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Taylor Swift's Road To 'Folklore': How The Superstar Evolved From 'Diaristic' Country Tunes To Her Most Progressive Music Yet

Taylor Swift

 

Photo Courtesy Of Taylor Swift

 

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Taylor Swift's Road To 'Folklore': How The Superstar Evolved From 'Diaristic' Country Tunes To Her Most Progressive Music Yet

With her enchanting eighth album, 'folklore,' Taylor Swift celebrates five GRAMMY nominations and a praiseworthy return to what she does best: storytelling

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2021 - 10:56 pm

For Women's History Month 2021, GRAMMY.com is celebrating some of the women artists nominated at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show. Today, we honor Taylor Swift, who's currently nominated for six GRAMMYs.

When we met Taylor Swift in 2006, it was immediately apparent that her songwriting approach was like ripping a page out of her diary.

"Just a boy in a Chevy truck/ That had a tendency of gettin' stuck/ On backroads at night/ And I was right there beside him all summer long/ And then the time we woke up to find that summer gone," she lamented in the first verse of her debut single, "Tim McGraw." The way the then-16-year-old Swift could turn personal anecdotes into instantly memorable hooks mirrored the prowess of an industry veteran, appealing to more than just the teenage girls that could relate to a short-lived high school romance.

Now, nearly 15 years later, Swift has introduced another layer of intrigue with a foray into indie folk, unveiling a pair of albums, folklore and evermore, last year. Recorded entirely in isolation after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, folklore has been widely acclaimed as Swift's best album, touted for its intimate songwriting and cinematic dynamics; evermore has received similarly glowing reviews.

folklore was 2020's best-selling album and earned Swift five GRAMMY nominations at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show, including her fourth Album Of The Year nod. (evermore will be eligible for the 64th GRAMMY Awards in 2022.) As her 10 previous GRAMMY wins suggest, though, this new chapter isn't an abrupt departure for the star—it's a masterful continuation of her evolution as a singer/songwriter.

If there's one thing that Swift has proven throughout her career, it's that she refuses to be put in a box. Her ever-evolving sound took her from country darling to pop phenom to folk's newest raconteur—a transition that, on paper, seems arduous. But for Swift, it was seamless and resulted in perhaps her most defining work yet. And folklore’s radiance relies on three of Swift’s songwriting tools: heartfelt balladeering, autobiographical writing, and character-driven storytelling.

While there was always a crossover element to Swift's pop-leaning country tunes, her transition from country starlet to pop queen began with Red. The album’s lead single, the feisty breakup anthem "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," was Swift's first release to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and, ironically, scoffed "indie records much cooler than mine"). She declared a full pop makeover with 2014's 1989, but the response proved that her bold move was the right one: Along with spawning three more No. 1 hits, the project won Swift her second GRAMMY for Album of the Year.

From there, 2017’s Reputation, a response to media scrutiny, and 2019’s Lover, an often bubbly exploration of all facets of affection, followed. Although they shared similarly grandiose production, Lover featured a handful of poetic ballads, including "The Archer," a self-reflective love song that teased Swift's folk sensibilities through storybook lyrics and ambient textures. 

Swift’s ballads are key in understanding the full essence of folklore. They’ve regularly marked standout moments on each of her albums, both thanks to her poignant vulnerability and rich tone. Fearless standout "White Horse" earned Swift two GRAMMYs in 2009; Red's painstaking "All Too Well" was an instant fan favorite; 1989's "This Love" and Reputation's "New Years Day" provided tenderness amid otherwise synth-heavy sounds.

The raw emotion she puts into her downtempo songs comes alive on folklore, introducing a new wave of neo-classical sonics that elevate her fanciful penmanship to an ethereal level. Whether or not Swifties saw a full indie-pop record coming—at least not yet—the shift isn't all that surprising. Folklore’s romanticized lyrics and relatively lo-fi production are arguably what many fans have been patiently waiting on.

Lyrically, the super-personal nature of Swift’s music has always captivated fans and naysayers alike; diehards and critics dissected each of her albums for its real-life subjects and hidden meanings. While she played into those conspiracies at the time—whether she was revealing names in titles like "Hey Stephen" and "Dear John" or scathing the other girl on "Better Than Revenge"—even Swift herself admits that her teenage method had an expiration date. 

"There was a point that I got to as a writer who only wrote very diaristic songs that [it] felt unsustainable for my future moving forward," she told Apple Music's Zane Lowe in December of 2020. "It felt like too hot of a microscope ... On my bad days, I would feel like I was loading a cannon of clickbait when that's not what I want for my life."

