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.