Q&A with Swift Silver, songwriters Anna Kline & John Looney hail in a new era of Southern Rock and Soul

"I miss not hearing music...I’d like to stumble upon something organically that’s not forced on me by algorithms based on my past listening habits. The casual listener gets absolutely bombarded these days."

Swift Silver: Southern Soul Drawings 

Southern songwriters Anna Kline and John Looney are Swift Silver. Their collaboration spans ten years of exploring the great expanse of the American songbook—touring, conspiring, songwriting—fused together by the Mississippi heat, molded in the mountain air of Western North Carolina, and flung free in the hills of Kentucky bluegrass. Get swept away by Swift Silver’s big river of sound with their self-titled debut album “Swift Silver” (2021). Swift Silver marks a meaningful milestone for Southern songwriters Anna Kline and John Looney as a 180° (re)turn to their musical roots: the drawling tremolo of rhythm and blues, the redemptive strains of Southern gospel, and the twang of the rural soul. Kline’s vocal performances -on both lead and harmony- display an astonishing range of versatility and skill, her voice flows as smooth as a rippling river current. Looney gives a masterful performance on lead guitar, not only displaying his expertise as an integral sideman but also as a talented arranger, showcasing a finely-tuned ear for nuance and groove. Together, they drive the contagious electric surge of sound that is Swift Silver.

(Swifet Silver / Photo by Bethany Weiss Floraday)

Anna comes from a line of several generations’ worth of musicians, singers, and artists. She grew up in Hernando, a small town between Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, and is a writer of both songs and Southern culture content. From Memphis Soul to Muscle Shoals and working in licensing at Malaco Records, her roots ring clear in her songwriting as well as her capabilities as a vocalist. John was born in the mountains of Southwest Virginia and raised in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. He is a sought-after multi-instrumentalist whose accompaniment on mandolin or guitar gives each song personality and a distinct groove. Drawing from the varied influences of his mountain music heritage, blues, and the diversity of the American songbook, John’s contributions—in both live performances and on recordings—are ear candy.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Southern Roots & Soul music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Anna:  One of the first things John said to me after we'd gotten to know each other was that Mississippi is a different kind of place from anywhere else. And it is. I feel like I already had a different view of the world as it is and once, I moved away from that little microcosm, it continued to color and inform how I moved in the world.

For me, the journey began in college when I took a Memphis music class and the world as I knew it cracked wide open. I became a disciple of the Memphis Sound: Ardent, Stax, Sun, Hi Records. I'd grown up in it and around it, and I began to dig deeper into my musical heritage, on past surface-level Elvis and generic blues and got down and dirty with the original torchbearers, the history, the life and times that created this musical world that influenced everything from then on. What connects us and compels us to continue the legacy.  Honestly, I am just another white kid that experienced a radical transformation from listening to those bass lines and horn riffs. Truth be told, when I went to work for Malaco Records a few years later, I was actually trying to leave the South, but my journey took me even deeper into the belly of it all. It changed me. I met so many incredible musicians and artists, got to be a fly on the wall as they were writing songs, writing chord charts, and preparing for studio sessions, heard all the stories and eventually left with my head full of music and memories. Every time I go back to visit, they send me on my way with more music in my hands. It's something that travels with me always.

As we have had to navigate this time of social upheaval and disillusion with the way the world is run, this deep racial despair, and overall disconnectedness, it's more important than ever to reach out and connect on a personal level. It gave me hope because despite all the negatives - and we know Mississippi has had its fair share of negative spotlight - my friends and family there, I know are doing good work, they are hard at work for change, hard at work to prove you wrong about the Mississippi you think you know.

John: There are many different kinds of music that require a guide, a context. For me, this music never required. The sounds of Southern roots and soul are eternal because the foundations of it reach back beyond modern times. Whether its from Africa or Ireland, the sounds are predate commercial sound, music not made to be sold, it was made for pure enjoyment. The traditions of these types of music were to tell a story, to enjoy, to connect in fellowship. Africa’s rhythmic and melodic sensibilities do connect, say, with traditional Celtic musicality and rhythm. It is a not a natural progression of ideas, but it is truly American, and we can’t help but be influenced into a mash-up of musical ideas. The Deep South, Mississippi, especially, is the birthplace of America’s Music. It’s music with an identity. It’s music with imagery. When you hear Fred McDowell, Bill Monroe, George Jones, everything you need to know is right there in the music. You don’t have to dig much farther than that. And it doesn’t require too much effort from the part of the listener. It doesn’t make it better or worse than another genre. It’s just different.