That realization is what helped make folklore so memorable: Swift stripped away the drama to let her artful storytelling shine. Sure, there are occasional callbacks to personal happenings ("invisible string" references sending her exes baby gifts and "mad woman" alludes to her legal battle with Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun). Still, she largely shies away from her autobiographical narratives to make way for her imagination.

"I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I've never met, people I've known, or those I wish I hadn't," Swift wrote in a letter to fans on social media the day folklore arrived. "The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible."

folklore might be her first full project dedicated to creating characters and projecting storylines, but Swift has shown a knack for fantasy from the start. Tracks like "Mary's Song (Oh My My)" on her self-titled debut and "Starlight" on Red saw Swift craft stories for real-life muses ("Mary's Song" was inspired by an old couple who lived next door to Swift in her childhood; "Starlight" was sparked from seeing a picture of Ethel and Bobby Kennedy as teens). Even when songs did pertain to her real life, Swift often had a way of flipping memories into whimsical metaphors, like the clever clap-back to a critic on Speak Now's "Mean" or the rebound relationship in Reputation's "Getaway Car."

To think that we wouldn't have folklore without a pandemic is almost surreal; it's already become such a fundamental piece of Swift’s artistic puzzle. There was no telling what may have come after the glittering "love letter to love itself” that was Lover, but it seems isolation made the singer rethink any plans she may have had. 

"I just thought there are no rules anymore because I used to put all these parameters on myself, like, 'How will this song sound in a stadium? How will this song sound on radio?' If you take away all the parameters, what do you make?" she told Paul McCartney in a November Rolling Stone interview. "And I guess the answer is folklore."

Even if she hasn’t been making indie music herself, Swift has shown an affinity for the genre over the years through curated digital playlists. Those included four songs by The National including "Dark Side of the Gym," which she references on folklore single "betty," and "8 (Circle)" by Bon Iver, Swift's collaborator on folklore's gut-wrenching "exile" as well as evermore’s title track. (“Exile” is one of folklore’s GRAMMY-nominated cuts, up for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.)

The National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner co-wrote nine and produced 11 of folklore's 16 tracks, soundtracking Swift's imaginative tales with sweeping orchestration and delicate piano. Their partnership started with "cardigan," a melancholy take on teenage love that's up for Best Pop Solo Performance and the coveted Song of the Year. The team-up was a dream come true for Swift, a self-proclaimed National superfan and a career highlight for Dessner, who shared in an Instagram post about folklore that he's "rarely been so inspired by someone." He sees the album as a pivotal moment for both Swift's career and pop music.

"Taylor has opened the door for artists to not feel pressure to have 'the bop,'" Dessner shared with Billboard in September. "To make the record that she made, while running against what is programmed in radio at the highest levels of pop music—she has kind of made an anti-pop record. And to have it be one of the most, if not the most, successful commercial releases of the year that throws the playbook out.

"I hope it gives other artists, especially lesser-known or more independent artists, a chance at the mainstream," he continued. "Maybe radio will realize that music doesn't have to sound as pushed as it has. Nobody was trying to design anything to be a hit. Obviously, Taylor has the privilege of already having a very large and dedicated audience, but I do feel like it's having a resonance beyond that."

Swift's other primary folklore collaborator was Jack Antonoff. He has been her right-hand man since they first paired up on 2013's promotional single "Sweeter Than Fiction" (Swift referred to him as "musical family" in her folklore announcement). Even after years of creating stadium-ready pop smashes, Antonoff said in his own folklore Instagram post, "I've never heard Taylor sing better in my life / write better."

As Swift recognizes herself, folklore ushered in a new way of thinking for the superstar that not only brings out her best, but sets a promising precedent for what's to come. "What I felt after we put out folklore was, 'Oh wow, people are into this too, this thing that feels really good for my life and my creativity,'" Swift added in her interview with Lowe. "I saw a lane for my future that was a real breakthrough moment of excitement and happiness."

Her enthusiasm is tangible on both folklore and evermore. Dubbed folklore’s sister record, evermore further expands Swift’s newfound mystical atmosphere. Much to the delight of many Swifties, the follow-up also calls back to her country beginnings on tracks like the HAIM-assisted “no body, no crime,” as well as her pop expertise on more uptempo cuts like “long story short.”

