Interview: Emma Swift on her Bob Dylan homage in Blonde on the Tracks, Christmas albums and overcoming writer’s block

Emma Swift

In 2020, Australian singer-songwriter and Nashville-resident Emma Swift released Blonde on the Tracks, an album of Bob Dylan covers. Covering Bob Dylan songs is nothing new of course, however this album has had widespread international acclaim. It’s a reflection on the quality of the interpretations of the songs, and the track selection which has placed this album in the very top echelons of reimaginings of Dylan songs.

I caught up with Emma last week to chat about the album. She was in quarantine in Sydney, with just a few days left before hopefully meeting up with her band to prepare for a series of concerts in Australia to play some of her favourite Bob Dylan tunes.

We talked about what led her to record a covers album, what it is about Dylan that moves her, and what fans should expect at the concerts. We also discussed whether Bob’s Christmas album is a hit or a miss.

Hi Emma, how’s quarantine going for you?

It’s not too bad. I’m in downtown Sydney and the view is really spectacular, it’s absolutely glorious and I’m blessed with a window that opens.

Wow that’s pretty lucky

I’ve got a reasonably pleasant experience compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard. I’ve also just flown in from London, which has just come out of a 4-month lockdown. We were locked down there from December to the middle of April. So in some ways, I’m psychologically used to not going anywhere. Or seeing anyone. I can’t wait to escape, but it’s not that strange.

How are you, where are you?

Good – I’m in Manly…

Lovely – I can’t wait to get to the beach. I haven’t seen the ocean for 2 years. For me, I think that will be quite an emotional and powerful experience to be able to get my feet in the sand and smell the sea, and the eucalypts trees

Yes, smell is such a powerful sense isn’t it? It’s a powerful trigger.

Yes – it’s wonderful, it’s one of my favourite things, the way that the city smells. Even the wildlife, the birds. I got on zoom to a girlfriend of mine in Wollongong, and she had 30 cockatoos in her backyard the other day squawking away.

These are the kinds of things, the sensory experiences which make me full of longing and homesickness when I’m away.

In your usual home, Nashville, things are opening up I believe.

Nashville is more or less open for business, for better or worse. I haven’t been there since September last year, but I’ve been there for 7 years. It’s a fascinating town. It wears a Stetson hat, and cowboy boots for promotional purposes. But it’s pretty diverse, and there is a lot of music happening. It’s a fun and dynamic place to be when we’re not living in Covid times.

Yes, it sounds like you don’t need to be a country musician to have a good time in Nashville

Certainly not, I mean Bob Dylan recorded there, Leonard Cohen recorded there, REM recorded there. Lots of fabulous artists make their way to Nashville whether they are making country or not. There are so many recording studios and music enthusiasts. There are a lot of professional people there who are fabulous at what they do. It’s a great place to make a record

With the upcoming concerts, have you managed to do any rehearsals with your band over zoom, or are you waiting until you get out?

I’ve mostly been rehearsing by myself. We are in this unfortunate scenario now where the band are in Melbourne (currently under lockdown), so that’s rather thrown a spanner in the works, as I get out of quarantine on Monday the 31st, but that doesn’t get me any closer geographically to the band.

You just have to surrender to what’s before us. Every musician in Australia is in the same boat. We will have fun when we are in the same room, but that might be a little while yet.

So, let’s chat about Bob. When did you start listening to Bob?

Bob has always been around in my universe, ‘cause I’m a kid of the ‘80s. There’s never been a time in my life when Bob Dylan didn’t exist. It’s only my level of engagement that has varied over time. As a kid, I’d go to family bbq’s and the Travelling Wilburys would be on the stereo, so I knew him as Lucky Wilbury, playing in a band with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne.

And then towards the end of my late teens, I got into the serious side of Bob Dylan’s work and started exploring his back catalogue. Particularly albums like Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. Those first electric records are the ones which really capsized me for want of a better word. And after that I became a student of Mr Dylan’s ever since.

I think of him as the mad professor of rock and roll. There’s always something to be learnt from Dylan no matter what he is doing. Whether he is being the folk legend or going electric or joining a supergroup in the ’80s. Or singing the great American songbook with the triplicate album he made a couple of years ago.

He has had an eclectic fascinating career and I’m here for all of it. I’m a superfan.

What about you?

End of high school. Year 11 maybe. A friend of mine gave me a tape of Blonde on Blonde. Followed up with Blood on the Tracks. Those albums got me in hook, line and sinker.

I think a song like “Visions of Johanna” or ”Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” … Once I heard those I couldn’t unhear them, They really stay with you. They are incantations. They take on a magic quality. They are very powerful and like you, late teens, early twenties is when I got into him, and I’ve been listening to him for over twenty years.

