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How Taylor Swift and indie rock band the National became unlikely collaborators

Taylor Swift. (Beth Garrabrant/Universal Music Group)

Taylor Swift has been known to work with pop music producers such as Jack Antonoff and Max Martin, but on “Folklore,” the album she dropped in July, the singer added a new, surprising collaborator to the mix: Aaron Dessner, one-fifth of the Grammy-winning indie rock band the National.

Dessner co-wrote 11 of the 16 songs on “Folklore,” helping steer Swift away from the synth-pop of her previous record and, as a producer, supporting her cottagecore vision. He enlisted his twin brother and bandmate, Bryce Dessner, for the orchestration on several tracks, resulting in a layered, dreamy sound not unlike a good chunk of the last National album, 2019′s “I Am Easy to Find.”

Five months later, Swift is back with another surprise quarantine album, “Evermore,” again produced and co-written by Dessner. But this time, he brought his boys along for the ride. Featured on the track “Coney Island” is none other than the National, with vocals by frontman Matt Berninger.

“We learned to write songs and make records together,” Dessner wrote on Instagram. “Hearing Matt sing with Taylor and the entire band perform on Coney Island — things have come full circle.”

Swift wrote the song with the Dessners and her boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, who worked under the pen name William Bowery, as he did on “Folklore.” The Dessners play multiple instruments, including synth and guitar, while their bandmates Bryan and Scott Devendorf play bass and drums, respectively. Berninger swoops in from the second verse onward, his baritone gliding under Swift’s vocals.

“Coney Island” reflects on the hollow feeling of losing yourself in a relationship, starting with the lines, “Breaking my soul into two looking for you/ But you’re right here/ If I can’t relate to you anymore/ Then who am I related to?” It’s a fear Berninger writes into his lyrics for the National as well. On Instagram, he said the experience “made me miss Brooklyn,” where his band was formed. He also thanked Swift and Aaron Dessner for bringing him onboard, writing that singing with Swift “is like dancing with Gene Kelly. She made me look good and didn’t drop me once.”

Matt Berninger, king of melancholy music, is doing just fine

But how did Dessner and Swift’s collaboration begin?

Speaking to Vulture in July, the multi-instrumentalist said Swift had been a fan of both the National and Big Red Machine, his experimental folk rock band with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (who appears on “Folklore” and returns for the “Evermore” title track). She didn’t ask for a specific sort of sound when reaching out in April, he continued, but he knew the half-hour film accompanying “I Am Easy to Find” had a real impact on her and added, “Maybe it’s subconsciously been an influence.”

Following the release of “Folklore” in July 2020, queer Taylor Swift fans were convinced that the singer is part of the LGBTQ community. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

There are parallels between “Folklore” and the “I Am Easy to Find” film, directed by Mike Mills (of “Beginners” and “20th Century Women,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay). Beyond the black-and-white photography, both projects revisit a woman’s youth; Swift jumps into a teenager’s love triangle on the songs “Betty,” “Cardigan” and “August,” while the Mills film features Alicia Vikander playing a woman in memories from throughout her life cycle.

“I Am Easy to Find” was the first National record to decenter Berninger, also the band’s primary lyricist, by featuring several female singers including Kate Stables, Mina Tindle, Sharon Van Etten and Gail Ann Dorsey, David Bowie’s longtime bassist. Their vocals temper the band’s masculine energy, a dynamic Swift explores in reverse on both Bon Iver tracks and “Coney Island.”

Mills, who produced the National record, encouraged the band to strip back its sound — a contrast from the group’s angsty Grammy-winning album 2017′s “Sleep Well Beast,” and a direction that mirrors Swift’s shift from the buoyancy of “Lover” to the more low-key “Folklore” and “Evermore” era.

We look forward to Swift’s “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers” companion album.

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Even in the midst of a pandemic, we can always rely on Taylor Swift to set records