Together, the albums are a momentous reminder that Swift is a singer/songwriter first. Her wordcraft is some of the most alluring of her generation, and that’s never been lost on her music, regardless of the genre she’s exploring. But now that Swift also feels she's at her best, it’s evident folklore was just the beginning of Taylor Swift in her finest form.

Explore This Year's Album Of The Year Nominees | 2021 GRAMMYs

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

Mumu Fresh On What She Learned From Working With The Roots, Rhyming & More

FYI/TMI: Are Taylor Swift And Ed Sheeran Getting Together?
Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

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FYI/TMI: Are Taylor Swift And Ed Sheeran Getting Together?

Rumors surface that the two are in a red-hot relationship; Sony/ATV Music Publishing named top publisher of fourth quarter in 2012

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(In an effort to keep you fully informed, and fully entertained, below we present today's FYI and TMI — news you need and news that's, well, sometimes needless….)

FYI …

Sony/ATV Claims Top Publisher In Q4 2012
Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which in June 2012 acquired administration of EMI Music Publishing, was the top publisher in the fourth quarter of 2012 based on its 25.8 percent share of the top 100 songs during the period, according to figures released by Nielsen BDS. No. 2 was Kobalt Music Group (16.5 percent share), followed by Universal Music Publishing Group (15.9 percent share), Warner/Chappell Music (14.2 percent share), and BMG Chrysalis (5.3 percent share).

TMI …

Swift Getting Together With Sheeran?
Taylor Swift may never be getting back together with a few people — like, ever — but that isn't stopping her from joining "The A Team." According to a report, Swift and GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran were reportedly seen together at a hotel in late February. Adding more red-hot fuel to the fire, Sheeran collaborated with Swift on her latest album, Red, the name of which is also a tattoo on Sheeran's left arm. Since Swift and Sheeran supposedly dated briefly last spring, maybe they are, like, getting back together.

Bruno Mars Wins Song Of The Year | 2018 GRAMMYs

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Bruno Mars Wins Song Of The Year | 2018 GRAMMYs

The Hawaiian native takes home Song Of The Year for "That's What I Like" at the 60th GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 08:11 am

Feeling the 24K Magic, Bruno Mars' successful progress through the categories he's been nominated in at the 60th GRAMMY Awards picked up another one at Song Of The Year for "That's What I Like."


Christopher Brody Brown and Philip Lawrence co-write with Mars under the name Shampoo Press & Curl. The other winning songwriters for Mars' hit tonight in this category are James Fauntleroy and production team "The Sterotypes" — Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus and  Jonathan Yip.

For additional "Finesse" on stage at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, Mars was joined by Cardi B for a reprise of their 148-million-views hit remix.

The Album Of The Year GRAMMY Award wrapped up the night and wrapped up Bruno Mars' complete rampage through his six nominated categories — now six wins.

Attention Music Fans: Take The GRAMMY Challenge NOW On KIK And Facebook Messenger

Taylor Swift Plots 2020 World Tour With U.S. Dates For Lover Fest East & West

Taylor Swift

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/VMN19/Getty Images

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Taylor Swift Plots 2020 World Tour With U.S. Dates For Lover Fest East & West

Following dates in Europe and South America, Swift will land in the U.S. for Lover Fest East and West, where the pop star will open Los Angeles' brand new stadium

GRAMMYs/Sep 18, 2019 - 02:38 am

Taylor Swift  will be spreading the love in support of her hit album Lover.in 2020, but it may or may not be in a city near you. The GRAMMY winner announced plans for her summer 2020 tour in support of her seventh studio album, including two shows each in Foxborough, Mass. and Los Angeles for Lover Fest East and West respectively as the only four U.S. dates announced so far.

The tour kicks off in Belgium on June 20 and hits festivals in seven European countries before heading to Sao Paulo, Brazil on July 18 then heading to U.S. Swift will then present Lover Fest West with back-to-back Los Angeles July 25 and 26 at the newly named SoFi Stadium. The concerts will serve as the grand opening of the much-anticipated NFL venue. The tour will wrap a double header at Gillette Stadiuim in Foxborough July 31 and Aug 1

"The Lover album is open fields, sunsets, + SUMMER. I want to perform it in a way that feels authentic," she tweeted. "I want to go to some places I haven’t been and play festivals. Where we didn’t have festivals, we made some. Introducing, Lover Fest East + West!" 

Lover was released Aug. 23 and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Her sold-out tour for her previous album, 2017's Reputation, was the highest grossing U.S. tour ever, breaking her own record.

Tickets for the new dates go on sale to the general public via Ticketmaster on Oct. 17.