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Interview: Emma Swift

18 December 2020

Photo by Autumn Dozier

One of this year’s best albums, Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks, may not have even seen the light of day had it not been for a global pandemic. The Nashville-by-way-of-Australia indie/folk artist had started work on her collection of Bob Dylan covers in 2017 but didn’t have any plans to release them until her livelihood as a touring artist came to an abrupt halt and she needed a way to earn an income. The added bonus of waiting to release the album was that Dylan released his own album, the amazing Rough and Rowdy Ways (seriously, how does the 79-year-old continue to write timeless music this deep into his career?), in June. Swift quickly latched onto the single “I Contain Multitudes” and was able to record her version of the song for inclusion on Blonde on the Tracks which made it as timely as it did classic.

During quarantine, Swift and her partner (and musical co-hort), Robyn Hitchcock, have leaned into the current situation and have been performing live shows via a variety of online platforms on a regular basis. It’s thrilling to get an intimate glimpse into the duo’s life and have them perform in your own living room.

The following is just a portion of the 75-minute Zoom call we recently did.

Bob Dylan did not have a big place in my life growing up, it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve started really listening to his stuff. What I love about your record is that I’m treating it as a gateway drug to listen to Bob Dylan. You’ve made it consumable for me to wrap my arms around. By listening to you do these songs, I’ve gone back to listen to the songs that you’ve covered and then been able to dive a little deeper in. In a sense, you’re introducing me to his music.

EMMA SWIFT: That’s a huge compliment. Wow.

I have a few friends who I talk music with pretty regularly and Dylan and Neil Young are two artists that they are super passionate about. I’m not in either of those boats right now, I’m more of the casual listener. That’s why I think I return to your versions of the songs more than I return to the originals because there’s something about your delivery that captures my interests.

EMMA SWIFT: That’s really nice of you to say. There’s a part of me that’s a lot like you in terms of my Bob Dylan fandom. If I had thought too much about how obsessed with Dylan some people are, I don’t think I could have made the project because it would have been too overwhelming for me. I’m not a completist. I don’t know all the biographical details. I don’t know all the songs. But I do love the material and I have huge reverence for it. The same can be said for me and Neil Young or Elvis Costello. I tend to be very obsessive/compulsive in a way, so if I’m getting into a Dylan record, I’ll be into that particular one.

My understanding is that you had this idea to record these songs in your head for a couple of years.

EMMA SWIFT: Yeah, the record was born as an idea in 2017. I was going through a period of fairly intense depression and writer’s block. I was living in Nashville and that’s a really intimidating town to not be very productive in because everywhere you go, everybody is a wonderful songwriter or a performer and they are all doing exciting things all of the time. I was just treading water, not doing very much of anything. So I decided to book some studio time and I had this idea that I would do Blonde on the Tracks. So I came up with the title first because I love Blonde on Blonde and I love Blood on the Tracks, but then when I went to those records and I started to take a look at the tracklist, so much of the material from both of those albums has been covered really extensively before. That was really intimidating so I decided to broaden my scope. I’m a big collector of vinyl and I went through the records that I had in my collection and came across “Planet Waves” and “New Morning” and started to select songs from here and there. And then I put the project away. I started writing my own songs. I got distracted and I came back to the project when Dylan released “I Contain Multitudes” this year because that, in many ways, as a song felt like the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s a profoundly beautiful song, I’m incredibly moved by it. I just feel so thoroughly blessed that Dylan put out a record this year. As a Dylan fan, and as someone who is perhaps a more casual fan like yourself, to have something to deep dive into has been extremely fun and a kind of enchanting experience.

This year has given all of us so much time to reflect and to reconsider what we value, especially when there’s a sensory deprivation going on with quarantine. At least in my experience, it has made the listening to music so much more intense and personal because I’m so used to going and seeing a live show. That’s usually how I get into records. Whereas it’s a little more like being a kid again now.

When you had these songs ready to go, was it a conscious decision to put it out on vinyl first?

