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Emma Swift's Multitudes

Emma Swift's Multitudes

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Bob Dylan hasn’t just taught me about songwriting, he’s taught me about how to be an artist, how to be an activist, how to fuse the literary and the musical. Having planted myself in his songs in a very amniotic way, I can only hope that this has helped to develop my craft as much as it has developed my soul.
—Emma Swift
As its title suggests, Blonde on the Tracks, Australian-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Emma Swift's first full-length album, re-interprets songs from the heart of Bob Dylan 1960s and '70s catalog, although its span covers his most recent work. Swift belongs to the generations of listeners who grew up on the songs of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bill Withers, Leonard Cohen, and other masters of 1960s and '70s-era Great North American Songbook, much as Dylan and his contemporaries were raised on—and, early in their careers, rebelled against—"That Lucky Old Sun" and other chestnuts in the repertoire of crooners like Frank Sinatra. In a recent launch concert for Blonde on the Tracks—which occurred, in our pandemic era, on YouTube instead of before a live audience—Swift half-apologized for performing Dylan's "A Simple Twist of Fate," which many other musicians and singers, including Jerry Garcia, have also performed. But "Simple Twist of Fate," and many other Dylan compositions, have entered the realm of standards, open to endless reinterpretation. Blonde on the Tracks was released, on Swift's own Tiny Ghost Records, around the same time as saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's Hero Trio and guitarist Rez Abbasi's Django-Shift, albums which interpret compositions by or closely associated with Django Reinhardt, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Parker, Stevie Wonder, and other performers.

Like these two jazz musicians, Swift offers a set of interpretations—rather than the more facile term "covers"—that consolidate her own approach as much as they pay homage to Dylan's. Swift even makes the particularly bold move of interpreting "I Contain Multitudes," a song from Dylan's very recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. By eschewing streaming services, Swift takes a bold approach to releasing her own music. As she recently wrote on Twitter, "There is no Spotify release. The Tiny Ghost [Records] business model is to pretend it is 2002. Music videos, downloads, CD, vinyl, and cassettes." A few weeks after Blonde on the Tracks' release, Swift and I convened virtually where she fielded questions about her business approach as well as about her literary and musical affinities from the Nashville home she shares with her partner and frequent collaborator, British singer-songwriter and guitarist Robyn Hitchcock.

All About Jazz: What's Blonde on the Tracks' origin story?

Emma Swift: I made this album as a way to work my way out of depression during a time in my life where I was utterly broken as a human, so the record is very much a me album: it's confessional, it's lonely, it's haunted. The songs were chosen not just because I like them, but because I could relate to them. Dylan's songs became a life raft I used to stop myself from drowning in my own sadness.

The first song selections I made were "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" and to me that choice gives away so much of where I was at emotionally and spiritually when the project was born. I am a reader of poetry as much as a listener of music and at the time of recording I was also reading Maggie Nelson's magnificent meditation on the color blue, Bluets. In it she writes: "Last night I wept in a way I haven't wept for some time. I wept until I aged myself. I watched it happen in the mirror. I watched the lines arrive around my eyes like engraved sunbursts; it was like watching flowers open in time-lapse on a windowsill. The tears not only aged my face, they also changed its texture, turned the skin of my cheeks into putty. I recognized this as a rite of decadence, but I did not know how to stop it."

"Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" as a song choice is exactly that, a rite of decadence. I did not know how to stop it, nor did I want to. "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" has been slowed down in my version of the song. I used to joke that my genre of music was "sadcore" and I guess that style is evident here. Take a sad song and make it sadder, that's my modus operandi. It's not for everyone, but I'm not making music for everyone. I make music for me and people like me: the open-hearted, the vulnerable, the soft poetic souls trying to make sense of life in a strange, fractured and often scary world.

AAJ: The Nobel Prize finally put the "Is Dylan a poet?" debate to rest. What other poets are important to you?

ES: The confessional poets—Plath and Lowell and Sexton and so on—are hugely influential on my work. In 2017, I visited Sylvia Plath's grave in Yorkshire. She's buried not too far from where my paternal ancestors once worked and lived before moving to Australia in the 1800s. It was a classic English autumnal day, grey and rainy and damp, perfect conditions for communing with ghosts. It's same part of the world as the Brontë sisters came from and there's an unshakeable darkness and dankness in the green and clouded landscape there that I find very beautiful.

