Earlier this year, while visiting Texas, I was fortunate enough to catch Emma Swift, an Americana artist who hails from Australia, in concert on two consecutive evenings. Both nights, she charmed and entranced as the opening act for the modern day psychedelic folk-rock minstrel, Robyn Hitchcock.
Armed only with her treasured acoustic Gibson guitar and crystal clear, twangy voice, Swift easily won over the crowd with her confessional, “sadcore” originals, along with a mix of songs made famous by Gram Parsons and Rodney Crowell.
Swift’s music shimmers. It is raw and minimalist, a throw back to a simpler time, when country music was earthy and real, before it devolved into the ersatz commercial juggernaut it is today. Her songs create a dreamy landscape, where laid-back laments on romance take the listener down a river of reflected melancholy and heartbreak.
After seeing her (and Hitchcock) perform at Dallas’ beautiful, old style Kessler Theatre, Swift agreed to sit with me backstage for an interview. In person, she is a bundle of positive energy, effusive about almost everything, which belies the loneliness and longing in her own compositions. In conversation, Swift’s voice is melodic and expressive, as if perpetually speaking in italics, parentheses, and exclamation points.
Swift got into Americana music when she was about 21, after she picked up a copy of Lucinda Williams’ World Without Tears album.
“It blew my mind!” she told me with the enthusiasm of a new convert. “I fell completely in love with it. There was something about her voice and her poetry… The record has a tenderness and vulnerability that I’d never really heard before, I just totally loved it. That’s where my journey into Americana music began. And having got that, I also kinda picked up on, as you do, Emmylou Harris, from her stuff from the mid-70s onwards, to Gram Parsons, Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker and Gold, and Gillian Welch… Once I kind of spiraled into it, I fell quite obsessively for a certain kind of sound.”
While still in her 20s, and not yet a professional musician, Emma and a female friend rented a silver convertible (“Like in Thelma & Louise”), and traveled across the U.S.A. on a five week trek. “It was my first experience of America and I became hooked. After that trip, I had to keep coming back.”
“Eventually I decided I wanted to move to the States, so I did a two month trip as a trial run. I spent a month in Brooklyn and a month in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I’d never been to Nashville before, but I went with Yvonne, who is with me on this trip (driving, selling tour merchandise, and singing) and we just had the best, most wonderful time. On our first night in town, we saw Guy Clark playing in a bar, and he just knocked my socks off. I’d heard his songs before, but to hear him playing live was transformative … By the end of the show, I was crying.
“Later that night we went to Robert’s Western World, a popular honky tonk on lower Broadway, and the band was playing classic country songs, people were drinking and laughing and doing the two-step… and I was mentally packing up my house in Sydney.”
Patterned after her musical heroes, Swift’s songs are decidedly old school. “My (style) is a kind of confessional style of songwriting.”
Aside from the usual No Depression musical culprits, Swift is also hugely influenced by musical magpie Elvis Costello. While Swift’s songs are deeply traditional, there are certain lines with a Costello-ish twist, with phrases like “When I think of you it’s bittersweet, when I dream of you it’s tangerine, things that might have been” (“Bittersweet”) or “Your burning out cigarette might as well be a rose between your teeth” (“Woodland Street”).
(Listen here and here).
“I first heard Elvis Costello on a mix tape that my mum made for me when I was a kid. It had Linda Ronstadt doing ‘Alison,’ and it had Elvis Costello’s ‘Watching the Detectives.’ So I got him from two different angles at an early age … When I hit my teen years I became a huge devotee and managed to get hold of all his records. I still play Imperial Bedroom every other day. His Nashville record, Almost Blue was the first twangy record I owned. I was raised on old New Wave LPs and indie radio, so the Billy Sherrill production was a bit of a shock to the system! I love that album for obvious reasons now… but they weren’t so obvious then.”
Last year, Swift released a 35 minute eponymous mini-album, featuring five originals and a cover of “Total Control” by the Motels. Most of the material was inspired by her personal relationship with America, and Nashville in particular. “Seasons” captured her falling in love with the States, Robert’s Western World was the inspiration for her laid-back, jazzy, eight-and-a-half minute meditation, “King of America,” and “Woodland Street” is about not wanting her time is Nashville to end.
“I made the record in Nashville just before I was due to leave. I asked a friend of mine, Anne McCue, who’s a wonderful guitar player and producer, to produce it.”
McCue gathered a talented and sympathetic group of musicians for the project – guitarist Chris Pickering from Australia, plus drummer Bryan Owings (Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller), Russ Pahl (Ray LaMontagne, Elton John, Nikki Lane) on pedal steel, and bassist James Haggerty (Autumn Defense with Wilco’s John Stirratt). “It was a pretty great crew!’ Swift said. “Any nerves I had about making my first record were definitely eased by walking into a great, laid-back studio and being in the company of such professional, beautiful souls.”
Although she currently accompanies herself on guitar in concert, she left that job to McCue and Pickering for the album. “I’m a singer who strums, nothing more. There’s a lightness of touch and tender beauty to the way Anne McCue plays guitar that I could never achieve. She’s got a gentle confidence that is wonderful to listen to.”
2015 looks like a very promising and productive year for Swift. “I’m gonna write another record, hopefully in the middle of this year!,” she enthused. “I’m working on the songs at the moment. I’ve been working really hard in Australia, and touring a lot, so I haven’t had a lot of down time, so I’m taking a couple of months off in the middle of the year, and I’m going to England, and I’m just going to get in a loner space.… For me to write, I need to be on my own enough, and lonely enough, because I write these desperately sad things, but I’m actually a social and a happy-go-lucky person. I don’t really know many people in the U.K. and the weather is always dismal, so the conditions are ripe for despair there.”
I asked her if she’s a disciplined writer, or does she wait for inspiration. “I don’t have any sense of structure. That’s not how I roll at all! I have a lot of ideas recorded on my phone. They capture a mood, or a kind of lyric idea that I wanna explore further, but I’m quite, quite happy to leave them on the phone and let them simmer. I’m never in a rush creatively.”
Swift will return to live in Nashville again this year, leaving her home country and her DJ spot as the host of the Americana program, “Revelator,” on Australia’s Double J radio station.
She will also continue touring on and off with Hitchcock for most of the year. Recently, she’s been duetting with him on stage near the end of his sets.
“I love his voice and I love singing harmony. He’s very dynamic to play with, and changes all the time. We have very different musical influences and sounds, so the combination of our voices together is unlikely. There’s a perversity in it that we both like.”
The first official release by the unlikely pair was a 7” vinyl release release for Record Store Day earlier this year. The songs included were a Hitchcock original, “Follow Your Money,” backed with a cover of Neil Young’s “Motion Pictures.” (Listen here.)
“We’re just starting to write together. I’m not a huge co-writer, and neither is he. We’re very un-Nashville in that way. He’s brilliant. He’s a surrealist poet with a guitar, and I love that about him. It’s very different from almost everything else I have in my record collection.”
- Tour Dates
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