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The Story Behind Every Song on Taylor Swift’s folklore

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Aaron Dessner confirms: folklore is Taylor Swift’s goth record. Or, at least, it’s her most gothic record. It’s also a few other things, depending on your mood: an unofficial Big Red Machine collaboration (Big RED Machine); a spiritual companion to The National’s 2019 album I Am Easy To Find, specifically its accompanying Mike Mills film, also shot in black-and-white and emphasizing a more natural setting; or just Swift’s attempt at a headphone record, one that, even if you don’t buy into the Taylor Swift mythology, rewards multiple listens as you pick up on all the intricacies of each song and realize wow, this is where the In Rainbows influence comes in. Dessner is the one to thank for all these little details.

The National multi-instrumentalist spoke to Vulture over the phone from upstate New York a few hours after the surprise release of Swift’s eighth studio album. (“A pretty wild ride,” he admits, sounding tired yet happy.) He was clear that he can’t speak on behalf of Swift’s lyrics, much like he can’t for The National frontman Matt Berninger’s either, or the thinking behind Jack Antonoff’s songs. (Here’s a cheat sheet: Jack’s songs soar, Aaron’s glide.) But Dessner was game to speak to his specific contributions, influences, and own interpretations of each song on folklore, a record you can sum up by two words that came up often during our conversation: nostalgic and wry.

“the 1”

“the 1” and “hoax,” the first song and the last song, were the last songs we did. The album was sort of finished before that. We thought it was complete, but Taylor then went back into the folder of ideas that I had shared. I think in a way, she didn’t realize she was writing for this album or a future something. She wrote “the 1,” and then she wrote “hoax” a couple of hours later and sent them in the middle of the night. When I woke up in the morning, I wrote her before she woke up in LA and said, “These have to be on the record.” She woke up and said, “I agree” [laughs]. These are the bookends, you know?

It’s clear that “the 1” is not written from her perspective. It’s written from another friend’s perspective. There’s an emotional wryness and rawness, while also to this kind of wink in her eyes. There’s a little bit of her sense of humor in there, in addition to this kind of sadness that exists both underneath and on the surface. I enjoy that about her writing.

The song [began from] the voice memo she sent me, and then I worked on the music some and we tracked her vocals, and then my brother added orchestration. There are a few other little bits, but basically that was one of the very last things we did.

“cardigan”

That’s the first song we wrote [in early May]. After Taylor asked if I would be interested in writing with her remotely and working on songs, I said, “Are you interested in a certain kind of sound?” She said, “I’m just interested in what you do and what you’re up to. Just send anything, literally anything, it could be the weirdest thing you’ve ever done,” so I sent a folder of stuff I had done that I was really excited about recently. “cardigan” was one of those sketches; it was originally called “Maple.” It was basically exactly what it is on the record, except we added orchestration later that my brother wrote.

I sent [the file] at 9 p.m., and around 2 a.m. or something, there was “cardigan,” fully written. That’s when I realized something crazy was happening. She just dialed directly into the heart of the music and wrote an incredible song and fully conceived of it and then kept going.
It harkens back to lessons learned, or experiences in your youth, in a really beautiful way and this sense of longing and sadness, but ultimately, it’s cathartic. I thought it was a perfect match for the music, and how her voice feels. It was kind of a guide. It had these lower register parts, and I think we both realized that this was a bit of a lightning rod for a lot of the rest of the record.

“the last great american dynasty”

I wrote that after we’d been working for a while. It was an attempt to write something attractive, more uptempo and kind of pushing. I also was interested in this almost In Rainbows-style latticework of electric guitars. They come in and sort of pull you along, kind of reminiscent of Big Red Machine. It was very much in this sound world that I’ve been playing around with, and she immediately clicked with that. Initially I was imagining these dreamlike distant electric guitars and electronics but with an element of folk. There’s a lot going on in that sense. I sent it before I went on a run, and when I got back from the run, that song was there [laughs].

She told me the story behind it, which sort of recounts the narrative of Rebekah Harkness, whom people actually called Betty. She was married to the heir of Standard Oil fortune, married into the Harkness family, and they bought this house in Rhode Island up on a cliff. It’s kind of the story of this woman and the outrageous parties she threw. She was infamous for not fitting in, entirely, in society; that story, at the end, becomes personal. Eventually, Taylor bought that house. I think that is symptomatic of folklore, this type of narrative song. We didn’t do very much to that either.

“exile” (ft. Bon Iver)

Taylor and William Bowery, the singer-songwriter, wrote that song initially together and sent it to me as a sort of a rough demo where Taylor was singing both the male and female parts. It’s supposed to be a dialogue between two lovers. I interpreted that and built the song, played the piano, and built around that template. We recorded Taylor’s vocals with her singing her parts but also the male parts.