At the moment, I am working on songs for my next album of original material and although I am agnostic now, the recurring Catholic themes, relics of the religion of my childhood are pervasive. So it makes me think of T.S. Eliot, who I have adored since school, and Edith Sitwell.

I'm afraid now we've gone to the library rather than the record collection you won't be able to stop me from going on and on here!

AAJ: Well, I am a poet so I am happy to stay in the library. I imagine there's a lot of inspiration to be drawn from Eliot's "Four Quartets": "As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living."

ES: Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely. I am enormously interested in the way the living and the dead communicate with each other, through time and space and electricity and music and writing and visual art. The Eliot poem that I return to again and again is "Ash Wednesday." It's a fine companion to "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" in a way. Consider this:

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

AAJ: Sure. I think Dylan and Eliot were equally influenced by French Symbolism, as that Eliot passage shows. The figure of the "veiled lady" in "Ash Wednesday" reminds me of Dylan's "Sad-Eyed Lady." Soon after he recorded it, Dylan described "Sad-Eyed Lady" as "old-time religious carnival music."

ES: Well that is a genre description I would happily adopt. It sounds so much more compelling than "indie folk" and "country," doesn't it?

AAJ: When you and I first encountered each other on Twitter, you were posting about your love for Sandy Denny, perhaps as a corrective to all the Dylan-related publicity around your album. Tell me about Denny and some of the other female singers and singers-songwriters you listened to growing up.

ES: To me, Sandy Denny had one of the most lovely and devastating voices in popular music. As a die-hard fan, I am particularly enchanted by the mournful longing in her phrasing and the way she sounded possessed by the songs she chose to perform. Her recordings are direct and honest and intense, almost like having a friend read you their diary. If I haven't cried in a while, an afternoon spent listening to Liege and Leaf will fix that.

Linda Ronstadt came to me the way she came to many others in my generation, via my Dad's record collection. He was magnetized by her voice. Like Sandy Denny, Ronstadt had one of those fabulously emotive voices. It is heartbreaking that she cannot sing anymore. In addition to her natural musical talent, her career has been fascinating, her song selections extraordinary and her beauty undeniable. Listening to Linda introduced me to so many wonderful songwriters: Warren Zevon, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and J.D. Souther come to mind.

When I was about fifteen, I discovered Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday through a CD box set that was I given as a present. The glorious confidence in Washington's voice when she sings her version of "Teach Me Tonight" is incredibly sexy to me. I love that. And her version of "Cry Me A River" is a masterclass in how to inhabit a song. I go back to it a lot as a fan and as an eternal student.

AAJ: Female singers have performed some iconic Dylan interpretations since the 60s. Instead of name-checking a bunch of singers, could you talk about a particular Dylan interpretation (or two!) by a female singer that's had an impact on you?

ES: When I made Blonde on the Tracks, I had to stop listening to other people singing Dylan for a while because I didn't want to get too caught up in the history and the tradition and the enormous pressure that might place me, as a more or less unknown singer, under.

That said, I'm pretty obsessed with the way Joan Baez sings the word "flat" in the first line of "Daddy You've Been On My Mind." She really brings out its onomatopoeic quality. It's wonderful. And then there's "Forever Young" and "It Ain't Me, Babe" and so many more. I could say so much, but there's nothing I can say about Baez singing Dylan that he hasn't said before in a more acute and accurate way. Like Denny, she's just right there in your ear like a friend or a lover or a parent. It's the difference between singing for the folk club and singing for a stadium. It's gentle. It's true. In an interview Dylan gave with Bill Flanagan, he likens listening to her sing as an act of surrender: "She was an enchantress. You'd have to get yourself strapped to the mast like Odysseus and plug up your ears so you wouldn't hear her. She'd make you forget who you were." I very much enjoy forgetting who I am when I listen to Joan Baez.

Another singer and interpreter of Bob Dylan is Marianne Faithfull. The tenderness in her version of "Visions of Johanna" is heavenly. I'm a very big fan of all her work, from the early folk recordings through to Broken English to the most recent album she made with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Again, I'm interested in tenderness. And Marianne has that in her voice. It's also, now that she's older, a very lived in voice. She's lived the songs. Her life is in the melody and the phrasing and the rasp. The ability to sing is an extraordinary gift because no one else has that instrument. It's yours and yours only. I'm a lousy guitarist and even worse on the piano. But for some reason the voice I was born allows me to get away with not being very good at the more technical aspects of music.

