A couple of years ago, while I still lived in Sheffield, I serendipitously ran into Emma Swift. She was living in Nashville but was from Sydney. Heard her music, mostly Americana based, and found a sort of kindred spirit: a stranger in a strangeland, doing something close to the heart.
Flash forward a few years, a few singles and now a lovely mini-album (our review) and I managed to steal a few hours out of Emma Swift‘s superbusy schedule, right now full of album promotion and live gigs. Enjoy!
How did you ever decide to dive head first into Americana? Which band or artist made you think “yup, I love this stuff!”
An old friend of mine once described Gram Parsons as “the gateway drug to country music…” and I think Gram is most likely where my love of Americana began. I found a yellowing copy of Grievous Angel in a record store in Sydney in the early 2000s and thought it couldn’t hurt to give it a go. And, what a record! I’m still moved by it, even after thousands of listens. When I was a kid, I listened obsessively to a lot of my Dad’s old Linda Ronstadt LPs, so I knew a little about country rock. But when I heard Gram’s voice it was completely different to Linda’s… He just sounds so broken. There’s attack in her voice and defeat in his.When I listen to ‘Brass Buttons’ I just want to fall on the floor and weep. The way he sings “And the sun comes up without her /It just doesn’t know she’s gone” is magnificently sad. I love it.
Americana always felt like “roadtrip music”. Do you agree with this?
Oh yes! There’s poetry on the road. The pedal steel and the highway are great companions. I love being in the car, windows down, watching towns and tumbleweeds and white lines while Neil Young grooves majestically on the stereo. I have to confess here that I’ve never actually learned how to drive, so I’m always in the passenger seat. I try to make up for my lack of skills behind the wheel by curating the best possible soundtracks. Last year after SxSW, I drove with my soul brother and fellow musician Chris Pickering from West Texas through to Joshua Tree National Park playing nothing but The Louvin Brothers and George Jones. Another, earlier time, on my first big trip to the USA, my friend Zoe and I travelled through the Arizona desert in a rented silver convertible with a mix of Whiskeytown, CSN, Wilco, Bill Callahan and Neko Case to keep us company. I’ll never forget that trip.The glorious blue of the sky over the red rocks at Sedona, the winding road, the three-day hangovers, the music we took with us…. Just writing about it makes me want to hit the road again.
You mentioned you spent a long time in Nashville. What pushed you to live there? Care to share any experiences of your time there?
I went to Tennessee looking for kindred spirits. I’m from Sydney, which is a great city, but it’s not exactly classic country heaven the way that Nashville is. I love a good honky tonk. I love thrift store sequins. I love lonely hearted hedonists likely to spend their last five bucks on cheap beer and loading up the jukebox with Tammy Wynette songs. That’s what drew me to Nashville.
I could write a book about my experiences there but am more likely to share those experiences in songs. ‘King of America’ on my record is a love song to Robert’s Western World. ‘Woodland Street’ is very much about how it felt to be living in Nashville, about falling in love with a place and time and wanting to stay in it forever.
What were your experiences in 49 Goodbyes? (btw: thanks for breaking our hearts slowly)
I’m so glad you know and like 49 Goodbyes! Fellow singer Courtney Botfield and I bonded over our mutual love of Emmylou Harris and old school harmonies some years ago and started a duo together. We were quite inexperienced at first but had both grown up singing in choirs. She’s got a higher, sweeter, softer voice than mine. It’s delicate and lovely, a real gift. If my voice is a smoked up window at a dive bar at 2am, hers is an intricately detailed stain glass beauty in a village church just as the afternoon sun hits. I’ve never sung with anyone as gifted as Courtney is vocally. She’s very intuitive and always seems to know where the harmony needs to fall. I hope we get to record again soon.
Let’s talk about Sadcore. I started with Red House Painters and Idaho, so which was your first experience with the genre?
