meta-scriptHow Deafheaven's 'Sunbather' Changed Our View Of Metal | GRAMMY.com
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Derek Prine and George Clarke of Deafheaven perform at Bonnaroo Music And Arts Festival in 2014

Photo: Gaelle Beri/Redferns via Getty Images

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How Deafheaven's 'Sunbather' Changed Our View Of Metal

Released in 2013, 'Sunbather' is a deeply personal album whose myriad influences drew both critique and mass appeal. GRAMMY.com revisits Deafheaven's landmark album and the way it upended views about black metal.

GRAMMYs/Jun 9, 2023 - 04:31 pm

In the winter of 2013, guitarist Kerry McCoy and vocalist George Clarke — founding members of black metal innovators Deafheaven — went into the studio to record what would eventually come their breakthrough album Sunbather. Armed with home-recorded demos and high ambitions, they were ready, but they were scared as hell.

"I just wanted to make sure that the record was like... not perfect... but like, really on point," McCoy said in a 2013 promo video

Although their debut album, 2011's Roads to Judah, had succeeded in raising a few eyebrows, Deafhaven were still figuring out who and what exactly they were. Clarke and McCoy were still living in San Francisco, still working terrible jobs, and doing whatever they could to pay the bills, and music was their only way out of this life. They wanted their next record to be on point simply because it had to be.

On June 10, their savior came into the world.  An album of beautiful contradictions,Sunbather became one of the most important rock releases of the decade.  Nothing about the album — from its layered arrangements that blend black metal with post-rock, pop, and shoegaze, to its pink, sun-kissed album art —  fit neatly into what black metal (or any genre for that matter) was considered to be. 

Along with new drummer Daniel Tracey, McCoy and Clarke reached for the heavens from within their own personal hell. And that's what Sunbather does so well: finding light within the cracks of darkness. From the epic opener "Dream House" to the gorgeous, knee-buckling closer "The Pecan Tree," the album is in constant motion, shifting back and forth between dreamy post-rock, immense nuclear explosiveness, and cathartic payoffs. Its songs move with a churning fluidity, building to a climax before they crumble again. Clarke's sharp, piercing howls along with McCoy’s cascading avalanche of guitars and Tracey's rapid-fire bursts of drums together created an energy so grand, it could move mountains.

At the heart of Sunbather is a deeply personal album told from the perspective of people yearning to live in peace. Lyricist Clarke would gaze into San Francisco's many penthouse apartments on his walk home after a long day at work, wondering what it would be like to live obviously and carefree. On the album’s title track, a Cohen-esque narrator drives through an affluent neighborhood, only to become more depressed at the sight of a young woman lying on the grass among the green trees. 

While the lyrics are mostly indecipherable on record, if you take the time to look up what’s being said, you’ll find that Clarke’s words grapple with insecurity, the ability (or inability) to love, and whether there is a better life out there waiting. The album is vulnerable, romantic, and personal. As Clarke put it in 2013, "Sunbather is like ripping pages out of my journal." 

With its shrieking vocals and thrashing guitars, black metal is raw, brutal, and by nature, not easily accessible. Born out of Norway in the 1980s, bands like Mayhem, Emperor, and Darkthrone toiled in dark, gruesome imagery and some questionable values. Their music sounded as if it came straight from the depths of hell. They sing about war, destruction, and death; the loud, intense music is meant to invoke a sense of dread. It’s not for the faint of heart, and its bands can be quite intimidating. For devotees, that’s part of the appeal. Being in black metal means surrounding yourself in the darkness; you either get it, or you don’t.

At face value, it makes sense that Deafheaven would be categorized as black metal. Their music can be just as intense as any other band in the genre, but the emotional depth and nakedness on Sunbather is part of what separates Deafheaven from their peers. It’s a different kind of intensity that leaves room for warmth and hope, and ultimately broadened their appeal beyond the black metal scene. 

They bared their souls in a way most metal bands would not dare, choosing not to hide behind corpse face paint or technical prowess. The members of Deafheaven didn’t play the part of a stereotypical Scandinavian metal band: They didn’t have long, flowing hair; they wore skinny jeans and Vans sneakers. Their singer could’ve been a model in a different life, and because they were so clean-cut, Deafheaven were accused of being hipster posers who didn’t make "real" metal music. 

A "true" black metal band would not reach for the rafters like U2 as they do in the "Dream House" finale, nor would their interludes call to mind Wilco or Oasis. A real metal group wouldn't listen to Drake, an artist Deafheaven has admitted to being fans of and whose music touches upon similar themes.

As a result Deafheaven were immediately cast as outsiders in their own scene.

Whereas the scope of Sunbather might have displeased hardcore metalheads, the album's accessibility inadvertently opened new doors for black metal, a genre traditionally against any sort of evolution or deviation. By making heavy music that reflected the music they consumed, Deafhaven became one of the first bands to dismantle genre-gatekeeping. 

Indeed, Sunbather is just as indebted to My Bloody Valentine and Explosions in the Sky as it is Emperor’s black metal classic In the Nightside Eclipse. Sunbather used black metal as a vehicle to amplify a vast palate of emotion.

For its wide appeal and depth, Sunbather received significant acclaim in 2013 from all ends of the critical spectrum. The album appeared at the top of numerous year-end best of lists, and has since been named one of the 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone. 

In an era before streaming allowed easy access to a myriad of musical styles, genre-bending albums like Sunbather were still relatively novel, and even more so in hard rock circles. Sunbather provided the blueprint for bands like Turnstile, whose latest album GLOW ON has seen them to outgrow the similarly cloistered hardcore scene they were brought up in. But Deafheaven's influence can be heard broadly, through the work of artists as diverse as Bartees Strange, Lil Yachty and Taylor Swift — each of whom have boldly embraced genre fluidity.

In the 10 years since Sunbather, Deafheaven have become one of metal’s most vital bands, and continue to change the way we think about the genre. The band have continued to shape-shift with each album release: 2015’s New Bermuda saw them lean more into thrash metal, while 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love was a bit sunnier and slightly more indebted to '90s alternative rock. Their latest record, 2021's Infinite Granite, eschewed black metal all together in favor of a gentler, dreamier sound that has  more in common with the Smiths than Cradle of Filth. 

While Deafheaven continues to evolve and move further away from their black metal roots, Sunbather remains their crowning achievement. On that album, they somehow managed to blend oil and vinegar, creating a concoction of genres that remained true to their vision. It couldn’t have been more on point. 

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George Clarke On Deafheaven's New Album 'Infinite Granite,' Finding His Voice & Breaking Out Of Underground Memeification

When Deafheaven got huge, a swath of black metal purists went to war while diehard fans exalted them as be-all-end-alls. But their most forward-thinking album yet, Infinite Granite, is—as singer George Clarke insists—"just a record"

GRAMMYs/Aug 18, 2021 - 10:45 pm

Album art should ideally describe what's inside in some way, but Deafheaven's latest is unique in that it literally shows music. What may look like a grainy Voyager photo of Neptune in its indigo immensity is actually the first minutes of the opening track "Shellstar," processed through a visualizer and photographed in long exposure. To singer George Clarke, the resultant orb of blue specks on coal-black connotes "space or infinity, but it's also quite embryonic... almost like a place of birth."

The band is also unique in that they treat themselves as solely musicians. In a field of swollen egos, this isn't a given. Ever since 2013's Sunbather, which inspired outsized reactions from zealots and haters alike, the GRAMMY-nominated five-piece—Clarke, guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra, bassist Chris Johnson and drummer Daniel Tracy—has made a point to simply write the best music they can and not make a big deal out it. In a hailstorm of memes about crew-cuts and delay pedals and weeping in awe, Deafheaven simply worked hard.

"We're just five dudes who like catchy guitars and fast drums," McCoy told Rolling Stone somewhat tersely that year. "It's not anything special. What we do is just really, really simple."

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Now, with their new album, Infinite Granite, which arrives August 20 via Sargent House, they get to fully enjoy the rewards of not believing their own hype. In what's already the primary talking point surrounding the album, Clarke doesn't scream throughout 85 percent of it, but croons. On advance singles "In Blur," "Great Mass of Color" and "The Gnashing," he displays just how hard he worked to not sound tentative, or coached, but confident—as if he had sung since the very first record.

