an interview with emma swift

about bob dylan, creating in quarantine, and the problem with big streaming

hey hi hello, and welcome to a special edition of bed crumbs!!

today’s newsletter is not an essay (sorry) but an interview (you’re welcome) with one of my favorite independent artists, emma swift. i followed emma — the only songwriting swift i choose to recognize, thank you! — on twitter sometime around [checks notes] 2015 and have been a huge fan of her music ever since.

one of my favorite types of music is that of the “put a record on, turn off the lights, lie on the floor (cocktail or glass of wine optional), and make yourself sad on purpose” variety, and emma’s spin on the style of old school country greats absolutely fits into that category. her lyrics are emotional and incisive, and every note comes out saturated with heartbreak, disillusionment, and longing. in short: it’s extremely my shit.

emma’s latest release is the stunning blonde on the tracks, a collection of dylan covers filtered through her own unique lens. i’m a huge fan, and hopped on the phone with her last week to talk all about it, which you can read below.

okay thanks sorry love u bye,

Emma Swift wasn’t really setting out to release a quarantine record when she made Blonde on the Tracks. Actually, she wasn’t really in any hurry to release it at all. Recorded mostly in 2017, the Bob Dylan cover album was primarily meant to be an exercise to work through depression and writer’s block; when Swift’s own songs came back to her, she put it away. 

Two things changed that: The pandemic hit, and Swift needed something to keep her going. “I'm so used to a life where I'm on tour,” she explained from her Nashville home, “that if I didn't put the record out, by now, it would have been the longest period of unemployment that I've ever had in my adult life. So, it's totally been a sanity saver for me.” What’s more, Dylan began releasing new music, most notably “I Contain Multitudes,” inspiring a sense of urgency in Swift to record the first cover of the track — and release the shelved album. 

It’s been said of Emmylou Harris’s voice that “under every note seems to be a well of homesickness so deep you can’t see to the bottom of it,” a description that often bubbles up in the back of my mind whenever I listen to Swift. The Nashville by-way-of-Sydney native strikes that same nerve; she deals in rich, graceful longing and heartache of the slowed down, hushed and haunting variety, the kind of melancholy that seeps into your bloodstream with as little resistance and as much warmth as a shot of whiskey. It’s this wistfulness she brings to Bob Dylan’s catalogue, making each of the eight tracks — which cover his catalog from 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited to his latest release, this year’s Rough and Rowdy Ways — her own with lived-in reflection, as if they were experiences once had in another life on another plane. Under her tender stewardship, Dylan’s bite is softened on tracks like “Queen Jane Approximately,” with its jangly, Byrds-like arrangement and mellowed delivery; “I Contain Multitudes” takes on an old souled, meditative glow; and “You’re A Big Girl Now,” sung with a distinctly personal, female perspective, expands to elegiac depths.  

I caught up with Swift over the phone last week to talk about her gem of an album, out this week exclusively on Bandcamp, creating in the midst of a global pandemic, and the current state of streaming.

You’ve been working on this for a few years before deciding to release it now. How did that come about?

Yeah, I had kind of put it away and thought, “Oh, that was a nice exercise in singing some someone else's songs.” I did it and then I left it and started working on my own material, because it was recorded when I was pretty depressed, and once my depression lifted, I was able to write my own songs. Even though I write sad songs, I can't really write them in the moment of feeling grim; I have to have some kind of step back. So I started writing my own songs again and really threw myself into that project and I've been making this other record. But when the pandemic hit, I couldn't go into the studio anymore and I couldn't be near the band.

I had Blonde On The Tracks just sitting in my Dropbox and then Dylan started releasing new songs, and I think that kind of got me excited about Dylan again. He recorded “I Contain Multitudes,” which I put out then, as well; I just love that song. Music in this particular year, it’s one of the few things that feels right and comforting. I definitely felt inspired when Dylan put out [new] music — it was one of the few things that I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is great! 2020 is not a total waste of time!”

You turned around your cover so quickly. You were the first person to officially cover it, right?

Yeah. I think I was the first person to do it, which is so weird because I'm such a huge procrastinator. I'm generally pretty slow-moving, when you think about the rest of this record kind of being around for three years before I put it out. It's kind of wild, but it was that magic moment of seeing an opportunity and loving the song and going: “If I don't put this out, someone else is going to cover it before me.” It was like having a strange deadline. I've never recorded at home before this; I'm not a very technically proficient person. But I had bought a Zoom H6 recorder, and I've got a really basic microphone, so suddenly my lounge room became a studio and away we went.

