“Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions” is straightforward and cozy. Taylor Swift and her two main collaborators and producers for her album “Folklore” — Aaron Dessner (from the National) and Jack Antonoff (a linchpin of Bleachers and fun., and a producer for Lorde, Lana Del Rey and others) — play through the album’s 17 songs at Dessner’s Long Pond Studio, a rural haven in Hudson, N.Y. Conversations between the collaborators introduce each song; birds and insects chirp.
“Folklore” was released in July, and the documentary, out now on the Disney+ streaming service, was shot in September. Swift, Dessner and Antonoff perform as a trio on guitars, piano and a handful of other instruments, stripping away some of the fussy intricacies of the album’s studio versions in a way that heightens the songs’ sense of pristine contemplation. Often the music is just a rippling piano pattern and a modestly strummed guitar or two, each note precious. “The Long Pond Sessions” is a small-scale, casual-looking production; Swift is credited as the makeup artist. Mostly it’s just three musicians in a room, wearing everyday clothes and headphones, analyzing and performing songs they’re proud of.
The big twist is that the September sessions were the first time that Swift, Antonoff and Dessner were together in the same place. During the pandemic, they had each recorded in their own studios, collaborating long-distance. In a nighttime conversation on a deck at the studio, Swift says that playing the songs in real time will “make me realize it’s a real album. Seems like a big mirage.” Musicians deeply miss performing live; with any other album, she would have gone to tour arenas.
Swift got her start bringing teen-pop scenarios — breakups, crushes, insecurities — to country music. Then she moved decisively into the pop mainstream, trading banjo for synthesizers. “The Long Pond Studio Sessions” is not the first time she has made clear that she’s the songwriter and not just the singer. The deluxe edition of her 2014 blockbuster “1989,” which was made with the Swedish pop mastermind Max Martin, included her own demos of some songs, demonstrating her authorship. And last year, alongside her album “Lover,” she released an extensive archive of journal and diary entries, including song drafts.
“Folklore” backs off slightly from the bold-outline, clear-cut arena-pop songwriting of albums like “1989” and “Red.” In quarantine, Swift chose a more introspective approach — but also, as she points out when talking about “Illicit Affairs,” a choice to be less autobiographical than her past songwriting. For many of the songs, Dessner — one of the main composers behind the National’s somber, reflective rock — sent instrumental tracks to Swift; then Swift came up with words and melodies. In the documentary, Swift says she was nervous about telling her label, “I know there’s not like a big single, and I’m not doing like a big pop thing.”
But her songwriting remains self-conscious and meticulous. Swift and her collaborators detail the ways that songs on the album overlap with and echo one another; three of them — “Cardigan,” “August” and “Betty” — tell the same story from different characters’ perspectives. She explains “Mirrorball” to Antonoff as a cascade of interlocking images: “We have mirrorballs in the middle of a dance floor because they reflect light. They are broken a million times and that’s what makes them so shiny. We have people like that in society too — they hang there and every time they break, it entertains us. And when you shine a light on them, it’s this glittering fantastic thing.”
Swift has written and sung — particularly on her 2017 album, “Reputation” — about the pressures of celebrity. On “Folklore,” she sings about them more subtly in “Mirrorball,” “Hoax” and “Peace,” coming to terms with her place in the information economy. But she also knows how to feed tabloids. A big reveal from “The Long Pond Studio Sessions” is that the pseudonymous, no-profile songwriting collaborator on two key songs, “Exile” and “Betty,” is her boyfriend, Joe Alwyn. She got her headlines.
For “Exile” — a cathartic post-breakup ballad that’s a duet with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver — Vernon appears remotely, from his own recording setup in Wisconsin. His face is almost entirely concealed behind a bandanna and a baseball cap, but the emotion in his voice rises to meet hers as the song spills over in recriminations.
While “The Long Pond Studio Sessions” is a positioning statement like her recent Netflix documentary, “Miss Americana” — which revealed her longtime struggle to declare herself as a left-leaning thinker amid the conservative assumptions of country music — it’s also, more important, a musical experience. Songwriting — mysterious, telegraphic, crafty and personal as well as potentially lucrative — is Taylor Swift’s mission. “Folklore,” made under singular circumstances and challenging old reflexes, is likely to be just one step in her trajectory.