Electric Review

Culture & Criticism Since 2003

Reinterpreting the Work of A Master

An Interview With Songwriter Emma Swift

“Like many of the great Bob Dylan songs, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ is a magnet, a fly’s eye view of the cultural wilderness in which we wander. It’s magnificent and heartbreaking, a love letter to words and art and music, to all that has been lost and that all that might be redeemed. To me this song, released by Dylan just two months ago, has become an obsession, a mantra, a prayer. I can’t hope to eclipse it, all I hope to do is allow more people to hear it, to feel comforted by it, and to love it the way I do.”

(Emma Swift, May 27, 2020)

Cover art by Danielle Holbert, used by permission of Emma Swift.

It’s impossible to deny that Bob Dylan changed the face of popular music when he hit New York City in 1962. In addition to the way he married the ancient tradition of poetry to popular song (simultaneously extending the vision of the Beat Generation), Dylan’s other great contribution to the medium is found in the way he has affected the growth of other artists. In a sense, the artists who have been directly influenced by Dylan will carry on for him in the future in much the same way that he has been carrying the torch for Beat poets like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Rexroth and Patchen.

In turn, Emma Swift’s new record, Blonde On the Tracks, provides the  perfect testament to this fact as she interprets a collection of eight of Dylan’s lesser-known classics, bringing a sweet and poignant female perspective to Dylan’s work. In reality, I had no choice but to write on this record – it is simply that good.

The Australia-born Swift, who studied English literature in Sydney and now lives in Nashville, showed some real guts in releasing this collection that sets out to reinterpret a master, cloaking the soft blue smoke of Dylan’s lyrics in the sensuality and nakedness of the female voice. The idea is probably riskier than Swift originally realized: She could have failed miserably, but didn’t. Instead, the end-result is absolutely stunning as she paints a series of new pictures that stain the canvas of Dylan’s songscapes in fresh hot blood.

The track list here is impressive. Rather than take tried and true classics, she instead goes to the secret heart of his catalog, interpreting some of his greatest pieces that most people don’t listen to much; these include: “Sooner Or Later,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “You’re A Big Girl Now” and the recently released “I Contain Multitudes.” The versions of “Queen Jane” and “Sooner or Later” play like twin sisters in Swift’s head –  opening a series of new doors into Dylan’s psyche. As a student of poetry, Swift seeks to enlighten us via her own moments of enlightenment – this real-time glimpse into the way a great old poet’s perspective on love and hunger transfer to the female point of view.

The true centerpiece of the record is Swift’s version of Dylan’s 1966 epic, “Sad Eyed Lady.” Before I heard this, I would have bet hard cash that no one could take Dylan’s ode to his wife Sara and recast its voice. I thought it was simply too personal a tale to be altered. But I was wrong. Here, Swift has recaptured the energy of the original as percussionist Jon Radford lifts Kenny Buttrey’s heartbeat drum line from Blonde On Blonde, using it to drive the ache of Swift’s vocal into the bloom of the great beyond. Raw and sultry, so darkly haunting – this is the essence of music, it’s the sound of the egg cracking and a new life being born.

In the end, Blonde On the Tracks is comprised of  eight poems written by Bob Dylan which Emma Swift has somehow magically made partly her own. No matter what you might have previously thought, you’ll never be able to spin “Sad Eyed Lady Oo the Lowlands” again without hearing Emma Swift breathe in between the verses

The Electric Review was fortunate enough to sit down with Swift on August 21 ,2020 for the following interview.  It marks an important milestone for the magazine as we spotlight one the brightest new voices on the the American music scene who comes to us during one of our darkest times as a nation.

Emma Swift Finds the Path To Inspiration

I understand you grew up in Australia. Tell me how that landscape influenced your development as an artist.

It influenced me in profound ways. Australia is an island [and continent] and I grew up there in the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, it felt so far away from the rest of the world. In those days we didn’t have the internet, so you couldn’t connect with people as easily. Everything felt on delay. Australia was always that final stop on someone’s tour. But it really is a majestic country with a tremendous culture. I grew up on the east coast of Australia, which is similar to San Francisco in many ways – with sandy beaches and eucalyptus trees. I didn’t realize how magnificent it was at the time, with its vivid wildlife. I have been in the United States for seven years now and I truly miss the ‘birdsong’ of Australia – it really does make for a gorgeous soundtrack.