Aside from recording yourself, how did the rest of that song build?

Robyn [Hitchcock, Swift’s partner] and I played it in the lounge room, and we just landed on a take that we were happy with, which took a fair bit of work. That took about three or four days of more or less playing it non stop, because to me, at least, if you're singing someone else’s song, I don’t really want to be looking at the lyric sheet. You’ve got to be inside the song. You have to spend some time with it. So we played it non stop and recorded it and were happy with the version and I emailed it to my producer, Patrick Sansone. He only lives two miles away, but we haven't been hanging out, obviously, in this pandemic, but he’s got his basement studio with a pretty nice set-up. He has a mellotron and some bass guitars and keyboards, and he was able to build the rest of the track around the acoustic, folkie recording that I sent him.

It's incredible how music is being made remotely now without sounding like it was made remotely, at least to listeners like me who aren’t technically proficient enough to tell.

Yeah, I think it's really exciting because it's also a pretty cheap way to record. A friend of mine told me at the beginning of the pandemic, “Fionna Apple did that whole record on GarageBand.” And that kind of blew my mind because I listen to so many old school records like Rumours or Wildflowers and I'll think about the iconic recording studios those albums have been made in. There's a place for that, too, but we're in this moment of experimentation because we're all in our homes, and that can be fun.

On the note of forced experimentation, this also seems to be a hard or weird time to be making things at all as we collectively go through a traumatic experience. How are you handling creating in the midst of a pandemic?

I think that we are collectively grieving a world that is never going to be the same as it was before. The trauma that people are experiencing is real and valid and pervasive, and it's one of those strange moments in time where everyone is having in variation on this sadness. Everyone will go through tough moments in their life as a human being, but usually that's more on an individual case by case basis, like, your husband died or your mother has cancer or you were assaulted. Everybody has horrific individual moments, but right now we're having this collective what the fuck, and every response to that is different. To me, because I’ve experienced anxiety and depression in my life and I have found ways to cope with it, like therapy and meditation, in some ways, this experience might not be as bad for me as it is for some other people. I’ve got a few systems in place for when things turn to shit. Like, last year, I found this incredible therapist who is in L.A.; I don't live in LA, but I talk to her on the phone every two weeks. So we've had a correspondence relationship for the entire time that I've been working with her; it’s not like anything about my therapy sessions changed when this happened. I'm really grateful that I have had her, rather than the pandemic hitting and going, “Oh shit, I think I need help again.” 

I have been having a very creative time, but I also am aware that might not last, so I'm just kind of making art while I can. I do wonder: “Am I writing songs right now and putting out records because I'm afraid of death?” I definitely think that there is something in me that my more apocalyptic sub-personality is kind of thinking: “If not now, when? If I don't do this now, I might never make it.” That has given me some kind of creative momentum.

Right, there’s this sense of urgency to do something with this free time because, like you said, there's a fear that whatever spark you get might not last or strike again. I'm curious, too, going back to when you started this project and and using it as a tool of creative momentum to work through depression, what gave you the idea of recording Bob Dylan's songs in particular to cope with having a hard time writing yourself? 

I basically wanted to book some studio time to go into a recording studio and sing with a band and see what would happen, but I knew that my songs that I had been writing were pretty workman-like. They really weren't very good. I can be a little bit OCD, so it was definitely easier to just do the songs of one artist rather than, say, one Dylan song and a Bryan Ferry song and then a Talking Heads song. It made more sense to me to just do Bob Dylan songs. Also, I'm not just slip streaming his songs. He’d recorded Triplicate and he released the final of his great American Songbook records. So, he just made three albums, all on the one theme, so I was, “Yeah, Bob Dylan! That idea is cool!” Then I think one of the things that stopped me from putting it out, was, you know, I'm not the only person to release it a whole record of Bob Dylan songs. I put myself down a bit. I was like, “Oh, yeah, nice idea. I bet a zillion other people have done that. Good job. You learned a bit. Time to move on.” I can be very critical of my own ideas and my own things, especially when I'm not very happy in life. I had to work through some stuff in order to have the confidence to put it out. 

This is such an eclectic group of of his tracks. What led to the selection of those specific songs?

