Photo by Autumn Dozier
Since the pandemic began in March, Emma Swift has been out of the house exactly twice. One was to the vet for her cat Ringo Stardust and the second was to the post office to mail copies to her native Australia of Blonde On The Tracks, a collection of eight Bob Dylan songs (Tiny Ghost Records).
“It’s weirdly like being on board a ship,” she told me over Zoom. “I’ve lost all sense of time. The only days I know what day of the week it is is Wednesday and Friday. There’s a gig and I’ve got to show up.”
Ensconced in the East Nashville home she shares with Robyn Hitchcock, the couple has been performing on two StageIt shows each week. The hundreds of people who tune in have provided a lifeline in a time when live shows are non-existent.
“If we didn’t have the show on Wednesday and Friday, we wouldn’t have any income,” Swift days, “and I certainly wouldn’t be talking with you about Blonde on The Tracks.”
When she and Hitchcock did two back to back shows of all Bob Dylan songs, you could forgive the duo for not covering “Murder Most Foul.” The seventeen-minute song had just come out and Swift deftly said with a smile they didn’t have time to rehearse it. Instead they pulled out gems from The Basement Tapes like “Tiny Montgomery” and “Open The Door Homer” and Dylan’s unfinished followup to “Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands” entitled “I’m Not There.”
Swift quipped that Dylan has provided the “comfort of doom” for pandemic times. As her voice filled her living room on “Simple Twist Of Fate,” she didn’t let on that the she had been working on a project that began nearly three years ago over two days in Nashville at Majestic Sound and culminated when she decided to cover Dylan’s “I Contain Multitudes” this Spring. Against the lighthearted comic banter of the StageIt shows, there was a serious approach to craft in the studio that began when Swift focused on “Queen Jane Approximately” and two Blonde on Blonde songs “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “One of Us Must Know (Sooner of Later).”
“The honest truth of this record for me, is that this is an album that was born out of crisis, in that I was depressed and really struggling,” she confided. “It was not a hugely happy or productive period of my life. I’d been living in Nashville for four years and by that point my six track EP had come out three years before. I was due for a follow-up but I didn’t have much going on. so I turned to Bob Dylan to help me make sense of the world and get out of bed.”
When Swift heard “I Contain Multitudes,” she knew she wanted to be the first artist to cover it. “I’ve written about ‘Multitudes’ online with an almost spiritual reverence and all of this is absolutely true. You can hear Dylan collecting this catalogue of all of the experiences in his life.”
“Songs kind of pick themselves in a magic kind of way,” she reflected on the song selection. Once she had “Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands” and “Queen Jane Approximately,” she looked to do songs that haven’t been widely covered. That led her to mine New Morning and Planet Waves from the early Seventies. “You know when people say ‘Oh my ultimate Bob Dylan record is this,’ I wanted to go for the ones people forgot about.”
In “Going, Going Gone,” the record replicates the mysterious small ensemble sound of the Planet Waves sessions Dylan did with the Band nearly five decades ago. When Swift enunciates Dylan’s confessional that “I’ve just reached a place where the willow don’t bend” and adds resonance to language like “the top of the end.”
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” she says of Dylan’s word choices.
“When you put that song in the context of a person who is experiencing depression, it gives it a kind of despair an loneliness. I didn’t feel that as much when I sang on it as when I reflect back on it. I’m able to go, ‘Oh my gosh that is so sad.’ I get tears in my eyes when I realize what it’s like to sing a song like that.”
The sonic landscape of Blonde On The Tracks is anchored around the dual guitars of Hitchcock and Wilco’s Patrick Sansone who produced the album. On “Queen Jane Approximately,” you feel as if you stepped into a Byrds’ session with Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark in the room. Sansone gives Swift’s effervescent vocals the flyte path and runway she needs, soaring in “Queen Jane Approximately” and in the rich, expansive “You’re a Big Girl Now.” The third of three videos promoting the album is a homage to graphic designer Milton Glaser.