In a wide-ranging interview with GRAMMY.com, George Clarke opens up about the cosmic and literary inspirations behind Infinite Granite, his creative development over the last year and a half and why, in the end, this is "just a record" and nothing more.

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What's your life been like for the past year and a half?

It was fine, to be honest. The tour cancelations were a bit of a hit, but we were able to do this makeshift live record in-studio featuring songs we were going to play that year. That came together quickly and we were able to do that, which felt good. We were at the end of our cycle for Ordinary, so we had it easier than a lot of people did. We were able to settle into a writing period, so we started taking the necessary steps to get that done.

Which, of course, had its own difficulties, because we were very conscious of everything happening and we wanted to be as safe as possible. People were getting tested all the time and we were traveling to different studios with masks and all that, which kind of heightened the atmosphere of it, I think, and made things a little more difficult. But overall, it was good. We used the period to try to be creative and not waste what we saw as an opportunity.

Once the record finished, I went to New Zealand and lived there from January until about the beginning of May. Then, I've been back in L.A. since then, just kind of rolling out the album. I came back to start this whole experience, which has been really nice.

Was it a shock to the system after riding around in a van or bus for 10 years?

Yeah, definitely, especially this past year. We were spending a lot of time with each other. We worked on this record longer than any previous one, so we were together a lot, and that was great and felt very natural. But it was interesting not being on the road. Being at home for that amount of time is not something any of us are used to. That has increased throughout 2021 because we're not working on the record and not seeing each other as much. We're all eagerly anticipating that side of things to pick up again.

Did the other guys make it through OK, financially or otherwise?

Yeah, they did. That was one of the first things that happened: We had an emergency meeting and looked at all our accounts. We keep things for savings and this sort of thing. We were thankfully able to budget throughout the year so everyone could be as comfortable as possible. And, of course, unemployment as well.

Thankfully, everyone is alright, but there have definitely been times of stress. Everyone has picked up side work here and there, but that's also just in an effort to keep busy, I think. That was the other thing: The extreme boredom, the extreme idle feeling of the last year got to people a little bit.

I'm not sure how other journalists will receive Infinite Granite, but to me, it stands out from the rest. Hearing you let loose with a scream at the end—rather than screaming all the way through—gave me a feeling I hadn't gotten from any past Deafheaven record.

Thank you. I have no idea either! When we were making it, it wasn't a thought. There were jokes and things like that, but we weren't really consciously considering it. And then after the record was finished, we started to. I think that's what happens: Your head kind of clears and you sort of leave the cave and you're like, "Oh. How are people going to hear this? This actually might be quite interesting, to see what the reaction is."

I will say that we spent a lot of time on it and I think there's a lot of detail in it that wasn't necessarily present in our other albums. I think we really wanted to work more with nuance this time around.

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One thing that's always struck me about Deafheaven is that you guys would open for Lamb of God or Slipknot—and then go play with non-heavy artists like Slowdive or Emma Ruth Rundle—with something of a smirk. I don't sense that you guys had existential crises along the way.

I think that early on, we simply saw that we could do both.

Just by getting the opportunity to do both, we saw that as an advantage, like an interesting position that not a lot of people were able to have. Say another band had the same position: They'd be like, "Oh, even if we can do both, we want to shy away from this and only work within this kind of thing. I don't know how an indie audience is going to respond to this, so we should always just take the Lamb of God opportunities," or vice versa.

"I think what we do is serious music, but you don't want to always feel like you have to go to battle for your art."

We would rather say yes to everything. It's all part of the greater experience of playing music like this. I think there's maybe a bit of a smirk, but it's just like an acknowledgement of how strangely unique it all is. Like, "That does work!" or "We can make it work!" and there's something fun about that. That's part of what makes what we do fun, and we have to have some of that.

At the same time, we kind of had to defend ourselves throughout our whole career, and that's a little tedious. At that point, it starts to get a little self-serious. I think what we do is serious music, but you don't want to always feel like you have to go to battle for your art.

Back in the Sunbather era, I also sensed some bemusement at your haters, like, "We're not really black metal? They're making memes about us? Fine, great, I don't care."

I was kind of surprised by it, really: People really care! Sometimes that's funny. That's the honest attitude that we have maintained, and, in a way, have had to maintain. It gets a little unnerving when people tell you, "I think this is the greatest thing ever made," or "This saved my life."

It's not just the negative things. It's quite often the very true and positive things that make you have to recalibrate and be like, "Look, everyone, while I'm glad people are having an emotional reaction to the music—and while I want them to, and that's part of the intention of making it—it also needs to be stated, for good and for bad, however you choose to see it, there are just songs. We're just people in a room trying to be creative and not be bored." 

Your music is often very heightened and does elicit extreme emotional responses. Have you ever felt invaded by fans or like people were getting creepy about it?

No, no. I've never really felt that. It's always been a lot of love. It's just good to be objective sometimes, I think. Like I said, that recalibration. It's just reminding everyone that, at least from our standpoint, this is just something that we're doing.

That record in particular [Sunbather], I was really surprised at how people gravitated toward it and how it became such a conversation piece, almost like a weird moment in the subculture. From that kind of came what you were talking about earlier, where it's like, "Man, we're like memes. Oh, funny. People are really invested." 

And from it came so much good, so I'm thankful that we're able to experience that, but it was funny.

Deafheaven's George Clarke performing in Oslo in 2018. Photo: Avalon/PYMCA/Gonzales Photo/Per-Otto Oppi/Universal Images Group via Getty Images​

Was there a moment where the irritation of needing to defend yourselves began to loosen up and you guys could just be a rock band?

Yeah, yeah. We talked about this a little bit during Ordinary amongst ourselves. At the time, we were feeling really alleviated from not being so centered in the conversation. 

I think what it was was we just stuck around long enough. Perhaps, if we had gone away after Sunbather, we would always be this thing, but because we continued forward making music we wanted to make and touring and not really making a big deal out of it, I think people are like, "OK, I can focus on something else."

When we were first coming out, there were a couple of different "controversial" bands that have all, I think, outgrown that. [Hunter Hunt-Hendrix] of Liturgy being another one, who just does her own thing and expands with each record. I think perhaps it is just a time thing, but regardless of the reason, yeah, it's freeing to be in that position. And I still feel that freedom.

Even if it is still a conversation—us at large—I don't see a ton of it.

What prompted the move from Anti- to Sargent House for Infinite Granite? I imagine you merely fulfilled your contract, but I don't want to presume.

Yes, that is it—we fulfilled the contract. I love Anti- and we had a very good experience with them.

Since we knew we were going to be working with Justin [Meldal-Johnsen] fairly early on, there was an idea with this record to expand the musical palette and expand the production and, along with that, expand those budgets while simultaneously shrinking the business side and taking more control over it and working closer with Sargent House in a more symbiotic way, because from a management side, we've been together so long.

There was an idea to kind of bring everything home while we were making this sound and delivery and art and all that much more expansive.

Since you guys have been with them forever, it doesn't strike me as downsizing, but consolidating.

That's exactly it. It's just putting everything under a smaller umbrella and having more control. Not to expand on it too far, but there was this idea that people would think the aspirations for this record were more commercial.

I think on a subconscious level, sticking with Sargent House and, in fact, even leaving Anti-, would be kind of a silent response to that curiosity. Just being like, "No, this is purely an artistic move, and we want to do it with the people we've known and gotten to trust over the past decade.

Were people starting to think you were reaching for pop appeal?

I'm not sure if that's a widespread idea, but it was in the realm of what people could be thinking. That's something I anticipated and was conscious of. I think it's an interesting optic to pursue, I guess, this bigger, more rock sound while honing everything in on the business side of things.

When I first saw the album cover, I figured it was a NASA photo. Then I looked at it more closely and realized it wasn't, and then I read that [Touché Amoré's] Nick Steinhardt designed it.

It's funny: Nick and I spent months talking about the album. I sent him the lyrics and said, "This is how I'm feeling about it," and so on. Blue was present very early on, and both of us, honestly, were envisioning this sort of blue mass. We both had this idea of spherical immensity—a strange, strong spherical image.

From that, he basically created an MP3 visualizer that rotates 360 degrees as the song plays. It's made up of all these dots and their movement shifts with the song, and then, as the soundbar does its 360-degree rotations, we took long-exposure photographs of those rotations. The cover is actually the first couple of minutes of the first song, and each track has its own corresponding orb that's made of the music.

