Home Emotional music How Aaron Dessner found his voice (with help from Taylor Swift)

How Aaron Dessner found his voice (with help from Taylor Swift)



COLUMBIA COUNTY, NY – Aaron Dessner sat down at the black upright piano in his Long Pond studio, hit the soft pedal, and played a four-note phrase that had changed his life. These were the first notes – GF E-flat F – of a music file he sent to Taylor Swift in March 2020.

Swift was a fan of Dessner’s longtime indie rock band The National, and she contacted him out of the blue as the pandemic shutdown began. “One night I was just sitting down to dinner,” Dessner recalls, “and I got a text saying,“ It’s Taylor. Would you be ready to collaborate remotely with me? “

“I was flattered and said ‘Sure’,” he continued. “She said, ‘Just send anything, even the strangest random sketch you have,’ and I sent her a folder of things I had been working on. And then a few hours later, she said. sent this song, “Cardigan”.

“Cardigan” – which went on to become a # 1 hit – began the collaboration that became Swift’s two career repositioning albums in 2020, “Folklore” and “Evermore”. The creative partnership didn’t end there: she wrote and sang “Renegade” for Dessner’s independent recording project, Big Red Machine, and provided the title for her second album, “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? , Which arrives on August 27.

“We talked a lot about, how come we did so many songs together in such a short time? Dessner, 45, said in a conversation on his lawn, overlooking the pond. “It’s a bit abnormal and it’s hard to maintain. You have this streak, but you don’t know when the ideas, the inspiration, or the spark will die out.

For Swift, Dessner’s music unlocked new ideas. “The quality that really baffled me about Aaron’s instrumental tracks was that for me they were immediately, intensely visual,” Swift wrote in an email. “As soon as I heard the first one, I understood why he called them ‘sketches’. The first time I heard the song “Cardigan,” I saw high heels on cobblestones. I knew it had to be about communication issues in teens and the loss of what could have been.

She added: “I have always been very curious about people with synesthesia, who see colors or shapes when they hear music. The closest thing I have ever experienced is seeing an entire story or scene unfold in my head when I hear Aaron Dessner’s instrumental tracks.

The studio is in a converted barn a short walk from Dessner’s house near Hudson, NY It is an open room with a high church ceiling, tall windows and a view of the woods, carefully laid out for recording. any of his instruments – guitars, keyboards, drums, percussion – whenever an idea pops up. It can open it to let in the sound of birds, insects, frogs or wind in trees. Dessner has recorded most of his music in Long Pond since the making of the 2017 National album, “Sleep Well Beast”. During the pandemic, he took care of it.

“For someone like me who has traveled for 20 years, rarely with more than a month or two off touring, it was good to be home for almost two years, where I’m just in this beautiful place, ”he said. “I made a lot more music than I had ever done before. And I think it allowed me to elevate or push what I was doing, and bring it to different places.

Dessner founded Big Red Machine with Justin Vernon, who records as Bon Iver and is known outside independent circles for working with Kanye West. The new album also builds on, as Dessner said, “almost everyone I’ve done a record with.” This includes his twin brother, Bryce, who is also a member of the National, as well as songwriters Robin Pecknold (of Fleet Foxes), Anaïs Mitchell (whose musical based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, “Hadestown”, will reopen Broadway in September), Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Naeem, Ben Howard and others.

“Building and contributing to a music community means so much to Aaron,” Swift wrote. “He’s technically in the music business, but all he really wants to do is play and make music with his friends.”

Paradoxically, Big Red Machine’s sprawling collective effort has become something deeply personal. As Dessner and the other musicians put the songs together, largely from a distance, the themes merged: childhood memories, lost innocence, struggles with sanity. And after years of working in the background – with The National and as a producer for other songwriters – Dessner stepped forward, for a few songs, as the lead singer.

“I remember he was really nervous about having his own lead voice there,” Mitchell said by phone from Vermont. “And I was like, absolutely – you should. Especially considering her work with Taylor over the past year, it was really nice to have people watching behind that curtain, getting to know the person behind a bunch of things.

Big Red Machine is not exactly a band. “For me, it’s like a laboratory for experimentation and also a vehicle to collaborate with friends and try to grow,” Dessner said. “And also to just get back to the feeling of what it’s like when you start to play music – what it’s like to create stuff without really knowing what it is.”