In “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Swift revels in the rich language that is faithful to the majestic opus, a song Dylan is said to have been quoted he’d never play it again because it is too sad. Swift’s shining moment is her interpretation of the complex relationship letter “One of Is Most Know (Sooner or Later)” which is wonderfully slowed down from its original. Swift savors the lines like fine wine and instinctively follows the dramatic tension, The beauty of this is how she allows us to hear lines anew and brings us into the wonder of re-imagining who was on the receiving line when she sings “I didn’t realize how young you were.” Swift resists the temptation to embellish Dylan’s phrasing and overplaying her hand, playing it straight on his great kiss-off: “You just happened to be there.”When I tell her I wonder how she kept a straight face singing the line “And then you told me later as I apologized, That you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really from the farm,” she gives another take: “I think it’s a kiss-off to Nashville as well in the way country music is sold and the authenticity about what it means to be from the country.”
Swift emigrated from Sydney drawn by Nashville’s music scene and a long line of artists who had made music in the city. Swift was hooked when she saw Guy Clark play at 3rd & Lindsley. “I think Townes Van Zandt got to Australia once,” she said of the continent that for many was too far and not enough money. Swift was once a radio broadcaster in Sydney.
Before he moved to Nashville, Hitchcock had made a record with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. The couple has assimilated in a community of songwriters including Sansone and Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs “They’re our kin,” she adds.
Swift enlisted drummer Jon Radford for Blonde on the Tracks. The cover image was painted on a mural at Grimey’s Records by his wife Kim who placed Swift alongside her pairing of Lilly Hiatt’s Walking Proof.
“I’m cautious about not making it sound like some kind of Utopian place,” Swift says of East Nashville. “It has its cultural issues we all know about. The coolest thing that’s happened in a while is that four teenagers started the Black Lives Matter protests. They’re to me the future of Nashville much more than anyone in the music industry.
Like many of her contemporaries, Swift looks askance on downtown Nashville during the pandemic. “There are those who refuse to take it seriously and that’s heartbreaking for us. We have friends who have died of coronavirus, people who were healthy like Matthew Seligman the bass player for the Soft Boys. To see people in Kid Rock’s stupid bar going off as though this deadly pandemic is some kind of myth is not only offensive it’s a symptom of toxic American individualism that I think is the logical result of having someone like 45 in office.”
Swift evokes her political perspective in the video for “Queen Jane Approximately” directed by animator Hugh Hales-Tooke. In it we see Mitch McConnell’s image on a carnival game of chance.
“I love America. I wouldn’t live here if I didn’t love what America has to offer,” Swift comments. “But America has problems like the whole world has problems. This is what I say to my American friends who say it’s so embarrassing. No, the government in Australia is just as bad. I am in solidarity with my American friends who feel sadness.”
At home, she and Hitchcock express their love for Dylan references. They also talk about music constantly, whether it be about Brian Eno , T Rex, Dusty Springfield or Etta James. When I mention there’s two Dylanologists in the house, Swift says she see herself more as an enthusiast.
Hitchcock had a memorable appearance at Americanafest several years ago. On the day he presented Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch with an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award, Hitchcock held court on a panel discussing Dylan’s involvement in Nashville.
Hitchcock introduced the theory that if you turn the cover of John Wesley Harding upside down, underneath a bar of white in the tree you can see images of the Beatles.
Dylan once commented that Blonde on Blonde was the closest he ever got to “wild mercury soul,” the sound he once described being like “metallic bright gold.” Al Kooper once described Blonde on Blonde as “the sound of 3:00 in the morning.”
“He was doing an interview about something he did twelve years ago,” Hitchcock commented. “If he had done the interview at lunch, he might have said it was ‘lemon green, a squiggly record with a lot of sponge.’”
Swift is getting ready to celebrate the release of Blonde on the Tracks which has gotten tremendous support from the Bandcamp community. Swift has been outspoken that she won’t release the album on Spotify. In a show of solidarity, Grimey’s bought out all of the signed green vinyl pressings exclusively for their customers. (Order here.)
Swift is looking to next year when she will release one of the songs from her forthcoming album she’s close to finishing, Sleeping With Ghosts. The Eno-ish sounding title will be released in early 2022. Once again she will revert to her own independent business model she describes as “very 2002.” Everything will be on CD, vinyl, cassette and via digital download but not freely streamed.
“The music industry model doesn’t work in COVID times,” she’s concluded.
Join Emma Swift for a streaming album release party from Grimey’s:
August 20 at 7 p.m. CST.