I first discovered Emma Swift’s music at a Folk Alliance Conference in Kansas City a few years ago. Emma was accompanying legendary singer-songwriter, Robyn Hitchcock. Their set was a memorable one, high atop the conference in a large penthouse with a comfortable stage. I remember making acquaintances with some young musicians who were totally mesmerized by the performance. We ooohed and ahhhed together in the crowded room. Emma and Robyn’s appearance was a highlight of that conference for me. Fast forward to this year’s Folk Unlocked (Folk Alliance’s virtual conference) and I got to check out Emma once again as she introduced many to her latest songs virtually. It didn’t take long for me to dig some more into her music and ask Emma if she’d be open to an interview,
Emma’s most recent album, Blonde on the Tracks, is a most notable addition to Bob Dylanology. Emma’s interpretations of Dylan’s songs are uniquely tender and contemporary, despite the age of some of the songs included on this eclectic collection. One of the songs that struck me was one of Dylan’s newest songs, “I Contain Multitudes,” (2020). Maybe it stuck in my consciousness because it was a song that I was not intimately familiar with it due it’s short history. It’s stark and stunning and a must listen.
However, the discovery of Emma’s original song “The Soft Apocalypse” magnified the sensation of this past year of being locked down in this strange Twilight Zone-ish COVID world. The fragility. The desolation. The despair. The reality of it all. I’m not in “Tennessee Time” but I can so identify with Emma’s descriptions of the surreal Summer of 2020. Who among us has not felt like the world will never be the same again?
Discover “The Soft Apocalypse” for yourself Right Now.
For more information about all things Emma Swift, visit her website.
Now for some questions!
Please tell us a little bit about your life in Australia. Were you a city or a country girl? Give us a bit of information about your geographical and cultural landscape.
I grew up in the country on the East Coast of Australia. My parents traveled a lot for work and we lived in a series of small towns before settling in Wagga Wagga, an inland city with a population of about 50 thousand people. In the Wiradjuri language, the language of the local indigenous people, Wagga Wagga means “the place of many crows”. I really love that. Geographically, the area is wheat farms and vineyards and big blue skies – it reminds me a little bit of Northern California and a little bit of Missouri. That said, I don’t really consider myself a “country” person, as I moved to Sydney as soon as I left school, and when I think of home, it’s Sydney in my mind.
How did music figure into your life as a young person? What are your memories about being attracted by the rhythm or by the words?
I was given a pink Sony cassette deck for my 5th birthday and that began my lifelong music obsession. I made mix tapes for myself from songs off the radio, and my mum also made me some tapes from their record collection. A lot of my early listening was to 1960s and 1970s classic rock, despite being a kid of the 1990s, and that sound has stayed with me very much. By the time I was a teen and old enough to own a Walkman, I vividly remember listening to Simon & Garfunkel a lot on the bus to school. All the other kids my age were listening to Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and I was sniffling away to quietly devastating folk songs like “Kathy’s Song” and “America”. Of course, I liked (and still like) the ‘90s stuff too, but it didn’t punch me in the gut in quite the same way. It didn’t make me want to be a musician. It was listening to the older stuff that planted the dream in my mind.
Did you study music in any formal way or did it just become a part of your life?
I didn’t study music in any formal capacity as a kid. Lessons here and there. Mostly I learned to sing by listening to the radio and singing in the school choir. Once I got to college, I studied beer drinking and English Literature, in that order. I was all over the place as a student, far more committed to seeing bands than I was to writing essays. I love learning, but I’m easily distracted and easily capsized by whatever’s going on around me.
When did you make the transition across the Pacific to the United States? What are your thoughts about that transition?
I moved to America in 2012. A lot of my friends in Sydney had started settling down, and I still wanted to be in the bars seeing bands, so Nashville seemed like a good fit for someone not quite ready to grow up.
You’ve played quite a bit with Robyn Hitchcock over the years. What has he taught you about music, songwriting, and stage performance?
