Emma Swift was in a creative rut. It had a been a few years since the Nashville-based musician’s debut EP came out and her confidence was flagging. On top of this, she was experiencing a serious bout of depression, a condition she’s been navigating for her entire adult life.
To counter the feelings of inertia, Swift decided to start singing Bob Dylan songs. It wasn’t a conscious ploy to implant herself in the long tradition of Dylan coverees – among them the likes of Nina Simone, Nick Cave and Anohni – but rather a potentially reenergising project that would at least give her something to rise out of bed for.
Not only did it work, but it sounded good too, prompting Swift to book some Nashville studio time to record her Dylan covers. Multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone (of Wilco fame) was brought in to produce, while a full band including Swift’s partner, Robyn Hitchcock, joined to flesh out Swift’s prettified and explicitly melodic take on many Dylan classics.
The result is Blonde On the Tracks, Swift’s first full-length collection, which came out in August 2020. The album title is not just a brilliant pun, but refers to the fact that half of the track-listing comes from 1966’s Blonde On Blonde and 1975’s Blood On the Tracks. These are surrounded by selections from Highway 61 Revisited (1965), New Morning (1970), Planet Waves (1974), and Dylan’s latest record, Rough & Rowdy Ways (2020).
Blonde On the Tracks was met with near unanimous acclaim from music critics and debuted in the ARIA top ten. Swift is now gearing up to bring her Dylan reinterpretations to the live arena, with an Australian theatre tour taking place this June.
Tone Deaf spoke to Swift about her attraction to Bob Dylan’s work, the personal significance of the project and the upcoming tour.
Tone Deaf: You started singing Bob Dylan songs while going through writer’s block and having a tricky time with your mental health. Did writer’s block have serious ramifications on your self-worth?
Emma Swift: Absolutely. To be living in Nashville, Tennessee with writer’s block is an incredibly frustrating and infuriating experience. It’s a songwriters’ town and so many people are making such wonderful art all the time.
One of the ways that I was able to work my way out of this particular rough patch was to book some studio time and just go and sing someone else’s songs and get back in my body again and feel things and connect with people through music, but without having that extraordinary pressure of, “These have to be my songs and they have to be just right.”
TD: It’s hallowed ground, Bob Dylan’s catalogue, so there wasn’t a total lack of pressure when it came to tackling these songs.
ES: At the time I was just so stuck in a rut I really just thought, “I’ve got to just book some studio time and do this.” If I had in any way thought that I would release the record, the amount of pressure just would’ve been insane.
TD: Bob Dylan is one of the most idiosyncratic performers in rock history and yet he’s also one of the most covered artists. What is it about his work that allows for such fruitful reinterpretation?
ES: For me, Bob Dylan is the Shakespeare of songwriting. So as singers and musicians, it’s a little bit like being an actor and wanting to play Hamlet or King Lear. The material is so rich and so beautiful and quite varied as well.
It’s always been very funny to me that Bob Dylan gets called not a great singer when his melodies are actually very beautiful and extraordinary. If they weren’t you wouldn’t have people like Joan Baez and Nina Simone and The Byrds and Jimi Hendrix [covering his songs].
TD: Joan Baez and Nina Simone are two of the many, many excellent female performers to have brought a new perspective to Bob Dylan’s songs. You don’t change any of the gender pronouns on the record, which I appreciate.
ES: It’s really nice to be part of that tradition. Chrissie Hynde just did a whole album of Bob Dylan songs. Marianne Faithfull is one of my favourite singers of all time – I’m just totally possessed by her work – and she’s recorded quite a few Bob Dylan songs, too. I’m following in the footsteps of singers, like Marianne and Cat Power and Linda Ronstadt.
TD: You include a few less celebrated songs, like ‘The Man In Me’ and ‘Going, Going, Gone’. What guided the song selection?
ES: I wanted to show that I’m not a joker – I am a genuine lover of Dylan and I’ve got a fairly large collection of Bob Dylan records. But mostly for me the song selection was about how I was feeling at the time and what possessed me to do the record. ‘Going, Going, Gone’ is absolutely how I felt at the time. I just felt so lost and I really felt at the end of my tether and that song really captures that quite beautifully.
TD: The highlight for me is ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’. Your version actually goes for longer than Dylan’s 11-minute original.
ES: Take a sad song and make it sadder and slower is a motto that I heartily endorse.
TD: It’s a beautiful, melancholic and poetic song. Was there any hesitation about including it because of its length?
ES: It was the first song that I picked to record on the record. It’s my all-time favourite Bob Dylan song. It’s so extraordinarily devastating and beautiful. It’s like the Everest of songs as a singer and I just love singing it so much. It’s deeply challenging and to be honest I’m a little bit scared about doing it live. But it’s a masterpiece, so I think it’s worth having a go at.
TD: Your band for the Australian tour is made up of Darren Middleton (Powderfinger), Marty Brown (Clare Bowditch), Mark Wilson (Jet), Louis Macklin (Jet) and Kathleen Halloran (Kate Ceberano). Will you be delving deeper into the Bob Dylan songbook on this tour?
ES: Yes. It’s not just Blonde on the Tracks; it’s a fairly good smattering of Bob Dylan songs from throughout the years. I’ve got this really wonderful band put together by Darren Middleton, great rock’n’roll players, so it’s not going to be all mid-tempo, sad stuff!
Catch Emma Swift performing her ‘Blonde on the Tracks’ album live this June. For tour dates / tickets head to livenation.com.au