EMMA SWIFT: Absolutely. I love vinyl, it’s how I first fell in love with music. All of my favorite albums, I’ve owned on vinyl first. I taught myself to sing listening to Linda Ronstadt records, so that AM radio thing, that classic L.A. sound of some of those albums, like Joni Mitchell and Warren Zevon and Crosby, Stills and Nash, I think about those artists as album artists. I’m really old fashioned like that. I know we live in a pop and a singles world, but I still like to think of things as records.

On this album, I really wanted it to be not just a Bob Dylan cover. I wanted it to be so much more of a statement of love and reverence. The songs are designed to be listened to together.

Was this record kickstarted because of 2020 and what’s going on? If we hadn’t experienced a pandemic, would Blonde on the Tracks have come out this year?

EMMA SWIFT: I don’t know that it would have. It’s quite possible that the record would have stayed in my Dropbox. I’ve been working on my own material and I think I probably would have continued to work on that project and just let the Dylan thing simmer, perhaps forever. You never know. The impetus for it to come out was that I lost all my touring work and I found myself at home and I needed to keep myself employed. I needed to have an income revenue which putting the record out would do but also I needed something to get me through, a life raft. I’m so enamored with these songs and I just thought it would be a great shame if I didn’t share them.

When you’re covering Dylan, you know there’s a built-in audience or people that would be interested in hearing these songs regardless of who you are. Has the response to the album exceeded your expectations or did you have a good idea that people were going to latch onto this because of the songs?

EMMA SWIFT: Oh no. I actually thought that because of the material, I was a bit more apprehensive and that might be way the recorded hadn’t come out before now. I was just a little too scared to dip my toe into that quite intimidating world. I think that people have very strong opinions about Bob Dylan and that can be, quite frankly, a scary place to go. I honestly thought the record would reach a small, niche fanbase that I have and that would be the end of it. I really didn’t anticipate that it would mean something to people I didn’t already know. That, to me, has been a really lovely twist on putting this album out. It’s absolutely blown my mind that people like it and that it’s been played all over the world. It’s been in The Big Takeover, it’s been in German Rolling Stone. It’s really quite special.

Did you watch the Bee Gees documentary? It’s great. One thing that stuck out was that when they were going through their down time and people had stopped buying their records, they were writing huge hits for other artists. It got me to thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to have Dylan write an album for you. You’re delivery his material in your way and you delivery it so well. I think it would cool if he wrote songs that he didn’t perform so that people wouldn’t have anything to compare them to but would rather be able to enjoy the way he writes songs and lyrics.

EMMA SWIFT: Oh my gosh, that would be a top 10 fantasy list of people to write a record. I love singing Dylan songs, there’s a majesty and a beauty to them and that would be an absolute dream come true. I don’t think it is likely to happen but what you’re pointing towards is that idea of celebrating the songwriter and the singer not necessarily being the same person. I think acknowledgement of that is really, really important because there are some artists who are absolutely fantastic at doing both. It goes back to people like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan but then you’ve got performers like Frank Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, Linda Ronstadt, Ella Fitzgerald who didn’t write their own material, who are actually there as singers in service of the song as an independent entity. I think that’s really worth celebrating.

You think about an artist like Dylan. I went into the studio to record Blonde on the Tracks, he had just finished Triplicate and that was his homage to Frank Sinatra and the great American songbook. I think that’s there’s room for both.

Did you grow up listening to the Bee Gees?

EMMA SWIFT: Oh yeah, absolutely, particularly that Saturday Night Fever soundtrack but then, was it Barry Gibb who wrote “Islands in the Stream”? The Bee Gees had lived in Australia for a while so they are very beloved and always on the radio. As a harmony singer, I just love those harmonies, they are so good, really, really sublime stuff.

I know you want to be considered your own artist, but in my review of Blonde on the Tracks in The Big Takeover issue 87 (available here), I asked if it was too early to hope for a Volume 2? Have you recorded more songs or thought about doing that?

