Interview: Emma Swift’s take on Bob Dylan, East Nashville and Marmite

Emma Swift is an up and coming Australian singer-songwriter, currently living in East Nashville with partner Robyn Hitchcock, who has taken the initially surprising career move of issuing an album of Dylan covers. However, Swift’s songwriting abilities are put to good use in helping her interpret the songs and making them her own with clear and expressive folk-influenced vocals . She is supported by her East Nashville musician friends, including Wilco’s Patrick Sansone who acted as producer. The songs were originally recorded to help Swift deal with her depression in 2017 and it was the coronavirus lockdown that provided the impetus for their release. While Swift is based in Nashville she doesn’t see herself as solely a country artist with folk, folk-rock and indie-pop being part of her musical palette.  Americana-UK’s Martin Johnson contacted Emma Swift in her East Nashville home to discuss her new album, ‘Blonde On The Tracks’,  the Australian music scene, her influences and the impact of streaming on independent artists.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
Me and my family and my friends, like everyone else, are doing the best we can in these extraordinary times. Thanks for asking. I hope you are doing okay too.

This is a tough time for musicians. I notice that your new album ‘Blonde On The Tracks’ will not be available for streaming, what made you take this approach and what are your views on ‘Bandcamp’?
Mainstream streaming services (Spotify, Apple etc.) do not exist to support artists. They support tech autocrats and the ultimate capitalist goal: convenience at whatever cost. The price musicians pay for this has never been more exposed than during the pandemic, when most of us have lost the bulk of our income because our tours have been cancelled. I can’t participate in a system that wants to use my art and call it “exposure” but doesn’t care if I can’t afford to buy groceries. ‘Bandcamp’, though not perfect, is a good and more artist-friendly listening alternative.

You are Australian and you have been living and working in Nashville. A lot of people will assume you are a country artist. How do you classify your music and what have been the benefits of working in Nashville?
I’m not sure why living in Nashville classifies me as a country artist any more than the assumption that someone from Bristol must be a trip-hop musician, but people love to put musicians in boxes don’t they?! I grew up listening to Sandy Denny and The Sundays and Patti Smith and David Bowie. I’d say they’ve had a far greater influence on what I’m trying to do than country music per se, though I do have heroes in the country genre: Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton come to mind.

You are a singer-songwriter whose debut EP won an ARIA Award for Best Country Album. You are also working on a new album, ‘Slow Dancing With Ghosts’. Why release an album of Dylan covers?
I was nominated for the ARIA award, but I didn’t win. I drank all the cheap champagne on offer (and then some) and also had a good view of Harry Styles’ dazzling British smile from my seat. Yes, to celebrate the wondrous achievements of Australian music and all that Australians have to offer, some industry genius hired One Direction. “Quick, none of our bands are good enough, let’s fly in these English guys!” LOL. The idea for the Dylan record came about when I was down and out and not very inspired to write my own material. Depressed and bored and lonely, I went to my record collection for guidance and there was Mr Zimmerman, reassuring and brilliant. At the time, I wasn’t even sure I would release the songs, I just wanted to be in a recording studio again and be with a band..

Not every track on ‘Blonde On The Tracks’ would be familiar to the casual Dylan listener. How did you select the songs to cover?
I went to the source material. I didn’t listen to any other artists singing Bob Dylan, I just went to the records and worked out what resonated with me at the time. So much of what I do as an artist is instinct and then thinking about it later. I can see now, though I couldn’t at the time, that my having clinical depression when this project began had a huge impact on the songs that I chose. There’s a lot of pensiveness here and a lot of Dylan’s more “personal” sounding material.

You covered the lead single from ‘Blonde On Blonde’. What does that album mean to you?
What does the bee mean to the flower? It’s a perfect, life-giving record.

‘Going Going Gone’ was given extra poignancy when it was included on Gregg Allman’s posthumous ‘Southern Blood’ album. Did his version influence your choice?
I haven’t heard it.

Betty LaVette and Maria Muldaur both recorded albums of Dylan covers and brought their own personalities to bear on the material. What do you think you have brought to Dylan’s songs?
The Dylanologists of the world hold the answer to this question. I’m way too close to the material to know.

Sandy Denny also recorded various Dylan covers with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and solo, why do you think Dylan’s songs are so attractive to female performers?
I don’t know. Why was ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ attractive to The Byrds? What was it about ‘All Along The Watchtower’ that lit up Jimi Hendrix?

Dylan has been a bit of a musical chameleon over the years, with individual albums having their own musical characteristics, ‘Blonde On The Tracks’ has its own musical themes. Who was responsible for the musical arrangements?
Bob Dylan mostly. The songs are fairly loyal to the original structures of his recordings. In terms of the instrumentation on my record, each person plays their own part. We didn’t work off notated charts, we just went into Magnetic Sound Studio and hit record. To me the making of a song is more or less like taking a bunch of carefully selected ingredients to a cauldron and then tweaking the brew until it has magical properties.

How did you get to know producer Pat Sansone and what did he bring to the recording?
Pat lives in my neighbourhood in East Nashville and we like a lot of the same music, so we would often see each other out and about at gigs. Nashville is a small town! He brought intelligence, experience and a great vision. After the initial recordings were tracked, he worked tirelessly to illuminate these songs and elevate the sound of the initial recordings. To me, that’s what a good producer does. They’re not the ship, but they steer it.

 You broadcast a number of ‘Settle In At Home’ sessions in Nashville with partner Robyn Hitchcock. How much has he influenced your music, and have you influenced his?

Any artist who has ever lived with another artist knows how this goes… They get in your oatmeal and you get in theirs. It’s part of the deal.

Have you worked much in Australia since your award nomination in 2014?
I tour Australia sporadically. There’s not much work there for artists at my career level, we just don’t have the population there to sustain constant touring and that is what streaming has done to musicians, made it essential that all of us, if we want to make any money, are out on the road all of the time. So I’ve been everywhere a lot and home not very much at all.

What is your take on the Australian music scene? Do you think there is any surge of interest in Australian artists?
I am very inspired by the Melbourne songwriter Jen Cloher. She’s my hero. As an artist and as a record label owner (she co-owns Milk! Records with her former partner Courtney Barnett), Jen celebrates Australian music and works hard to bring that music to the world. Her songs are fantastic. She’s the Aussie Patti Smith and the Aussie Neil Young. She’s also very candid about her industry experience. I’m not signed to her label, but she shares a lot of information online so all artists can benefit.

During your time in Nashville, did you experience anything that helped you develop a view of the challenges facing American society?
When my friend Ben Eyestone died of cancer at aged 28, I saw how cruel and inhumane a user-pays healthcare system is. Ben should be alive today. As a culture, America puts money and the pursuit of wealth above basic human decency every single day and it has devastating consequences. There’s a mural of Ben up on the wall at a local bar and it’s a picture of a skeleton with a beer in its hand. That’s not how I remember him, but it’s certainly how this country treats its citizens.

How are you protecting your career while still dealing with the Coronavirus restrictions?
The same way I always have, one day at a time, with a healthy dose of passion, enthusiasm, cynicism, joy and magical thinking.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently on your playlist?
I am always listening to old and new records, here’s a few recently released favourites:
Hachiku – ‘Shark Attack’ (single)
Brittany Howard – ‘Jaime’
Jen Cloher – self-titled

Finally, is there anything you want to say to your UK audience?
Thanks for the Marmite!  And… if you see Brenda Blethyn, tell her I love her.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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