few memories that you hear from them that become etched into your mind,” she says. “One one of the memories that he told me was that he can’t swim, and when he was applying to college, he had to pass a swim test. He just faked it and doggy paddled and passed it.” It was an anecdote that McGrath’s dad shared in passing, but it stuck with her. “I always thought that was completely insane,” she says. “Even the idea of taking a swim test to go to college is insane to me.”
But there was something inspiring about the story too, a underlying theme of figuring out what you’re doing when you’re in the midst of it and getting to the other side alright. “That’s all that’s all anyone ever does, figure it out,” she says. “No one knows, but you hack away at it and you survive.”
That story became the basis for McGrath’s new single and video, “Swim Test,” out today, January 15. The single is a precursor to her debut full-length album, Maybe It’s Not Too Late, scheduled for release in May. Two other songs from the forthcoming album, “Superbloom” and “Nobody But You,” have already been released.
McGrath worked on Maybe It’s Not Too Late with her friend Joe Berry, a synthesizer player and saxophonist who plays with M83. About half of the album was recorded prior to the pandemic. After COVID-19 hit, McGrath turned her closet into a makeshift recording booth and continued work. It was challenging, she says, but the process also helped her stay in contact with people while at home. “To hear your drummer playing to your song that you’ve recorded in a closet, it’s still cool,” she says. “It steel feels, in a way, like you’re together.”
McGrath, who also plays guitar, clarinet and is a “prodigious whistler” has had songs featured on TV series like Ozark and Undercover and has released several singles and EPs since 2014. She wrote “Swim Test” in late 2019 – “I wrote it plucking two strings on the guitar over and over again,” she says – and was able to debut it on stage a few times before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Los Angeles venues. “I played it live in several venues and never told my dad that I wrote a song about him,” McGrath says. “I guess I felt sort of shy.” Though she told her dad about the song recently, she said he probably wouldn’t hear it until its release.
McGrath hadn’t initially intended to release “Swim Test” prior to the album, but as the months at home dragged on and the pandemic grew more intense in Los Angeles, it’s one that became more poignant; a post-holiday surge has left hospitals short on beds and deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise. In a less expected twist of events, the song also arrives a week and a half after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “It’s stunning, the events that have transpired, it’s truly jaw-dropping,” says McGrath, adding that it’s important to be kind to ourselves in this moment. “Even if we feel like we don’t have everything together, it’s okay. If we’re alive and breathing, we’re doing okay.”
At its core, “Swim Test” is about persistence, about pushing forward even when you’re on the verge of giving up. “That is how I think a lot of people, including myself, are feeling right now,” McGrath says. “I just wanted to remind everyone to stay strong and to not drown.”
It’s a message that couldn’t be more timely for the U.S., especially in McGrath’s hometown. “My heart is breaking for L.A.,” she says. “I wish I could sent love to everyone.” With “Swim Test,” she may have done just that.
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