EMMA SWIFT: I think I’ll never stop being a singer who sings other peoples’ songs, it’s so much a part of my DNA. Whether they’re Bob Dylan songs or they wind up being Bee Gees songs or Lou Reed songs or Leonard Cohen songs, that’s always going to be something I’m very specifically interested in, especially because I’m not a prolific writer though I do write. I’ve been cautious about committing to doing another Dylan record because I’m currently working on my own songs, but, obviously, Blonde on the Tracks is something I want to take on tour. I’d be foolish not to do a whole bunch of Dylan songs that don’t appear on this record in the show because the album’s only eight songs long. With retrospect, I have some regret about aspects of Dylan’s catalog that I haven’t really acknowledged on this album. That’s not because I don’t think those eras are wonderful or and worth mining, it’s just that I didn’t think of it at the time. Also, when you put a song like “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” on a record, it goes up for 12 minutes and takes the place of three songs. There’s certainly something from Modern Times or Infidels that I’d love to explore.

Was there a well thought-out strategy in doing on-line live shows or was it more like, “I need to find a way to get these songs out to people so let’s see how this works”? Did you and a team sit down together and plan things out?

EMMA SWIFT: My team is me. The success of this record can be put down to the fact that because I was no longer distracted by my day job, which was being a touring musician and selling vintage clothes, I just became a recording artist for the first time in my life. I had to work out how that looked. The minute the tour got canceled, we started doing live shows online. And then they became so regular, they became an event in which we could anchor our week which is really important and good for the mental health to have that little bit of structure. Otherwise, the year would be just floating by and I’d have no idea what day of the week it was.

Nothing can beat looking out into the crowd and seeing people’s reactions to your songs. I’ve watched a few of your live streams and it seems like you’ve got this community of people who have met each other because of you and they are starting to interact with each other. They could be from around the world. You couldn’t get all the same people who watched the live stream I tuned into into the same club to watch you in person. It’s different but it seems like you’ve built this little community.

EMMA SWIFT: I think the online community stuff has been fascinating and absolutely one of the coolest aspects of this entire year for me. I definitely had reservations about doing online shows. If you had said to me in 2019, “Hey, you’ve got to sing into your laptop,” I probably would have said, “That’s not for me.” I think it’s fascinating and cool how certain people from all over the world will show up to each and every one of these streams and chat and talk about their week and did they have a good day, did they have a bad day, did somebody they know have Covid, was it someone’s birthday, did they see this new tweet from Bob Dylan. I think that that kind of connection has become really important. It might have existed in fan forums before but it couldn’t really exist on this level. It’s kind of taken that fan club element and made it really present and in the now. Sometimes when I’m playing, I’m singing and I’m focusing on the song and then the chat is rolling by so fast, I can’t see what’s happening. It’s really heartening to do that. There’s a kind of intimacy in those shows that doesn’t exist when it’s live on stage. If I played a show, it would be kind of weird if I stopped and was like, “Hey Chip, how you doing? I saw you had a cheese sandwich earlier, that’s great.” There’s a kind of casualness to the online gig, I guess because they are so frequent as well that allows for that level of interaction.

For me, you do some of your shows in the afternoon and you played in my living room. It wasn’t like I had to drive for 2 hours on a Tuesday night after work to see you play somewhere in a major market. It was intimate to me whereas if you were on tour and not playing in my city, I wouldn’t have a chance to see these songs played live.

EMMA SWIFT: I think that’s the biggest takeaway that I will have from this when we go into the post-Covid world that performing online is really special and unique. It’s a very fun way to interact with your audience and get them excited for live shows. It’s accessible. There’s all kinds of reasons why people can’t come to a live show, be they family commitments, work commitments, financial commitments. If you’re singing into a computer, then anyone can go. I think that’s really ace. All my family are in Australia. That’s a really long way away to play a show. Australia’s usually the last stop on a world tour. I’d get really excited about bands and by the time they made it to Australia, they’d been playing the record for the last two-and-a-half years, or they’d broken up.

