“I just need to make a better record. I’m making a better record.” That’s what Taylor Swift said with striking calm in one of the most memorable clips from her Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, after finding out that her 2017 album, reputation, had been shut out of the 2018 Grammys’ Big Four categories.
Her next release, Lover, didn’t quite live up to Swift’s ambitions, at least on the awards front: In 2019, its only major Grammy nod was for song of the year, for the title track. But now, thanks to her record-breaking, surprise (and surprising) pandemic release, folklore, she may have made a record that’s “better” in the eyes of voters. Swift’s only album to spend its first four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, folklore pushes her songwriting into new territory, trading stadium-pop sheen for the subtle, layered production of prestige indie-rock, thanks in part to an unlikely collaborator: The National’s Aaron Dessner.
Dessner, 44, has been making music for over two decades, collaborating with everyone from close friends like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon — with whom he co-founded the band Big Red Machine and more recently the independent label 37d03d, a partnership with Secretly Group — to Mumford & Sons and world-class orchestras. With nine co-writes and 11 production credits (some of which he shares with Jack Antonoff), folklore is Dessner’s most high-profile project yet and could well get him a producer of the year nomination. (He previously won a Grammy for best alternative music album with The National at the 2018 ceremony.)
“Jack and I thought this would be a record we loved but had no expectations commercially,” says Dessner. “So the fact that it’s this weird smash — of course it would be amazing to win or be nominated. But it’s not on my list of things I feel that I need to accomplish in life. I really couldn’t be more proud of folklore. And also just like, ‘What the fuck, how did this happen?’”
You’ve said the best musical experiences you’ve had have come from moments of spontaneity. How does that apply to folklore?
It’s exactly that. I feel like I would not have been able to go toe-to-toe with Taylor in the way that I did if I hadn’t done everything else that I’d ever done. To me, making songs with your friends in some basement 20 years ago or producing records for totally unknown artists is just as important as when you end up, by some weird stroke of serendipity, in a crazy collaboration with someone who is so gifted. I had really run the gantlet of so many experiences that I was in a spot where when she came, there were fireworks, musically, between us. And we had the work ethic to see it through.
Once she reached out to you, how did you prepare to work with Swift?
Well, I’ve definitely listened to all her records — I do that from time to time, just binge-listen to certain things — and I could tell she’s a savant. She’s such a performer, but so gifted as a writer. She told me upfront: “Don’t try to be anyone other than yourself,” because she was really gravitating toward the emotion in the music. She didn’t want me to try and be Max Martin or Jack Antonoff. I didn’t go obsess over “Shake It Off” or something. I had a lot of music that I’d been writing when she approached me, and I just sent a folder because she asked. Hours later, [she sent back] “Cardigan.” It was an unusual vein that we struck.
Was there any material of your own that you didn’t want to offer up just yet?
Definitely. It was more that there were some songs that are specifically one thing or another. The Big Red Machine stuff is quite far along — and actually, Taylor has been amazing [at giving feedback]. I’ve shared all of that stuff with her, and she has been really helpful.
Does that mean we will we hear her on a Big Red Machine track in some form?
[Laughs] I can’t really say, so I guess I’ll say neither yes nor no.
How does a massive pop star releasing what feels like an indie folk album allow other artists to feel less confined by genre?
Taylor has opened the door for artists to not feel pressure to have “the bop.” To make the record that she made, while running against what is programmed in radio at the highest levels of pop music — she has kind of made an anti-pop record. And to have it be one of the most, if not the most, successful commercial releases of the year, that throws the playbook out. I hope it gives other artists, especially lesser-known or more independent artists, a chance at the mainstream. Maybe radio will realize that music doesn’t have to sound as pushed as it has. Nobody was trying to design anything to be a hit. Obviously Taylor has the privilege of already having a very large and dedicated audience, but I do feel like it’s having a resonance beyond that.
Music is already moving in that direction with artists like Billie Eilish. Why did that approach appeal to Swift?
I think for people to hear what she’s capable of. That song “peace” — when she wrote that, it was just a harmonized bass and a pulse. She wrote this incredible love song to it that’s one vocal take. I definitely felt like I was exposed to a truly great artist in that moment, just to see her to carve into this sketch in a substantive way. Billie Eilish is a great point: There are people who are pushing the boundaries of what is and isn’t popular or mainstream music. To have been part of it and see it actually happen, I almost felt like, “Is it really going to come out? Is somebody going to come tell us that we’re ridiculous?”
Was there any anxiety over fan and media reactions eclipsing the work itself?
I had moments of self doubt, for sure, but I think that’s part of Taylor’s brilliance and kind-heartedness is to make me and others around her feel confident. She repeatedly would say, “There’s no hierarchy. This is as special and great as anything I’ve done before, if not greater, so don’t worry.” She has dealt with so much spotlight in her life, too much probably, so she knows better than anyone the kind of whims of the zeitgeist, so she was leading in that sense. We were on the phone when it came out, and it was a really special experience… We were just on the phone as people around the world were listening and reviews were coming in and the truth is, it went so well, that I have never thought about it again. It could have been the opposite.
In 2016, you and your brother Bryce, Justin Vernon and others launched a week-long Berlin residency called People that evolved into an online community for artists to self-publish work in real time. What’s the status of that platform now?
At some point People magazine told us that they own the word people in any media context, so we changed it to 37d03d, which is people upside down spelled with numbers and letters. We decided to start a proper record label in partnership with Secretly Group, and we put out as much music as we possibly can with the idea that — and this is very much a part of folklore — eventually there’s a large community of people feeding into the music and making it as great as it can be. [We’re] trying to create a label that really embraces that, and where decisions aren’t commercially driven. If somebody comes to us with this crazy noise record, we’re as interested in that as hit songs on some other record.
You and Swift made folklore without ever being in the same room. How do you see the pandemic changing the music industry?
I do think the way that we’ve had to embrace collaborating remotely and being open to it is a powerful thing. Everything is on pause, and everyone is listening in a different way. I’d like to believe that this is a chance for some shifts to happen.