We talked a lot about who she thought would be perfect to sing, and we kept coming back to Justin [Vernon]. Obviously, he’s a dear friend of mine and collaborator. I said, “Well, if he’s inspired by the song, he’ll do it, and if not, he won’t.” I sent it to him and said, “No pressure at all, literally no pressure, but how do you feel about this?” He said, “Wow.” He wrote some parts into it also, and we went back and forth a little bit, but it felt like an incredibly natural and safe collaboration between friends. It didn’t feel like getting a guest star or whatever. It was just like, well, we’re working on something, and obviously he’s crazy talented, but it just felt right. I think they both put so much raw emotion into it. It’s like a surface bubbling. It’s believable, you know? You believe that they’re having this intense dialogue.

With other people I had to be secretive, but with Justin, because he was going to sing, I actually did send him a version of the song with her vocals and told him what I was up to. He was like, “Whoa! Awesome!” But he’s been involved in so many big collaborative things that he wasn’t interested in it from that point of view. It’s more because he loved the song and he thought he could do something with it that would add something.

“my tears ricochet”

This is one of my absolute favorite songs on the record. I think it’s a brilliant composition, and Taylor’s words, the way her voice sounds and how this song feels, are, to me, one of the critical pieces. It’s lodged in my brain. That’s also very important to Taylor and Jack. It’s like a beacon for this record.

“mirrorball”

“mirrorball” is, to me, a hazy sort of beautiful. It almost reminds me of ‘90s-era Cardigans, or something like Mazzy Star. It has this kind of glow and haze. It feels really good before “seven,” which becomes very wistful and nostalgic. There are just such iconic images in the lyrics [“Spinning in my highest heels”], which aren’t coming to me at the moment because my brain is not working [laughs].

“seven”

This is the second song we wrote. It’s kind of looking back at childhood and those childhood feelings, recounting memories and memorializing them. It’s this beautiful folk song. It has one of the most important lines on the record: “And just like a folk song, our love will be passed on.” That’s what this album is doing. It’s passing down. It’s memorializing love, childhood, and memories. It’s a folkloric way of processing.

“august”

This is maybe the closest thing to a pop song. It gets loud. It has this shimmering summer haze to it. It’s kind of like coming out of “seven” where you have this image of her in the swing and she’s seven years old, and then in “august” I think it feels like fast-forwarding to now. That’s an interesting contrast. I think it’s just a breezy, sort of intoxicating feeling.

“this is me trying”

“this is me trying,” to me, relates to the entire album. Maybe I’m reading into it too much from my own perspective, but [I think of] the whole album as an exercise and working through these stories, whether personal or old through someone else’s perspective. It’s connecting a lot of things. But I love the feeling in it and the production that Jack did. It has this lazy swagger.

“illicit affairs”

This feels like one of the real folk songs on the record, a sharp-witted narrative folk song. It just shows her versatility and her power as a songwriter, the sharpness of her writing. It’s a great song.

“invisible string”

That was another one where it was music that I’d been playing for a couple of months and sort of humming along to her. It felt like one of the songs that pulls you along. Just playing it on one guitar, it has this emotional locomotion in it, a meditative finger-picking pattern that I really gravitate to. It’s played on this rubber bridge that my friend put on [the guitar] and it deadens the strings so that it sounds old. The core of it sounds like a folk song.

It’s also kind of a sneaky pop song, because of the beat that comes in. She knew that there was something coming because she said, “You know, I love this and I’m hearing something already.” And then she said, “This will change the story,” this beautiful and direct kind of recounting of a relationship in its origin.

“mad woman”

That might be the most scathing song on folklore. It has a darkness that I think is cathartic, sort of witch-hunting and gaslighting and maybe bullying. Sometimes you become the person people try to pin you into a corner to be, which is not really fair. But again, don’t quote me on that [laughs], I just have my own interpretation. It’s one of the biggest releases on the album to me. It has this very sharp tone to it, but sort of in gothic folklore. It’s this record’s goth song.

“epiphany”

For “epiphany,” she did have this idea of a beautiful drone, or a very cinematic sort of widescreen song, where it’s not a lot of accents but more like a sea to bathe in. A stillness, in a sense. I first made this crazy drone which starts the song, and it’s there the whole time. It’s lots of different instruments played and then slowed down and reversed. It created this giant stack of harmony, which is so giant that it was kind of hard to manage, sonically, but it was very beautiful to get lost in. And then I played the piano to it, and it almost felt classical or something, those suspended chords.

I think she just heard it, and instantly, this song came to her, which is really an important one. It’s partially the story of her grandfather, who was a soldier, and partially then a story about a nurse in modern times. I don’t know if this is how she did it, but to me, it’s like a nurse, doctor, or medical professional, where med school doesn’t fully prepare you for seeing someone pass away or just the difficult emotional things that you’ll encounter in your job. In the past, heroes were just soldiers. Now they’re also medical professionals. To me, that’s the underlying mission of the song. There are some things that you see that are hard to talk about. You can’t talk about it. You just bear witness to them. But there’s something else incredibly soothing and comforting about this song. To me, it’s this Icelandic kind of feel, almost classical. My brother did really beautiful orchestration of it.

“betty”

This one Taylor and William wrote, and then both Jack and I worked on it. We all kind of passed it around. This is the one where Taylor wanted a reference. She wanted it to have an early Bob Dylan, sort of a Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan feel. We pushed it a little more towards John Wesley Harding, since it has some drums. It’s this epic narrative folk song where it tells us a long story and connects back to “cardigan.” It starts to connect dots and I think it’s a beautifully written folk song.

