Emma Swift, May 2020. Photograph by Autumn Dozier

Emma Swift: Blonde On The Tracks

“I’m certainly living the most domestic life I’ve ever lived,” says angel-voiced Australian alt-country thrush Emma Swift. “I’m in my house in East Nashville with my partner Robyn Hitchcock, and I haven’t left the house since March 13th. It’s a weird time.

“I have been making music and having a little fun. But for someone who has been a professional touring musician for going on seven years now, to actually be in one place for 19 weeks in a row?!” she laughs. “It’s pretty wild!”

The British-born Hitchcock — purveyor of fine psychedelic punk rock with The Soft Boys in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and purveyor of fine psychedelic pop since the mid-Eighties — has been a Nashvillian since 2015. Swift relocated here in 2013 when she was 31 and yet to release her self-titled debut EP, winner of an ARIA Award for Best Country Album. Hearing her ethereal, steel guitar-drenched tunes like “Bittersweet” or “King Of America,” self-admittedly influenced by “Sandy Denny, Marianne Faithfull, and a plethora of dead poets,” it’s easy to see why The Bard Of Paddington and his closetful of polka dot shirts would fall in love with and collaborate with that voice.

Now Swift, Hitchcock’s guitar in a supporting role, takes on The Bard Of Hibbing, Minnesota — Bob Dylan. Blonde On The Tracks sees Swift interpret eight of finest, none of which are typical Dylan covers fare. No “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Like A Rolling Stone” here. A mighty task: Considering the two greatest songwriters of the 20th Century have to be Dylan and Hank Williams, Emma Swift does nothing by half-measures, does she?

“Oh, no! I’m very OCD!” she laughs. “But the thing with doing an artist like Dylan is he is so beloved as a songwriter, his songs have been reimagined many, many times before. That makes it quite difficult as a singer to then go and try to bring something new to a song that’s already been done a lot. So I decided to go further afield and work on things from the Dylan canon that hadn’t been reworked quite so much.”

The tunes she chose — from “Queen Jane Approximately” to “You’re A Big Girl Now” — she inhabits in a unique way. Inspired arrangement touches abound, such as the drop of electric 12-string jingle-jangle in the thick of “Queen Jane,” the album’s opener and second single. Nice nod to Dylan’s greatest interpreters, The Byrds.

“That’s absolutely right! That’s a deliberate reference. I completely love The Byrds. I’m a huge fan of Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. I love what The Byrds did with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ Patrick Sansone (of Wilco, Blonde‘s producer, who played much of the record’s backing) decided to get out a Rickenbacker, and away we went!” she laughs.

The second song and first single, “I Contain Multitudes,” with its allusions to everything from Walt Whitman to The Rolling Stones, was only released by Dylan this past Spring, making Swift’s cover version the song’s first. It’s the audacity and daring of Blonde, born in a 2017 attempt to buck depression and completed during COVID-19 lockdown, that makes it so effective.  It also effectively treated a writer’s block — she was readying a new all-originals LP when the lockdown went in effect. Now unable to enter a studio, Blonde was dusted off, two new tracks added. With its release coming August 14 on Tiny Ghost Records, it will tide us over nicely until it’s safe for Emma Swift to take her new tunes into a studio to bloom properly.