The pandemic gave Taylor Swift a chance to explore new musical paths, with two lockdown albums co‑written and produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner.
Few artists during the pandemic have been as prolific as Taylor Swift. In July 2020, she surprise‑released folklore, a double‑length album recorded entirely remotely and in isolation. It went on to become the biggest global seller of the year, with four million sales and counting. Then, in December, she repeated the trick with the 15‑song evermore, which quickly became Swift’s eighth consecutive US number one.
In contrast to her country‑music roots and the shiny synth‑pop that made her a superstar, both folklore and evermore showcased a very different Taylor Swift sound: one veering more towards atmospheric indie and folk. The former album was part‑produced by Swift and her regular co‑producer Jack Antonoff (St Vincent, Lana Del Rey), while the other half of the tracks were overseen by a new studio collaborator, Aaron Dessner of the National. For evermore, aside from one Antonoff‑assisted song, Dessner took full control of production.
Although his band are hugely popular and even won a Grammy for their 2017 album Sleep Well Beast, Aaron Dessner admits that it initially felt strange for an indie‑rock guitarist and keyboard player to be pulled into such a mainstream project. Swift had already declared herself a fan of the National, and first met the band back in 2014. Nonetheless, Dessner was still surprised when the singer sent him a text “out of the blue” last spring.
“I mean, I didn’t think it was a hoax,” he laughs. “But it was very exciting and a moment where you think it’s like serendipity or something, especially in the middle of the pandemic. When she asked if I would ever consider writing with her, I just happened to have a lot of music that I had worked really hard on. So, the timing was sort of lucky. It opened up this crazy period of collaboration. It was a pretty wild ride.”
Since 2016, Aaron Dessner has been based at his self‑built rural facility, Long Pond Studio, in the Hudson Valley, upstate New York. The only major change to the studio since SOS last spoke to Dessner in October 2017 has been the addition of a vintage WSW Siemens console built in 1965. “It had been refurbished by someone,” he says, “and I think there’s only three of them in the United States. I heard it was for sale from our friend [and the National producer/mixer] Peter Katis. That’s a huge improvement here.”
Although the National made Sleep Well Beast and its 2019 successor I Am Easy To Find at Long Pond, the band members are scattered around the US and Europe, meaning Dessner is no stranger to remote working and file sharing. This proved to be invaluable for his work with Swift. Dessner spent the first six weeks of lockdown writing music that he believed to be for Big Red Machine, his project with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Instead, many of these work‑in‑progress tracks would end up on folklore. Their first collaboration (and the album’s first single), ‘cardigan’, for instance, emerged from an idea Dessner had been working on backstage during the National’s European arena tour of Winter 2019.
“I sent her a folder and in the middle of the night she sent me that song,” Dessner explains. “So, the next morning I was just listening to it, like, ‘Woah, OK, this is crazy.’”
As work progressed, it quickly became apparent that Swift and Dessner were very much in tune as a songwriting and producing unit. There was very little Dessner had to do, he says, in terms of chopping vocals around to shape the top lines. “I think it’s because I’m so used to structuring things like a song, with verses and choruses and bridges,” he reckons. “In most cases, she sort of kept the form. If she had a different idea, she would tell me when she was writing and I would chop it up and send it to her. But, mostly, things kind of stayed in the form that we had.”
Dessner and Swift were working intensively and at high speed throughout 2020, so much so that on one occasion the producer sent the singer a track and went out for a run in the countryside around Long Pond. By the time he got back, Swift had already written ‘the last great american dynasty’ and it was waiting for him in his inbox.
“That was a crazy moment,” he laughs. “One of the astonishing things about Taylor is what a brilliant songwriter she is and the clarity of her ideas and, when she has a story to tell, the way she can tell it. I think she’s just been doing it for so long, she has a facility that makes you feel like you could never do what she’s capable of. But we were a good pair because I think the music was inspiring to her in such a way that the stories were coming.”
Swift’s contributions to folklore were recorded in a makeshift studio in her Los Angeles home. Laura Sisk engineered the sessions as the singer recorded her vocals, using a Neumann U47, in a neighbouring bedroom. Live contact between Swift, Sisk, Dessner and Long Pond engineer Jonathan Low was done through real‑time online collaboration platform Audiomovers.
“We would listen in remotely and kind of go back and forth,” says Dessner. “We used Audiomovers and then we would have Zoom as a backup. But mainly we were just using Audiomovers, so we could actually be in her headphones. It’s powerful, it’s great. I’ve used it a lot with people during this time. Then, later on, when we recorded evermore, a lot of the vocals were done here at the studio actually when Taylor was visiting when we did the [Disney+ documentary] Long Pond Sessions. But Taylor’s vocals for folklore were all done remotely.”