We were thinking about concept albums and talking about how artwork of conceptual records always reflects the lyrical content. For this, we wanted to kind of flip that on its head and have artwork that literally was a visual embodiment of what was happening sonically.

He did some tests and made maybe 300 or 400 of them, which all looked fairly similar. We just kind of went through and I was really struck by the one that made it to the cover. To me, not only does it have a kind of idea of space or infinity, but it's also quite embryonic. I look at it almost like a place of birth.

Did the track title "Neptune Raining Diamonds" grow out of it?

They were kind of separate ideas. I heard the guys making "Neptune Raining Diamonds" and, to me, it just kind of sounds like that. I was doing some reading and there was a National Geographic article on how Neptune rains diamonds. It was talking about all the atmospheric pressure that makes this effect. I thought it was really interesting and, to me, it's what that track sounded like.

Can you imagine anything more visually splendorous than that?

When I saw the headline in the article, I thought the same thing! I was like, "Man, that visual is incredible." I can't really take the credit for it, but it did make me feel a certain way.

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I'm sure some are making a big deal out of the fact that you sing through 85 percent of this record, but to me, it's a completely natural evolution. I think of "Night People" from Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. Did you always like to sing? Which singers have stuck with you over the years?

A ton. I've listened to traditional singing—or whatever you want to call it—artists forever. Some of my favorite performers are non-metal performers.

But that said, no. It was nothing that I really pursued myself outside of the shower, you know what I mean? Outside of just fun on my own, like most people do, I never really pursued it.

I was in theater for four or five years, and I did musical theater during that time. But even that was mostly secondary. I preferred drama. I didn't do anything for a long time, and it was something we had discussed in the band and something I was pulling toward and experimented with on a couple of occasions on Ordinary.

Once we were given all this time and opportunity to write this album, I decided I wanted to take it more seriously and fully pursue the idea.

Deafheaven at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards. Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Hundreds of shows into your career, did you start to feel limited by screaming?

Not so much in its expression. I still feel like it is oftentimes the ultimate way for me to express an idea or emotion, to express that level of intensity. I still think, ultimately, it is a preference of mine. But in terms of technique, I was feeling limited. I just kind of felt like I had done all I could do with my range, stamina, rhythm and everything else.

Like you said, we tour quite often. I think we had done, in that year, five full tours. That definitely was a catalyst for those decisions as well, or it just reinforced those feelings. I wanted to be fully sure this was a decision I wanted to make before I did it.

I remember playing that show in January, and we had already been kind of working on songs and I had been thinking about the clean-vocal idea. After that January 2020 show, I knew that I definitely wanted to pursue it.

You mentioned in a podcast with [Touché Amoré's] Jeremy Bolm that you had started to be at odds with your position in the band. That you felt like the musical weak link in some way. Was that a motivation as well?

I think so. By the winter of 2019, we had had two songs and maybe the skeleton of a third. I knew at that point this wasn't going to work [with screaming]. We could have pursued it anyway, but I just wouldn't have been happy.

The guys often don't see that juxtaposition as wrong in any scenario. I think they're always comfortable with and wanting a harsh vocal on whatever kind of bed they end up creating. But for me, it was just the artistic aspect of it. I wanted to be challenged in that way.

When people say "Oh, he's singing now," it's so much more than just the tone. The writing is so different. It's not one-note rhythm writing, which is what aggressive vocals are. You're not moving a lot melodically. It's purely rhythm. For this, you need lot more. And if you want to make something creative and not just standard, you need to have dexterity in your vocal and a little bit of range and a lot of confidence.

"In terms of technique, I was feeling limited. I just kind of felt like I had done all I could do with my range, stamina, rhythm and everything else."

It was developing those things with JMJ [Justin Meldal-Johnsen] that, to me, really got it over the finish line. It's not just hitting the notes. It's your delivery. It's wanting to make choruses. And I've said this a lot, but I'll say it again: I've never written a chorus at all.

I've been listening to them my whole life, so it's like, "What eras do I want to link to mine? How am I feeling? Am I listening to a lot of '70s music, or '80s music, or '90s music? Where am I pulling from?" Essentially, I have a blank canvas here. I think that's what made it take as long as I did because I worked on them for over a year, continuously.

You could have easily gone off the rails with overly complex melodies, but the chorus to "Great Mass of Color" is three notes. It seems like you've stripped down your melodic vocabulary for maximum catchiness.

We did, yeah! Especially between me and Justin, there's a lot of those conversations. I was having to rework my lyrics in different ways and there was a little bit of strain. I didn't want to lose ideas, but I did want to filter them in a way that was simple enough to be effective. A chorus is kind of a universal thing. It doesn't need to be the highest brow. It just needs to be impactful and emotional.

But then you have "Villain," one of the first songs we worked on vocally, with all the falsetto things. That was more of a product of what you're saying. It's this big empty canvas where I could do whatever I want, so there are moments where there are jumps into less standard territory. I was hoping for a blend between the two.

You mentioned Chet Baker as an influence on your singing voice. I'm a Chet Baker lunatic.

That rules. A little bit! I was trying to find voices that had a sweet strength to them. When I was deciding on how I wanted my vocal approach to be, one of the things I was considering was shoegaze live and how it's very difficult to mix, especially in smaller clubs. From the top down, everyone has a little bit of struggle. I knew how the music was developing, so I needed a voice where I could compete with loud guitars but not always be full rock.

There are moments on the record where I accentuate more of this rocking voice, but what I described is sweet strength that has legs to it. I find that a lot with [Chet Baker]. I was listening to a lot of Nina Simone and Tears for Fears and stuff that has a dreamy bed of music but doesn't sacrifice the vocal to that sound. It has a very impactful voice on top of it to, in a way, compete.

It's a balancing act between insubstantial, wispy shoegaze vocals and, like, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Yes, yes, yes, exactly. I dabbled in both. There are so many demos, in part, because I wanted to record everything to hear it back. And, yes, I was going both directions and was hoping to find a middle ground, and maybe I did. I don't know. It's why songs like "In Blur" or "The Gnashing" have a different tonal quality than "Other Language" or "Great Mass of Color."

Chet kind of tossed his voice, but not flimsily. He owned the high notes.

It's that control. That's exactly what I mean. It's less breathy, less careless. They're not supposed to be what shines in shoegaze; it's just another textural element. And we didn't want to be a shoegaze band. I think while this record has a lot of that in there, I wouldn't call it that. Our defining marker was that vocal decision.

Fans glom onto one lyric or another with each Deafheaven record, but I feel like your lyrics remain weirdly underdiscussed. What can you tell me about your lyrical approach for this one? What are you reading lately?

Thank you. I'm into these lyrics. They're a real patchwork of all these different themes, and no song is about any singular thing, necessarily. They have major motifs, but it's all [multifaceted]. The reason is that, originally, I wanted it to be kind of a concept record surrounding family—estranged family, and how those figures find their way into your life in this bigger connection.

But through the course of years, I was reflecting so much on all the heightened emotion of 2020 and the California fires that were happening and the protests and all these things. Those were finding their way into the lyrics, and I just kind of made a patchwork of both things. There's equal parts familial reflection and a present-day doomsday feeling.

I'm trying to think of what I was reading. I've been reading a lot of political stuff in the last year and a half. I felt my headspace was in that area. But, yeah, a lot of Polish stuff. I was reading Aleksander Wat, Szymborska, Milosz. I was reading a lot of Lydia Davis. I got that essay and short story anthology she put out. That's some of them.

You post your photography on Instagram, and I know you put out a couple of books of poetry. It seems like you're finding ways to express yourself beyond this thing you do 10 months a year.

Yeah, I'd like to do more of that. I am doing more of that. Maybe since I turned 30, I've been in this highly motivated zone, just really wanting to do things. Last year probably perpetuated it some, but I'm just looking to be busy. I love all those steps—conceptualizing and then seeing something through, whether it's writing or photography or music. It's all kind of thrilling. I think all that stuff is just in an effort to keep my brain occupied.

Or maybe just becoming a more balanced human being?

And learning! I'd never picked up a camera. I got a camera a few years ago and, through books and YouTube and whatever else, and texting friends that shoot film, I learned all this stuff. I develop and scan everything at my place. It's been cool to exercise that muscle more.

How did you get over the hump of "amateur photography"?

