It’s not the noise that can scare you the most; it’s the quiet. Or as Bob Dylan put it in Love Sick: sometimes the silence can be like thunder.
Beneath the Nashville skyline Dylan wrote about after leaving New York to record here in the mid-1960s, not that far away from the fabled Music Row of publishers’ offices and recording studios which dominate the southern city, Emma Swift was not just flat, not just listless, she was, the Australian later realised, clinically depressed.
And it was showing in her work. Or more accurately, it was not showing in her work: no songs were coming, no songs even looked like coming for the former Sydney radio host, Wagga native and peripatetic musician who had been in this southern city for seven years.
For a songwriter and singer, this wasn’t just a blip, having gone for a year or two already. For a songwriter and singer in Nashville, where seemingly every second person is involved in the music business - “Everyone in Nashville is doing something cool all the freaking time!” - this wasn’t something she could disguise.
Perhaps not coincidently, at the same time Swift “put the hard word” on her partner, the brilliant eccentric English singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock that “I’m done with Nashville, I don’t want to live here anymore. I think we should up and move to New York”.
“On a micro level, I was in my thirties but hadn’t really addressed any of my childhood experiences, or any of my relationship patterns that maybe I had inherited from my parents. On a macro level, Donald Trump had been elected and there was this fairly toxic shift I think in the culture,” says Swift now from her Nashville home.
“The combination of this rancid fascism rearing its head, combined with the #metoo movement happening and being a fairly triggering experience for me, and a lot of other people, and then all of my personal shit on top of that, made for such a potent and toxic combination.”
The problem wasn’t too much emotion, however, it was maybe not enough of it.
“I was fairly disconnected from the emotional part of myself that write songs,” says Swift. “I think in order just to survive I had become quite compartmentalised and that wasn’t helping me when I sat down at the piano or when I went to pick up the guitar.”
Therapy helped with “a lot of emotional excavating”, but what broke the creative dam was immersing herself in Dylan’s songs, a lot of them, up to this year’s Rough & Rowdy Ways album. Some of those she’s now turned into an album due out next month called Blonde On The Tracks that works as part homage and part universal therapy session.
In her signature slowcore style – Swift describes her special talent as being the anti-Paul McCartney: able to “take a sad song and make it sadder” – but with elements of jangly ‘60s guitars (Queen Jane Approximately), moody country (One Of Us Must Know) and soul (Going Going Gone), she finds a way to soothe and enrich, just as the songs had done for her.
“I’ve always medicated with records,” Swift says. “I love music as a way to soothe my soul, and I’ve been doing that since I was a kid: being upset and blasting the B-52s on a cassette player in my bedroom, watching Sinead O’Connor sing Nothing Compares 2 U on Rage on TV and thinking that’s what I want to do, grow up and sing sad songs.”
That song was a Prince cover that O’Connor completely owned, offering a further early example for Swift whose formative musical influences were two of the best interpreters of others’ songs, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.
Nearly three decades later, spurred by his own covers project that culminated in the triple disc Triplicate album, and finally a song from his new album called I Contain Multitudes she felt driven to record (“To me it’s just a compelling argument for the value of music and poetry and visual art,” says Swift, whose two filmclips so far have taken also visual art to somewhere exciting. “It’s also a beautifully, richly personal kind of confessional song.”) Dylan provided not just the tools but the example; not just a past, but a future for her.
“While it came to me in a desperate moment of not having anything artistically to say as a writer, it really did prove to be a stepping stone to my own ability to write again,” says Swift. “I went into the studio and recorded these eight songs and whatever light that I had inside that was still kind of flickering, that did start to get bigger. I started to jot song ideas in my phone, and lyrics, and start meditating on what it was that I wanted to say as an artist.”
We’ll have to wait another 18 months or so to see the next original album from Swift, likely to be called Slow Dancing With Ghosts, but the songs exist and so does once more her confidence in being a singer and a songwriter. And it’s thanks to another artist who left home for Nashville at a crucial point in his life.
“Bob Dylan is a songwriter who has always come across to me, as supremely confident: he doesn’t seem at all crippled by self-doubt. He never comes across as uncertain, and I guess I wanted to know how that feels,” says Swift. “And one of the ways to find out how that feels is to try on his songs, like they are a jacket.”
Or as someone not a million miles from this conversation once put it: “I’m walking through streets that are dead/Walking, walking with you in my head/My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired/And the clouds are weeping.”
Blonde On The Tracks is out now.
A version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.