Tell me about your upbringing. Are you from a big family? What kind of work did your father do?

I am the oldest of seven children. My father was a high school geography teacher – a brilliant and interesting man who loved words and literature and music. But he was also a deeply troubled human being. He had a long-running depression which was never diagnosed. He died 17 years ago – when I was 21. He had a heart attack when he was only 48, likely brought on by his depression. My father was quite an influential person in my life in many ways…

And your mother?

My mom is also a teacher. She teaches grammar school-aged children.

How did you become involved in the music business?

I have always been a huge music fan. I am a record collector – vinyl, CDs, tapes. As a kid I was always asking for more music! But my involvement in the business-side of music started in college. [During school], I became involved in community radio, hosting a folk and indie-rock program. That was the start of it for me.

Why did you leave home and come to the United States?

I guess I had fallen in love with mythological ideas that have been sold to me by several other artists – Bob Dylan; Joni Mitchell; the Mamas & The Papas; Neil Young. I saw them as the quintessential capturing of the American poetic life. And I wanted to know what that was all about and experience it for myself. But things were very different once I got here. In Australia, as a musician, I was able to have a side job. But once I arrived in the United States, that was not possible. If you come here on an artist’s visa, you are required to sustain yourself with art. That was great, really – it upped the ante so to speak. The stakes were suddenly higher, and I had no choice but to make it work.

I understand you studied literature in college at Sydney University… 

When I left high school I felt lost. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had no inkling at that time I was going to play music. At the University of Sydney, I found an iconic campus. Old sandstone buildings, it all had a certain romantic appeal. And I began to study poetry and literature. I did many positive things there – I became involved in politics; I edited the student newspaper. But it was also very much a stuffy “old school” environment. In retrospect, I think I would have enjoyed myself more if I had been able to attend a liberal arts college in the United States, some place like [U.C.] Berkeley perhaps.

When we started to discuss the possibility of doing this interview, you mentioned that Kerouac’s On the Road was an early major influence. Explain how that book changed you.

When I think about Kerouac and On the Road, I think about my dad in his armchair, glass of wine in hand, reciting his favorite passages aloud to us as kids. He was a geography teacher and a romantic – [he was also] a drunk and a stoner – and the Beats were a huge influence on him. And thus on me as his disciple. On the Road was one of those books my dad returned to again and again, a literary guide for life and a love song to an American way of being that seemed so very different – yet somehow still so connected – to our suburban Australian home. When I re-read On the Road and I have many times – I am transported not just to the United States, but to [that] smoke-ringed life I had long ago on the other side of the world.

Who are your primary influences or guides as a writer now?

Certainly poet Maggie Nelson. Reading her book Bluets changed me. Also Anne Sexton; T.S. Eliot; and of course Bob Dylan. These were all major influences.

And your influences as a vocalist?

British folk singer Sandy Denny was a huge influence. Also Dusty Springfield; Linda Ronstadt; Billie Holiday; Joan Baez. I learned things from listening to each of them.

In previous interviews about Blonde On the Tracks, you spoke about going to Dylan’s music while in a depressive state. Can you discuss this? Was the depression specifically caused by the pandemic and lock-down? And what were you looking to find in Dylan’s music?

Well, the first 6 songs for the record were actually recorded back in 2017. When I speak of the depression this album was born in, I am speaking to events that date back to 2017. Since that time, I have had lots of therapy and I am no longer depressed. I am in a good state of mind. But that clinical depression was definitely a product of the times: a combination of Trump being elected President; of me being in my 30s and not having addressed any of my childhood issues; and the advent of the MeToo Movement. Those three things together caused a tempest in my soul.

In a blog entry on your website, you’re very candid about fighting depression, which reminded me of Bruce Springsteen making candid admissions about a similar struggle. How has this affected your music and is COVID making it worse?