Oh, I'm amateur hour through and through. I'm an absolute hobbyist. Thankfully, a couple of friends have asked me to take their photo and it's great practice, but anything that looks professional or set-up is just [me] having some fun with it. I've taken so many and there's a lot of s**t. My goal is always to have a high average of what I call "keeps" from each roll, and I'm still on the low. [Laughs.]

What's going through your head as you prepare to head back on tour? Do you feel apprehensive about how this material will be received? That some fans might just want the screaming songs?

Honestly, I think our audience is going to be accepting. The show is going to have a lot more [dynamism] now with these new songs. Overall, the picture will be more interesting and varied.

But there's a ton of thought going into the technical aspect of it. We got together a couple of months ago to run the songs as we'll be doing them. Everyone has in-ear monitors now and we have a totally different amp setup with tons of different pedal and synth configurations now. There's a click track, which we've never done before. So, there's different bridges to cross. 

If anything, that's where the nerves are coming from. But we have a lot of time and we are typically well-prepared people, so I feel really good. I feel mostly excited to play shows and see friends and see the country and hopefully see the world at some point soon and just get on with it.

And just play music without being a conversation piece?

If there's anything I want from people or from the record, it's just to take some time with it and to really listen to it. We put a lot of work into it. It's very detailed. When people receive the package, that aspect is very detailed as well. 

And it doesn't really need to be more than that. It's just a record.

The above was drawn from two conversations and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Brendan Yates On Turnstile's Vibrant New Album 'GLOW ON': "The Goal Was To Breathe As Much Imagination Into These Songs As Possible"

A composite image collage featuring images of Taylor Swift in (L-R) 2023, 2008 and 2012.
(L-R) Taylor Swift in 2023, 2008 and 2012.

Photos (L-R): Buda Mendes/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management, Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Clear Channel

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Songbook: An Era-By-Era Breakdown Of Taylor Swift's Journey From Country Starlet To Pop Phenomenon

Upon the arrival of Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department,' take a deep dive into her discography and see how each album helped her become the genre-shifting superstar she is today.

GRAMMYs/Apr 19, 2024 - 09:32 pm

Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 19 to reflect the release of The Tortured Poets Department.

The world now knows Taylor Swift as a global pop superstar, but back in 2006, she was just a doe-eyed country prodigy. Since then, she's released 11 studio albums, re-recorded four as "Taylor's Version," and cultivated one of the most feverish fan bases in music. Oh, and she's also won 14 GRAMMY Awards, including four for Album Of The Year — the most ever won by an artist.

Swift has become one of music's most notable shapeshifters by refusing to limit herself to one genre, moving between country, pop, folk and beyond. A once-in-a-lifetime generational storyteller, one could argue that she is music's modern-day maverick, constantly evolving both her music and the culture around her.

Every album era has seen Swift reinvent herself over and over, which has helped pave the way for artists to explore other musical avenues. In turn, Swift hasn't just become one of the biggest artists of all time — she's changed pop music altogether.

To celebrate Taylor Swift's newest era with The Tortured Poets Department, GRAMMY.com looks back on all of her albums (Taylor's Versions not included) and how each era shaped her remarkable career.

Taylor Swift: Finding Her Place In Music

In a genre dominated by men, the odds were already stacked against Swift when she first broke into country music as a teenage female artist. The thing that differentiated her from other writers — and still does to this day — is her songwriting. She didn't want to be just "another girl singer" and knew writing her own songs would be what set her apart. 

Written throughout her adolescence, Taylor Swift was recorded at the end of 2005 and finalized by the time Swift finished her freshman year of high school. Serving as a snapshot of Swift's life and teenhood, she avoided songwriting stereotypes typically found in country music. Instead, she wanted to capture the years of her life while they still represented what she was going through, writing about what she was observing and experiencing, from love and friendship to feeling like an outsider. 

As a songwriter, Taylor Swift set the tone for what would be expected of her future recordings — all songs were written by her, some solely and others with one or two co-writers. One writer in particular, Liz Rose, applauded Swift's songwriting capabilities, stating that she was more of an "editor" for the songs because Swift already had such a distinct vision. 

The album's lead single, "Tim McGraw," an acoustic country ballad inspired by Swift knowing her relationship was going to end, represents an intricate part of Swift's songwriting process; meticulously picking apart her emotions to better understand them. With its follow-up, "Our Song" — which spent six consecutive weeks on the top of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart — she became the youngest person to solely write and sing a No. 1 country single; she also became the first female solo artist in country music to write or co-write every song on an album. 

Although Swift's eponymous debut is underappreciated now — even lacking its own set on Swift's Eras TourTaylor Swift's forthcoming rerecording is arguably the most anticipated by fans, who are eager to hear the songs with the singer's current and more refined vocals. Still, for fans who haven't properly explored Taylor Swift, it's easy to tie together Swift's earlier work to her current discography. 

On the track "A Place In This World," a song she wrote when she was just 13, Swift sings about not fitting in and trying to find her path. While her songwriting has developed and matured, feeling like an outsider and carving her own path is a theme she still writes about now, as seen on Midnights' "You're On Your Own, Kid." 

Even as a new country artist, critics claimed that she "mastered" the genre while subsequently ushering it to a new era — one that would soon see Swift dabble in country-pop. 

Fearless: Creating A Different Kind Of Fairytale

If Taylor Swift was the soundtrack to navigating the early stages of teenhood, Fearless is Swift's coming-of-age record. More than its predecessor, Fearless blurs the line between country and pop thanks to crossover hits like "Love Story" and "You Belong With Me," yet still keeps the confessional attributes known in country songwriting. 

Most of Fearless is Swift coming to terms with what she believed love to be. On the album's liner notes, Swift says Fearless is about "living in spite" of the things that scare you, like falling in love again despite being hurt before or walking away and letting go. The 2008 version of Taylor wanted to "believe in love stories and prince charmings and happily ever after," whereas in Swift's Fearless (Taylor's Version) liner notes, she looks back on the album as a diary where she was learning "tiny lessons" every time there was a "new crack in the facade of the fairytale ending she'd been shown in the movies." 

Much of Fearless also sees Swift being reflective and nostalgic about adolescence, like in "Never Grow Up" and "Fifteen." Still wistful and romantic, the album explores Swift's hopes for love, as heard in the album's lead single "Love Story," which was one instance where she was "dramatizing" observations instead of actually experiencing them herself. 

Unlike the slow-burn of Taylor Swift, Fearless went straight to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and stayed there for eight consecutive weeks. It won Swift's first Album Of The Year GRAMMY in 2010, at the time making her the youngest person to win the accolade at age 20. To date, it has sold 7.2 million copies in America alone. It might not be the romantic tale Swift dreamed of growing up, but her sophomore album signalled that bigger things were to come.

Speak Now: Proving Her Songwriting Prowess

Everything that happened after the success of Fearless pushed Swift from country music's best-kept secret to a mainstream star. But this meant that she faced more publicity and criticism, from naysayers who nitpicked her songwriting and vocals to the infamous Kanye West incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.

For the first time since becoming an artist, she was forced to reckon with the concept of celebrity and how turning into one — whether she wanted it or not — informed her own writing and perception of herself. No longer was she the girl writing songs like "Fifteen" in her bedroom — now she was working through becoming a highly publicized figure. Speak Now is the answer to those growing pains. 

Along with having more eyes on her, Swift also felt pressured to maintain her persona as a perfect young female role model amid a time when her peers like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato were attempting to rebrand to be more mature and sexier. During her NYU commencement speech in 2022, she reflected on this era of her life as one of intense fear that she could make a mistake and face lasting consequences, so the songs were masked in metaphors rather than directly addressing adult themes in her music. But that also resulted in some of her most poignant lyrics to date.

Read More: For The Record: How Taylor Swift's 'Speak Now' Changed Her Career — And Proved She'll Always Get The Last Word

Writing the entire album herself, Swift used Speak Now to prove her songwriting prowess to those who questioned her capabilities. Much like her previous two albums, Swift included songs that were both inspired by her own life and being a fly on the wall. The album's title track pulled from the saying, "Speak now or forever hold your peace," inspired by a friend's ex-boyfriend getting engaged; meanwhile, "Mean" was everything Swift wanted to say to a critic who was continuously harsh about her vocals.

