A few years ago, when she was struck down by crippling depression and suffering from writer’s block, Nashville-based country artist Emma Swift turned to Bob Dylan for help.
“I began singing his songs as a way to have something to wake up for. Interpreting other people’s emotions is how I learned to sing and I’ve always enjoyed hearing Dylan’s songs from a female perspective,” she says. “You can learn a lot about melody and feeling by the way a singer chooses to interpret someone else’s song. You can learn a lot about words by singing someone else’s.”
Feeling inspired, Australian-born Swift teamed up with multi-instrumentalist and producer Patrick Sansone of Chicago alt-rockers Wilco, and UK singer-songwriter, guitarist and Dylanologist, Robyn Hitchcock, as well as some local musicians, to make an album of her reinterpretations of Dylan songs – the wonderfully titled Blonde On The Tracks.
Work on the project began at Magnetic Sound Studio, Nashville in 2017, but the record was completed earlier this year during lockdown, with two songs, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ and ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ recorded by Swift at home and overdubbed via correspondence.
It’s a great album – Swift has a gorgeous, breathy voice and the songs sound intimate, warm and inviting. From the Byrds-style, ‘60s jangle-pop of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’, to her stripped-down, acoustic take on ‘I Contain Multitudes’, which is a song from Dylan’s most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, to the slow, sad and aching, late-night country of ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later’), with pedal steel, and the organ-drenched ‘The Man In Me’, Swift has made the songs her own, but respected the originals. In an exclusive interview, I asked her about her love of Dylan’s music and got the inside track on how the album came together and was recorded.
SH: How did you first get into Dylan?
ES: I’m not from the generation that grew up when Dylan began making records, so for many years most of my discoveries were made well after that – through albums I bought at record fairs and charity stores and songs I heard on the radio. My first memory of hearing a Bob Dylan song is The Byrds version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, which got played a lot on the golden oldies station I listened to as a kid.
I can remember watching clips of the Traveling Wilburys on music TV – I adored ‘Handle With Care’, though Roy Orbison was the one I was drawn to at the time. My first Dylan album was Blonde on Blonde, which I must have acquired when I was 17 or 18. I’ve been under the sweet, sorrowful spell of ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ ever since. My love of the artists that came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s isn’t exclusive to Bob Dylan though. I’m just as influenced by Dusty Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny, Gene Clark and Lou Reed to name a few. I’m a kid of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I’m quite old-fashioned really.
You’ve recorded a version of ‘I Contain Multitudes’, from Dylan’s 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. Isn’t it brave to tackle a brand new Dylan song?
It didn’t feel brave to me – it just felt like a song I was utterly magnetised by and compelled to do. For me, it’s a love song to all that is great about music and art and poetry. It’s a confession, a hymn, a celebration. Like many of the Dylan songs I am drawn to, it’s a little bit funny and a little bit sad. I laughed out loud the first time I heard him sing: “I paint landscapes and I paint nudes.”
As for my interpretation of it, it’s very lo-fi. It was recorded in the lounge room at my place on a Zoom recorder, with Robyn Hitchcock on guitar, and then sent to my producer, Patrick Sansone, for overdubs. Patrick’s a brilliant man who can do a lot with not very much. I’m lucky to know him.
What do you think of Rough and Rowdy Ways?
It’s magnificent to have a new Bob Dylan album to enjoy, and there’s so much gold there. I’m still getting inside the record. Come back to me in a year and I’ll tell you what I think about it. Come back to me in two and I’ll tell you more.
What’s the background to Blonde On The Tracks? You’ve said that it was born out of a period of depression, when you were at a creative low. Can you elaborate on that?
This record was born during the lowest ebb in my life – a time when I was truly struggling to get out of bed and function as a human being. It wasn’t just a period of intense writer’s block, though that was part of it. I was struggling to do things as rudimentary as brush my hair. In a desperate attempt to find motivation, I booked some time at my friend John Little’s studio, Magnetic Sound, but I didn’t have anything of my own worth recording. Around this time, Dylan finished his Frank Sinatra trilogy [Shadows In The Night, Fallen Angels and Triplicate]. You could say a lightbulb went off, but it’s more likely that enough wine was consumed one Saturday night to make it seem like a good idea.
Six of the eight tracks were recorded at Magnetic Sound in 2017, and two more, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ and ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, were laid down at home and finished over the internet earlier this year. How was the recording process?