Given the huge international interest in Swift, the team had to work with an elaborate file‑sharing arrangement to ensure that the tracks didn’t leak online. Understandably, Dessner won’t be drawn on the specifics. “Yeah, I mean we had to be very careful, so everything was very secretive,” he says. “There were passwords on both ends and we communicated in a specific way when sharing mixes and everything. There was a high level of confidentiality and data encryption. It was sort of a learning curve.
“I’m not used to that,” he adds, “’cause usually we’re just letting files kind of fly all over the internet [laughs]. But I think with someone like her, there’s just so many people that are paying attention to every move that she makes, which can be a little, I think, oppressive for her. We tried to make it as comfortable as possible and we got used to how to get things to her and back to us. It worked pretty well.”
For the generally minimalist beat programming on the records, Dessner would sometimes turn to his more expensive new analogue drum generators — Vermona’s DRM1 and Dave Smith’s Tempest — but more often used the Synthetic Bits iOS app FunkBox. “There’s just a lot of great vintage drum machine sounds in there, and they sound pretty cool, especially if you overdrive it,” he says. “Often I send that through an amplifier, or through effects into an amplifier. Then I have a [Roland] TR‑8 and a TR‑8S that I use a lot. I also use the drum machine in the [Teenage Engineering] OP‑1. So, a song like ‘willow’, that’s just me tapping the OP‑1.”
Elsewhere, Dessner’s guitar work appears on the tracks, with the intricate melodic layering on ‘the last great american dynasty’ from folklore having been inspired by Radiohead’s In Rainbows. “Almost all of the electric guitar on Taylor’s records is played direct through a REDDI DI into the Siemens board,” he says. “It’s usually just my 1971 Telecaster played direct and it just sounds great. Oftentimes I just put a little spring reverb on it and sometimes I’ll overdrive the board like it’s an amplifier, ’cause it breaks up really beautifully.
“I have a 1965 [Gibson] Firebird that I play usually through this 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb. So, if I am playing into an amp, that’s what it is. But on ‘the last great american dynasty’, those little pointillistic guitars, that’s just played direct with the Telecaster through the board.”
Elsewhere, Aaron Dessner took Taylor Swift even further out of her sonic comfort zone. A key track on folklore, the Cocteau Twins‑styled ‘epiphany’, features her voice amid a wash of ambient textures, created by Dessner slowing down and reversing various instrumental parts in Pro Tools. “I created a drone using the Mellotron [MD4000D] and the Prophet and the OP‑1 and all kinds of synth pads,” he says. “Then I duplicated all the tracks, and some of them I reversed and some of them I dropped an octave. All manner of using varispeed and Polyphonic Elastic Audio and changing where they were sitting. Just to create like this Icelandic glacier of sounds was my idea. Then I wrote the chord progression against that.
“The [Pro Tools] session was not happy,” he adds with a chuckle. “It kept crashing. Eventually I had to print the drone but I printed it by myself and there was some crackle in it. It was distorting. And then I couldn’t recreate it so Jon Low, who was helping me, was kind of mad at me ’cause he was like, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I was working quickly. I didn’t know it’d become a song.’”
Meanwhile, the orchestrations that appear on several of the tracks were scored by Aaron’s twin brother and National bandmate, Bryce Dessner, who is located in France. “I would just make him chord charts of the songs and send them to him in France,” Aaron says. “Then he would orchestrate things in Sibelius and send the parts to me. I would send the parts and the instrumental tracks to different players remotely and they would record them literally in their bedrooms or in their attics. None of it was done as a group, it was all done separately. But that’s how we’ve always worked in the National so it’s quite natural.”
On folklore standout track ‘exile’, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver delivered his stirring vocal for the duet remotely from his home in Eaux Claires, Wisconsin. “He’s renovating his studio, so he has a little home studio in his garage,” says Dessner. “It was Taylor’s idea to approach him. I sent him Taylor’s voice memo of her singing both parts, and he got really excited and loved the song and then he wrote the extra part in the bridge.
“I do a lot of work remotely with Justin also, so it was easy to send him tracks and he would track to it and send back his vocals. I was sending him stems, so usually it’s just a vocal stem of Taylor and an instrumental stem and then if he wants something deeper, I’ll give him more stems. But generally, he’s just working with the vocal layers and an instrumental.”
Vernon also provided the grainy beat that kicks off ‘closure’, one of two tracks on evermore that started life as a sketch for the second Big Red Machine album. “It was this little loop that Justin had given me in this folder of ‘Starters’, he calls them. I had heard that and been playing the piano to it. But I was hearing it in 5/4, although it’s not in 5/4. ‘Closure’ really opened everything up further. There were no real limits to where we were gonna try to write songs.”