Retrospective and reflective, Speak Now is an album about the speeches she could've, would've and should've said. From addressing the aforementioned VMA incident in the forgiving "Innocent" to a toxic relationship in "Dear John," Speak Now also hinted that her rose-colored glasses were cracked, but Swift (and her songwriting) was only becoming stronger because of it.

Red: Coming Into Her Own

Highly regarded as Swift's magnum opus, Red sees the singer shed the fairytale dresses and the girl-next-door persona to craft a body of work that has now been deemed as her first "adult" record. On Red, Swift focused on emotions evoked from a hot-and-cold relationship, one that forced her to experience "intense love, intense frustration, jealousy and confusion" — all feelings that she'd describe as "red." 

Unlike most of her previous writing that had been inspired by happy endings and fairytales, Red explores the lingering pain and loss that can embed itself within despite trying your hardest to let go. In her liner notes, she references Pablo Neruda's poem "Tonight I Can Write," stating that "Love is so short, forgetting is so long" is the overarching theme for the album. She plays with time — speeding it up in "Starlight," dabbling in the past in "All Too Well," and reframing it in "State of Grace" — to better understand her experiences. 

After releasing country-pop records, Red toed the line between genres more than ever before. Swift leaned further into the full pop territory by working with esteemed producers Max Martin and Shellback for the dubstep-leaning track "I Knew You Were Trouble," the punchy lead single "We Are Never Getting Back Together," and the bouncy anthem "22." But even when the pop power players weren't involved, her country stylings still leaned more pop across the album, as further evidenced with the racing deep cut "Holy Ground" and the echoing title track. 

The slight change of direction became polarizing for critics and fans alike. Following the more country-influenced Speak Now, some critics and fans found the pop songs on Red were too pop and the lyrics were too repetitive, possibly indicating that she might be selling out. If that wasn't enough, Red became an era where Swift's personal life went from speculation to tabloid fodder, with misogynistic headlines and diluting her work to just "writing about her exes." It's an era that would eventually inspire many tracks on Red's successor, 1989, like "Blank Space" and "Shake It Off."

Commercially, Red debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold 1.2 million copies in its first week, becoming the fastest-selling country album and making Swift the first female artist to have three consecutive albums spend six or more weeks at the top of the chart. The impact of Red extended beyond its own success, too. Often mentioned as a record that inspired a generation of artists from Troye Sivan to Conan Gray, Swift's confessional, soul-bearing authenticity set a new standard for straightforward pop music. 

1989: Reinventing Into A Pop Genius

The night Red lost the GRAMMY for Album Of The Year in 2014, Swift decided that her next album would be a full-on pop record. After years of identifying as a country artist and flirting with pop, Swift departed her roots to reinvent herself, no matter what her then-label or critics had to say. And in true Swiftian fashion, turning into a pop artist didn't just prove her genre-shapeshifting capabilities — it further solidified her as an artist who is at her best when she freely creates to her desires and refuses to adhere to anyone.

1989 was lauded by critics for its infectious synth-pop that was reminiscent of the 1980s, yet still had a contemporary sound. Swift opted to lean more into radio-friendly hits, which resulted in songs like "Style," "Wildest Dreams," "Blank Space," and "Shake It Off," all of which became singles. And where some might trade a hit or two at the expense of their artistic integrity, Swift didn't falter — instead, her lyrics were just as heartfelt and intimate as they were on prior albums.

After exploring pop-leaning sonics she first found with Red, Swift worked with Martin and Shellback again on most of 1989. This reinvention brought new (and very important) collaborators as well. Swift's now-frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff credits her as the first person to take a chance on him as a producer with "I Wish You Would" and "Out Of The Woods"; both tracks exemplified how future Antonoff-produced songs would sound on albums like reputation, Lover and Midnights.

At the time, 1989 became Swift's best-selling album to date. It sold nearly 1.3 million copies within release week in the U.S., debuting atop the Billboard 200 and reigning for 11 non-consecutive weeks. The album also earned Swift several awards — including her second Album Of The Year GRAMMY, which made her the first female artist to ever win the award twice. 

Following the release of 1989, Swift became a cultural juggernaut, and the album has had an omnipresence in music since. Swift didn't just normalize blending genres, but proved that you can create a sound that is uniquely yours by doing so. In turn, Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and more pop stars have refused to conform or stick to what they've done prior. 

reputation: Killing The Old Taylor

For years, Swift was on a strict two-year cycle — she'd release an album one year, tour the next, and then release a new album the following year. But following the heightened scrutiny and highly publicized tabloid drama that followed the end of the 1989 era, Swift completely disappeared for a year. She stayed away from public appearances, didn't do any press, and missed the album schedule fans became accustomed to. It wasn't until summer 2017 when she returned from her media (and social media) blackout to unveil the fitting title for her new album: reputation.

Born as a response to the naysayers and name-callers, reputation follows Swift shedding her public image — which includes the pressure to be perfect, the drama, and the criticism — by declaring, "There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation." Leaning on the same tongue-in-cheek songwriting techniques she used while penning "Blank Space," Swift wrote from the mindset of how the public perceived her.

When Swift released the lead single "Look What You Made Me Do," a song she initially wrote as a poem about not trusting specific people, many assumed the album would center on vengeance and drama. Although Swift said that the album has its vindictive moments — even declaring that the "old Taylor" is dead on the bridge of "Look What You Made Me Do" — it's a vulnerable record for her. Swift described reputation as a bait-and-switch; at their core, the songs are about finding love in the darkest moments. 

Swift still remained in the pop lane with reputation, largely leaning on Antonoff and the Martin/Shellback team. The sound almost mirrored the scrutiny Swift faced in the years prior — booming electropop beats, maximalist production and pulsing synthesizers dominate, particularly on "End Game," "I Did Something Bad," and "Ready For It…?" But the "old Taylor" isn't entirely gone on songs like "Call It What You Want," "So It Goes…" and "New Year's Day," where she lets her guard down to write earnest love odes.

Even after Swift spent some time away from the spotlight, the public didn't immediately gravitate toward her return. And even despite matching the 1.2 million first-week sales of her previous releases, some concluded that the album was her first commercial failure when compared to 1989. With time, though, it became clear that the response to reputation became muddled with the public's overall perception of her at the time — some even claimed that Swift was ahead of her time with the album's overall sound.

For her 2023 TIME Person of the Year profile, Swift described reputation as a "goth-punk moment of female rage at being gaslit by an entire social structure." For years, she felt the pressure to be "America's Sweetheart" and to never step out of line. Writing reputation became a lifeline following the events that catalyzed it  — a way to shed the so-called snakeskin and make peace with however the public wanted to view her. 

Lover: Stepping Into The Daylight

After finding love amongst chaos with reputation, Swift was learning to deal with the anxiety and fear of losing her partner — became a major theme of another aptly titled album, Lover. Both sonically and visually, Lover was a complete change from reputation. After touring reputation, Swift found that her fans saw her as "a flesh-and-blood human being," inspiring her to be "brave enough to be vulnerable" because her fans were along with her. Stepping away from the dark and antagonistic themes around reputation encouraged Swift to step into the light and be playful with her work on Lover.

Swift also found a new sense of creativity within this new mindset, one where she aimed to still embed playful themes in her songwriting but with less snark than that of "Blank Space" and "Look What You Made Me Do." Leaning into Lover being a "love letter to love," Swift explored every aspect of it. Tracks like "Paper Rings" and "London Boy" exude a whimsical energy, even if they center on more serious themes like marriage and commitment. Other songs, including "Death By A Thousand Cuts" and "Cornelia Street," are Swift at her most vulnerable, reflecting on a love lost and grappling with the extreme worry that comes when you could potentially lose someone. 

Looking at Lover retrospectively, it's an album that almost symbolizes a bookend in her discography. She was playful yet poignant, picking apart her past lyrics and feelings and looking at them with the perspective of someone who was once on top of the world, hit rock bottom, and survived in spite of it. This evolution is mentioned throughout Lover, particularly in a direct callback to 2012's Red, "Daylight," which sees her describe her love as "golden" rather than "burning red." 

Lover also marked the first time Swift divulged into politics and societal issues, like campaigning against Donald Trump, releasing the Pride-infused "You Need To Calm Down," and feeling disillusioned by the political climate with "Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince." Swift's documentary Miss Americana explores this change further, discussing how she regrets not being vocal about politics and issues prior, in addition to opening up about her body image issues and mental health struggles.

