Taylor Swift and Sir Paul McCartney sat down for Rolling Stone magazine to discuss their writing styles, their mutual love of the word “kaleidoscope,” what it’s like to work on an album at home and what they’ve done to stay sane during the pandemic lockdown.
The Nov. 13 piece opens with a scene setter from McCartney’s London office early last month, in which Swift arrives, mask on, excited to take a “rare field trip that you actually want to go on” to visit her musical mentor.
Arriving alone, the singer gets ready to have her picture taken by McCartney’s photographer daughter Mary. Swift’s also wearing clothes designed by McCartney’s other daughter, Stella, a designer and good friend of Taylor’s. It notes that McCartney listened to Swift’s stripped-down Folklore album in preparation, while she checked out his home-recorded McCartney III album, on which he played nearly all the instruments.
Swift describes 78-year-old McCartney dancing around and singing to Motown hits during the shoot and indulging her request that he hand-write her favorite lyric of his and sign it, which she promises to cherish forever. The pair then fall into easy conversation about the recording process of their recent albums, their shared love of numerology and performing under pseudonyms and their surprising reticence to jump up and perform at celeb-packed parties.
The biggest revelation, though, comes near the end, when McCartney reveals that he had planned to ask Swift to join him on stage at this summer’s COVID-canceled Glastonbury festival. “Were you going to invite me?” Swift asks. “I was hoping that you would. I was going to ask you.” Not only was the Beatles legend going to extend his hand, he was planning on playing her hit “Shake It Off” with her. “I know it, it’s in C!” McCartney flexes.
At one point, McCartney talks about how satisfying it is to have fans tell him that one of his songs helped them through an illness or a rough run of exams, assuming Swift has had a similar experience. “Yeah, I definitely think about that as a goal,” she says. “There’s so much stress everywhere you turn that I kind of wanted to make an album that felt sort of like a hug, or like your favorite sweater that makes you feel like you want to put it on.”
Sir Paul, ever quick with a quip, then drops, “What, a ‘cardigan?'” Good one, Macca. But, yes, Swift says, like a cardigan, or something that makes you think of your childhood. “I think sadness can be cozy. It can obviously be traumatic and stressful, too, but I kind of was trying to lean into sadness that feels like somehow enveloping in not such a scary way — like nostalgia and whimsy incorporated into a feeling like you’re not all right,” she says. “Because I don’t think anybody was really feeling like they were in their prime this year. Isolation can mean escaping into your imagination in a way that’s kind of nice.”
Pulling back the veil a bit, Swift finally admits that she has written under the name “Nils Sjöberg” — which is a combo of the two most popular male Swedish names — and McCartney recalls writing songs for his pals in Peter and Gordon under the name Bernard Webb, as well as collaborating with producer Youth as Fireman on dance albums.”I think it’s so cool that you do projects that are just for you. Because I went with my family to see you in concert in 2010 or 2011, and the thing I took away from the show most was that it was the most selfless set list I had ever seen,” Swift says.
“It was completely geared toward what it would thrill us to hear. It had new stuff, but it had every hit we wanted to hear, every song we’d ever cried to, every song people had gotten married to, or been brokenhearted to. And I just remembered thinking, ‘I’ve got to remember that,’ that you do that set list for your fans.”
In fact, Swift took that lesson to heart and constantly reminded herself that if people want to hear “Love Story” or “Shake it Off” again, even if she’s played them 300 million times, “there are times to be selfish in your career, and times to be selfless, and sometimes they line up.”
Asking where McCartney went in his head while writing III, Swift reveals that she tried to go completely into the realm of “escapism and romanticism” on Folklore, imagining herself as a “pioneer woman in a forbidden love affair.” Without revealing too much, Swift also talks about the pressures of being in a relationship when you are in the public eye, saying that she has “definitely made decisions that have made my life feel more like a real life and less like just a storyline to be commented on in tabloids. Whether that’s deciding where to live, who to hang out with, when to not take a picture — the idea of privacy feels so strange to try to explain, but it’s really just trying to find bits of normalcy.”
For example, she says the Folklore song “Peace” — a McCartney favorite — is about, asking if it would ever be “enough if I could never fully achieve the normalcy that we both crave.” McCartney dives in on that bit, describing how he and late wife Linda tried to give their kids the most normal childhood possible, including public school and trick-or-treating and that when friends like Quincy Jones would come over, Sir Paul would cook up veggies burgers in the couple’s modest house, wondering if the legendary producer was thinking, “What is this guy on? He hasn’t got big things going on.”
They also get to brass tacks about lyrics and whether they write the words or music first, with McCartney saying it’s never the same, because as he and John Lennon realized in their Beatles days, once you hit upon a “formula” for songwriting, it’s time to “rip it up” and find a new one. Swift says she found herself reading much more while recording Folklore, books such as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, as well as using “bigger, flowerier, prettier” words in songs and delighting in slipping things like “epiphany” into tracks that might make it to radio.
“Yeah, I have favorite words, like ‘elegies’ and ‘epiphany’ and ‘divorcée,’ and just words that I think sound beautiful, and I have lists and lists of them,” she says, with McCartney suggesting that “marzipan” should make it onto that list as well to Taylor’s delight. Near the end, the two mega-stars talk about the impact the pandemic has had on them and those around them and how it’s sparked a different kind of creative urge to make things with their hands.
Swift notes that several of her friends have gotten pregnant during corona — with grandpa Macca noting that the 30-year-old singer is “at the age” — and that she’s made a “really cool flying-squirrel stuffed animal” for one of them, as well as embroidered silk baby blankets, in addition to her new painting hobby.