Given the number of remote players, Dessner says there were surprisingly few problems with the file swapping and that it was a fairly painless technical process. “It was pretty smooth, but there were issues,” he admits. “Sometimes sample‑rate issues, or if I happened to give someone an instrumental that was an MP3, that sometimes lines up differently than if you send them an actual WAV that’s bounced on the grid. So, sometimes I’d have to kinda eyeball things.
“If there was trouble it started to be because of track counts. I probably only used 20 percent of what was actually recorded, ’cause we would try a lot of things, y’know. So, eventually the sessions got kinda crazy and you’d have to deactivate a lot of things and print things. But we got used to that.”
On both folklore and evermore, Taylor Swift’s voice is very much front and centre and high in the mix, and generally sounds fairly dry. “I think the main thing was I wanted her vocals to have a more full range than maybe you typically hear,” Dessner explains. “’Cause I think a lot of the more pop‑oriented records are mixed a certain way and they take some of the warmth out of the vocal, so that it’s very bright and it kinda cuts really well on the radio. But she has this wonderful lower warmth frequency in her voice which is particularly important on a song like ‘seven’. If you carved out that mud, y’know, it wouldn’t hit you the same way. Or, like, ‘cardigan’, I think it needs that warmth, the kind of fuller feeling to it. It makes it darker, but to me that’s where a lot of emotion is.”
Effects‑wise, almost all of the treatments were done in the box. “There’s no outboard reverbs printed,” says Dessner. “The only things that we did print would be like an [Eventide] H3000 or sometimes the [WEM] CopiCat tape delay for just a really subtle slap. But generally, it’s just different reverbs in the box that Jon was using. He uses the Valhalla stuff quite a bit and some other UAD reverbs, like the [Capitol] Chambers. I often just use Valhalla VintageVerb and the [Avid] Black Spring and simple things.”
In some instances, the final mix ended up being the never‑bettered rough mix, while other songs took far more work. “‘cardigan’ is basically the rough, as is ‘seven’. So, like the early, early mixes, when we didn’t even know we were mixing, we never were able to make it better. Like if you make it sound ‘good’, it might not be as good ’cause it loses some of its weird magic, y’know. But songs like ‘the last great american dynasty’ or ‘mad woman’, those songs were a little harder to create the dynamics the way you want them, and the pay‑off without going too far, and with also just keeping in the kind of aesthetic that we were in. Those were harder, I would say.
“On evermore, I would say ‘willow’ was probably the hardest one to finish just because there were so many ways it could’ve gone. Eventually we settled back almost to the point where it began. So, there’s a lot of stuff that was left out of ‘willow’, just because the simplicity of the idea I think was in a way the strongest.”
The subject of this month’s Inside Track article, ‘willow’ was the first song written for evermore, immediately following the release of folklore. “It almost felt like a dare or something,” Dessner laughs. “We were writing, recording and mixing all in one kind of work stream and we went from one record to the other almost immediately. We were just sort off to the races. We didn’t really ever stop since April.”
Aaron Dessner: “One of the astonishing things about Taylor is what a brilliant songwriter she is and the clarity of her ideas and, when she has a story to tell, the way she can tell it.”
Sometimes, Dessner and Swift drew inspiration from unlikely sources; ‘no body, no crime’, for instance, started when he gave her a ‘rubber bridge’ guitar made by Reuben Cox of the Old Style Guitar Shop in LA. “He’s my very old friend,” says Dessner of Cox. “He buys undervalued vintage guitars. Stuff that was made in the ‘50s and ‘60s as sort of learner guitars, like old Silvertones and Kays and Harmonys. These kinds of guitars which now are quite special, but they’re still not valued the same way that vintage Fenders or Gibsons are valued. Then, he customises them.
“Recently he started retrofitting these guitars with a rubber bridge and flatwound strings. He’ll take, like, an acoustic Silvertone from 1958 and put a bridge on it that’s covered in this kind of rubber that deadens the strings, so it really has this kind of dead thrum to it. And he puts two pickups in there, one that’s more distorted and one that’s cleaner. They’re just incredible guitars. I thought Taylor would enjoy having one ’cause she loves the sound. So, I had Reuben make one for her and she used it to write ‘no body, no crime’.”
Another friend of Dessner’s, Ryan Olsen, has developed a piece of software called the Allovers Hi‑Hat Generator which helped create the unusual harmonic loops that feature on ‘marjorie’. “It’s not available on the market,” Dessner says of the software. “It’s just something that he uses personally, but I think hopefully eventually it’ll come out. I wouldn’t say it’s artificial intelligence software but there’s something very intelligent about it [laughs]. It basically analyses audio information and is able to separate audio into identifiable samples and then put them into a database. You then can design parameters for it to spit out sequences that are incredibly musical.
“When Ryan comes here, he’ll just take all kinds of things that I give him and run it through there and then it’ll spit out, like, three hours of stuff. Then I go through it and find the layers that I love, then I loop them. You can hear it also on the song ‘happiness’, the drumming in the background. It’s not actually played. That’s drums that have been sampled and then re‑analysed and re‑sequenced out of this Allovers Hi‑Hat Generator.”