I’m not sure I have a first experience so much as I collection of artists I admire whose music has been described that way: Cat Power, Pedro The Lion, Red House Painters. It doesn’t apply to all artists all of the time so it’s harder to pinpoint than saying someone is ‘folk’ or ‘Americana’. Cass McCombs ‘County Line’ is my favourite sadcore track at the moment. It’s a bleak masterpiece if ever there was one.
You’ve covered some mighty fine artists (Springsteen, Parsons, Big Star) so I gotta ask : which cover felt the most daunting? If you could do another cover – of any artists- who’d you go for?
I find singing my own songs much more daunting than doing covers. I love interpreting other people’s songs. In a way the Springsteen cover was harder than the Parsons or Big Star because I was recording ‘Secret Garden’ as a solo artist. I recorded the vocals with the band but then had a particularly bleak weekend romantically (sigh!) and went back to the studio to record them again, with added loneliness.
We waited for ages (well, I did) for your new album, so tell us a bit how was the whole process.
The record was made with love and care and a tonne of vodka (mostly drunk by me) in Nashville last August. Producer Anne McCue put together a group of incredible musicians and we recorded the whole thing over two days at studio in West Nashville run by the late, great Brian Harrison. He was a genius: a real Southern charmer, music lover and a brilliant engineer who loved recording to tape, listening to Nick Lowe, smoking weed and hating on Dick Cheney. Anne played guitars on everything, Chris Pickering played some guitar and Wurlitzer, Bryan Owings was on the drums, James Haggerty on the bass and Russ Pahl played the pedal steel.
It feels like a very intimate release, so, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s the story behind ‘Seasons’ and ‘Total control’?
‘Seasons’ is about the time I fell for my first American. He was gorgeous and lovely. Tall and tanned with perfect American teeth, we met in the spring in Arizona. It lasted about four days.
‘Total Control’ is a cover by a late 1970s band from Los Angeles called The Motels. So it’s not my song but I’ve loved it ever since my Mum put it on a cassette for me way back when I got my first Walkman in 1989. She also put Elvis Costello’s ‘Watching the Detectives’ and Patti Smith’s version of ‘Because the Night’ on that tape.
‘King of America’ is slow burning and majestic and feels like a lovely slice of Sadcore. Do you plan to stick to that direction a bit more or keep playing with your sound?
I plan to keep going in that direction but to roughen it a little around the edges.
How has it been working and touring with Robyn Hitchcock?
Robyn is a magnificent human and a brilliant musician, equal parts romantic poet and humourist, which is quite a combination. It’s a treat to work and tour with him. Creatively, he’s known for funny songs and for his absurd stage banter, so on one level we’re quite different. But he has also written some of the most haunting, deeply sad lyrics I’ve heard, lines that just shatter my heart. His most desolate songs are the ones I love the most. On tour, wherever Robyn goes you know you’re never far from a beautiful song, a wry observation, a bottle of rosé and a cheese platter. I like this very much.
Any plans for new releases or upcoming tours?
I’m on tour in Australia at the moment and will tour the USA in February next year. Following that I’m heading to Europe and will hopefully play shows with Robyn in Italy and Spain, as well play on my lonesome in England. Recording wise, I’ve got a split 7 inch of Neil Young covers coming out soon, released with my friend Pony Boy, who is a country noir songbird. We recorded it in Nashville with our friends Cosmic Thug. And with any luck, I’ll record a full-length album. I’ve just got to write the songs first.
Finally: let’s say one day you are just chilling by, sipping homemade ice cold tea. Doc Brown and his spiffy DeLorean appear in your driveway and he says that in order for our timeline to exist, you need to go back to in time and record in the studio with The Flying Burrito Brothers. Which song do you record with them and why?
‘Wheels’ has long been one of my favourite Flying Burrito Brotherss tracks. I love singing harmony on that song and the chorus hits me right in the gut. What more can you ask for in a song?
We featured Emma Swift in a lovely mix of Americana. You can listen to it right here.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López