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The National’s Aaron Dessner on Finding ‘Magic’ Chemistry With Taylor Swift

Multi-instrumentalist co-wrote and/or produced 11 of 16 songs on pop star's latest LP, 'folklore'

The National’s Aaron Dessner, who co-wrote and/or produced 11 of 16 tracks on Taylor Swift’s folklore, detailed the “magic” collaborative chemistry that helped spark her newly issued eighth LP.

“It was a very surreal moment when she first contacted me, because we’d met before, twice in the past, mutual kind of admiration,” Dessner told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. “I knew she was a fan and we’ve always been fans of hers. But it was sort of like she reached out and said, ‘Would you ever be able to… or be interested in working on songs together?’ And I was like, ‘Sure. Like, wow.’ And then we just started to bounce around ideas.’

The musician, who had already been writing a lot of music during the COVID-19 lockdown, quickly sent Swift a folder full of ideas. “It just kind of was crazy instant chemistry,” he said. “And she’s really just one of the most hardworking, sharp, focused, talented people I’ve ever encountered. So like when she had an idea, it was kind of magic and came very quickly.”

Surveying the album — which also includes collaborations with Jack Antonoff and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon — Dessner described the overall vibe as “very intimate,” highlighting the “raw” quality of Swift’s voice and the “organic” instrumentation. He also detailed how the Vernon song, “Exile,” came together.

“She sent me a voice memo of the song, and she conceived of it as a duet,” Dessner said. “And so she sang me the female and the male parts and was sort of tapping out the piano ideas. And I kind of interpreted that and made a foundation for the song. And then we talked a lot about like who could join her on the song and who would be the right person. And she sang in both parts to kind of give a guide. And we both were just… because Taylor is a big fan of Justin. He’s like her favorite vocalist. And obviously, he’s one of my best friends and a very close collaborator with Big Red Machine and everything over the years.”

Despite his enthusiasm for the project while they were making it, Dessner kept the album a secret — even telling his eight-year-old daughter he didn’t know the pop megastar.

“One day she asked me,” he recalled. “She’s just like, ‘Daddy, do you know Taylor Swift?’ It was the morning after we’d written like one of these songs. And every time we would write a song, it was like a weird lightning bolt, getting this struck by lightning or something and just like exhilarated with electricity. I just looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘No.’ I honored my confidentiality.”