The song ‘marjorie’ is named after Swift’s opera‑singer grandmother and so, fittingly, her voice can be heard flitting in and out of the mix at the end of the track. “Taylor’s family gave us a bunch of recordings of her grandmother,” Dessner explains. “But they were from old, very scratchy, noisy vinyl. So, we had to denoise it all using [iZotope’s] RX and then I went in and I found some parts that I thought might work. I pitch‑shifted them into the key and then placed them. It took a while to find the right ones, but it’s really beautiful to be able to hear her. It’s just an incredibly special thing, I think.”
Taylor Swift finally managed to get together with Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff in September 2020 for the filming of folklore: the long pond studio sessions, featuring the trio live‑performing the album. It also provided an opportunity for Swift to add her vocals to some of the evermore tracks.
“It did allow us to have more fun, I think,” says Dessner. “Y’know, drink more wine and just kinda be in the same place and have the feeling of blasting the music here and dancing around and just enjoying ourselves. She’s really a lovely person to hang out with, so in that sense I’m glad that we had that chance to work together in person.
“We were using a [Telefunken] U47 to record Taylor here,” he adds. “Either we were using one of the Siemens preamps on the board, which are amazing. Or I have Neve 1064s [preamps/EQs] and we use a Lisson Grove [AR‑1] tube compressor generally.”
One entirely new song, ‘tis the damn season’, came out of this face‑to‑face approach, which Swift wrote in the middle of the night after the team had stayed up late drinking. “We had a bunch of wine actually,” Dessner laughs, “and then everybody went to sleep, I thought. But I think she must have had this idea swimming around in her head, ’cause the next morning when she arrived, she sang ‘tis the damn season’ for me in my kitchen. It’s maybe my favourite song we’ve written together. Then she sang it at dinner for me and my wife Stine and we were all crying. It’s just that kind of song, so it was quite special.”
folklore and evermore have been both enormous critical and commercial successes for Taylor Swift. Aaron Dessner reckons that making these anti‑pop records has freed the singer up for the future. “I think it was very liberating for her,” he says. “I think that the thing that’s been probably the biggest change for her has just been being able to make songs without compromise and then release them without the promotional requirements that she’s used to from the past. Obviously, it comes at this time when we’re all in lockdown and nobody can tour or go on talk shows or anything. But I think for her, probably it will impact what she does in the future.
“But I also think she can shapeshift again,” he concludes. “Who knows where she’ll go? She’s had many celebrated albums from the past, but to release two albums of this quality in such a short time, it really did shine a light on her songwriting talent and her storytelling ability and also just her willingness to experiment and collaborate. Somehow, I ended up in the middle of all that and I’m very grateful.”
Aaron Dessner’s characteristic dampened upright piano sound, familiar from the National’s albums, is much in evidence throughout both folklore and evermore. “The upright is a Yamaha U1 that I’ve had for more than a decade. Usually, I play it with the soft pedal down and that’s the sound of ‘hoax’ or ‘seven’ or ‘cardigan’, y’know, that felted sound. It kind of almost sounds like an electric piano.
“I always mic it the same way, just with two [AKG] 414s, and they’re always the same distance off the wall. I had a studio in Brooklyn for 10 years and then when I moved here, I copied the same [wooden] pattern on the wall. And the reason I did that is ’cause of how much I love how this piano sounds bouncing off that wall. It just does something really special for the harmonics.”
When on other folklore songs, such as ‘exile’ or ‘the 1’, where the piano was the main sonic feature of the track, Dessner played his Steinway grand. “A lot of times we use a pair of Coles [4038s] on the Steinway, just cause it’s darker. But sometimes we’ll have the 414s there as well and choose.”
One key track on evermore, ‘coney island’, features all of the members of the National and sees Swift duetting with their singer Matt Berninger. “My brother [Bryce] actually originated that song,” says Aaron Dessner. “I sent him a reference at one point — I can’t remember what it was — and then he was sort of inspired to write that chord progression. Then we worked together to sort of develop it and I wrote a bunch of parts and we structured it.
“Taylor and William Bowery [the songwriting pseudonym of Swift’s boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn] wrote ‘coney island’ and she sang a beautiful version. It felt kind of done, actually. But then I think we all collectively thought — Taylor and myself and Bryce — like this was the closest to a National song.”
Dessner then asked the brothers who make up the National’s rhythm section, drummer Bryan and bassist Scott Devendorf, to play on ‘coney island’. Matt Berninger, as he often does with the band’s own tracks, recorded his vocal at home in Los Angeles. “It was never in the same place, it was done remotely,” says Dessner, “except Bryan was here at Long Pond when he played. It was great to collaborate as a band with Taylor.”