Somewhere in upstate New York, a fire flickers while Taylor Swift and a handful of musical friends raise glasses of wine to toast Folklore, the album that unexpectedly brought them together.
Finding herself at a loose end while in lockdown during the coronavirus outbreak and free from industry expectations that steer her usual music-making process, Swift conceived, wrote and recorded an album in less than two months. One critic has called it the "first great pandemic art." Now, for the first time, she's sharing the stories that brought the album to life in Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, a film directed by Swift and out on Disney Plus now.
The arrival of Folklore in July was a surprise to everyone -- and a welcome one to Swift superfans like me. Like so many of us constrained to virtual communication methods, she wrote the album by collaborating with The National's Aaron Dessner over text and email, and recorded her vocals with co-writer and producer Jack Antonoff from a makeshift booth in a bedroom of her LA mansion, where she was isolating.
We see a snapshot of the booth, complete with cats in the film, which is as much a fireside chat about the process of creating the album as a performance of it. It places the album firmly as a product of pandemic-stricken times, as well as -- for me personally -- an antidote to it.
Writing and recording with Swift in her LA bedroom and Dessner in his home studio seems to have fostered ideal working conditions between the pair, who found common ground despite their physical distance. Although in the film they come across as two contrasting characters -- Swift talkative and extraverted, Dessner quiet and introverted -- what they clearly share is deep introspection and intuition when it comes to making music.
But most of the action takes place at the eponymous Long Pond Studios where Swift, Antonoff and Dessner finally gather in a wood-paneled room, with festoon lights blinking through the windows, to perform the whole album together for the first time. You get the sense that this is a much-dreamed-of moment for the trio -- Swift says it will take performing Folklore to "realize that it's a real album." She adds: "it seems like a big mirage."
Sitting around the fire with her co-writer and producer, she reveals she only told her label about the album a week before it was released. Best known for her pop hits including Shake It Off and Blank Space, Swift is two years into a multiyear record deal with Republic Records, which will no doubt expect the star to produce hits and fill stadiums. Folklore, which is technically her first alternative album, boasts 17 tracks with no potential earworm-y pop radio hit among them. "I thought I was going to have to stand up with shaking hands," she says in the film. "Like, I promise I know what I'm doing, I know there's not a big single and I'm not doing a big pop thing."
Swift needn't have worried -- it turned out Republic was fine with her unforeseen productivity, and they were right to trust her. First-week sales alone immediately made Folklore the best-selling album of 2020, and it spent eight consecutive weeks at the top of the charts. For an album no one saw coming, with no promotion to lay the groundwork, its commercial performance couldn't have been better -- and was matched by its critical reception.
Many, including Rolling Stone's chief Swift correspondent Rob Sheffield, believe Folklore to be the best album of Swift's career, (during which she's already won the Grammy for album of the year twice). The response to this low-key and supposedly uncommercial record makes me wonder what other great music is never made because of record label lust for radio hits and sell-out stadium tours.
Folklore and 'frontier mentality'
At the same time, the pandemic has been an essential ingredient in the Folklore recipe, meaning that in spite of its success, replicating it wouldn't necessarily be either possible or desirable. 2020 feels like a standalone moment in time -- disconnected certainly from what came before it, and hopefully from what comes after it. Describing the "frontier mentality" it took to make the record, Antonoff says in the film, "I don't know if it's how albums are supposed to be made. It just worked right now."
"The pandemic and lockdown runs through this album like a thread because it's an album that allows you to feel your feelings and is a product of isolation," says Swift. It's proven for many listeners to be an antidote to that isolation, too. Discussing the positive response, she says: "It turned out that everyone needed a good cry, as well as us."
While isolated in our homes, many of us have found ourselves clinging to music, TV and culture as an emotional crutch, a tool with which to self-soothe. This was true for me even before Folklore came along. But ever since the album was released, it's been holding my hand through it all.
Can't get out of bed in the morning? I listen to Folklore. Can't get to sleep at night? I listen to Folklore. It has bookended many of my days and been my constant companion in between. At a time when everyone is struggling and I'm wary of further burdening my loved ones, some of whom are doctors working through the pandemic, it's held space for me to feel the full spectrum of my emotions without fear.
But Swift has also done me a huge favor by transporting me out of my daily reality through her stories. Even as my world has shrunk geographically, I let the lyrics meander through my mind and carry me to half-imagined places.
Epiphany sent me chasing down stories of my own grandfather, who died a year before I was born but just over 100 years ago beat the 1918 influenza pandemic as a World War I cavalry soldier in Italy by isolating himself in a tent for three days with his rum ration. The tracks Betty, August and Cardigan tapped into my memories of teen romance and urged me to resume writing fiction -- something I've otherwise had little spare energy for this year.
'Wanting to escape'
As Swift's stories echoed in my imagination, so they merged with my own and gave me new and welcome lines of escape from reality. "The overarching theme of the whole album of wanting to escape, having something you want to protect, trying to protect your own sanity," she says while discussing final album track, The Lakes.
In the film she talks about how, while in the midst of her own lockdown cultural odyssey, she felt the courage to step outside her own experience for the first time while laying down lyrics and to move beyond her reality into history and stories.
"It's not about the pandemic, it's about the experience of what happens to an artist as they live through a pandemic," Antonoff says to Swift as they sprawl in lawn chairs in the morning light. "You start to dream."
But while this is the least autobiographical album she's written yet, the lyrics that do pertain to her hit as hard as they ever did and are visible in her performances. While performing My Tears Ricochet, for example, her brow creases and her lip curls as she vacillates wildly between looking like she's really going through it and like she's about to commit a murder. It's the kind of energy you only get to witness during a concert performance, and with this film Disney has given Swift fans something we're unlikely to get in person for a long time to come.
It's a hard time for all live-music fans right now, and Swifties are no different. My own plans for summer 2020 involved a European tour of Swift shows with a friend from another continent, punctuated by days drinking wine in the Mediterranean sunshine. Instead, my only concert experience of the year is watching at home on my TV.
In a conversation with Antonoff ahead of performing Mirrorball, Swift discusses how she wrote the track just after learning all her shows were canceled. It's one of the only times the lyrics directly address the time we're living through. In the lines "they called off the circus, burned the disco down," she examines the nature of celebrity through the lens of a star who suddenly finds themselves, lights off, alone in a room.
And while elsewhere celebrity culture was undoubtedly burning, Swift was doing what she does best, hunkering down and quietly writing her way through the darkness. She did similarly with her 2017 album Reputation, but whereas the impact of that particular record really hinged on a massive stadium tour, Folklore feels like an entirely intimate experience from creation to consumption.
Unlike almost everything else Swift has created, this album has been produced to listen to alone and in private. Even in virtual concert form, this is almost as far from the shared experience her stadium-packed stage shows deliver as it's possible to imagine.
There's still an appetite for its performance, though, and as the camera cuts between closeup shots of Swift, Dessner and Antonoff, I can't help but think she's never sounded better. It's muted and lo-fi compared to what we're used to, but all the richness of the storytelling is still present through campfire gatherings replete with red wine.
Folklore the film, just like Folklore the album, feels like a safe space in which to be vulnerable. There are no fireworks and dramatic curtain calls to close it out, just Swift saying: "well that ought to do -- whiskey?" like an invitation to get cozy, bask in our feelings and lick our wounds until the time comes to go out and face the world again.