AAJ: I imagine a number of people will hear your version of "I Contain Multitudes" before they hear Dylan's, because it's fresh off his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. How did you approach a Dylan song that lacks the baggage of his older songs, and what feedback have you gotten about "I Contain Multitudes"?

ES: Folks have been very kind about my recording of "Multitudes," which is nice. As an artist, especially as an artist covering the work of someone as iconic, influential and to many fans, sacred as Bob Dylan, it can be terrifying to put yourself out there, to add your name to the ever expanding Rolodex. In a way, by choosing to do a song that he had only just recorded, at least I was able to put my spin on it before a thousand other singers got there.

AAJ: I can only hear the "Multitudes" as one of Dylan's many meditations on aging and mortality: "The flowers are dyin' like all things do" and "I sleep with life and death in the same bed." As a singer decades younger than Dylan, how did you make this song your own?

ES: I don't know if I have truly made this song my own and that's not really up to me as the performer to decide. But I do know that I enjoy singing it very much. I would never be so bold as to claim that I am anything like Bob Dylan, except to say we are both humans existing on a quite possibly dying planet in this, the year 2020. But we do have some common interests—the love and reverence for poetry and music and visual art and history -for example. Those themes are very present in this song, but there are some other enthusiasms that I previously might have thought Dylan was too cool for: fast food for example. Maybe one day he'll let me take him out for a bowl of fries.

AAJ: In terms of Dylan's own ensembles, I'd compare your album's sound with the Blood on the Tracks New York sessions that feature steel guitarist Buddy Cage and with Dylan's widely bootlegged 1993 Supper Club shows with Bucky Baxter on pedal steel. But what sound were you going after, and how did you communicate your ideas to producer Patrick Sansone?

ES: Most of this album was tracked in two days in a very organic and under-rehearsed way. That suited me and my budget. I didn't send the songs to the musicians beforehand. We just rocked up to the studio, Magnetic Sound, and away we went. Robyn Hitchcock has a wonderful guitar picking style reminiscent of Martin Carthy and Bert Jansch and I very much wanted that to play a key role on the album. Thayer Serrano, the pedal steel player, is a classical pianist who happens to play the pedal steel. She's intuitive and smart and has a great sensitive touch. I knew with her on board we wouldn't get the cheesy licks you hear on some Nashville records. Jon Radford, on drums, and Jon Estes, on bass, are a magnificent rhythm team who have played on many sessions together. And then of course, the man who ran the whole show, who set the morning alarm clock, got the band going and then elevated the sound with Rickenbacker guitar, electric guitar, more acoustic guitar, keyboards, and an abundance of vibe is Patrick Sansone. I can't say enough about how lucky I am to have worked with him as the producer of this record. He's a remarkable guy. We love all the same music, from Judee Sill to Big Star to Dylan to Joni Mitchell to The Beatles to The Smiths. He gets me. He really put his whole being into this project. I am so grateful.

AAJ: I can only imagine that you've tumbled into the vast world of Dylanology. Have you had any notable experiences with the world of Dylan scholars and obsessives?

ES: One of the most delightful and unexpected outcomes of releasing this album has been to stumble into the wonderful world of Dylanologists. The community of Dylan scholars online have been so generous and kind with me. I really had no idea that this album might mean something to folks outside my orbit. Because we're in this monumental disaster of a year, and because we're all little islands now, I mean, I never leave the house, it is important to be find online spaces where there is a sense of community and connection and hope and I have found that the Dylan community, particularly the one on Twitter, has been very supportive.

AAJ: Have you had to deal with any Dylan-related man-splaining?

ES: Yesterday a man tried to tell me I got the name of my own album wrong. Does it get any more man-splainy than that? I don't want to get too bogged down in negativity, it scrambles my signal. But I will say that although the overwhelming response to my record has been positive, there are some folks out there who just can't cope with the idea that a woman might have something valuable to contribute to the Dylan universe.

AAJ: What have you learned about songwriting from immersing yourself in Dylan's work?