“peace”

I wrote this, and Justin provided the pulse. We trade ideas all the time and he made a folder, and there was a pulse in there that I wrote these basslines to. In the other parts of the composition, I did it to Justin’s pulse. Taylor heard this sketch and she wrote the song. It reminds me of Joni Mitchell, in a way — there’s this really powerful and emotional love song, even the impressionistic, almost jazz-like bridge, and she weaves it perfectly together. This is one of my favorites, for sure. But the truth is that the music, that way of playing with harmonized basslines, is something that probably comes a little bit from me being inspired by how Justin does that sometimes. There’s probably a connection there. We didn’t talk too much about it [laughs].

“hoax”

This is a big departure. I think she said to me, “Don’t try to give it any other space other than what feels natural to you.” If you leave me in a room with a piano, I might play something like this. I take a lot of comfort in this. I think I imagined her playing this and singing it. After writing all these songs, this one felt the most emotional and, in a way, the rawest. It is one of my favorites. There’s sadness, but it’s a kind of hopeful sadness. It’s a recognition that you take on the burden of your partners, your loved ones, and their ups and downs. That’s both “peace” and “hoax” to me. That’s part of how I feel about those songs because I think that’s life. There’s a reality, the gravity or an understanding of the human condition.

“the lakes”

That’s a Jack song. It’s a beautiful kind of garden, or like you’re lost in a beautiful garden. There’s a kind of Greek poetry to it. Tragic poetry, I guess.

Folklore FAQ

1. What’s the Meaning of the Album?

We didn’t talk about it at first. It was only after writing six or seven songs, basically when I thought my writing was done, when we got on the phone and said, “OK, I think we’re making an album. I have these six other ideas that I love with Jack [Antonoff] that we’ve already done, and I think what we’ve done fits really well with them.” It’s sort of these narratives, these folkloric songs, with characters that interweave and are written from different perspectives. She had a vision, and it was connecting back in some way to the folk tradition, but obviously not entirely sonically. It’s more about the narrative aspect of it.

I think it’s this sort of nostalgia and wistfulness that is in a lot of the songs. A lot of them have this kind of longing for looking back on things that have happened in your life, in your friend’s life, or another loved one’s life, and the kind of storytelling around that. That was clear to her. But then we kept going, and more and more songs happened.

It was a very organic process where [meaning] wasn’t something that we really discussed. It just kind of would happen where she would dive back into the folder and find other things that were inspiring. Or she and William Bowery would write “exile,” and then that happened. There were different stages of the process.

Okay, but is it A24-core?
[Laughs.] Good comparison.

2. How Much of It Is Influenced by The National?

She said that she’s a fan of the emotion that’s conveyed in our music. She doesn’t often get to work with music that is so raw and emotional, or melodic and emotional, at the same time. When I sent her the folder, that was one of the main feelings. She said, “What the fuck? How do you just have that?” [laughs] I was humbled and honored because she just said, “It’s a gift, and I want to write to all of this.” She didn’t write to all of it, but a lot of it, and relatively quickly.

She is a fan of the band, and she’s a fan of Big Red Machine. She’s well aware of the sentiment of it and what I do, but she didn’t ask for a certain kind of thing. I know that the film [I Am Easy To Find] has really affected her, and she’s very much in love with that film and the record. Maybe it’s subconsciously been an influence.

3. How Do Jack Antonoff’s Songs on the Album Differ From Dessner’s?

I think we have different styles, and we weren’t making them together or in the same room. We both could probably come closer together in a sense that weirdly works. It’s like an archipelago, and each song is an island, but it’s all related. Taylor obviously binds it all together. And I think Jack, if he was working with orchestrations, there’s an emotional quality to his songs that’s clearly in the same world as mine.

We actually didn’t have a moodboard for the album at all. I don’t think that way. I don’t really know if she does either. I don’t think Jack … well, Jack might, but when I say the Cardigans or Mazzy Star, those aren’t Jack’s words about “mirrorball,” it’s just what calls to mind for me. Mainly she talked about emotion and to lean into it, the nostalgia and wistfulness, and the kind of raw, meditative emotion that I often kind of inhabit that I think felt very much where her heart was. We didn’t shy away from that.

4. Is “Betty” Queer Canon?

I can’t speak to what it’s about. I have my own ideas. I also know where Taylor’s heart is, and I think that’s great anytime a song takes on greater meaning for anyone.

5. Is William Bowery Secretly Joe Alwyn?

I don’t know. We’re close, but she won’t tell me that. I think it’s actually someone else, but it’s good to have some mysteries.

6. Does Taylor Explain Her Lyrics?

She would always talk about it. The narrative is essential, and kind of what it’s all about. We’d always talk about that upfront and saying that would guide me with the music. But again, she is operating at many levels where there are connections between all of these songs, or many of them are interrelated in the characters that reappear. There are threads. I think that sometimes she would point it out entirely, but I would start to see these patterns. It’s cool when you see someone’s mind working.