Emma Swift: Going Deft With Dylan

In reinterpreting the Master’s music, the Australian singer gives her own nod to Bob

Emma Swift (Art: Ron Hart)

With the cleverly titled Blonde on the Tracks, Australian singer Emma Swift makes an unusually bold move.

On this, only her sophomore set, she covers eight exacting compositions from the master bard himself, the Big D, Bob Dylan. It’s a daunting proposition, even for those artists that have far more experience under their belt, but the fact that Swift has chosen to undertake this task testifies to both her confidence and credibility. After all, it’s never enough to simply replicate his songs; putting one’s own imprint on the music has always been key, whether it was the Byrds’ ability to redefine “Mr. Tambourine Man” or Manfred Mann’s definitive take on “Quinn the Eskimo.” And while Swift may not have similar success in establishing a standard within song here, there’s little doubt that she puts her own stamp on the material and transforms it entirely. 

One factor that clearly works in her favor is the song selection itself. While none of these offerings can be defined as altogether obscure, most rank on the second tier of Dylan’s contemporary classics. Two tracks from Blood on the Tracks, “Simple Twist of Fate” and “You’re A Big Girl Now” could certainly be considered staples, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, “I Contain Multitudes,” a recent single from the newly released Rough and Rowdy Ways, is obviously a lesser known entity. 


VIDEO: Emma Swift “You’re A Big Girl Now”

With help from producer and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone of Wilco and Swift’s creative and personal partner Robyn Hitchcock, Swift adds a supple sway to each track, as well as a folk-like finesse that allows not only for an original interpretation, but also for a sound that Swift can clearly claim as her own.

“The songs came to me one by one after an extended series of nights getting up close and personal with my LP collection,” Swift recalls. “I would sit on the floor by the record deck with a glass of wine, often more, and let the music spin in my mind. I love being hypnotized by a good song and possessed by a beautiful album, and so this method of listening suits me. I’m quite old fashioned, really.” 

“I think Emma picked all the songs for this one,” Hitchcock muses. “But I knew them all: I knew some of them before I even had a guitar, when the only Emma in my life was Emma Peel in The Avengers TV series. We had to learn ‘I Contain Multitudes’ though. I prefer hearing Emma singing it. She’s a singer. Dylan is more like a dramatic narrator these days.” 


VIDEO: Emma Swift “I Contain Multitudes”

That said, Swift allowed her instincts to dictate her direction when it came to interpretion. “I just followed my intuition,” she insists. “If I thought too much about the original versions, or too much about all the other versions of Dylan songs out in the world, I’d still be in the procrastination phase of making the record.”

So too, she says she was determined to retain her own identity on the album, even in the midst of recording such memorable material.

All I have done on this album is sing a collection of Dylan songs that personally resonated with me at the time of recording,” she reflects. “I don’t have a persona. I’m not Ziggy Stardust or Lady Gaga. I’m not putting on a hat and pretending to be an outlaw. I respect that it works for others, but I’m just not that into musical theatre. I have more in common with the confessional poets than I do with big stage personalities. I sing sad songs in a sad way because I carry a certain kind of sadness that never goes away, no matter how my life unfolds. How difficult was it for me to bring that to Dylan’s songs? The album was recorded when I was clinically depressed! No method acting required.” 

Hitchcock concurs. “Although Emma is the polar opposite of Dylan as a vocalist, they both have that sadness embedded in their voices,” he adds. “She’s made his songs her own. I’d love to hear him interpret one of hers.”

Emma Swift Blonde On The Tracks, Tiny Ghost 2020

Naturally, both Swift and Hitchcock consider Dylan an indelible influence on their work, an admiration that’s resonated practically all their lives. 

“He’s been making records my entire lifetime, and is so influential to me he could almost be an element — fire, earth, air, water, Dylan,” Swift maintains. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about him, though I didn’t really become enchanted by him until I was about 17.”

“Bob Dylan burst into my life when I was 13, at a boarding school,” Hitchcock recalls. “Within a few weeks, he had replaced my parents, and within a couple of years I knew I was going to tread this trail that he blazed. His voice was magnetic, hypnotic, and true; it was like listening to the truth on a record player. And though his compass has wavered occasionally, true is what he remains.”


VIDEO: Emma Swift “Queen Jane Approximately” 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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