By Walter Price
Your first experience hearing Emma Swift’s voice crack under the weight of her own words, the recollection of the tale’s origins or maybe the power of setting experiences free you’ll know that this singer/songwriter walks in solid footprints of the great story tellers before her.
Her self-titled EP, 6 tracks of heartbreak, misty eyed pour another late night memories and faded loves. Backed by a band of pedigreed players and produced by the uber-talent Anne McCue. The collection is breathtaking, not in the wide open spaces and blue skies sort of way. More like the gritty, whispery side of an imperfect life laid-out for the listener to gawk at, pick apart and ultimately make their own.
Devastatingly beautiful, shadowy honky tonk pedal steel maudlin songs built on time tested and familiar foundations. Have a listen, you may equate Swift’s soulful sad songs with great names but these stories are chillingly her own.
What is it about a sad song?
I’ve been drawn to sad songs my whole life, there’s a vulnerability and a tenderness in them that I’m completely magnetized by. Some people love music that makes them dance, I’m a lover of the stuff that makes me weep. Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Bill Callahan, Karen Dalton, they all have this beautiful sorrow that compels me to listen to their records again and again.
The music heroes you mentioned plus a few more certainly shine in your music. When writing/ recording a song do you hear these voices or are you completely in your own headspace?
I’m very much in my own headspace when I’m writing; it’s like keeping a journal for me. I have all my influences but they don’t override my all powerful subconscious or my shonky guitar playing. Often when I’m recording, I like to imagine I’m singing to an audience of one – an old lover, a lost friend, the ghost of a bartender. It helps me stay connected to the intent of the song, which may have been written long before the tape started to roll.
Those are true qualities of a great song one’s experiences and honesty in telling the tales. Does laying out these thoughts, being vulnerable ever scare you? Once they are out in the open there is no going back.
It’s terrifying, sharing your feelings and your experiences through song but also cathartic and necessary too. It took me a long time to feel comfortable owning my sorrow, my disappointments, my love and longing too. I was raised Catholic. That leaves a lot of repression and guilt and sin to overcome. I was also raised by a terrible drunk, which is I think what can happen if you’re scared of being honest with the world and honest with yourself. I like the way songs give me a chance to explore feelings and thoughts and hurts and mistakes and maybe grow from them.
There is something about the pedal steel that drives the point home in a song and certainly provides the foundation for a night of drink and sorrowful contemplation. There is romanticism in it. When did you discover the powers of the pedal steel?
I first fell for the pedal steel listening to Linda Ronstadt LPs as a kid. I love the way her voice rings out against the lonesome cry of the pedal steel. I’m a sucker for that sound, it’s magical to me. Whenever I hear beautiful pedal playing, whether it’s on an old school song from Tammy Wynette or on a contemporary gem from Cass McCombs, I feel musically nourished.
Your band is amazing and pedigrees to prove it, how did you come to work with these players on the album?
My producer, Anne McCue found the players for the record. The pedal steel player, Russ Pahl, is a genius. He’s worked with some wonderful musicians including Ray Lamontagne and Nikki Lane and has a fabulous ear. He blends psychedelic and traditional sounds in way that just blows my mind. I cried when he first played ‘King of America’. The drummer is Bryan Owings, who has a lovely, gentle sound and has played with Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. Anne McCue herself does a brilliant job on electric and acoustic guitars – she’s subtle and spacious. I love her sound.
Anne McCue is another great voice. Australia has its pop icons, ballsy rock and Keith Urban…What’s going on in the folk and alt/outlaw country scene(s)?
There’s a small scene here in Australia but its growing which is really positive. I travel mostly between Sydney and Melbourne for shows and am always excited to find my kin on the road, sharing in their songs and stories and whiskey. My favourite Australian artists probably don’t identify as alt country but you can hear it in their sound – Mia Dyson and Jen Cloher come to mind. Folk wise, my friend Caitlin Harnett just made a record in Canada that is really lovely. I must confess, I miss the scene in Nashville, where left of centre country is thriving at the moment. There’s a lot to love about that town.
