Aaron Dessner opens up his collaborations and friendship with Taylor Swift as she covers PEOPLE's 2023 Most Intriguing People of the Year issue
After seven country and pop albums, Taylor Swift embraced a folkier era in 2020 with the help of Aaron Dessner, a founding member of indie rock band The National. With the releases of Folklore and Evermore, Swift found an enlightening producer and songwriting partner in Dessner, 47, expanding her sound and lyrical universe to critical acclaim and commercial success. Now, in honor of Swift, 33, gracing the cover of PEOPLE's 2023 Most Intriguing People of the Year issue, Dessner dives deep on their friendship, future, and Swift's passion for baking.
What do you admire most about Taylor's artistry and songwriting?
I think Taylor is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. The poetic and literary bent of her lyricism, where songs often have elaborately woven narratives and hidden meanings that connect to her earlier or future work, what her fans call "easter eggs," helps to create an entire artistic world that we all get to inhabit and obsess over as her fans. I love the sense of belonging that this creates in Taylor's music, where joy, overcoming adversity, shattering patriarchal structures and celebrating diversity are so prevalent as themes. She is an absolute genius and thankfully also a truly wonderful human being.
Do you have any memories from the studio or a writing session that stick out to you as an example of just why Taylor is so good at her craft?
There are so many stories I could share. When I sent Taylor the music for our song "Willow" — I think she wrote the entire song from start to finish in less than 10 minutes and sent it back to me. It was like an earthquake. Then Taylor said, "I guess we are making another album."
You met back in 2014, but you have said that 1989 was the first album you really listened to as a fan. What about it drew you in?
I think 1989 is a perfect pop record and I used to have so much fun blasting it. I was drawn in by hearing "Blank Space" on the radio and just feeling like it was an impossibly perfect pop song. Once I heard the entire record I remember just sensing that Taylor was some kind of incredibly rare unicorn of a singer and songwriter.
Are there any anecdotes that come to mind that speak to Taylor's work ethic, and how she's able to balance everything from re-records to concerts to award shows to her daily life?
Taylor is the hardest working artist I've ever encountered. She is involved in every aspect of writing and producing her songs and has an incredible attention span and focus on detail. And she never really stops writing songs. The world has seen her play 44 songs a night on tour now, performing for over three hours. She makes it look easy but it's really a feat of incredible endurance. It's hard to think of an example of someone who matches that kind of output, except maybe Bruce Springsteen, but he doesn't have to cover as much ground as Taylor does up there.
Similarly, I've spent a lot of time with her and I've never seen anyone wait on her. When I have stayed at her house, Taylor herself was cooking everyone breakfast and dinner. She's legitimately just a very down to earth and hardworking person.
When you wrote Folklore and Evermore, it was peak pandemic and the world was different. What's it like for you now to see those albums that were written in solitude performed for tens of thousands of people?
It was quite surreal to be honest. When Taylor first texted me about writing remotely with her during the pandemic, I almost didn't believe it was her at first. And then as we were working on Folklore, we had almost no outside interaction with anyone on her team or label, much less the outside world of her millions and millions of fans.
Taylor never made me feel any of the shadow of her previous work or success. There was no pressure at all. It was as though we were just making an album for ourselves and passing time during the pandemic. It felt like we were on our own private artistic life raft, just making songs to soothe our souls and get through such an uncertain and difficult time.
When the album was finally shared with the world, and that feeling became something shared cathartically with millions and millions of people around the world, it was really something I will never forget. We were on FaceTime at midnight on the night Folklore came out and the first reviews and responses started coming in and it was really one of the most exhilarating, life-affirming feelings I have ever had. The fragile songs we had made remotely during lockdown were suddenly becoming part of the fabric of so many people's lives.
You joined her onstage for a few Eras Tour stops. What was it like backstage for you?
It's really hard to describe what it feel like to be raised up on a hydraulic into a stadium of 80,000 fans who have already been experiencing the best concert they have ever seen for two and a half hours, as I would join Taylor onstage towards the end of the show. But Taylor was so generous in her introductions and it's really such a special moment for us to be able to play some of these songs acoustically for her fans. It's hard to describe how exhilarating it was to play "Would've, Could've, Should've" in the pouring rain acoustically in Nashville.
What's something about Taylor that people would be surprised to learn?
Maybe it's so not so surprising, but she's a very, very good cook and a great visual artist too.
Between Midnights and the Eras Tour, she's really at the top of her game. How do you see her evolving and growing from here?
I think Taylor has so many stories to tell. She will keep writing better and better songs and experimenting stylistically. She sometimes jokes that she likes to change what she writes her songs with literally, sometimes it's an ink or glitter pen, or with me it's often more like a 19th-century quill. I think she'll keep inventing new ways and methods of writing and keep expanding this enchanted universe of her own making that we all get to enjoy.
For more from Taylor Swift's friends and collaborators, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.
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