I really wanted to make selections of songs that resonated with me and my life so that I could see him with heart and your purpose. But I also really wanted to explore some of Dylan's songs that aren't covered so much. There's a bunch of different versions of “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Low Lands,” to me, is the Dylan song that I go back to again and again. I'm just obsessed with it. But not that many people have recorded that because it's not very radio friendly, so I totally wanted to do that. And then there's songs like “The Man in Me,” which I definitely chose because I wanted to fuck with gender norms. I was very interested in not changing any of the pronouns on the record and singing things as that were. I'm really interested in exploring ideas of the masculine and the feminine within and trying to have an even balance of both of those energies for myself. Songs like “Going, Going Gone” and “You're a Big Girl Now,” though I didn't think about it at the time, I think were, within the context of me being clinically depressed, were a reflection of that period of my life. Like, “You’re a Big Girl Now,” when sung by a woman, it feels like — I've had times where I’ve woken up and I've had particular experiences, and then I've gone, “Oh, gosh, I am a grown up now. I am an adult.” I'm 38, and I don't think I really felt like an adult until I was maybe 35. I spent most of my twenties and early thirties feeling like a kid. 

With these covers, you remain really true to the original versions, but you make each your own. How do you find your way into a song you're covering and finding your own interpretation of it?

Well, mostly, I was just singing along with the record and see how it feels when I tried the song on. Sometimes the song doesn't fit. There are Dylan songs that I absolutely adore that I just didn't sing well, for whatever reason. I definitely chose his more personal sounding songs on this record. I didn't go for his narrative storytelling or protest songs. They’re definitely on the more emotional level, which is how I am as a songwriter and and how I am as a singer. I've got this really sad timbre to my voice, so it doesn't make sense for me to do “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” even though I like it and I love Traveling Wilburys. So it's kind of having an awareness of how my voice sounds and and sometimes it's just what would sound good to sing? I think you can hear when people don't feel the song they're covering. To me, one of the best covers of all time is Sinead O'Connor doing “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Her version of it is very, very like the Prince version. They're not that different. It's just that she brings this heartbreak to her performance, and that's what makes it special.

You've been so outspoken about the streaming industry and you're putting this record out on your own and withholding it from the big streaming platforms. What has that experience been like, eschewing the norm — even though we all know the norm is exploitive and problematic?

It’s being really challenging. It's been a huge learning experience. It was absolutely born out of necessity, rather than any advice that I was given. I think if the pandemic didn't exist, what I'm doing, in terms of walking away from streaming services, would be career suicide. They’re so insidious within the music industry. It's how you get tours — people go, “Oh, you got this many streams; you can open for Phoebe Bridgers or Nick Cave.” But with no touring around, the whole industry is ripe for changing and ripe for upheaval. It's funny because old white guys in the music business will tell me, “You really should stream for the exposure!” as though streaming has existed for the last 60 years of recorded music, and as though the music industry doesn't revolutionize itself all the time. So, on one level, it's been really hard, and then on another level, it's been really rewarding. I'm starting to see loads of musicians speak out about exploitation through these services because everybody is suddenly not on tour.

And, further, creating an industry that relies on people to go on tour all the time because streaming doesn't pay well enough — it's a really sinister way to keep women and primary careers out of the business. It's very, very hard to go on tour once you have kids, or if you have anybody that you have to look after. So while streaming exploits everyone, there’s also a whole feminist angle of streaming being particularly exploitative to women and primary carers. 

Absolutely. And like you said, people talk about streaming platforms as if they’re great for exposure, but you look at these playlists that they make for the purpose of discovery, it’s so…non-inclusive. You have a Best New Rock playlist or something like that with only, like, three women on it.

Right, and I think the other thing, too, is that this idea that people are going to discover your music is relying an awful lot on people to have an innate curiosity that I actually think most music consumers don't have. I used to laugh because there was the same Yo La Tango song on all of my Spotify playlists because the algorithm had just been like, “You like indie rock!” but they couldn't even feed me two Yo La Tango songs. I only ever got “Autumn Sweater.” And it's so, yes, this is a great song and this is a great band, but feed me something different. I don’t really expect or anticipate streaming services to change or pay a better rate. I think the only thing that artists can do is educate people on the ways in which streaming is not beneficial for music makers, which is deeply challenging because Spotify pays for shit for other people. Spotify paid for Lori McKenna to have a billboard downtown; Margo Price has an Amazon billboard. Lots of artists agree with the premise that streaming is exploitive, but they’re also in record label deals that mean that they could very well lose their deal if they speak out. It’s the worst. Musicians really need to unionize, but it's very, very hard to get millions of people who all have small businesses to band together.

Blonde on the Tracks is available to purchase on digital, vinyl, or cassette (just from my own experience, this sounds even more divine on vinyl, so!) August 14 on Bandcamp

Follow Emma on Twitter and Instagram for more.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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