Emma Swift has on a delicately mauve, fashionably shaggy jumper (well, fashionable about 45 years ago, which is peak years for the op-shop queen and fashion icon) as the camera comes on for the call.
When I compliment it, she points out that this shade perfectly matches the print sitting on a shelf behind her in this borrowed room. The print? A Bob Dylan poster. Of course.
That bloke shadows her everywhere, which might be a bit creepy from someone who turns 80 this year, but she doesn’t mind.
With her album of Dylan covers, Blonde On The Tracks, one of the success stories of 2021 – an independent album on a label run from her kitchen table in Nashville, which wasn’t initially made available for streaming became a #1 country/top 10 pop album and #1 on the vinyl charts in Australia – the mismatched duo of the crusty old bloke from Hibbing, Minnesota, and the lass from country NSW have spent the past couple of years together, as closely as anyone could be: his songs, her voice; his originals, her interpretation; his history, her future.
And now - mixing relief and just a bit of fear - with a tour of Australia next month, they’re spiritually paired for the first shows she has played to an audience in more than a year. The first time she’s performed in Australia with a full band since before the Rudd administration.
In fact, the first shows she will perform with this particular band at all, led by former Powderfinger guitarist (the Charlie Sexton to Swift’s B. Dylan?) Darren Middleton, with Marty Brown, the drummer from Clare Bowditch’s band, the Jet duo of Mark Wilson and Louis Macklin on bass and keyboards respectively, and guitarist Kathleen Halloran from Kate Ceberano’s touring group.
They will not be in the same room with Swift until a week before the first gig, which gives this run of shows the feel of one of those classic blues artist tours of decades past, where some legend would turn up in town pick up a group of locals hopefully already drilled to standard, and just play on. (You’d have to think Dylan would quietly appreciate that.)
“Just being in a room playing music with people again is a fabulous, quite daunting thing too,” says Swift who still is speaking with wonder at how “it’s extraordinary” that she is playing “magical, sacred ground, really” rooms that are a considerable step up from her last tour here.
Among them are Sydney’s City Recital Hall, Perth’s Astor Theatre and Melbourne’s Palais Theatre. All seated of course. All rather spesh, and “I feel really lucky to be riding Dylan’s coattails,” she insists. But of course that is only half the story.
(This photo: by Autumn Dozier. Top photo: by Danielle Holbert)
Yes, Dylan’s songs are the foundations for this escalation in her career, but a lot of people sing Dylan songs (in fact just this week The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde announced an album of Dylan covers); not many people bring something new that warrants the kind of attention – and sales - Swift has received in the past year.
Blonde On The Tracks became a perfect marriage of Swift’s quietly potent voice and subtly personal interpretation with a selection of songs that mostly eschewed the standards . It felt right.
“I do feel a connection to the songs very deeply,” she says. “But sometimes it’s easy to forget about that, to remember why I was compelled to do it in the first place. It seems to me now like a kind of madness: why would anybody do that?”
Well, part of the reason, as she described to me last year, was that a deep depression and a creative block writing her own material, was only broken by her deep dive into the Dylan cannon. That act of recuperation let to her remembering what it was that had made the former triple j announcer fall in love with music and singing in the first place.
In retrospect, Blonde On The Tracks wasn’t just a record made in Covid times, it was a record made for Covid times: a quiet piece of introspective work that was perfect for staying in and keeping close, her low key style after all asking that we lean in and pay attention. You could say that Swift got lucky in an unlucky time, except for the fact that we probably needed it as much as she did, as the success of the vinyl version seemed to bear out.
“Reflective records are not always going to be hits, but I happened to make an album that in my imagination was something that people would put on their record player, and that’s what happened. 2020 also happened to be a year when vinyl sales with the largest they had been in over 30 years.”
Taking that a little further, touring these songs in Australia in 2021 is another case of good thinking and good timing: it’s one of the few places in the world where gigs can happen with some certainty; we are celebrating Dylan’s 80th birthday later this month; and the man himself isn’t around to perform.
And as a bonus, if you want Dylan performed with the reasonable connection to the melody as you remember it, maybe even a hello to the room, and a smile or two, this is it.
Of course, as a “jittery” Swift points out, she isn’t actually in Australia yet and if there is many a slip betwixt lip and cup, in Covid times there is a whole funfair slide between plans for travel and actual travel, between getting into a country, and being allowed out of it again.
But borders, masks and quarantine rules-willing, it will happen. And with it maybe the hope for those of us who have seen Dylan and Swift perform that she goes near the full Zimmerman and at some stage during the show plays some rudimentary but vigorous electric organ, and then finishes the night not acknowledging the applause or bowing, but standing there one hand on her hip staring out in the mix of defiance, indifference and (possibly) myopic confusion.
“You want me to grow moustache as well?” she asks with a grin.
Emma Swift plays: the Palais Theatre, Melbourne, June 17; Anita’s Theatre, Wollongong, June 19; City Recital Hall, Sydney, June 20; Astor Theatre, Perth, June 22; Fortitude Music Hall, Brisbane, June 24.