Pop

Aaron Dessner on the 'Weird Avalanche' That Resulted in Taylor Swift's 'Evermore'

Aaron Dessner
D. James Goodwin

Aaron Dessner

The prolific multi-hyphenate reveals how the 'folklore' sister album came to be, and why he and Swift are now “lifelong” collaborators.

One day this fall, Taylor Swift walked into Aaron Dessner’s home to wish his daughter a happy 9th birthday -- but that wasn't the only reason Swift was there.

She was mostly there to film the Disney+ special, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, in which she was meeting up with her primary Folklore collaborators — The National’s Dessner and Jack Antonoff. They had all gathered for the first time at Dessner’s upstate New York studio to play her record-breaking album live.

The indie-folk project -- which was created remotely, with the multi-hyphenate Dessner putting the pieces together at Long Pond -- became Swift’s only album to spend its first six weeks atop the Billboard 200. It earned Dessner two Grammy nominations, both in Big Four categories, for album of the year and song of the year (for "Cardigan”). It also ushered in a new songwriting style for Swift: first-person fiction.

On the last night of filming the special (a process that was done while following CDC guidelines, with a limited crew and COVID-19 testing), Dessner recalls how he, Antonoff and Swift stayed up until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. -- drinking and celebrating the more-than-warm embrace Folklore had received. But in the days that followed, Swift ended up staying, and she and Dessner unexpectedly continued working. Eventually, they had 17 more songs, all of which became the sister album, Evermore, released on Dec. 11.

Folklore almost immediately was treated as a classic or a masterpiece,” says Dessner. “It was elevated fairly quickly and had been commercially really successful, so obviously it’s hard to follow something like that up. But one of the things I love about [Evermore] is the ways in which [Taylor] was jumping off different cliffs. The ability she has to tell these stories, but also push what she’s doing musically, is really kind of astonishing. It’s like I went to some crash course, some masters program, for six months.”

Below, Dessner tells Billboard all about the work that went into his second album in five months with one of the world's biggest pop stars.

With Folklore a lot of the production and arrangements came from a folder you had sent Taylor. Did you continue to pull from there, or was Evermore made from scratch?

A lot more of it was made from scratch. After Folklore came out, I think Taylor had written two songs early on that we both thought were for Big Red Machine, “Closure” and “Dorothea.” But the more I listened to them, not that they couldn’t be Big Red Machine songs, but they felt like interesting, exciting Taylor songs. “Closure” is very experimental and in this weird time signature, but still lyrically felt like some evolution of Folklore, and “Dorothea” definitely felt like it was reflecting on some character.

And I, sort of in celebration of Folklore, had written a piece of music that I titled “Westerly,” that’s where she has the house that she wrote “Last Great American Dynasty” about. I’ll do that sometimes, just make things for friends or write music just to write it, but I didn’t at all think it would become a song. And she, like an hour later, sent back “Willow” written to that song, and that sort of set [things in motion] and we just started filling this Dropbox again. It was kind of like, “What’s happening?”

And then it just kept going. She wrote "Gold Rush” with Jack [Antonoff] and by the end there were 17 songs, and it was only a couple months after Folklore came out, so it’s pretty wild. Each time we would just be in disbelief and kind of like, “How is this possible?” Especially because we didn’t need to talk much about structure or ideas or anything -- it was just this weird avalanche.

Considering how industry-shaking Folklore was, what pressure did that introduce this time around?

I think because of how we made it, it really wasn’t like producing some giant record or something, it still had this very homespun feeling to it. There may have been a moment or two when I think Taylor was wondering when and how to put out Evermore, but I think the stronger it became, and as each song came together, it just started to feel like, "This is a sister record -- it’s part of the same current of creativity and collaboration and the stories feel inter-related."

And aesthetically, to me, Evermore is wilder and has more of a band dynamic at times. You can feel her songwriting sharpen even more on it, in terms of storytelling, and also just this freedom to make the kinds of songs that were coming. When she started to write in a less diaristic way and tell these stories, I think she found she had this incredible wealth of experience and depth to her storytelling that was quite natural. She could easily make these songs more reflective or blur the lines of what’s autobiographical and what's not in interesting ways. It felt like the most natural thing in the world.

Folklore was made entirely remotely, how did that process change for Evermore

This was both. Some of it was remote, but then after the Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, [Taylor] stayed for quite a while and we recorded a lot. She actually wrote “‘Tis the Damn Season” when she arrived for the first day of rehearsal. We played all night and drank a lot of wine after the fireside chat -- and we were all pretty drunk, to be honest -- and then I thought she went to bed. But the next morning, at 9:00 a.m. or something, she showed up and was like, “I have to sing you this song,” and she had written it in the middle of the night. That was definitely another moment [where] my brain exploded, because she sang it to me in my kitchen, and it was just surreal.

That music is actually older -- it’s something I wrote many years ago, and hid away because I loved it so much. It meant something to me, and it felt like the perfect song finally found it. There was a feeling in it, and she identified that feeling: That feeling of… “The ache in you, put there by the ache in me.” I think everyone can relate to that. It’s one of my favorites.

Did you watch the Disney+ special?

I’m not a big fan of watching myself -- but I did watch it, and I thought it was beautiful. It’s funny, because it was very DIY in a sense; a tight little small crew was there to do it, nobody was styling us or fixing our hair or anything like that, it’s very authentic. I rehearsed a little bit before, but both of us -- Jack and I -- were pretty much figuring it out as we went.

And I think the nice thing is that all of the songs could work like that, and that’s partly a testament to the strength of the album. Without big production tricks or backing vocals or anything like that, the songs stand up, and Taylor just sang the crap out of them. And hanging out with them was so much fun. They’re kind of like siblings almost; they’ve known each other a long time, there’s this quick humor between them.

Would you like to do something like that again with Evermore?

I don’t know if you can recreate exactly what we did with Folklore. I haven’t actually talked to anyone about that. But to me, the songs of Evermore would be even more fun to play, because more of them feel like band songs. But, that being said, I won’t be disappointed if we don’t -- there is no plan afoot right now to do that.

During an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Jimmy asked Taylor about the rumors behind Woodvale and if there’s a third album coming, to which she said she’s exhausted. How are you feeling energy wise?

I think we both feel like it was Mission: Impossible -- and we pulled it off. I imagine that we’ll make music together in some ways forever, because it was that sort of chemistry, and I’m so thankful and grateful for what happened, but I think there’s a lot there. It’s not just the two albums, there’s also bonus tracks, and two of my favorite songs aren’t even on this record. We’re not pouring into another one now.

I’m going to finish the Big Red Machine album -- I was really very close to finishing it when all of a sudden the Folklore and Evermore vortex opened up, and actually Taylor has been really helpful and involved with that as well — and The National is starting to talk about making music, and I think she’ll probably take a break. But I’m so excited for any future things we might do -- it’s definitely a lifelong relationship. And I’d say the same for all the people who worked on these records, including my brother and everybody who contributed. It’s a really special legacy.

Taylor Swift Drops Surprise Album 'Evermore' | Billboard News