Robyn’s a wonderful songwriter and dynamic, funny live performer. He’s taught me a lot, but I couldn’t say what. I didn’t consciously enroll in “How To Be A Cult Figure 101” though I’ve definitely stolen some of my best ideas from his playbook.
Now into the more recent past and present and future! Your album, Blonde on the Tracks, has received much acclaim. Your tribute to Bob Dylan resounds with a tender delicacy that makes the listener wake up to the powerful subtleties of his lyrics. Given that Dylan has over 500 songs in his catalog, how did you go about choosing the songs you did?
I just went with what felt right at the time. If I recorded it again tomorrow, the song selection would likely be entirely different, with the exception of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, that one is forever my favourite Bob Dylan song.
Your website says that your interpretations of the songs are Laurel Canyon inspired. What does that mean to you?
Some of the most influential singers in my life have been Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, Linda Ronstadt and some of my favourite bands are CSNY, The Byrds, and LOVE. That’s what I mean by Laurel Canyon.
Of course, I’ve got much broader influences too, but I feel like that description is a quick and evocative way to say, “This album is for people who like jangly 12-string guitars and strong, emotional female vocals”.
Apparently. you began this Dylan project in 2017 during a bout with depression and writer’s block. Did getting out to a studio and laying down some Dylan tracks help you emotionally?
I’ve always found singing songs is an effective way to crawl out of the abyss, whether the songs are my own or someone else’s.
I understand that it was only recently that you decided to revisit those songs in your personal “Dropbox” and add a couple more to the collection and at that time you interpreted a song from Dylan’s most recent album Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). Your version of “I Contain Multitudes” was revelatory!
Thank you! I love that song. The poetry undergrad in me loves and respects the professor in Mr. Dylan.
As much as I love the recording of “I Contain Multitudes,” it’s the video that moved me to tears. Your concept and art direction as created by Alex Dar is absolutely brilliant. The images are tastefully selected and bring to light more reasons why Dylan was given the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bravo! You should be forever proud of this video and many kudos to Alex too. Tell us about your involvement with your recent videos. What’s your process?
I made the “I Contain Multitudes” video quite quickly, just collecting images from the roll call of fabulous people Dylan name drops in the song. It was very fun to do. I enjoy collage, stop motion animation, pop art, surrealism. Each of my clips so far from the Blonde album pays homage to those art forms. I have worked with some really talented video makers too – Hugh Hales Tooke’s clip for “Queen Jane Approximately” is full of beautiful, intricate details and clever imagery, Yvonne Moxham’s design for “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” feels like a vibrant love letter to flower power.
Your latest original song, “The Soft Apocalypse,” is outstanding. Your voice wraps itself around the sparse instrumentation and it’s pure perfection! Those lyrics, my goodness, girl! You call it “a song about hope, despair, pantheism, protest and love.” It’s so much more though. The line that says “There is nothing left at all–the cats and the records and the supermarket wine.” Woah! Sorry that I’m gushing but this song is a winner. Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of the song and how it may have come about during “our” crazy COVID year?
I am so blown away that you like it, thank you so much! I wrote this song on the 4th of July. It’s a piano ballad born of existential crisis. I had been living in lockdown for almost four months at the point, so the shock of isolation had worn off and been replaced by an overwhelming sense of loneliness and dread and worry about the future.
The writing of the song all happened quite quickly, about 20 minutes at the piano in total and I had it down. It was just as I was really stepping into promoting my album of Dylan songs, so I think my subconscious was sort of delivering me a “DON’T FORGET YOU WRITE SONGS AS WELL!!!” message.
So, let’s discuss the future. What’s in store? Are you thinking about appearing live again? Can you pick up where you left off pre-COVID? Do tell!
Talking about the future stresses me out! I am taking things one day at a time. I’m hoping to record again as soon as I am vaccinated and then tour with a band as well.