With 2020 coming to an end, did you listen to anything that was released this year or discovered anything from the past that you just heard for the first time?

EMMA SWIFT: There’s loads of fantastic new music coming out at the moment. I’m really inspired and excited by my peers. I think it’s been a really cool year for music. I really like the Lilly Hiatt record, Walking Proof. There’s another female Nashville songwriter called Becca Mancari whose got a great record out. There’s loads of great music.

I’m a huge Lilly Hiatt fan.

EMMA SWIFT: Blonde on the Tracks was recorded at Magnetic Sound studio which is Lilly Hiatt’s boyfriend’s recording studio and he is a massive Bob Dylan fan.

There’s a lot of music that I haven’t really caught yet that I want to listen to but I just haven’t had time to listen to. In part, that’s because I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan records again because I do these interviews so much and some people really want to get into the minutia. That can be quite scary, it’s like, “Oh gosh, if I haven’t listened to Blood on the Tracks this week, will I be able to talk about it?”

What does 2021 look like for you? I read that you’re thinking your album won’t come out until 2022.

EMMA SWIFT: It’s looking like early 2022 for a release for me but I’m booking some studio time early in the year. I’m kind of anticipating that once touring gets going again, it’s going to be very difficult to get off tour and have time to finish projects so I’m trying to get as much creative work done right now for this next record so that it can just be ready to go. I do all the artwork and I do these animated music videos as well and I look to spend time on those aspects of the project. I like to be involved in the whole thing.

I’m wondering, do you know Dylan? Have you given him the record or do you know if he’s even heard it?

EMMA SWIFT: I have no relationship with Bob Dylan. I’ve never met him. I don’t even know if he knows this record exists. I made this album purely out of love for the songs. I think there are some people who might assume that I did the record and was like, “Hey Bob Dylan, pay attention to me” but I don’t even care if I never meet Bob Dylan. It’s not about that level of fandom for me. It’s about the music. I don’t know him, I’m really grateful to him that he’s written all these amazing tunes. I know people who have met him, I know people who have played in his band. I’ve played with Al Kooper and now I know all of these Dylanologists online.

I’m sure some day you’ll meet him.

EMMA SWIFT: I don’t that it matters if it happens or not. I think that the joy in the record was making the art. I’d be just as excited to meet Sinead O’Connor. I was a kid in the ’90s and watched music television. Watching the “Nothing Compares 2 U” video is one of the most vivid and intense memories of my childhood and perhaps the first time that I thought, “I want to be a singer. I want to do that.” I can remember sitting in front of the television on the shag carpet in our suburban brick veneer home, thinking, “I want to grow up and sing really sad songs.” And she’s singing a Prince song. She’s singing someone else’s song.

Is there a record that came out this year that you feel like you’re the only one who has heard it and you want to tell everyone to check it out?

EMMA SWIFT: There’s a really beautiful record called A Dark Murmuration of Works by an Australian songwriter called Emily Barker, she lives in the UK right now and has for about 20 years. It’s a poetic prose record but very beautifully arranged. It’s not as twangy or rock and roll as, say, something like Lilly Hiatt but it’s still really smart and quite beautiful, so if you’re a fan of Fiona Apple and Lilly Hiatt and Lydia Loveless, I feel like this would slide quite neatly and nicely into your record collection.

I’d like to close with this question, just because you share the same last name. What are your thoughts on Taylor Swift?

EMMA SWIFT: She’s wonderful, I think she’s really fantastic, extraordinarily gifted as a songwriter and compelling as an artists. And, frankly, very inspiring. It doesn’t get talked about how much she does back in the community but at the beginning of the pandemic, she donated some money to Grimey’s Records in Nashville that allowed for them to keep their staff on payroll and keep them in health care. She also did this whole epic thing of signing CDs and making sure they could only be sold locally. Her heart is in the right place, she’s definitely not just a pop star, she’s a real music fan.