In his youth, Swift moved frequently with his family, spending time in rural locations in Northern Minnesota and Southeastern Utah. He started performing and singing in a variety of churches around the age of fourteen. As a teenager, he was known to make movies on the family's handheld video camera, and soon started experimenting with a 4-track cassette recorder. He began writing and recording original material at home.
In 2001, Swift moved to Southern California to pursue his solo recording career. He recorded Walking Without Effort but, unsure as to how it should be released, shelved it. In 2002–03 Swift recorded The Novelist, selling home-made copies at shows in and around Los Angeles. Later in the year he went on to release a small pressing of "properly manufactured" versions via Velvet Blue Music. As well as the first 4 Richard Swift 7"s. In 2004, Swift combined The Novelist and Walking Without Effort to create the double-disc The Richard Swift Collection Vol. 1. He signed to indie label Secretly Canadian, who then re-released the Collection in 2005. After touring in the US and Europe and releasing half a dozen 45s/EPs, UK major label Polydor signed Swift, and yet again the double disc was re-released in hopes of introducing Swift to the UK. In 2007, Polydor/Secretly Canadian issued his proper follow-up "Dressed Up For the Letdown". Fans and critics praised the record as Swift's greatest work to date. Later in the year Swift met Wilco-frontman Jeff Tweedy during a taping of the BBC program "Later...with Jools Holland". Tweedy asked Swift to support Wilco on their Sky Blue Sky US tour. During the tour Tweedy invited Swift to record at their Loft in Chicago, IL. In October 2007, Swift started his 4th LP at the Wilco Loft. The year ended with Richard canceling a string of November shows with friends Cold War Kids due to a wrist injury. In late February 2008 the Secretly Canadian website announced the future release of a double EP named "Richard Swift As Onasis", which was released in April of that year. In August 2008, Swift released an EP entitled "Ground Trouble Jaw" as a digital download. In April 2009, Secretly Canadian released "The Atlantic Ocean" which saw the return of Swift's pop-centric song writing. The album featured special guests such as Pat Sansone (Wilco), Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens, Crystal Skulls, Pedro the Lion), Sean Lennon, producer Mark Ronson, and singer/songwriter Ryan Adams. In 2014, Swift toured and performed with The Black Keys as their bassist.
In early 2009, after breaking a finger, Swift began spending more time working with other artists as producer. May 2010 saw the release of fellow Secretly Canadianrecording artistDamien Jurado's record "Saint Bartlett". In 2010, Swift also produced The Mynabirds' "What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood" and co-produced Laetitia Sadier's album "The Trip". Swift is known to often provide hefty contributions as a multi-instrumentalist to the albums he produces. In a 2007 interview, Swift commented on his techniques as a producer and engineer, stating "Most of my recording techniques come from looking at photos on the inside of Sly & The Family Stone or Beatles LPs, or from watching 'Sympathy for the Devil' and thinking, 'Oh! That's where they put the mic!'."
In addition to the music recorded under his own moniker and producing work, he was also briefly a keyboardist in the band Starflyer 59 in 2003, playing live shows and contributing to their 2003 album "Old". He also currently fronts his own ambient-electronic-outfit-side-project, Instruments of Science and Technology.