Emma Swift's Multitudes: A Conversation About Bob Dylan

Aug 6, 2020

The household of songwriters Emma Swift and Robyn Hitchcock has become a notable East Nashville nexus of international art and intrigue. He’s from England and she is from Australia, and in recent years, they’ve lived and toured together. Most of the time, she’s sung in support of his acclaimed psychedelic roots rock and sometimes the focus is on her thoughtful neo-country. One important thing they have in common is an abiding love of Bob Dylan.

A couple years ago, I interviewed Hitchcock for a show focused on Dylan’s Nashville-made Blonde On Blonde, which Hitchcock says is the album the most changed his life. This month, Swift offers her own exegesis on the America’s singing Shakespeare with Blonde On The Tracks, an eight-song collection featuring songs released by Dylan between 1965 and 2020.

In fact, the earliest and latest Dylan compositions mark tracks one and two on the project, which arrives on Aug. 14 on vinyl and CD and exclusively on Bandcamp in streaming mode. Setting the tone is a compassionate reading of “Queen Jane Approximately” from Highway 61 Revisited. In a voice that calls to mind the glowing grace of key Dylan interpreters like Judy Collins and Joan Baez, Swift conjures the mysterious “Queen” whom the singer would, it seems, like to rescue from a life of bourgeois shallows. It’s a transition song from Dylan the protest poet to Dylan the word painter, and Swift invests its gorgeous, falling melody with empathy.

Then immediately she pivots to Dylan of now, indeed just this year, with the succulent and jam-packed song “I Contain Multitudes.” While the singer has been working toward this album since the title and concept struck her one night over wine in 2017, she added this one at the very last possible minute after listening to the opening track on Rough And Rowdy Ways on the day it was released.

“It was just a no brainer for me,” Swift says in the interview posted here. “That song is just sublime. It’s this wonderful love song to poetry and music and art. And it feels quite confessional. And as a long-term Bob Dylan fan I felt very close to him in the listening. I just completely fell in love with it.” Lacking access in late April to a formal recording studio, she and Hitchcock set up a living room recording rig and sent her version to the album’s producer, Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, who added some percussion and keyboards. It came out more prayerful than Dylan’s slightly prideful version. The song feels like a gentle rebuke to all those who’ve tried to figure him out over the decades, but also like life advice. The songwriter and his latest interpreter seem to sing the virtues of being hard to pin down.

Swift grew up in the small New South Wales city of Wagga Wagga, Australia, which of course is just down the road from Gundagai and Cootamundra. There, in a generally arid radio environment, she picked up a nighttime trucker radio station that offered her first “hint of twang.” She moved to Sydney for her 20s and became a professional radio news reader for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation while growing her musical vocabulary as a volunteer DJ for community station, spinning alt-country and interviewing artists who came through. The aura of Nashville reached her and after a 2011 visit when, among other things, she saw Guy Clark sing at 3rd & Lindsley, she moved to write songs and be part of the scene.

“Around time I turned 30 I just had this yearning to go and make music. So, I was quite green and very naïve. I just packed a bag and moved to Nashville," she says. "As well as being the hub of some music I was very into, artists like Gillian Welch, David Berman and then Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, knowing Bob Dylan had recorded here, I loved the history. I was super into it.” Since then, she’s released a six-song EP from 2014, produced by fellow Aussie Nashvillian Anne McCue, plus a duo seven-inch with Hitchcock. A full-length album is about half recorded, she says, for a planned release in January of 2022.

But for now, the focus is on Bob Dylan and Swift’s interest in scanning his catalog for songs that lent themselves to a feminist perspective. Besides “Queen Jane,” she zeroed in on “The Man In Me” from the New Morning album, “You’re A Big Girl Now” from the bittersweet masterpiece Blood On The Tracks and “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” which she calls “my all-time ultimate favorite Bob Dylan song.” At 12 minutes long, the signature Blonde On Blonde song takes a special mindset, Swift says. “It’s best approached if you treat it a bit like a mantra, like a meditation exercise rather than thinking here comes another verse. Because if you get all caught up counting the verses, you’re not going to be inside the song and people can hear that. So it’s more exciting and interesting to me to just breathe it, just take it in. It was incredibly difficult.”

But it’s quite easy to listen to, as is the conversation with Emma Swift above. She and Hitchcock have been connecting with the world and earning income through weekly shows on the StageIt platform. The next one is Aug. 12. Swift will perform Blonde On The Tracks through the Grimey’s streaming series on Aug. 20. Information here.