Growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, I couldn’t wait for my favorite artists to release a new album. In most instances, I didn’t have to wait longer than six months to a year. Between 1962 and early 1970, the Beatles put out 12 studio albums, including the double album The Beatles (white album). From 1969 to 1976, Elton John released 11 studio albums, including two double albums, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) and Blue Moves (1976). Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was John’s second album of 1973! In January, he had released Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player. That kind of creative output seems beyond belief today. Many major artists take between two and five years (or longer) between albums.
During the pandemic in 2020, Taylor Swift released two superb albums, Folklore, which dropped in July, and Evermore, which came out in December. In interviews, Swift said the pandemic helped her creativity, as all tours were quickly cancelled in March of 2020. The lockdown caused Swift to set up a home studio, where she sent music files back and forth and worked remotely over FaceTime with her longtime collaborator, Jack Antonoff, and Aaron Dessner of the band, The National, whom she had met the year before on tour, according to an interview in Billboard magazine. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver also sings on both albums.
Swift was in lockdown in Los Angeles when the pandemic hit. Earlier, she had expressed an interest in working with Dessner. She told Rolling Stone magazine: “We were there for four months maybe, and during that time, I sent an email to Aaron Dessner and I said, ‘Do you think you would want to work during this time? Because my brain is all scrambled, and I need to make something, even if we’re just kind of making songs that we don’t know what will happen…’”
Here is Swift’s explanation for how Folklore and Evermore evolved, from an interview with Paul McCartney in Rolling Stone magazine. She explains how she met Dessner and asked him how he wrote music. “It’s my favorite thing to ask people who I’m a fan of. And he had an interesting answer. He said, ‘All the band members live in different parts of the world. So I make tracks. And I send them to our lead singer, Matt, and he writes the top line.’
“I just remember thinking, ‘That is really efficient.’ And I kind of stored it in my brain as a future idea for a project. You know, how you have these ideas… ’Maybe one day I’ll do this.’ I always had in my head: ‘Maybe one day I’ll work with Aaron Dessner.’”
Dessner had been composing instrumental tracks. He sent 30 tracks to Swift. The first track he sent to Swift became the song, ‘Cardigan,’ from Folklore. “And it really happened rapid-fire like that,” Swift told McCartney in the Rolling Stone interview. “He’d send me a track; he’d make new tracks, add to the folder; I would write the entire top line for a song, and he wouldn’t know what the song would be about, what it was going to be called, where I was going to put the chorus.”
Swift had considered coming out with an album early in the following year (2021), but she ended up releasing Folklore in July, according to the Rolling Stone interview. “ And I just thought there are no rules anymore, because I used to put all these parameters on myself, like, ‘How will this song sound in a stadium? How will this song sound on radio?’ If you take away all the parameters, what do you make? And I guess the answer is Folklore.”
So what lessons can fiction writers take from Swift’s incredible creative output? Here are a few that come to my mind:
Long periods of inactivity can provide the space for creativity. Some artists found it easy to write during the pandemic. For others, the high stress of the pandemic made it difficult to concentrate. When one is worrying about his or her health and the health of one’s families, the stress can become all-consuming. Absent a pandemic, opportunities like writer’s retreats and writing vacations can stimulate the creative juices. Our busy schedules certainly get in the way of writing, so we have to be intentional about making the time and space to write.
Artists should build a creative community. I am a part of three writer’s communities and the connections I have made with other writers have improved my work. Whether it is finding a beta reader or bouncing ideas off colleagues, artists need communities to take their work to the next level. What would have happened if Swift had not met Dessner on tour? Folklore and Evermore would never have been made. As artists we can support one another, review each other’s work, and, perhaps, even collaborate. Which brings me to my third lesson.
Writers can achieve new heights through collaboration. Swift’s two-albums-in-six-months outburst would not have been possible without her collaboration with Dessner. It took dire circumstances to bring together this amazing songwriting partnership. What could writers do by reaching out to other writers under ordinary circumstances? As proof, I point to the amazing cross-Atlantic collaboration between my friend, Heather Webb, and fellow historical fiction writer Hazel Gaynor, which has produced three beautiful novels.
Cultivate friendships with talented people. Jack Antonoff is a renowned producer who has worked with such luminaries as Lorde, Lana del Rey, St Vincent, and Pink, and he is the lead singer of the indie band, The Bleachers. Dessner’s band, The National, is an under-rated musical group with a different style than Swift. Clearly, Swift’s willingness to work with other artists has elevated her music.
Working with artists with different styles can push the creativity and style of both artists into new directions. We saw this with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, two songwriters with very different musical sensibilities who meshed perfectly. And we saw this with Swift and Dessner. As Dessner put it in a Rolling Stone interview, “We really wanted to keep her voice as human, and kind of the opposite of plastic, as possible,” Dessner said. “That was a bit of a battle. Because everything in pop music tends to be very carved out, a smiley face, and as pushed as possible so that it translates to the radio or wherever you hear it. That can also happen with a National song — like if you changed how these things are mixed, they wouldn’t feel like the same song. And she was really trusting and heard it herself. She would make those calls herself, also,” he said.
Here’s more from Dessner about how the process worked with Swift: “She would always explain what each song was about to me, even before she articulated the Folklore concept. And I could tell early on that they were these narrative songs, often told from a different… not in the first person. So there are different characters in the songs that appear in others. You may have a character in ‘Betty’ that’s also related to one in ‘Cardigan,’ for example. And I think that was, in her mind, very, very important. It doesn’t seem like, for this record at least, that she was inspired to write something until she really knew what it was about. And I think I’m used to a more — at least lately — impressionistic and experimental world of making stuff without really knowing what it is. But this was more direct, in that sense. That was really helpful, to know what it was about and it would guide some of the choices we were making.”
There is so much more I want to write about Swift’s unbelievable pandemic output and how it happened, but I will leave it here. I didn’t do well with my writing during the pandemic for a variety of reasons, but I will take these lessons to heart.