Lover became Swift's sixth No. 1 album in America, making her the first female artist to achieve the feat. But Lover was more than any accolades could reflect — it was Swift's transitional album in many ways, notably marking the first album that she owned entirely herself following leaving Big Machine Records for Republic Records in 2018.

folklore: Looking Beyond Her Personal Stories

After the pandemic started and Swift cancelled her Lover Fest, she spent the early stages of quarantine reading and watching a myriad of films. Without exactly setting out to create an album, she began dreaming of fictional stories and characters with various narrative arcs, allowing her imagination to run free. The result became folklore, 2020's surprise archetypal quarantine album.

Crafting a world with characters like the folklore love triangle between those in "betty" and "august," as well as Rebekah Harkness from "the last great american dynasty" (who once lived in Swift's Rhode Island mansion), was Swift's way of venturing outside her typical autobiographical style of writing. She'd see visceral images in her mind — from battleships to tree swings to mirrored disco balls — and turned them into stories, sometimes weaving in her own personal narrative throughout, or taking on a narrator role and speaking from the perspective of someone she had never met. 

She worked remotely with two producers — again working with her right-hand man Jack Antonoff, and first-time collaborator Aaron Dessner from The National. Some songs, like "peace," were recorded in just one take, capturing the essence and fragility in the song's story, whereas the lyrics for the sun-drenched "august" were penned on the spot as Swift was in her makeshift home studio in Los Angeles.

Another aspect that separated folklore from her previous work was the obvious decision not to create hits made for radio play, so much so that Dessner claimed that she made an anti-pop record at a time when radio wanted clear "bops." Sonically, it ventured into genres Swift hadn't explored much outside of a few folkier tracks on Lover. Rather than relying on mostly electronic elements, Swift, Antonoff and Dessner weaved in soft pianos, ethereal strings, and plucky guitars.

folklore's impact on the zeitgeist at a time where everyone was stuck at home helped shape people's quarantine experience. Fans rejoiced at having songs to comfort them during difficult times, and artists like Maya Hawke, Gracie Abrams, and Sabrina Carpenter credit folklore for inspiring them to create and be even more emotionally honest in their songwriting. After its release, folklore became the best-selling album of 2020 after selling 1.2 million records. At the 2021 GRAMMYs, folklore took home Album Of The Year, making her the fourth artist in history to win three times in the Category. 

evermore: Embracing Experimentation

It was exciting enough for Swifties to experience one surprise album drop from Swift, an artist who typically has an entire album campaign calculated. So when evermore was released just six months after folklore, fans were in shock. 

Like its (literally) folklorian sister, evermore was a surprise release at the end of 2020, marking the first time Swift didn't have distinct "eras" between albums. She felt like there was something "different" with folklore, stating in a social media post that making it was less like she was "departing" and more like she was "returning" to the next stage of her discography. In turn, the album served as a similar escape for Swift as folklore did.

Bridging together the same wistful and nostalgic themes as heard on its predecessor, evermore sees Swift venture even further into escapism. She explores more stories and characters, some based in fiction like "dorothea," and some real, like "marjorie," written in dedication to Swift's grandmother. 

Evermore follows folklore's inclusion of natural imagery and motifs, like landscapes, skies, ivy, and celestial elements. In contrast to the fairytale motifs and happy endings of Fearless, evermore saw Swift become fixated on "unhappy" endings — stories of failed marriages ("happiness"), lifeless relationships ("tolerate it"), and one-time flings ("'tis the damn season"). 

Sonically, evermore is a slight departure from its sister record; where folklore relies on more alt-leaning and indie-tinged sounds, evermore takes the sonics from all of Swift's past records — from pop to country to indie rock — and features all of them on one album. Country songs like "cowboy like me" and "no body, no crime" reaches back to Swift's earlier work in narrative building, seamlessly crafting a three-party story with ease. "Closure" is a "skittering" track that has the same energy as tracks like Lover's "I Forgot That You Existed," whereas the ballad "champagne problems" is thematically reminiscent of Swift's Speak Now track "Back To December" where she takes responsibility for her lover's heartache. 

Working mostly with Dessner on evermore, Swift was emboldened to continue creating and opted to embrace whatever came naturally to them rather than limiting themselves to a sound. Swift felt a "quiet conclusion" after finishing up evermore, describing that it was more about grappling with endings of all "sizes and shapes," and the record represented a chapter closing. Even so, its poetic lyricism and mystical storytelling cleverly foreshadowed what was to come with subsequent albums, particularly The Tortured Poets Department.

Midnights: Encapsulating Her Artistic Magic

After coming out of the folklorian woods following folklore and evermore, fans and critics alike were intrigued to see what direction Swift would take on her next studio album. On Midnights, Swift leaves behind indie folk sounds and returns to the pop production of 1989 and Lover.

Her most conceptual album to date, Midnights charts 13 sleepless nights and explores five themes, from self-hatred and revenge to "what if" fantasies, falling in love, and falling apart. They are the things that keep her up at night, like the self-critiquing in "Anti-Hero," her rise to fame in "You're on Your Own, Kid," and the anxiety of falling in love again in "Labyrinth." Similarly to Swift's cheeky songwriting style that sees her create caricatures of herself in songs like "Blank Space" and "Look What You Made Me Do," she doubles down on claims she's "calculated" on "Mastermind," a song about devising a plan for her and her lover. 

Although the album is a departure from the two pandemic sister albums, the overall creation process didn't differ too much. In addition to working alongside Antonoff (and bringing Dessner in for the bonus-track-filled 3am Edition), Swift's worldbuilding is still the throughline that connects Midnights and Swift's recent albums, whether she's dreaming of a Parisian escape in "Paris" or using war imagery as a metaphor for the struggle of love in "The Great War."

Read More: 5 Takeaways From Taylor Swift's New Album 'Midnights'

Following the success with folklore and evermore, Swift's intrigue was at a then-all-time high upon the release of Midnights. Along with breaking several streaming records — including becoming the first album to exceed 700 million global streams in a week — it was Swift's 11th No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200, and was the highest-selling album of 2022 (and, remarkably, the second best-selling of 2023).

To say that Swift's celebrity has become otherworldly since the release of Midnights would be an understatement. Celebrating her genre-defying and varied discography through The Eras Tour has resulted in old songs having a resurgence, new inside jokes and Easter eggs within the fandom, and a plethora of new listeners being exposed to Swift's work. 

As a result, there has arguably never been more excitement for a Taylor Swift album than for The Tortured Poets Department — especially because the announcement came on the heels of her lucky 13th GRAMMY win in February. Midnights helped further solidify Swift's larger-than-life status at the finale of the 2024 GRAMMYs, too, as she became the only artist in history to win Album Of The Year four times. 

The Tortured Poets Department: A Grief-Stricken Poetic Odyssey

It’s been a while since Swift has penned a full-fledged breakup album. On The Tortured Poets Department, she navigates the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — after her long-term relationship ended. Taking a page from the release of folklore and evermore, she dropped a double album and announced The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology at 2 a.m. on release day. Throughout a total of 31 tracks, the prolific songwriter shelved the glittery pop radio-friendly tunes in favor of more subdued, synthy and heart-wrenching songs. 

On Instagram, Swift described the album as a collection of poetic songs that reflect the "events, opinions and sentiments from a fleeting and fatalistic moment in time," Swift pulled out the fountain and quill pens to craft songs about the "tortured poets" in her life — sometimes musing about lovers, sometimes taking aim at villains, and sometimes pointing the finger at herself. 

TTPD is also her most confessional album thus far. It pokes fun at so-called fans who overstep with her personal life ("But Daddy I Love Him"), says goodbye to a city that gave her a home ("So Long London"), and muses on how her own celebrity has stunted her growth ("Who's Afraid Of Little Old Me?"). To help explain this chapter of her life, Swift brings together a myriad of collaborators — from Stevie Nicks as fellow poetess, to duets with Florence Welch and Post Malone — and leans on real and fictional characters, like Clara Bow, Peter Pan ("Peter"), and Patti Smith.

In the same post, Swift declared that once she’s confessed all of her saddest stories, she’s able to find freedom. Yet The Tortured Poets Department (and its accompanying 15-track anthology) spends much time reflecting: she toys with her own lore, self-referencing past songs from albums like 1989 and poems from her reputation era. 