For me, COVID has been deeply challenging. A real test of my mental strength. A real test of my ability to ‘ keep on keeping on.’ But  my therapist and my two cats who I spend time with and my music have all helped to keep me on track. It’s also helped that I was depressed and challenged before. Going through that [in 2017] allowed me to have tools in place to help me ride out the pandemic, to survive with my hope and optimism intact.

It appears to me that you gravitated towards some of Dylan’s most piercing and personal love songs for this record, yet many of them are not considered ‘hits.’ Instead, pieces like “Sooner Or Later,” “Going Going Gone” and “Simple Twist of Fate” are about the struggle to maintain individuality while in a marriage. These songs are also about the immense pain that ensues when these relationships crumble. Throughout history, many writers have been drawn to this theme because it’s the foundation of who we are as mammals. So why these songs – what struck you about these eight? Do they hold some specific meaning for you that you would be willing to share publicly?

Every one of the songs I chose to put on this record are there because of the profound emotional resonance [they build within me]. I am a big believer that if you’re covering someone’s songs you have to feel them. You have to be moved, or there is no point to doing them. I got inside these songs and I could really feel them. I am a deeply romantic person and these songs have a sense of longing and yearning that I truly felt. I also have a naturally sad timbre to my voice and these songs work well with that – it created an intimate relationship between me and Bob Dylan’s songs…

At first glance, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” appears like an odd choice for a woman to cover: It’s a hymn that Dylan apparently wrote for his first wife Sara. Why did you pick this particular song? What did you hope to bring or add to it?

I guess you could say it was a self-indulgent exercise. But to me it’s Dylan’s greatest literary achievement. A haunting and devastating song. Some listeners have said they love it, and others hate it. Dylan purists seem to appreciate it, but I think 12 minutes is too long for those casual fans…

You’ve caught a lot of people by surprise with the brilliance of Blonde On The Tracks. So where do you take things from here?  Are you working on any original material right now?

Yes, I am working on new material as we speak. I actually have a protest song called “The Soft Apocalypse” coming out on vinyl and digital download in September. I wrote it on July 4th in response to what was happening in Nashville [where Swift now lives]. In one part of town, there were party-goers with no masks enjoying fireworks, and in another there was a Black Lives Matter protest going on. 55 protesters were arrested that night. I don’t know why [they were jailed], just because the police could I guess. I really believe in what those protesters were saying, but I don’t believe in partying during a pandemic. This song is my response to what I saw.

[After our interview, Swift shared a digital demo of “Soft Apocalypse” with me. The piano driven number is at once striking for both its imagery and the way the melancholy hue of Swift’s voice guides it]. 

Once this public health crisis ends, do you have any plans to bring the Dylan record to the stage via a full-scale tour?

Absolutely! I can’t wait to go on tour. I can’t wait to get back on the road. I am a Sagittarius – which means my bags are always packed and by the door. Playing live is the most spiritual aspect of being a musician. A communion occurs between the artist and the audience. It feels wonderful to connect with the ghosts in the room.

To close, tell me how the lock-down has impacted your music? And how has it affected you on a day-to-day personal level?

The lock-down had profoundly affected my day-to-day life: I lost my job as a touring musician and ended up putting out Blonde On the Tracks to support myself [because of Covid-19]. Initially, I thought it would reach 1,000 people. But it’s all over the world right now. The record is presently #9 on the charts in Australia. People really like it. I am no longer touring, but I am working harder than ever. Still, I miss my old life and don’t know if it’s going to come back when this is all over. Right now, it’s very hard to imagine what that post-pandemic world might look like…

Of Related Interest

by John Aiello


2 comments on “Reinterpreting the Work of A Master

  1. Just me
    August 31, 2020

    lol being depressed because Trump gets elected. Ridiculous!

  2. Emma Swift
    September 20, 2020

    Thank you so much for your time and your consideration, John. It was a delight to talk with you. I hope to again soon! Best, Emma

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This entry was posted on August 31, 2020 by in 2020, Artist Profiles, Features & Profiles, September 2020 and tagged , , .
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