Dessner’s musical imprint is a fondness for patterns: small, evocative patterns that can interlock in complex ways. In the songs The National has released since its debut in 2001, they can be soothing and meditative, or they can allude to the commotion behind a thoughtful exterior. For Dessner collaborators, these small musical cells help to generate larger structures.

“I’m going to surprise myself in small drawings, where I have a feeling you could build some kind of architecture out of it,” he said. “A lot of times there’s something a little weird about the timing, or something that I maybe pulled out of a classic piece that I heard. There is a core, and then I start to to build.

For Dessner, there is also healing in repetition. “When I really started playing music seriously, I was going through pretty severe depression when I was a teenager,” he said. “I wasn’t at all at a disadvantage, there was nothing wrong – it was brain chemistry. I have found playing music this way calming for me. The rhythm and the melody are in this circular way of playing. This is when I feel the best with music. At one point, ideas started to take on stranger time signatures, and there was more experimental sounds around them. But all the same, at the heart of it is this emotional, circular musical behavior. “

Big Red Machine was born out of a fruitful misunderstanding. Dessner wanted to write a song with Vernon for “Dark Was the Night,” a 2009 all-star indie-rock album the Dessner brothers produced for the Red Hot Organization, the nonprofit HIV charity. He sent Vernon the sketch of a song he called “Big Red Machine” after his hometown baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds; Vernon, ignoring the sports benchmark, instead wrote lyrics on the human heart.

Dessner and Vernon then created and organized the Eaux Claires music festival in the mid-2010s and brought together an idealistic music collective called 37d03d (which reads, backwards, as “people”). In 2018, they released Big Red Machine’s debut album, a cheerfully experimental song set starring Vernon right off the bat, full of cryptic lyrics and electronic effects, and they assembled a jammy live band for a handful of concerts in 2018 and 2019. (A song on the new album, “Easy to Sabotage,” was assembled from loud concert improvisations, new Naeem lyrics, and complex computer processing.) ‘evaporated in 2020, Vernon had convinced Dessner to play in arenas in the first part of Bon Iver.

Dessner had already sketched out new avenues for Big Red Machine. Most of the new songs have a pastoral and rootsy tone, sometimes suggesting the band, although they are also often imbued with drum machine rhythms and stealthy electronic currents. “I liked the idea of ​​trying to do something more song-oriented this time around and more cohesive,” he said.

Vernon, meanwhile, wanted a less central role in Big Red Machine. “I wanted it to feel a lot more inclusive and representative of all the extracurricular energy that we’ve put in over the years, trying to make the music industry a little more communist or something,” he said. -he declares. “And I’m so sick of being the lead singer, and I’m in another band. I was like, you have so many connections. Let’s reach out and see what other people are having on these leads. And I wanted to continue to support Aaron and honestly, frankly challenge him to come out more in front. There are little tracks that I show and do on the record, and I obviously wrote a few words and sang a few tunes, but really, it’s Aaron’s record.

The songs often deal with loss and fragility. The album ended with two songs featuring Mitchell’s whispered soprano: “Latter Days,” which was written before the pandemic but imagines experiencing disaster, and “New Auburn,” a reminiscent (located in the geography of Wisconsin de Vernon) of the road to childhood travels, reflecting on when “We were too young not to be forgiven.”

One of the first songs Dessner wrote for the album was “Brycie,” which offers gratitude for the way his brother saw him go through episodes of depression; it starts with folk guitars and transforms into a prismatic mesh of synthetic and hand-played sounds behind Dessner’s soft voice.

Dessner and Swift recorded “Renegade” in Los Angeles, the week before the 2021 Grammy Awards; a few days later, as producer and performer, they shared the album of the year award for “Folklore” (along with the album’s other producer, Jack Antonoff.) Dessner already had a Grammy – National’s best alternative album for “Sleep Well Beast” – but it was a much higher pop profile; lately he has been “approached by people,” he said.

“I like to collide with new people and learn from people, so it’s an exciting time,” he said. “But I also tend to be a little shy. I like the idea of ​​being able to count my collaborators on one or two hands, to stay with this feeling of family. So I don’t rush to work with a million people. It’s not really my personality.

He added, “I haven’t done anything yet where I feel like I’m trying to satisfy a commercial instinct. I’m not sure how I would do it. I don’t know if I have the skills to do it.

Not ready to prepare your own factory for success? He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess I could move to LA and put this in place,” he said. “But it wouldn’t end well.”