Fourteen years ago, Swift declared that she would never change, but she’ll never stay the same either. The Tortured Poets Department proves that in the throughline of Taylor Swift's many artistic eras is a commitment to exploration and a love of autobiographical lyricism.

All Things Taylor Swift

Chappell Roan at Coachella 2024 Weekend 1
Chappell Roan performs during Weekend 1 of Coachella 2024.

Photo: Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

interview

Chappell Roan's Big Year: The 'Midwest Princess' Examines How She Became A Pop "Feminomenon"

Just after Chappell Roan made her festival debut at Coachella, hear from the pop starlet about some of the defining moments of her career thus far — and how it all helped earn her a spot at one of music's biggest fests.

GRAMMYs/Apr 19, 2024 - 07:49 pm

Before this year, Chappell Roan had never even been to Coachella. Now, not only can she say she's attended — she's performed in the desert, too. 

Roan played an evening set on the Gobi Stage on April 12, and is set to return for Weekend 2. Fans clad in everything from cowboy boots, Sandy Liang-inspired bows and, perhaps most importantly, jorts, gathered to celebrate their shared love of Roan's radiance, karmic kink and gay cowgirl doctrine.  

Throughout her performance, bubbles breezed through the air as Roan belted out her infectious (and aptly titled) track "Femininomenon," which speaks to lover girls forced to live in an online-dating hellscape. "Ladies, you know what I mean?/ And you know what you need and so does he/ But does it happen? No!" Following collective screams of pure joy, the already enlivened crowd roused to match Roan beat-for-beat, shouting back in perfect unison, "Well, what we really need is a femininomenon!" 

In an era of bedroom pop and sad-girl music, Roan has been hailed by both critics and fans for bringing fun back to pop music. Along with her staunch sense of self, Roan's penchant for explicit lyrics that are equally parts introspective and horny makes her dance-pop anthems all the more infectious. 

Roan's ambitiously experimental debut album, 2023's The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess, cemented her status as one of the most exciting pop stars on the rise. While she only recently landed her first single on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Good Luck, Babe!," her rapidly growing fan base — and an opening slot on Olivia Rodrigo's sold-out GUTS World Tour — indicate that she's on her way to superstardom.

Perhaps part of Roan's magic is that it was all on her own terms. After parting ways with her first label, Atlantic Records, she built a loyal following as an independent artist before signing with Island Records last year. Even as a major label artist, she's determined to only do things her way; her indefatigable commitment to her craft — as well as writing her own rules when it comes to fashion and makeup — is precisely why her fans are so enraptured by both her music and persona. 

Her fearlessness was on full display during her first Coachella set, where the words emblazoned on her bodysuit read "Eat Me." She talks the talk, and walks the walk (in fabulous, knee-high boots, of course), matching her unabashed aesthetic with equally bold career moves; for one, the openers for her headlining tour are local drag queens.

With eyeliner winged to the heavens, near-perfect vocal stability and fiery curls ablaze, Roan's shimmering Coachella Weekend 1 performance proved that her stage presence is equally dynamic. And if she had any doubters, she had one thing to say to them: "B—, I know you're watching!" 

In between rehearsals for her Coachella debut, Roan took a look back on her journey to one of music's most coveted stages. Below, hear from Roan about five of the most impactful milestones in her career — so far. 

Releasing Her Debut Album, The Rise And Fall Of A Midwest Princess

I ended up signing [with Island Records in 2023] because this project honestly got too big to be independent anymore. I just wasn't willing to give up anything, any creative control or for any amount of money. 

Being an independent artist was really special because I proved to myself that I could do all these hard things that I had never done. I built it with an entire friend group and many, many years of work. So it wasn't just me, but it proved a lot to me.

It proved I can make it through hard circumstances — with no money. You truly can. You do not need a label to do a lot of what an artist's career requires. You don't need a label to put on your own show, or make a music video, or even write a song, or find creative people. You don't need that s—t. I mean, a label is just money, you know? You don't need a lot of money to do this. To make it grow is, I think, where it takes a lot of money. That's what was difficult.

Music allows me to express anything, even things that I've never experienced before. It allows me to express queerness, even if it was only daydreams at that point. It allows me to express parts of me that I'm not even ready to accept yet.

I don't give a f— if you don't  f— with the music. You don't have to come to the concert. That's the whole point of it. You don't have to like it. I think throughout the year, I'm like, "What can I get away with?" Because right now it's pretty tame for what it is like to be a gay artist. But I just want to push it to see how far can I go — with the most controversial outfits or things to rile people up. I'm not really afraid to do that.

Having a song [like "Casual] with the lyric, "Knee deep in the passenger seat/ And you're eating me out," and it's being considered to go to radio. That's kind of a big thing to get away with. 

It's not even that big of a thing. What's that song? Is it Flo Rida? That's like, "Can you blow my whistle, baby/ whistle baby." Okay, that's obviously about like a f—ing blowjob. [Laughs.] No one cares about that. To me, I'm like, Let's talk about eating out on the radio. I actually think it has to be bleeped, but still, if I can get away with it, that's cool.

Feeling Financial Freedom & Stability

Not making money at all just sucked. But I learned how to do my own makeup and bedazzle and sew a little bit. I think that the scrappiness came from [the idea that] it's scrappy if it's fun. 

I think that's what kept me going — because if this wasn't fun, I would not even be here. But it was scrappy and fun, and it was with my friends. It didn't feel dire. I was also just working at a coffee shop, and I was a nanny, and I was working at a donut shop. I was doing part time jobs all on the side too. So it was all just rough [in the beginning].

I have freedom because now [singing] is my full-time job. It provides for me now. As the project grows, I can do bigger shows and be like, I want outfit changes now, and I want more lights, and I want confetti. I can afford confetti now! 

It's about expanding the universe in a thoughtful way. And not just like throwing a s— ton of money at things to make things look expensive or wear all this designer s— for no reason. 

I just try to look at how we are starting to gain momentum financially and see how can I intentionally use that to, one, pay the team in a way where they're not bare bones anymore, and two, [ask ourselves] how can we honor this project and this album and the queer community? Can we pay drag queens more? Can we bring drag on the road? Now, financially, doors have opened where we can walk through them with love and intention. Just recklessly, throwing money at s— to see if it works. 

Opening Olivia Rodrigo's Arena Tour

Olivia [Rodrigo] just asked. It was official, we went through our management. But I was like, Oh my God

Preparing a 40-minute set is a different vibe than headlining, obviously. You are going out to an audience that is not there for you and doesn't necessarily care if you're there or not.

This is, like, my fourth or fifth artist I've opened for. But for an arena tour, I just needed to gather my nerves. I think that's the difference between any other show. Like, F—, there's 20,000 people out there right now. I've never performed in front of that many people. I don't know what this emotion is, and I just have to tame it right now.

Standing Up For Herself Creatively, Even When There's Pushback

I stand up for myself, I would say, every day. Sometimes, you get this opportunity, a huge opportunity with a lot of money on the table. [Yet,] I'm just like, That just doesn't make sense creatively. That doesn't align with my values. I'm not doing that. 

One huge creative decision was I stood up and pushed the entire headlining Midwest Princess tour back to the fall. The album was supposed to come out while we were on tour. I was like, "This is a horrible idea!" 

That caused a big ruckus, but it ended up being fine, and I was right. I'm usually right. [Laughs.] It's like a mother with her kid — a mother knows best. I feel like [that] when it comes to the integrity of my project.

I know how it is to not be able to afford a ticket or even f—ing food. A concert ticket, a lot of times, means multiple meals for someone. I get it, I couldn't afford some artists' tickets. That's why it's really important to me to try to keep them as low as I can and my merch as low as I can. 

There's pushback of ticket prices being low and we're playing rooms that are so expensive. The fee to even play them is so expensive. So, you have to raise the ticket prices to just even be able to afford to play the room. There's always an argument [with my team] there, every tour. I'm in control of stuff and if I'm saying this is how it's going to be —- it's just going to be that way.

Performing At Coachella For The First Time 

[After the first weekend of Coachella] I am feeling very relieved. I was so stressed about many things. How is the outfit going to work? Will the crowd really be engaged? It went so well, I have no qualms with anything. I loved every second of it.

It feels like I am partying with [my fans]. I am not performing to them; I’m performing with them. [I want people to remember] a really fun, freeing show. Very campy but very meaningful too. 