I’ve never tired of those songs I first fell for. I’m still very much an enthusiast.

What led you to recording this album of covers?

I had been in Nashville for about four years at that point and had reached a personal crisis. I had writer’s block. I was very depressed. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I felt very lost. So I decided I had to find a project to motivate me, to get me out of bed. I had no songs of my own, that I thought were up to shape to record. I put myself under an incredible amount of pressure to write wonderful songs, and that’s not a great headspace to be.

Songwriting should be the expression of emotion. Worrying about whether it is good or bad should come later. I was too in my own head, so I decided that I would pay homage to Dylan’s own history and Nashville, ‘cause he has such an extensive past there. I decided to record some Bob Dylan songs in a studio there.

And that’s what I did. Originally it was going to be a fusion of songs from Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, hence the title, But when I got to making the record I discovered that I hadn’t thought the idea through too well, because when you go to those albums, so many of those songs have been covered by many many artists before.

I didn’t really want to be doing a project which was singing Dylan songs which everyone had done.

So I started looking further afield. I went to my record collection, and pulled out Planet Waves and New Morning and started to think about the way I could inhabit some of Bob Dylan’s lesser-known material

How did you whittle it down to 8 songs – from 39 studio albums. I would have had analysis paralysis on that one.

Laughs, I guess I was trying to tell a story of where I was at emotionally and spiritually. I picked the songs that I could identify with.

Because I was going through an emotionally rough time. Songs like “Going Going Gone” had this desolation and desperation and yearning which I could really identify with but I hadn’t been able to articulate in my own material. That was a perfect song for me to sing. And then a song like “The Man in Me” was the flip of that, it’s funny, it’s sung with a nod and a wink.

Yes – it’s a joyful song, isn’t it…

He has a wicked sense of humour. That’s the great thing about having fun with his songs. That song was my wanting to try on Dylan’s hat and his shoes and his coat. And try and be a bit of a drag-king I guess.

The only song which was essential to the album when I was putting together the concept was “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. It is my favourite Bob Dylan song. It’s so poetic and beautiful and such a lovely glorious love letter committed to tape,

It’s one of his most iconic songs. He recorded it in Colombia studios in Nashville, Tennessee. He was still writing that song while it was being recorded. It’s a moving feast. I loved the challenge of doing a song like that.

You gave yourself a challenge. It’s 11 minutes 22 seconds I think!

I think mine goes for 11.59 – I even added some more time. But “Sad Eyed…” – why not – why not run that marathon and see what happens. What’s been great is that people who love Dylan, really dig that I chose to do that song. It’s a way of saying I’m not just here for the taking. I don’t just have commercial interests. I’m a fan…

I put the album out on my own independent record label. If I was putting that out through a (commercial) label they would look at the tracklist and say ‘excuse me, young lady, a 12-minute song will never get played on the radio.’ But it’s a beauty. If you like Bob Dylan you probably love “Sad Eyed…” so why not record it?

It’s an interesting story that song isn’t it. I believe when the band were recording it, at the end of the second verse they thought that they were at the end, but he kept going and going and going.

Yes – it’s an approach that I mirrored somewhat in recording this album. The band was hired, and I had the producer Patrick Sansone, who is in Wilco, and a fantastic musician. Patrick and I and Robyn Hitchcock, the guitarist, knew what songs we were going to play, and had some acoustic run-throughs at home. To ensure the range was good and the key was appropriate, but we didn’t tell the band what songs we were going to play before we got to the studio.

We didn’t want them to know and listen to the Dylan material and get too stuck in their head. I wanted it to have an element of surprise. It’s good to keep things spontaneous in the studio. I’m terribly disorganised in my day to day life, so I like the spirit of being in a recording space and having room to move.

Listening to that album, what really stands out is that you seem to own the truth of those songs. I feel that if people want to understand what those songs are about, they need to listen to your recordings of them.

That’s so nice of you to say. Thanks.

Bringing out the confessional aspect of the songs was something I wanted to do. If I felt that I didn’t connect to the song musically and spiritually, I wouldn’t have recorded it. I’m really inspired by people like Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt and Nina Simone. These are classic interpreters of song. They really know how to get inside the song and make it their own. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, but something to aspire to. It’s what inspired me in this project.

Well, you kicked that out of the park. Of Bob’s albums, what are perhaps some of his underrated ones?

I’m a big fan of Infidels. It’s the first Dylan album to have come out in my lifetime, so I have a nostalgic affinity. I listen to songs like “Jokerman” and “Sweetheart Like You” and they are really poignant, brilliant poetic songs, which are just as good as anything he has written.