Anytime I go into a studio I am absolutely terrified, but also incredibly excited. I’m a singer more than anything else, but I have strong ideas about the instrumentation and the feel and can be quite annoying about getting it right. We tracked six songs at Magnetic Sound with a great band: Robyn Hitchcock on guitar, Patrick Sansone on guitar, Jon Estes on bass and Jon Radford on drums. Between them they have made hundreds of records and each one of them is just wonderful at what they do. After tracking, Patrick and I recorded keyboards and vocals, some more guitar, as well as pedal steel, at his studio. We both love Mellotron and reverb and jangle rock, so we had fun with that.
Why did you choose Magnetic Sound?
There are many cool places to record in Nashville, but I just really like the vibe there. It’s a small studio in East Nashville, with one room for the players and one room for the engineer. It’s not flashy, but it has spirit and that’s just as important. I met the owner/engineer, John Little, through his partner, Lilly Hiatt, who is a fantastic musician and a woman with a lot of grit and heart. They’re great people. When I make music, I don’t have a huge budget, so if I’m going to spend money, I’d rather work with my kind of people.
How did you end up working with Patrick Sansone? What do you think his musicianship and production have brought to the album? I think the songs sound intimate, warm and inviting…
Patrick is my friend and neighbour and a fabulous multi-intrumentalist. Anyone who has seen him playing with Wilco will know he is a man of enormous talent. But he’s also intuitive, smart and a good listener. He put up with a lot of my paranoia, worry and unrelenting demands for more reverb. Intimacy in music is important to me. I love singing right on the microphone. There are people who will say that is bad technique, but I love that close-up quality. I don’t make music for stadiums. I make music for dive bars and bedrooms and dark nights of the soul.
How did you choose which songs to include?
Originally, I was just going to record songs from Blonde on Blonde and Blood On The Tracks, but I really didn’t want it to turn into a bunch of songs that hundreds of other people had recorded before. There are also songs I desperately wanted to do that haven’t made this record, ‘Sweetheart Like You’, for instance. I’m big on the Infidels album. In the end the songs that made the cut are the ones I felt I could connect with as a singer. I think that’s important. Anyone can sing the song, but you have to be able to feel it too.
Dylan is one of the most covered artists of all time, so how did you approach the songs and make sure you brought something new to the party?
With such a well-worn songbook, it’s likely the only thing new I can bring to the Bob party is my voice, because I’m the only one who has it. But that’s the lovely part about being a singer – each voice has a unique sound.
I did try not to think too much about the way other artists have sung Dylan’s songs, because it would be overwhelming if I started worrying about Joan Baez, or Judy Collins, or Jimi Hendrix, or Bryan Ferry. To me music is to be shared though. I love the folk music tradition and the way Dylan has continued that and added so much intelligence and depth to that. I’m not trying to make anything that is necessarily definitive, I’m merely trying to add something beautiful to the conversation.
Is your version of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ a homage to the Byrds?
It didn’t start out that way. It was tracked with two acoustic guitars, but Patrick had an idea for a Rickenbacker and we both love The Byrds, so he added it in and it just turned out so beautifully. That early Laurel Canyon sound is really special and it was nice to pay homage to it.
You’ve slowed ‘One of Must Know (Sooner Or Later)’ right down and turned it into a pleading, late-night country ballad…
I don’t want to demystify the recording process too much, as I’m a word lover first and a technician second, but I will say that slowing stuff down and making it sad is my factory setting.
I love the organ sound on the record, you’ve made it sound like it’s mid-’60s Dylan. Was that intentional?
Not really – at least not from my perspective. Going into this, we didn’t have a list of rules and instructions of how songs were going to sound, or what we were trying to achieve with the musical references. It was more about what the songs asked for and what instruments sounded good with my voice.
‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ is a 12-minute epic. Were you apprehensive about tackling it?
‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ was the only song on the album that was essential. Everything else could live forever in an outtakes box in a cupboard for all I care, but I had to do ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’. And you know what? It was really hard. It’s 12 minutes of non-stop romantic despair and desolate longing. It took me forever to get the vocal down and, even now, I’m not sure that it’s right. But sometimes you have to sing it and hope for the best.
Would you like Dylan to hear the album? What do you think he’d make of it?
It doesn’t matter to me if he hears it. As much as the album is a celebration of his work, I didn’t make it for him. I made it for me.
Blonde On The Tracks by Emma Swift is available now on Tiny Ghost Records.
Images: B&W image by Danielle Holbert. Colour images by Autumn Dozier
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