ES: I have four planets in Sagittarius and very much fit into the archetype of the forever student. I'm always seeking out the truth and always learning. Dylan hasn't just taught me about songwriting, he's taught me about how to be an artist, how to be an activist, how to fuse the literary and the musical. Having planted myself in his songs in a very amniotic way, I can only hope that this has helped me develop my craft.

AAJ: You've been very vocal about wanting to avoid streaming services when you distribute Blonde on the Tracks. Many musicians reading this interview will have strong feelings about Spotify and Apple Music. What would you say to your peers about your distribution model and the reasons behind it?

ES: I didn't become an artist so I could be treated like someone's employee, so I started my own record label, Tiny Ghost Records, and I run the show. My distribution model is simple: digital downloads, vinyl, CD, and cassette. I have beautiful animated videos that accompany some of the songs and can be found on YouTube, but other than that you won't find this album on Spotify or Apple or Amazon. Billionaires exist because they exploit the labor of other people. Daniel Ek, the owner of Spotify, is an insidious creep who has capitalized on the willingness of major labels to be complicit in the exploitation of artists on their own roster. It's disgusting. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a paltry royalty check from a streaming service knows how it goes, but many music fans do not know that Spotify, Apple, Amazon et al, they're the sweatshops of the music industry. A great myth we've been sold as musicians is that we need these services and their playlists for "exposure." I can tell you, I am doing just fine without them. Better than fine.

AAJ: Imagine there's no pandemic and you're playing your debut gig for the album for a live audience. What songs be would be on your setlist?

ES: I can't answer this question properly I'm afraid, because I loathe commitment and would never want to nail a set-list down! Like my records, my gigs are never full planned out. To me a show has to have a sense of mystery and risk. I like the freedom to change the order of songs and the songs I'm choosing to play. I like the impromptu experience. It bums me out when I go see a performer play one show and then see them again and it's exactly the same. I understand that some bigger budget shows are more like theatre productions and there are limitations folks have, but I've been playing indie clubs, dive bars, and folk clubs my entire career and in those spaces, anything goes.

AAJ: The pandemic has prevented all musicians from gigging in the traditional sense. The lack of touring opportunities must be especially frustrating to artists whose albums release dates fall right in the middle of the pandemic. Are you performing online shows, and if so, do you use these shows to generate income?

ES: I perform online shows twice weekly with Robyn Hitchcock. One show is for the U.S. time zones and the other one for Europe. They are on the StageIt platform and yes, we making money. It's not as much as we would make on tour, but honestly, any income is gratefully received and goes a huge way to keeping the lights on and the cats fed.

Now that the album is out I've also started investigating online ways I can showcase Blonde on the Tracks in a "live" setting. I'm still trying to work that out though, so we'll see if it's viable. At the moment I don't really know.

AAJ: That's it for my prepared questions. However, before we got started today, you mentioned you were putting together a playlist for a local radio station. I'd love to hear what songs you picked.

ES: Here's the list. An important note: the Gimme Country station makes you play your own songs for context for their listeners. I would not normally be so bold! Emma Swift, "One of Us Must Know"; Bob Dylan, "Goodbye Jimmy Reed"; Joni Mitchell, "Coyote"; Love, "Andmoreagain"; The Sundays, "Here's Where The Story Ends"; Gram Parsons, "Brass Buttons"; Nick Cave, "Babe, You Turn Me On"; The Replacements, "Swingin' Party"; Karen Dalton, "Something On Your Mind"; Marianne Faithfull, "Visions of Johanna"; Joan Baez, "Diamonds and Rust"; The Byrds, "Eight Miles High"; Warren Zevon, "Desperadoes Under The Eaves"; Linda Ronstadt, "Blowing Away"; Dinah Washington, "Cry Me A River"; Fairport Convention, "Ballad of Easy Rider"; Fleetwood Mac, "Storms"; Silver Jews, "Suffering Jukebox"; Cat Power, "Song To Bobby"; Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel #2"; John Lennon, "Watching The Wheels"; Neil Young, "Barstool Blues"; Nina Simone, "I Shall Be Released"; Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are A-Changin'"; Dolly Parton, "It's All Wrong But It's All Right"; Richard and Linda Thompson, "I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight"; Gary Stewart, "She's Acting Single I'm Drinkin' Double"; Wilco, "Impossible Germany"; Emma Swift, "I Contain Multitudes"; Bob Dylan, "I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You."

AAJ: Well, that's my afternoon's listening!

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