Emma Swift on her New Record with Robyn Hitchcock
I first encountered Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift in February of last year when I was in Texas, attending two Robyn Hitchcock concerts. One was in Austin, the other in Dallas, and Swift was on the bill both nights. Her repertoire of heartbreaking laments over simple acoustic strumming waltzed in the shadow of the best in Americana, echoing the spirits of Emmylou, Lucinda, and Gillian. I met Emma briefly after the Austin show, then arranged for an interview, via Twitter, to take place the following evening at the Kessler Theater in Dallas. The resulting interview was my first article for No Depression, and to find out more about Emma, you can read the article here.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to Swift, and Hitchcock, again, over the phone, from their Nashville home. It was quickly arranged after I contacted Emma, and only had a couple of hours to familiarize myself with their new single, “Love is a Drag” b/w “Life is Change,” before making the call. The single was produced by Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, and can be ordered through Hitchcock’s website. The main interview was posted recently on the Blasting News website. Below are the outtakes from my interview with Emma. Robyn’s will be posted soon.
Could you tell me a little bit about how the two of you got around to writing “Love is a Drag”?
OK, well, we were living on the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom … We were listening to a lot of Neil Young’s On The Beach. Robyn had started the song, and I worked with him towards finishing it. So it was born in his brain, and it finessed in mine, if you like. It’s a pretty bleak sounding song … We both relate to it in quite different ways. I never wanted to be duetting with Robyn in a cheesy way. Even though we are a couple, I never wanted to sing songs with him that sounded romantic and fluffy, like we’re selling something saccharine. (With a laugh) I’d hate to do that stuff! On a certain level, I do really enjoy it, the Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn collaborations of the 60s and 70s, and Tammy (Wynette) and George (Jones), and that kind of thing, but I’m much more interested in my own musical work, in exploring darker feelings. That’s what I wanted to do with Robyn, and that’s kinda what we did here.
The songs were written in the Isle of Wight, but you recorded them in Canada. They have a very glacial aura that perfectly matches the lyrics. It almost feels like a “country” song, without it actually sounding “country.” What can you tell me about the arrangement, and the producer’s part in it?
Oh, sure! Well, the arrangement is sparse, and that is in part due to the sounds that we wanted to go to, and part because of the limitations of recording. What happened was that Robyn is friends with Norman Blake, who’s a wonderful musician. He’s Scottish, and he lives in Kitchener, Ontario. We happened to be in Canada, playing some festivals, and we had a few days off. So Robyn wrote to Norman and said, “Would you be interested in recording a song that Emma and I have written?” and he said, “Yes!” So we went to Norman’s house, it’s recorded in his studio there in Kitchener. It was just Robyn and Norman and myself, so there was never any of that thing where there was going to be a hired band that we would teach the song. I think the idea in part was because the song is desolate, so I wanted the sound to be desolate as well. I didn’t want rich orchestration. Also, it was also kind of recorded on the fly (laughs), so that added to that as well.
I was wondering if the reference to “crashing like a car” was a David Bowie reference? (“Always Crashing in the Same Car,” from Low.)
I don’t know if it’s a Bowie reference or not? I think there was a cheesier lyric, and we just changed it to something slightly more … violent, for fun. I think it might have been “crashes like a star” or something like that … We are huge David Bowie fans, both of us, but it was written before Bowie had passed.
There was an interview Robyn recently posted online from when he played Largo at the Coronet (in Los Angeles) earlier this year, and, to paraphrase, he mentioned he had a thin voice, and you had a much fuller voice. This reminded me of something Paul McCartney said, circa 1995, along the lines of John Lennon having a thin voice, and Paul having a fuller voice, which is why their harmonies worked so well…
(Laughs) … Well, interestingly, I don’t think I have much in common with Paul McCartney, but I, too, am left handed … (laughs) so I guess I am the “Paul” in that respect, compared to Robyn’s voice. We both grew up listening to such different records. I mean, Robyn was born and raised listening to the Beatles, and he will often talk about that, and learned to sing listening to those records. I learned to sing listening to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, and they’re quite strong vocal singers and great harmony vocalists. I grew up wanting to sing like them.
When the two of you sit down to compose a song together, it must be difficult to write with someone to whom you are close … Someone might be critical, or something could be taken the wrong way. Did things flow relatively easily when you wrote together?
Oh, we’re terrible collaborators! The only reason those songs appeared was because we didn’t have any other distractions. The population of the town we were in would be under 1,000 people. There was no kind of late night entertainment or anything like that. So those songs were borne out of boredom and isolation. We occasionally write together now, but mostly we work alone. We’re not easy collaborators at all, and our approach is quite different. I’m very slow, and very cautious. Robyn is very prolific. He has a great gift, he’s very talented in that way. I’m a much more anxious creator. I get things done but I’m not compelled to write in the same way. My muse comes and goes. I think Robyn’s muse is always there, which is a great thing.
When we do write now – we were writing a couple of weeks ago – it’s quite enjoyable, but it’s not something we seek to do all the time. We are both quite interested in pursuing our own careers. I don’t think there will ever be a Robyn Hitchcock/Emma Swift full length LP, for example. I think we’ll continue to produce our own albums. He’s got one that is quite on the way to being finished, and I’m recording mine in March or April, so I’m a little bit behind. But we’ll both have new records next year, and there’s no plan to do a collaboration record. We may do another seven inch …
Are either of you participating in each other’s upcoming records?
Robyn’s not participating in mine, though I’m participating in his. Really I’m just a bit of icing sugar on the cake on his record. He’s made a fantastic album and he can tell out more about it. I’m a backing vocalist in a cast of backing vocalists that included Gillian Welch, Pat Sansone from Wilco, and a bunch of other people. I’m not there in any kind of very overblown way, if that makes sense.
(Laughs) Yes, you could say I was the “atmosphere.” I mean, we don’t even write songs about each other. I think it’s a misconception that artists write about their partners. I think there are lots of other subjects to write about. I know for myself that my songs are so embedded in a deep, dark past, so as long as Robyn is in my present he won’t show up as a muse in any of my tracks. I think the same could be said about his songs. A lot of his new songs are more about looking at London from the prism of Nashville. That’s how he’s described it.
The last question is something you may – or may not – want to answer. I don’t know how this is going to sound, but … A while ago, Robyn posted something on Instagram – A photograph of half of an avocado with a green grape inside of it, against a polka dotted background. Some fans were wondering online if it had any hidden significance?
(A pregnant pause, followed by an outburst of laughter.) No! I love the idea! I’ll put it on the record that “I am not a breeder.” I’m the oldest of seven children. We have no plans to start a family, except for getting another cat, after the loss of Tiny (Montgomery), our cat … We’ll definitely look at getting another cat, when we’re not on tour, again … Possibly two cats. But there will be no SwiftCock (™) children. Oh gosh, that sounds like my mother. I wonder if Robyn’s even thought about the symbolism of that avocado? You’ll have to ask him.
Photo credits: Emily Beaver (Top, B&W), Emma Swift (Middle, color), Robyn Hitchcock (Bottom, avocado, via Instagram).
(Note: North American tour planned for the spring, includinga show at the ONCE Ballroom in Somerville, MA, on March 3, to celebrate when Robyn turns 64. “Birthday greetings, bottle of wine.”)