How Aaron Dessner Found His Voice (Assisted by Taylor Swift)


COLUMBIA COUNTY, NY – Aaron Dessner sat at the black upright piano at the Long Pond Studio, stepped on the soft pedal and played a life-changing four-note phrase. The first notes of a music file he sent to Taylor Swift in March 2020 – GF E-flat F – were.

Swift was a fan of Dessner’s long-running indie-rock band. Nationaland suddenly contacted him as the pandemic shutdown began. “I was sitting at dinner one night,” Dessner recalls, and I got a text that said, “This is Taylor. Are you ready to collaborate with me remotely?’

I was proud and said, ‘Sure,'” he continued. He said, ‘Send anything, even the weirdest random drawing you have,’ and I sent him a folder of files I was working on. And a few hours later he sent it. that song, ‘The Cardigan.’

The number-one hit “Cardigan” ushered in Swift’s collaboration that evolved into two career-repositioning 2020 albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore.” The creative partnership doesn’t end there: She writes and sings “Renegade” Dessner’s second album, “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?” for his own indie recording project, Big Red Machine, is out August 27. provided the title.

“We talked a lot, how come we made so many songs together in such a short time?” Dessner, 45, said in a speech he gave in his garden that he was looking at the pond. “This is a little abnormal and difficult to maintain. This streak continues, but you don’t know when the ideas, inspiration or spark will go out.”

For Swift, Dessner’s music unlocked new ideas. Swift wrote in an email: “The quality that really surprised me about Aaron’s instrumental pieces was that they were, immediately, intensely visual. “As soon as I heard the first one, I understood why he called them ‘sketches’. “I had seen high heels on the cobblestones. I knew it had to be about youth miscommunications and the loss that could happen.”

“I’ve always been very curious about people with synesthesia who see colors or shapes when they hear music. The closest thing I’ve ever experienced is seeing an entire story or scene play out in my head when I hear Aaron Dessner’s instrumental pieces.”

The studio is located in a converted barn steps from Dessner’s home near Hudson, NY. , percussion – when an idea comes. He can turn it on to let in the sounds of birds, insects, frogs or the wind in the trees. Dessner has recorded most of his music on Long Pond since releasing National’s 2017 album “Sleep Well Beast.” It was busy there during the pandemic.

“For someone like me who has traveled for 20 years, rarely taking a complete break from tour for more than a month or two, it was nice to be at home where I was in this beautiful place for almost two years,” he said. “I made a lot more music than I did before. And I think it allows me to elevate or push what I’m doing and take it to different places.”

Dessner formed Big Red Machine with Justin Vernon, who records as Bon Iver and is known outside of independent circles for working with Kanye West. The new album is also inspired by “almost everyone I’ve recorded with,” as Dessner puts it. This includes his twin brother Bryce, who is a member of the National along with their songwriter. Robin Pecknold (from Fleet Foxes), Anais Mitchell (The musical based on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, “Hadestown” It will reopen on Broadway in September), Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Naeem, Ben Howard, and others.

“Building and contributing to the music community is very important to Aaron,” Swift wrote. “He’s technically in the music ‘industry’ but all he really wants to do is play and make music with his friends.”

Paradoxically, the Big Red Machine’s expanding collective effort turned into something deeply personal. As Dessner and other musicians pieced together songs largely from afar, the themes converged: childhood memories, lost innocence, struggling with mental health. And after years of working in the background – with National and as a producer for other songwriters – Dessner rose to prominence as the lead singer for several songs.

“I remember being really nervous about having his own lead vocals in there,” Mitchell said over the phone from Vermont. “And I absolutely – you should do it. It’s a really nice feeling for people to look behind the curtain, to know the person behind this kind of thing, especially given the work he’s done with Taylor last year.”

Big Red Machine isn’t exactly a band. “For me it’s like an experimental lab and also a tool for collaborating with friends and trying to grow,” Dessner said. “Also, to reconnect with the feeling of what it was like when you first started playing music – what it was like to produce something without really knowing what it was.”

