Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore Sessions’ Is A Rare Glimpse Inside A Genius Songwriter’s Mind
She deconstructs her process on a deeper level than we’ve ever heard her, delving into the raw intuition, imagination, and formal, pop-song logic behind her songwriting.
The more famous an artist becomes, the more they risk losing the human connection that elevated them in the first place.
Taylor Swift is no exception, though she’s devoted much of 2020 to bringing her public image back down to earth. Her Netflix documentary Miss Americana took us behind the scenes of the tumultuous Reputation Tour, humbling her about as much as any stadium-filling artist can be humbled.
With her eighth studio album, folklore, she showed that she could throw off the restrictions of pop music as easily as she mastered its potential. Since July, it’s been a soothing, yet quietly challenging body of work; perfect for a year that’s forced many of us to examine ourselves in oft-uncomfortable ways in isolation.
Like its parent album, folklore: the long pond studio sessions was announced the day before its surprise release, on Disney+. So what exactly are the folklore sessions? It’s a concert film, a masterclass in songwriting craft, and another symbol of Swift’s world domination on yet another streaming service.
But mostly, they’re a document of a one-time experience shared by a cast of four. There’s longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, a.k.a. Bleachers, his usual affable self. There’s Aaron Dessner of The National: the quiet, introspective producer who defines most of the album’s sonic palette. There’s Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, duet partner and foil on ‘exile’. And of course, Taylor herself, who’s graduated into directing the film, too.
From May to July, the album was recorded in isolation at each musician’s home studio. They never got the chance to play through the album together — so in September, the three of them (minus Bon Iver, plus an array of remote-operated cameras) converged on Long Pond Studio, Dessner’s cabin in Hudson, upstate New York.
Folklore was already Swift’s softest, least dynamic album — what happens when you strip it down even further? The film proves that her songs can be utterly riveting with just a single vocal, piano, and guitar. The most intimate experience you can have with an artist is to hear them singing unamplified in your living room — and this is as close as most of us will ever get.
The film proves that her songs can be utterly riveting with just a single vocal, piano, and guitar.
After one viewing, the visuals will be burned into your brain: the rustic carpets and wooden panelling of the studio; the way Taylor’s messy bangs and flannel dress frame her statement red lip colour.
Swift’s greatest gift has always been her sense of empathy. In a stadium, her job is to project her presence outwards. In the folklore sessions, she’s calm and composed, sitting down throughout, but she gives no less of a full-body performance. In close-up, you can see the thoughts ticking in her mind; how every emotion flickers across her face in real time.
She moves her hands to help herself place vocal runs and jumps in ‘august’ and ‘invisible string’. In ‘betty’, she conveys so much simply by sitting up straighter than usual, gently anticipating the bridge’s joyful key change. And in ‘my tears ricochet’ and ‘mad woman’, her expressions flit between bitterness, regret, and genuine venom.
ah yes, the FolkGLARE. 😈 #folkloreOnDisneyPlus
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) November 26, 2020
Jack Antonoff is the liveliest performer, though Justin Vernon steals the show from his Wisconsin studio, on an ‘exile’ duet shot that manages to be more rousing than the original song.
But it’s not hyperbole to say that Aaron Dessner is the best musical accompanist Swift’s ever had. His piano lines are deceptively simple, yet sing back at Taylor, weaving arpeggios and rhythms in and around the cadence of her vocal lines. She’s rarely looked as happy as she does when admiring Antonoff and Dessner on ‘august’, jamming out the end on dual guitars. The core three of them aren’t just playing these songs for the first time — they’re discovering what they mean to each other.
In between performances the three drink whiskey and wine as Taylor casually drops revelation after revelation to an enthralled Antonoff and Dessner. She deconstructs her process on a deeper level than we’ve ever heard her, delving into the raw intuition, imagination, and formal, pop-song logic behind her songwriting. She can separate the three elements with ease, but it doesn’t demystify her art at all. The magic comes from how effortlessly she intertwines them.
And yes, she even hints, without naming names, at who inspired some of these songs. On ‘mad woman’, she sings about having to endure the whims of powerful men: “What a shame she went mad /You made her like that”. It helps you understand just why she’s so insistent on re-recording her back catalogue.
It’s not just to take a stand for musicians’ rights; not just so longtime nemesis Scooter Braun earns less profit from her work. It’s because her old songs have such strong associations with Big Machine Records, and especially label head Scott Borchetta’s father-figure mentorship of her. You get the sense that in the future, when Swift thinks about ‘Fifteen’ or ‘Mine’, she doesn’t want to be pulled back into her younger, more naive state of mind. She wants to make new memories.
For dedicated Swifties, the folklore sessions is a masterpiece atop a masterpiece. It’s 106 minutes of mainlining folklore songs and explanations into your veins, yet it remains her most open-ended body of work. Where 1989 was its opposite — shiny, big and undeniable, folklore rewards as much investment as you’re willing to give it.
For casual fans and skeptics, the film is exactly what you’d expect, yet more enlightening. But it’s also surprisingly utilitarian. the folklore sessions feel like something you could put on while doing chores, taking a nap, or watch with the family, feeling stuffed after Christmas dinner. That’s a different kind of generosity.
The album and film end on a down note, with the sad, metaphorical ‘hoax’. But in a classically Swiftian flourish, she finally reveals on the folklore sessions that the bonus track ‘the lakes’ has been her true ending all along! In the song, she sings of visiting England’s Lake District with her partner (and not-so-secret co-writer of ‘exile’ and ‘betty’) Joe Alwyn. She visits the great poet William Wordsworth’s grave, near where he lived out his years away from the noise of the city. And she dreams of leaving behind her fame, to escape once and for all.
Great popstars embody our times; great songwriters address them. Taylor Swift is doing both.
Would folklore have been if not for COVID-19? Swift clearly had some of these songs in her regardless, but it’s impossible to know. The folklore sessions don’t offer an answer — and that’s the beauty of this film. There’s no one message to a collection of songs so packed with allusions and quiet revelations. No two people will come away with the same interpretation.
Great popstars embody our times; great songwriters address them. Taylor Swift is doing both. As Jack Antonoff tells her, “That’s what makes it a great piece of pandemic-time work. It’s that it’s not about the pandemic — it’s about the experience of what happens to an artist when you’re living through a pandemic. You start to dream.”
Richard S. He is 1/2 of Melbourne alt-pop duo ELLE, and an award-winning journalist. Tweet your grievances to @rsh_elle.
Photo courtesy of Disney+