Pandemic Days: Love, Lockdown And Live Music In The Age Of Quarantine – An Op-Ed Piece From Australian Singer-Songwriter Emma Swift

Published in Music  
Singer-songwriter Emma Swift has released her album 'Blonde On The Tracks' on DSPs. Singer-songwriter Emma Swift has released her album 'Blonde On The Tracks' on DSPs.

Nashville-based Australian singer-songwriter, Emma Swift has released today digitally her newest album titled 'Blonde On The Tracks' (which was previously available on CD, vinyl and cassette tape).

A collection of Bob Dylan covers perfectly capturing the depth of Swift's talent as a performer, she found solace in Dylan's work while navigating a period of personal and creative depression.

"It was hard to get out of bed and get dressed, and present to the world as a high-functioning human," Emma says about 'Blonde On The Tracks'.

"I was lost on all fronts no doubt, but especially creatively. "With a bad case of writer's block and no songs of my own to record, I turned to Dylan's music to reinvigorate my life force. And it worked. To use one of his lines, he got me out of a jam."

In the current music climate, the decision to initially withhold 'Blonde On The Tracks' from the DSPs was an unorthodox choice for Swift to make.

"It's extremely rare for musicians to withhold their songs from streaming services," Emma says, "but given that I lost my touring job at the beginning of the year due to COVID, I wanted to see if music lovers still bought albums; and it turns out they do. I wouldn't have an ARIA Top Ten album if they didn't."

Emma has penned an op-ed about her experiences living in the United States during a global pandemic, adjusting to a world devoid of live music experiences and interacting with fans IRL, to survive not only the human carnage COVID has wrought but to find joy and happiness in a virtual space streaming to an audience on the other side of the laptop, which would have been until 2020 a repugnant notion for most creatives.

If you had told me a year ago that keeping my gig as a musician in 2020 would require a sudden restructure of my entire job so that it could exist solely on the internet, with zero income from touring, I'd have thought you were being utterly strange.

But then doesn't everything from last year seem a little strange now? The parties, the shaking hands, the trips to the supermarket without a mask. . . What I wouldn't give for an intimate little vacation in the past! Oh, the places I'd go! The friends I'd embrace! The germs I wouldn't even think about it! It seems so long ago, Nancy.

Back in 2019, I was a gigging musician, playing more than 100 shows over 52 weeks, shuffling in and out of bars and clubs and airports across the world. These days, I mostly walk from my kitchen table to the coffee pot and back again, occasionally stopping to spend 45 minutes staring into the abyss, my phone, and then I go about working on what I now think of as my all day, every day job: the Neverending Online Tour.

When the pandemic struck, leaving both me and my partner underemployed in Trump's America, it wasn't merely out of boredom that we ventured into the weird and wonderful world of online gigs, it was out of absolute necessity. Sure we had some savings, but certainly not enough to get us through what was projected (conservatively it now seems) to be a year of no live work.

And so on 18 March, we began Live From Sweet Home Quarantine: an inane, surreal, ramshackle concert series, broadcast weekly from our kitchen in Nashville. And now we've made it to December, all these days and months and decades (kidding, but no, really, what even is time anymore?) we're still here. And we're still on air. And to our surprise, the audience is still here too.

Is the show slick? No. Is it like a real gig? Sort of. Is it fun? Yes, it's really, really fun. And it's fun in ways I didn't quite imagine a gig could be fun, for no gig I've ever done prior to this year has featured the regular appearance of my two reluctant cats. Nor have I regularly performed alongside a cast of inane and reassuring soft toys (Perry the Lobster, Germaine the Koala and Leonard the Flying Fish, since you're asking).

Seriously though, pets and plush sidekicks aside, the online stage has some advantages over the one I'd come to know and love.

At a regular gig, if someone talks throughout the show, it's a performer's worst nightmare. But at an online concert, the more chat, the better. The audience banter in the chat room sparks jokes and conversations and observations in a way that is far more interactive and intimate (and far less annoying).

At a regular gig, more often than not a set list is defined by what the performer thinks they can play well. Whereas at an online show, anything goes, with sometimes beautiful and sometimes incredibly dodgy results. The frequency of the gigs, and the returning viewers, means the set list has to be varied beyond what a regular tour would demand. The same songs each week get old very quickly. And so the show is fast and loose and off-the-cuff. Hearts race, harmonies collide, happy errors are laughed off as part of the experiment.

And again at a regular gig, when the show is over and the beer has been spilled and the lights are up, the audience goes home and the performers go back to their hotel and whatever connection that took place evaporates until a date to be determined by tour routing, album release schedules and demand.

But with no scheduling conflicts online (for where else would we play?), there is a weekly routine of coming together and escaping together, safe in the knowledge that the news cycle is happening elsewhere (for a minute) and that the virus will not be spread by us all being in the same (virtual) place at the same time.

If we were living in a non-pandemic year (if only), and you'd asked me to stop playing live and instead sing into a laptop, I'd probably have resisted to the point of giving up and getting another job. But I am, despite the unusual circumstances, incredibly grateful to have been pushed onto the online stage.

For what I have discovered is a wild and creative, and truly quite life-affirming experiment in aloneness and togetherness, a digital version of Dorothea Tanning's raft.

"Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity." - Dorothea Tanning

But instead of clinging to my sanity (trust me, that went forever ago), I'm clinging to my community. And I'm clinging to my joy. And I'm clinging to my hope that one day soon, not only will the old show go (back) on, but the online one might stay too.



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