Dessner’s musical fingerprint is his fondness for patterns: small evocative motifs that can interlock in intricate ways. Songs that National has released since their 2001 debut can be soothing and meditative or point to the agitation behind a pensive exterior. For Dessner’s collaborators, these tiny music cells help build larger structures.

“I get the feeling that I’m going to catch myself in little patterns, that you can build some kind of architecture out of it,” he said. “Often there is something a little weird about the timing or something that I might have taken out of a classic piece I heard. There is a core and then I start building.”

For Dessner, there is also healing in repetition. “I used to have pretty severe depression as a teenager when I really started playing music,” he said. “I was not at all disadvantaged, nothing bad – it was brain chemistry. I realized that playing music this way relaxes me. Rhythm and melody are in this circular playing form. That’s when I feel myself with the best music. At some point the ideas started to take on weirder time signatures and there were more experimental sounds around them. But there is still this emotional, circular musical behavior at its core.”

The Great Red Machine was born out of a fruitful misunderstanding. Dessner wanted to write a song with Vernon for the 2009 all-star indie-rock album “Dark Was the Night” produced by the Dessner brothers for the HIV charity Red Hot Organisation. He sent Vernon a draft of a song he was looking for. “The Big Red Machine” after hometown baseball team Cincinnati Reds; Vernon, oblivious to the sports reference, instead wrote lyrics about the human heart.

Dessner and Vernon, Eaux Claires Music festival in the mid-2010s and forming an idealistic music collective In 37d03d style (read “people” upside down). In 2018, they released their first Big Red Machine album, a cheerful experimental set of songs with Vernon at the forefront. encrypted lyrics and electronic effects, and they brought together jammy live band For a handful of concerts in 2018 and 2019. (A song from the new album “Easy to Sabotage” is strung together from loud concert improvisations, new lyrics by Naeem, and intricate computer processing.) We’ll be playing Vernon Dessner in arenas as Bon Iver’s opening act before the tour evaporates in 2020. convinced.

Dessner was already drawing new Big Red Machine tracks. Most of the new songs have an idyllic, rooted tone that evokes Band at times, but are often also tied with drum machine beats and hidden electronic undercurrents. “I liked the idea of ​​trying to do something more song-oriented and more cohesive this time,” he said.

Meanwhile, Vernon sought a less central role in Big Red Machine. “I wanted it to feel much more inclusive and representative of all the extracurricular energy we’ve spent over the years, trying to make the music industry a little more communist or something else,” he said. “And I’m so tired of being a soloist and I’m in another group. I said, you have too many connections. Let’s reach out and see how other people feel on these tracks. And I wanted to continue to support Aaron and honestly challenge him to stand out more. There are little bits that I came out with and did on the record, and obviously I wrote some lyrics and sang some songs, but really, it’s Aaron’s record.”

Songs often refer to loss and vulnerability. The album features two songs featuring Mitchell’s whispering soprano: “Latter Days,” written before the pandemic but dreams of living with a disaster, and “New Auburn,” a memory of his childhood path (set in Vernon’s Wisconsin geography). Trips that reflect the times of “we were too young to be forgiven”.

One of the first songs Dessner wrote for the album was “Brycie,” in gratitude for how her brother saw her during bouts of depression; It begins with folk guitars and evolves into a prismatic web of hand-played and synthetic sounds behind Dessner’s gentle voice.

Dessner and Swift recorded “Renegade” in Los Angeles during the week leading up to the 2021 Grammy Awards; days later, they shared the award as producers and actors. Album of the year for “Folklore” (along with the album’s co-producer, Jack Antonoff.) Dessner already had a Grammy—best alternative to the National’s “Sleep Well Beast”—but it was a much higher pop profile; he has recently been “approached by people”.

“I love colliding with new people and learning from people, so it’s an exciting time,” he said. “But I also tend to be a little shy. I like the idea that I can count my co-workers on a hand or two to stay with that family feeling. So I’m not in a rush to work with a million people. That’s not really my personality.”

“I have yet to do anything that I feel is trying to satisfy a commercial instinct. I don’t know exactly how to do it. I don’t know if I have the skills to do that.”

Not ready to build your own hit factory? He shrugged. “I think I can move to Los Angeles and arrange that,” he said. “But it won’t end well.”


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