As uncertainty engulfed the world in 2020, many of us were faced with two options: run from it or lean into it. Taylor Swift chose the latter and, in doing so, became this year’s Apple Music Awards Songwriter of the Year. As lockdown orders spread across the globe, she retreated from the glitz that’s come to define much of her music. She created a pair of stripped-down, writerly albums—July’s folklore and December’s evermore—that capture not only the changing winds of the collective moment (both were written and recorded in isolation with remote contributions from The National’s Aaron Dessner as well as Jack Antonoff and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon) but her creative one as well. The occasion became an opportunity to embrace the things which previously made her uncomfortable in the name of growth, both artistic and personal. “I think that looking back on my career, there have been so many different musical phases and different things I wanted to wear at different times, and they fit my life at the time,” she tells Apple Music. “I think that you've got to allow yourself that grace to put on a certain lifestyle or a certain outfit or a certain creative mantra and then discard it when you outgrow it. This was weird, though, because evermore was the first time I didn't discard everything after I made something new. I actually had to kind of fight off anxiety that I had in my head, like fear that was like, 'You need to change.'”
In a far-reaching interview with Zane for Day 2 of the Apple Music Awards, Swift reveals the details behind folklore and evermore, breaking down many of the songs and the mindsets and processes that brought them into existence. It’s an illuminating discussion that offers as many insights and factoids as it does life lessons that could be applied broadly. Below are excerpts from their conversation.
With evermore out and that whole process finally coming to an end, how do you feel?
“I feel differently than I felt the day after releasing folklore, because even the day after releasing folklore, Aaron [Dessner] and I were still bouncing ideas back and forth, and we just knew we were going to keep writing music. I didn't know if it was for an album of mine or— Aaron and Justin Vernon have a really amazing project called Big Red Machine, so we kept writing thinking maybe we were going to do some Big Red Machine stuff, but the things that we ended up writing really sounded more like a continuation of folklore. So when I put out folklore, I remember just feeling so proud and happy, but still like foot on the gas—like, let's keep going, this is fun, I'm not finished with this. With this one, I have this feeling of sort of quiet conclusion and sort of this weird serenity of like we did what we set out to do, and we're all really proud of it. That feels really, really nice.”
In your mind and in your heart, you knew you wanted to carry on and there was music to be done, but before we knew there would be an evermore, was there a sort of a melancholy to the end of folklore?
“Not really. I was just so happy that my world felt opened up creatively. There was a point that I got to as a writer who only wrote very diaristic songs that I felt it was unsustainable for my future moving forward. It felt like too hot of a microscope. If I'm writing about my life and all it is, on my bad days I would feel like I was loading a cannon of clickbait when that's not what I want for my life. I think that when I put out folklore, I felt like if I can do this thing where I get to create characters in this mythological American town or wherever I imagine them, and I can reflect my own emotions onto what I think they might be feeling, and I can create stories and characters and arcs, then I don't have to have it feel like when I put out an album, I'm just like giving tabloids ammunition and stuff. I felt like there would be a point in my life where I could no longer really do that and still maintain a place of good mental health and emotional health.”
Has this process taught you something about stillness or has it altered your attitude toward pace and productivity and what motivates you?
“It has changed everything about the way that I do what I do. I was pretty upset when my shows all got canceled, and I realized I wasn't going to be able to connect with my fans in the way that I'm traditionally used to—just a normal human interaction I couldn't do anymore. But what it did was, when you plan a live show, at least when I do it, I'm writing interstitial music. I'm planning. This set piece goes off while this goes on while we distract them over here, and this song calls for this and this song calls for that. When you're taking music you've already made and an album that you've already made and you're choreographing and you're setting up a live spectacle, that is taking up so much emotional, creative, and imagination-based bandwidth in your brain. So if you take all of that away, what happens? As musicians, we're so used to immediately touring, immediately putting together the show, immediately going into rehearsals. And then we always feel that we need a pretty big break, or at least a significant gap of time where we get to rest afterward. So without that, this just happened naturally on its own.”
Did it feel like you could get to a pure place this year without all those plans?
“Pure is a really, really perfect word for that, because what happens to you as your career builds and builds and builds is that if you've accomplished a thing in the past, all of a sudden you're expected to accomplish that thing plus another new thing, plus this other thing over here. I had felt like I was doing some sort of obstacle course. And that's not how you should feel when you're creating. You shouldn't feel like 'I need to make a tracklist where this one's for the stadium show, this one's for radio, this one's for people who want to get in their feelings'—check, check, check. You can end up doing that, and it's good to have friends who are artists who have similar pressures. Like Ed Sheeran and I talk about this a great deal. This was a time when we both stepped back, and I would say to him, 'This is the first time I felt like I threw the checklist away.' I definitely could have gone into the pandemic thinking I've got to wait for everything to open up so I can do things exactly the way that I am used to doing them, but then about three days in, I thought, 'Wait, this could be an opportunity for me to do things in a way I haven't ever done them before.'”
The biggest misconception about you is there's this controlling side to you, but there's a difference between ambition or wanting to do something right and in control. But your life is filled with coincidence. It's filled with fate. It's filled with timing, isn't it?
“Yes, and never more so than with the process of these two albums, honestly. This is one of those things where I've kind of had to just sort of throw out any playbook I had. In times like these, when everything is uncertain and everything changes in your world, I guess I just took it as an opportunity to embrace the fact that even if you think you have control in normal times, that's an illusion. If you're making stuff, put it out. If people need music and you've made music, put it out. There was a time in the beginning of the process where I was thinking, 'I will wait until January when things are looking more normal and then I will put out folklore.' And I was like, that's my old brain thinking that there's any way that I can control this. Humans do need to have some sort of strategy when they go into putting out music or doing any business whatsoever, but as much as that has an ability to fall by the wayside, it did with this because there was no way to make it and feel in control. You've got to just let fate do what it's going to do with something like this. I talk to Aaron and Jack [Antonoff] about this a lot because we do feel sort of like this was a whirlwind. We don't understand it. Our logical brains don't comprehend it. This feels different for us. It feels like something that will affect the rest of our lives and the way that we make art and not being too precious. And I'm so happy that people welcomed it into their lives the way that they did.”