Not only are you making phenomenal music but you’re a radio host, writer and supporter of authentic music/artists. Has radio always been a fascination for you?
I’ve always been a keen radio listener! I used to keep a pink radio by my bed at night and listen just to get to sleep. I still remember the night I heard Elvis Costello on the radio for the first time. I was 15 and just beginning to learn what I really connected to musically. I had tuned into a two hour Costello career retrospective on the Australian Radio Network Triple J. The DJ – Richard Kingsmill – played ‘I Want You’ and I became completely hooked. That song blends sorrow, tenderness, sexual tension and bitterness in the most compelling way, I cry just thinking about it. I bought all of Elvis’ records after that night.
With technologies moving so fast and some say attention spans shrinking, do you think the days of traditional radio and its powers to persuade and intrigue are coming to an end?
I think the days of traditional radio are probably coming to an end. That said, I think well curated radio will always have a place. I love listening to the radio, especially when I’m visiting foreign countries, to get a feel for the place and culture. I lived in England at the end of last year and had BBC 6 on in the kitchen all the time.
In Nashville, I fell in love with the reliably brilliant WSM, a classic country station. In the USA outside Nashville, it’s hard to beat NPR but I also love independent station WFMU and the Seattle station KEXP. I’ve also had great support for my record from Wrecking Ball Radio; a listener funded digital station and WDVX, which is based in Knoxville, Tennessee. So I love them for loving and supporting independent music. In Australia, I listen to Double J as well as the Sydney based community stations FBi and 2SER. I guess you could say I’m an enthusiast!
It’s hard for artists to know how to promote their work properly, especially younger artists. What advice would you give music makers on doing interviews and using social media?
My advice would be to stay passionate and don’t be afraid to share your enthusiasm for the stuff you like. Be honest. Be reckless. Read widely. Make mistakes. Accept and acknowledge your flaws. Have fun. Play nice. Whenever possible, thank people who have supported you. And lastly, there’s no harm in sharing a confession or two.
Speaking of confessions, what are five things people don’t know about Emma Swift?
- I wanted to be a writer/ poet but my brief attempt at the academic life in my early 20s made me feel lonely. I’m just not disciplined enough to stay isolated for too long. I’m the eldest of seven children. I find comfort in noise and distractions. Any attempts at productivity for me need to allow for frequent stops for alcohol, food, play and music.
- I rarely feeling special enough to order a cocktail but when I do, my favourite drink is a sloe gin fizz.
- I cry every time I listen to The Band ‘It Makes No Difference’. It’s my favourite song.
- I keep the ticket stub for the one time I saw Kris Kristofferson solo in my purse.
- Whenever I feel lost creatively, I listen to Lucinda Williams. She’s perfectly imperfect. I love her.
Honeysuckle Rose or Harvest?
Neil Young has been a huge influence on me and this is the first record I owned of his. It was a gift from my Dad for my 18th birthday. The record was originally released in 1972, the year my Dad turned 18, so it was like being gifted an emotional heirloom. Listening to ‘Out OnThe Weekend’ for the first time broke my heart. It’s so lonesome and desperate. Then you have the title track and it’s abundance of inherited sorrow, combined with the faintest glimmer of romantic hope. What a time bomb.
What makes you happy?
Swimming in the ocean. Emmylou Harris on vinyl. Mangos. My beautiful friends and their warmth, kindness and gentle cynicism. The promise of a trip to Europe in 2015.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. It’s a pleasure listening to your beautifully heartbreaking music. Hopefully we’ll see you over here for some shows.
Thank you so much for your time Walter and thanks for supporting independent music from the other side of the globe.
Live performance of ‘Woodland Street’ from Emma Swift’s ARIA nominated debut mini album. Chris Pickering on guitar.
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