4 Ways Olivia Rodrigo's GUTS World Tour Shows A New Side Of The Pop Princess

Taylor Swift performing during her Eras Tour with a guitar
Taylor Swift performs during her Eras Tour

Photo: Don Arnold/TAS24/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

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Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department' Is A Post-Mortem Autopsy In Song: 5 Takeaways From Her New Album

"There is nothing to avenge, no scores to settle once wounds have healed," Taylor Swift wrote of her new album. From grapplings with fame to ultra-personal reflections on love lost, her latest set of fountain and quill pen songs marks the end of an era.

GRAMMYs/Apr 19, 2024 - 05:38 pm

"All’s fair in love and poetry," Taylor Swift declared when she announced her 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, at the 66th GRAMMY Awards

Taken from the proverb "All’s fair in love and war," the pop phenom gave us a fair warning: there’s no limit to what she’ll go through to achieve her ends. 

On the freshly released The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor Swift has a few things to get off her chest — so much that it required a surprise second record, The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, adding an additional 15 songs. The sprawling album is a masterclass in songwriting and so personal that it's analogous to performing a post mortem autopsy; The musical shapeshifter is here to exhume the tortured poets of her past and make peace with them. 

In an Instagram post, Swift called the record an anthology that reflects "events, opinions and sentiments from a fleeting and fatalistic moment in time - one that was both sensational and sorrowful in equal measure." With the release of Tortured Poets, "there is nothing to avenge, no scores to settle once wounds have healed…our tears become holy in the form of ink on a page." 

Describing Swift’s work as a collection of tracks about boys and break-ups has always felt underbaked and disingenuous, but much of The Tortured Poets Department is just that. In true Swiftian fashion, she plays on preconceived theories, opting to toy with the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — after a break-up, bringing listeners along on a peregrination exploring the depths of her relationships and personal growth. 

Analyzing her feelings to craft songs is muscle memory at this point, but with every release Taylor Swift somehow does so with a refreshed and reimagined perspective. The stories she shares with her fans in TTPD might’ve made her feel like she died, but she’s a revenant no longer tortured by the whims and words of other poets.

With The Tortured Poets Department open for business, read on for five key points to consider when listening to Taylor Swift’s new album.

It's Much More Than A Break-Up Record

Although the record orbits around a break-up, The Tortured Poets Department demonstrates Swift's ability to shapeshift as a songwriter. A song about a break-up is layered, typically forcing Swift to unveil her own flaws while wearing her broken heart on her sleeve.

The fifth track on a Taylor Swift album is typically the most emotionally cutting, and "So Long London" is no exception. On the standout track, Swift views the loss of her lover and the breakdown of her relationship to Joe Alwyn through the lens of the city they once shared together. It’s a cathartic release for Swift who point-blank notes the pain they inflicted upon her and how, in turn, they ended up just as heartbroken as she is. 

The high-spirited "Down Bad" and subdued "The Smallest Man in The World" are two sides of the same coin. The former is hopeful that a love could be reignited, whereas the latter sees Swift at her grittiest, pointing the finger at her former lover. "Smallest" poses a series of questions, accusing her ex of being a spy who only wanted to get intel on her.

On piano ode "loml," Swift looks back at the "get-love-quick" schemes she first wrote about in "Why She Disappeared," a poem for reputation. The poem originally considered the death of her reputation and how its aftermath made her stronger while she was simultaneously nursing a new relationship. 

The track has a similar energy to fan favorite "All Too Well," but is even more accusatory — seemingly unlocking another level of her songwriting prowess as she teeters between seething rage and mourning with lines about picking through a "braid of lies" spewed by a partner who "claimed he was a lion" but is really a coward. While Swift is honest about never feeling a loss so deeply, she maturely accepts that the effort she put into keeping the relationship afloat was all she could do. It’s distinctly different from the battles she bravely fought in "The Great War," "Daylight" and "long story short."

She's Grappling With Fame & Owning Her Choices

That Taylor Swift struggles with her own celebrity and the public's perception is nothing new. On reputation’s album prologue, she stated, "We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them they have chosen to show us." 

On The Tortured Poets Department, Swift has never been more honest about her feelings towards those who claim to know better than she does. On "But Daddy I Love Him," she doubles down on these frustrations, taking aim at self-righteous "vipers" and "judgmental creeps" who condemn her choice of a lover. Swift holds nothing back, declaring "I'll tell you something about my good name/It's mine alone to disgrace."

Swift stated that her life sometimes feels like a public autopsy with people psychoanalyzing her every thought and feeling. Following the release of Midnights and her larger-than-life Eras Tour, Swift’s been in her "glittering prime" despite experiencing her long-term relationship ending and the media hysteria around it would make anyone feel the opposite. "I Can Do It With A Broken Heart" confirms fans' theories that the GRAMMY winner was indeed putting on a brave face.  

On "Clara Bow" — a song named for the silent film actress whose public life was so scrutinized that she admitted herself into a sanatorium — Swift sings "Beauty is a beast that roars/Down on all fours/Demanding, 'More.'" Again, Swift plays with the double-edged sword of fame, comparing herself to a performing circus animal — something she sings about in "Who’s Afraid Of Little Old Me?" 

Taylor Swift Gets By With A Little Help From Her Friends

Swift has always looked up to and honored the greats in her music and art, and Tortured Poets is no exception. She recruits rock icon and songwriter Stevie Nicks to help build TTPD’s world, and Nicks penned a poem featured in Swift’s physical album. Written in Texas, the poem is "For T and me..." and tells the tale of two ill-fated lovers. (Swift also namedrops Nicks in "Clara Bow," touching on the comparisons made between Clara, Nicks and herself.)

There are two additional guest appearances on TTPD: Post Malone appears on "Fortnight" and Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine is featured on "Florida!!!" (a surprisingly toned-down lead single). Swift particularly shines when paired with Welch, and the soaring "Florida!!!" sees their intertwined vocals creating a sound as infectious as the "drug" they sing about.

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan inspired Swift on "cardigan" ("Tried to change the ending/Peter losing Wendy") but now the Lost Boy gets his own track on The Anthology’s "Peter." The ever-inquisitive Swift pleads, "You said you were gonna grow up/Then you were gonna come find me" and confronts this man who wouldn’t grow up. She even puts herself in the shoes of Wendy who waited for Peter Pan to return but has grown tired of waiting.

TTPS Is All Quill And Fountain Pen Songs

A few years ago, Taylor Swift categorized her songwriting according to three writing devices: glitter gel pens for fun tracks, fountain pens for songs using modern imagery and lyrics, and quill pens for tracks with flowery, figurative language. Although devoid of the glittery gel pen songs that comprise many of Swift's hits, TTPD and its accompanying anthology are steeped in fountain and quill writing. 

Most of The Tortured Poets Department are fountain pen tracks — thanks to 2024 Producer Of The Year Jack Antonoff’s sleek pop production and synth use. Tracks like "Fresh Out The Slammer" and "My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys" are sharp, snappy, tongue-in-cheek tales of love affairs about to begin and coming to an end with the same sonic exuberance of past Swift & Antonoff songs, like "Out of the Woods" and "Getaway Car."

Tracks on The Anthology, mostly produced by Aaron Dessner, are stripped-back, folk-tinged quill songs brimming with sorrow and harrowing thematics and dives even deeper into her chaotic psyche. "The Prophecy" sees Swift beg to change a prophecy that has been laid out ahead of her — likely stemming from the pressure of being a global superstar when all she wants is to be loved.

This Is The End Of An Era (Or A Chapter)

To her occasional disdain, Swift's highly personal songwriting has created a global obsession with her inner life.  Although she's tired of the "public autopsy," Tortured Poets offers her time to reflect on the "events, opinions, and sentiments" over a time that was equal parts transient and transformative. 

From her growth from the country-twanged teen singer on her self-titled debut to woman who is fearless in her pursuit of happiness, love, and peace, Swift has transformed time and time again. By viewing her work in eras — or, in this case, a chapter in a book of her life — it’s clear that Swift sees this current chapter of her life coming to a close, turning the last page and no longer longing to look back. 

One could argue that Swift is an unreliable narrator, only ever presenting her side of the story. But she says that while considering the pain described on TTPS, many now-healed wounds turned out to be self-inflicted. With these stories immortalized, Taylor Swift has spoken her saddest story and is now "free of it." The tortured poets and poems will no longer take up space in this next chapter of her life.

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