Singer-songwriter Emma Swift divides her time between her home town Sydney and Nashville where she recorded her self-titled mini-album with help from expat musician and producer Anne McCue. Having worked long and hard as a broadcaster and journalist at FBi Radio, Double J and Rhythms Magazine to let Australian fans know about the best of alt country, folk and Americana, now it’s time to turn the spotlight on her own work. The results (which can be heard below) speak for themselves in beautifully crafted words and dreamy tones. We caught up with Emma Swift after hearing her at Some Velvet Morning with Chris Pickering last Saturday night.
How did the songs come together? Were they all written in Nashville?
I moved to Tennessee from Sydney in late 2012 and most the songs were written in my kitchen in East Nashville over a six month period or so, with me in varying states of elation or loneliness, depending on the phase of the moon. Some days I’d write all day, other times I’d go weeks and not pick up the guitar. I’m like that.
Do you feel very different now to the songwriter that first landed in Nashville? How so?
My heart is happier having done the thing that I’d always wanted to do – make a record in America. My liver is blacker having done the thing that I’d always wanted to do – near nightly honky-tonking. And as far as my mind goes, I’m on better terms with my neuroses.
Tell us a bit about your backing musicians. The pedal steel, in particular, is immaculate.
The band was put together by Anne McCue: producer, guitar slinger, soft soul and quiet achiever. Anne is a sensitive, understanding woman of great intelligence. She plays guitar the way she walks the world, with tender grace and brilliant intuition. I couldn’t love the players she found for the record more. There’s pedal steel shaman Russ Pahl, who has worked with Ray Lamontagne and Elton John. The gentle drums and percussion come from Bryan Owings, who regularly plays with Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller, two of my heroes. On bass, James Haggerty has a lovely, relaxed feel as well as a deep appreciation for classic country. Chris Pickering, my soul-brother and favourite drinking companion is on Wurlitzer, guitars and spiritual guidance.
Aside from singer-songwriters like Emmylou Harris, you list a bunch of writers and poets in your list of influences including Anais Nin, Doris Lessing, Pablo Neruda and Charles Bukowski. I know you’ve called your music ‘sadcore’, but clearly there’s a deep love of words there.
I love a heaving bookshelf and I’m always carrying a book or two or three. Last week I was reading Siri Hustvedt’s novel The Blazing World, a brilliant meditation on womanhood and art, culture consumption and fame. This week I’m reading a biography of Patsy Cline. In terms of influence, the words of Nin and Lessing have taught me how to be a woman as much as anyone I have ever met. Neruda I came to late but fell for deeply last year after falling in love. He articulates desire like no other. As for Bukowski, he understands the romance of the dive-bar, the joy of sin and lived by a mantra I like a lot: “Don’t try.”
You mentioned your song ‘James’ is about a New York electronic musician who digs The Smiths. Tell us a bit about these eclectic tastes [Not that there’s anything wrong with that!] of yours.
James Murphy! I have to stress, that song isn’t about him in a literal sense; it’s a fantasy love song. Sometimes the idea of a love affair is better than the real thing.
How do you find balancing being a songwriter with being a broadcaster and music journalist?
I don’t think balance is a word that applies to my life. Chaos reigns.
We’ll get to see you next as part of the Out On The Weekend Tour. Are you very well acquainted with the other artists? What are you looking forward to?
I’m thrilled to be a part of this festival. Nikki Lane is feisty and magnificent, a top-notch singer. Robert Ellis is the history of great Texas songwriting boiled down into George Jones meets Paul Simon, Jonny Fritz makes me laugh and cry. And I’m a huge fan of Willy Vlautin so I can’t wait to hear him play with The Delines. Hell, everyone is going to be great. If there’s one thing you can rely upon in Australia, it’s that Brian Taranto and Love Police know how to put on a party.