Rough and Rowdy Ways – I can’t speak highly enough of how brilliant that album is. “Murder Most Foul”, the 17-minute single which he dropped as the first track, might just be his best song.

It is so acute and one of the great list songs. Like “Sad Eyed Lady..” or “Desolation Row”. You don’t look at your watch and think ‘oh gosh’, I’ve hit the 10-minute mark now’. It’s like Bob as a Shaman.

He is casting a spell with that song.

One of the brilliant things about being a fan of an artist with such an extensive catalogue is that there is no right or wrong.

If Dylan’s only album was Shot of Love, we’d all say it was brilliant

His Christmas album – Christmas in the Heart – yes or no?

<laughs> Yes – a hearty yes to that!

I have some wonderful friends in Marrickville and at Christmas, we went to their house and sat in their yard, and played Christmas in the Heart in its entirety. That album brings me a lot of joy. I’m not a Christmas album person, but this definitely gets a lot of the joker personality of Dylan. It always brings him a smile.

If it’s good enough for Mariah Carey it’s good enough for Dylan

Are you worried that people are going to be singing along and spoiling the moment at these concerts?

I hope they are singing. Especially as we’ve had this rough 15 months and the opportunity to get in a room over a shared love of a collection of songs.

If people want to get up and dance, get up and dance. If they want to weep in their seats, then do so. If you want to sing along, please do, help me with the words. There are so many of them. It’s intimidating but exciting nonetheless.

I’m guessing you have seen him live. Any standout experiences?

Yes – I saw him at the Sydney Opera House which was such a wonderful show. I was in the 5th row. I love seeing Charlie Sexton play. He is a cool enigmatic guitarist. And seeing Dylan on the keyboard. The way he reinvents the material. There are some people that don’t like it, but I think it’s fantastic. Especially as someone who interprets his songs. It busts open the playing field because even Dylan has fun with how his songs sound on stage.

I think if you see a performer in an iconic venue, they really bring their a-game. Their reverence and acknowledgment that it is a special place. I went with my partner who is also a big Dylan fan, and we both left in tears.

If you were going to do another covers album, who would it be?

It would be Lou Reed. Lou Reed, Neil Young and Bob Dylan are all superb at phrasing a lyric. There’s a lot to be learnt by singing their songs. A lot of fun to be had in putting a feminine twist on their songs. But, there are so many wonderful songwriters to explore. I’d also love to do an all-Neil (Young) album.

Maybe a life-long project, a Paul Kelly record, a Warren Zevon, an Elvis Costello. These are all male songwriters. I think as a woman it’s easier to sing a song that a man has written and bring a unique perspective and make them sound good.

There’s plenty of female songwriters which I adore such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez but it’s harder to bring a new twist to that.

I’d never rule out doing another cover project. I’d never rule out doing Blonde on the Tracks 2, but I’m a little bit scared because I’ve been really fortunate that people have been really kind about this all over the world.

I think that would be very unlikely, to be honest. Have you broken your writer’s block since?

Yes, I’m really happy to say that getting inside Bob Dylan’s songs, and slipstreaming him for a while did allow me to break through some of the roadblocks I had in my mind about what it meant to write songs.

I’ve written about 20 songs this year. I’m going into a recording studio in Surry Hills with Wayne Connolly at the beginning of July, and he is a lovely man. Very soft-spoken, brilliant Australian producer. He has worked on some of the finest records which have ever been made here. We’re going to have fun with those songs and see what we come up with.

I then head back to America and play the Newport Folk Festival. Yeah – another way in which I’m following in Dylan’s footsteps. I’m very fortunate to be asked and I can’t wait. It’s going to be my first show in America since the album came out.

Fantastic. Any other hints on what to expect at the concerts?

I should flag that the concert is the celebration of Bob Dylan songs. It’s not limited to the tracks I’ve played on the record. Especially as the album is a meditative love record for the most part.

We will be exploring his back catalogue and songs from throughout his career.

I’ve been playing “Mr Tambourine Man” nonstop in this hotel for the past few days. Expect “Like a Rolling Stone” and other favourites. I want to bring in some of those songs he has been so well known for.

We are also doing “Visions of Johanna”. That’s one I have some regrets of not putting on there but you can’t put them all on.

Thanks – good luck with the tour, I’m looking forward to seeing you at the City Recital Hall.

Blonde on the Tracks is out now.

Emma has the following tour dates – tickets HERE for all shows
Thursday, 17th June | Palais Theatre | Melbourne
Saturday, 19th June | Anita’s Theatre | Wollongong
Sunday, 20th June | City Recital Hall | Sydney
Thursday 24th June | The Fortitude Music Hall | Brisbane

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Bruce Baker

Probably riding my bike, taking photos and/or at a gig. Insta: @bruce_a_baker

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