You have to work your way up to jazz. You have to work your way into Bach or Beethoven. But this music doesn’t need explanation, it defies the odds. This music is an intuitive medium. It’s more visceral, which is why this music resonates so deeply across the globe. It’s an idea more than a sound but it’s a sound that is also a tangible idea. Around the world, there are musicians still trying to sound like Earl Scruggs or Buck Owens, still trying to sound like Robert Johnson or Charley Patton. It is accessible, communal to a majority of people. The common thread between the two is lonesomeness. Whether you’re a hillbilly or in the coal mines or a sharecropper in the cotton fields, I believe it’s coming from a lot of the same places. It’s interesting to me that there are bluegrass or blues festivals in Japan and Asia, Europe and South America. It’s all because of this new, weird immigrant country (United States) where all these people from various backgrounds converged and had to live together and they made a new sound, an amalgamation of these ideas.                 (Photo: Swift Silver)

"I think people listen to music much differently these days. Just like back in the day, people understood the concept of the album and its story arc, per se. There’s so much “noise,” and people and things vying for your attention. I guess we just want to appeal to the folks looking for something more."

How do you describe Swift Silver sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does duo's creative drive come from?

John: We’ve been focused on purely acoustic music for years. This project is something that we’ve talked about doing for a long time—it took a pandemic to help make that happen, but we did it. It’s the music we wanted to write that reflects what we love musically, which spans what we heard as young, impressionable kids to what we’ve gravitated towards during our musical development as musicians.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Anna: I hardly even know where to begin with this one! There are so many—John and I are those late-night pickers who'll close things down in the jam circles, mingle in the shadows, and take the opportunity to collaborate with as many musicians as we can. One of the best memories from recording this album is just being in the studio with Kenny and Hayden of Wayne Graham. We specifically wanted to work with them on this project. I am always in awe to hear what another musician hears when we play our songs, and they are so intuitive and well-versed musically, they breathed a whole new life force into these songs. They are artful craftsmen who are masters of nuance, who are easy to work with, easy to discuss and explore ideas with, and whose contribution is an invaluable source of inspiration.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Anna: We miss a little bit of the spontaneity and surprise of finding new music -- the music business, getting your music heard can be so stifling and formulaic -- there are so many gatekeepers and it’s difficult to get heard. You end up worrying more about the number of followers you have than actual songcraft and musicianship. So, keeping your mind on what’s really important, on writing and performing and shutting out the noise is a whole other skill set these days.

John: I miss not hearing music...I’d like to stumble upon something organically that’s not forced on me by algorithms based on my past listening habits. The casual listener gets absolutely bombarded these days. I liked it better when we bought music and didn’t pay for a streaming service. You bought an album in a record store. When you forked over money for an album or CD, you had incentive to spend more time with the music. It just had more value on a personal and cultural level.            (Photo: Swift Silver)

"We’ve been focused on purely acoustic music for years. This project is something that we’ve talked about doing for a long time—it took a pandemic to help make that happen, but we did it. It’s the music we wanted to write that reflects what we love musically, which spans what we heard as young, impressionable kids to what we’ve gravitated towards during our musical development as musicians."

What would you say characterizes Kentucky music scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

Anna: The one thing that we love most about the music scene in Kentucky is the amount of freedom to explore the musical space and the genuine camaraderie that carries over not only professionally, but personally. Not that that didn’t exist elsewhere, but it’s a little different. Maybe we’re different now, I don’t know. We moved here and were pointedly trying to take our music in a new direction and the freedom to move in that direction was like a door was thrown open and we just went for it.

John: Well, it’s interesting that there’s such a heavy spotlight on the Kentucky music scene right now. There are some music communities where you do have to move someplace else so that you can move forward in your career but here (and Asheville, North Carolina where we lived for 5 years) are two places where people are coming to you.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

John: There’s no substitute for the work.

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Anna: It is definitely a thing, no doubt. I was recently reading some articles about Bobbie Gentry and how she got so disillusioned with the industry. Record producers didn’t want to give her credit for writing her songs or even producing her own albums. She even did the artwork for quite a few of her albums. You have to develop a thick skin, you have to be able to speak the language and back it up with know-how, and stand your ground. It can easily suck the confidence right out from under you. That being said, I am surrounded by some incredible guys and female musician friends who are very supportive. Ultimately, you have to learn how to weather some of those brutal bits and find those people you can trust, those who will be honest with you but not crush your spirit. It’s important to have friends that you can lean on who are in the trenches, too—who understand, who can empathize, who know. Me and my closest friends who are also songwriters/musicians, we have to be fearlessly, staunchly present for each other: as a sounding board, as a cheerleader, and to hold that space for each other as we navigate our way through being heard. I just had a really long conversation with a friend this very morning about all this.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want to affect people?                                     (Swift Silver / Photo by Jenny Baumert)

Anna: I think people listen to music much differently these days. Just like back in the day, people understood the concept of the album and its story arc, per se. There’s so much “noise,” and people and things vying for your attention. I guess we just want to appeal to the folks looking for something more.

John: Our hope is that we get people to think a little deeper, go listen to the music that has influenced us, if you haven’t already. Search for the musical experience that means something to you. Don’t do what you’re told.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Anna: Oh, we'd have to go back to 1960s Memphis and hang around in the Satellite Record Shop and weasel my way into singing at a Stax studio session.

John: The implications of having a time machine is massive. I don’t know if I can answer that. Would I go back and kill baby Hitler? It’s too much. I don’t even know where to start.

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