How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?
As a producer and multi-instrumentalist, Aaron Dessner has worked alongside a number of magnetic vocalists: Matt Berninger, Sharon Van Etten, Justin Vernon, and, most famously, Taylor Swift, on 2020’s folklore and evermore. But on his second LP as one-half of Big Red Machine (a sprawling collaboration with Vernon that began in the late 2000s with a song that became their namesake), he’s finally taken the mic himself. “I’m not naturally somebody who seeks the spotlight or wants to be lead singer,” he tells Apple Music. “I like the process of making and engineering and producing stuff, getting lost in the weeds. I’ve almost been a ventriloquist or something, trying to create emotional worlds for other people to inhabit. But I think I did realize that there’s another step, artistically, that I needed to take.”
The decision to step into the foreground began, in part, with a nudge from both Swift and Vernon—after each heard a song Dessner had recently written about his twin brother (and fellow National guitarist), Bryce. “It just started happening,” he says of the transition. “I was lucky to be getting a strong push from these crazy-talented singers, who were all saying, ‘Don’t hide your voice.’” And though How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? offers a stage to more lead vocalists than ever before (Anaïs Mitchell and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold among them), it’s an album that feels like Dessner’s—more personal, less opaque. Where Big Red Machine’s debut LP was, as Dessner says, a “wild” and “fairly cryptic” set of mostly electronic smudges and smears and sketches (all fronted by Vernon), its follow-up is traditional by comparison, its more song-oriented approach inspired by Dessner’s time playing with the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. “I wanted to be more intentional about it, but to create this feeling where there’s room for improvisation and the paint is always wet somehow,” he says. “I tried to make stuff that’s open and had this warmth, and always had this experimentation in it, too. I think we were successful on that.” Read on as Dessner takes us inside a number of the album’s key tracks.
“Latter Days” (feat. Anaïs Mitchell) “I’d recorded the instrumental and when Justin heard it, the very first thing that he did is whistle. There was a microphone that picked him up. And we just kept it as a sort of improvised vocal melody that I wrote words to. I’ve always liked that about records, where there’s things that you don’t clean up, even though it’s slightly out of tune. If you listen closely, you’ll hear crickets and frogs on certain songs because the doors were open. That’s kind of how I think about Justin whistling.”
“Phoenix” (feat. Fleet Foxes & Anaïs Mitchell) “I feel like Robin’s voice is timeless. I had written ‘Phoenix’ and Justin wrote the chorus melodies, and I just sent it to Robin as kind of a work in progress, imagining this multitude of voices could be a dialogue between different singers. He was really into it and moved and inspired. He wrote the song essentially as a dialogue between him and Justin, recalling the only conversation they ever had in person, which was backstage at a venue in Phoenix, Arizona, 10 years ago at a loading bay dock. That’s literally what it’s about, and when Anaïs Mitchell heard it, she rewrote Justin’s chorus lyrics, almost like a response to Robin. It’s very much the process of this record, the exchange of ideas.”
“Birch” (feat. Taylor Swift) “It’s actually a beat that The National’s drummer, Bryan Devendorf, made in his basement. He will make these kind of loopy, trippy beats in his basement on a drum machine, and then send them to me as a Voice Memo. I wrote music to it and developed it and played all the parts to it and made it. It was during a time where I wasn’t doing that well, actually—maybe in fall 2019. I sent it to Justin, and good friends sometimes know when you’re going through something and maybe he felt that. He wrote the words and melody to it and as we recorded and developed it, we played it for Taylor at some point, towards the end of folklore. She really loved the song, and heard harmonies, and then kind of helped to lift further into some heavenly place.”
“Renegade” (feat. Taylor Swift) “We wrote ‘Renegade’ after we finished evermore— I was really specifically writing music for Big Red Machine, and I think Taylor was, too. When she sent me ‘Renegade,’ it was literally another bolt of electricity. Thematically, it’s this idea of the way fear and anxiety and emotional baggage get in the way of loving, or being loved. I can just really relate to it in a very deep way. It did feel very connected to other songs and other characters in the record. But also, just the clarity of her songwriting and her sense of melody and rhythm and her diction: It’s just astonishing. She’s able to make a Voice Memo sound almost like it’s a finished record.”
“The Ghost of Cincinnati” “It’s about the feeling of someone that’s empty, overextended to the point where they feel empty and hollow, like a ghost. They’re still alive, but they kind of feel like they’re running on fumes and searching for a remedy through fleeting memories and fleeting images of the past. It’s a sense of catharsis just by giving voice to a feeling that might be bleak. It kind of helps you get over it.”
“Easy to Sabotage” (feat. Naeem) “It’s literally two bootlegs stitched together, two live recordings—one from Brooklyn at Pioneer Works and one from LA at the Hollywood Palladium. It was purely improvised, and then we took it and made a song out of it. It does relate more to the spontaneous, structured improvisation of the first Big Red Machine record, but I think it’s also a link between the past and the future of whatever this is.”
“Hutch” (feat. Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan & Shara Nova) “I wrote a sketch inspired by my friend Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit, who passed away. It’s this dark, kind of spiritual, kind of gothic piano piece. I’d produced the last Frightened Rabbit record, and it was just very shocking. He’s not the first friend I’ve lost that way, but it’s just really hard, obviously, and sad. You wonder how did it get so bad, or did I check in enough, or did I miss signs, or did I not take it seriously enough? That was the sentiment, but we wanted it to feel cathartic and have this heavenly lift to it. Lisa Hannigan and Sharon Van Etten and Shara Nova sing so beautifully on it. They added their parts and really lifted it like this angelic choir almost.”
“Brycie” “I remember I wrote the music backstage in Washington, D.C. It was clear to me, in my head somehow, that it was about my brother. I think even the way that I was playing the guitar was how he and I play the guitar together, kind of—these interlocking, twin, mirrored guitar parts. That’s actually me and him playing together on the song, too. There are so many times in my life where he helped me get through a difficult time, where he refused to let me fall, and that’s what it’s about. It’s a love letter to him, thanking him for keeping me above the ground and hoping he’ll be there when we’re old. And when I wrote it, it was the first clue of what this record would become. It’s about looking at your childhood and searching for meaning in it—that time before you’ve lost innocence and before you’ve taken on the pressure and anxiety and uncertainty of adulthood. Just that feeling of ‘how long do you think it’s going to last?’”