Aaron Dessner: ‘Indie or alternative music is kind of a myth now’

The musician on Taylor Swift, his ‘good friend’ Lisa Hannigan and latest album with Justin Vernon

Aaron Dessner: ‘The boundaries between genres have been melting a long time’

Aaron Dessner: ‘The boundaries between genres have been melting a long time’

 

As the world settled into an uneasy hush last year, Aaron Dessner got in touch with a pop star he barely knew. Her name was Taylor Swift, and she’d texted out of the blue one evening, wondering if Dessner had any song ideas on which they could collaborate. Driven by a magpie curiosity, Dessner, the guitarist with the arena indie band The National, emailed her a folder of musical etchings.

“And a few hours later she sent back Cardigan,” he says. Cardigan was an early single from Folklore, the extraordinary record he and Swift made together during the becalmed months of the first lockdown. “She had written it to music I’d been working on. From that moment the chemistry was so intense and so immediate. We wondered: how is this possible?”

It just feels like Taylor Swift is a brilliant artist and a nice person. She is genuinely kind and humble and talented. She’s very versatile – she shape-shifts very easily

Cardigan was the start of a bountiful creative partnership. That relationship blossomed on Folklore and on the companion release Evermore. And now it bears fruit again, with Swift contributing vocals to two tracks on the second LP from Dessner’s Big Red Machine project, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? 

“Taylor suggested the title,” says Dessner. “And it touches on so many of the album’s themes. How long is your childhood going to last? How long is your family going to last? How long is your winning or losing streak going to last? How long is this creative streak going to last? It just clicked.” 

In his day job with The National, the 45-year-old, working with his twin, Bryce, has had a hand in some of the greatest alt rock of the past 15 years. Though the comparison doesn’t map exactly, The National can be thought of as this generation’s Talking Heads or REM: a group that have conquered the mainstream without comprising their integrity.

Big Red Machine is something else. It sees Dessner partnering with Justin Vernon, the brooding and enigmatic force behind Bon Iver. A self-titled 2018 debut dealt in magical-realistic indie rock, tracks rushing past in a blur of idea and fragmented melodies. 

But on How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? they’ve changed the algorithm. Swift’s magic touch seems to have rubbed off on Dessner and Vernon. In places the album glimmers with a surprising and delightful pop sheen. 

That’s especially true of single Renegade. It features lead vocals from Swift and was recorded by her and Dessner when they were in Los Angeles last March for the Grammys (they won Record of the Year for Folklore). 

How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? by Big Red Machine is released on Friday, August 27th
How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? by Big Red Machine is released on Friday, August 27th

Renegade feels like a spiritual successor to the Swift-Bon Iver duet, Exile (a highlight on Folklore). That ballad has had an unusual afterlife. When two young women from Galway were swept out to sea in August 2020, they kept their spirits high by singing Swift songs. The one they circled back to again and again was Exile – a bittersweet break-up dirge illuminated by a spark of defiance.

“Working with her is just like… well, it doesn’t feel like she’s from a different world,” says Dessner, his Cincinnati accent making him sound ever so slightly like a character from a Coen Brothers film. “It just feels like she’s a brilliant artist and a nice person. She is genuinely kind and humble and talented. She’s very versatile – she shape-shifts very easily.”

Big Red Machine haven’t gone entirely pop. Great swathes of the new LP crackle with an experimental pulse. Swift, moreover, is just one among a suite of collaborators that includes Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, This is the Kit’s Kate Stables and Co Meath singer and songwriter Lisa Hannigan.

“Lisa, you could almost say, is the Edith Piaf of Ireland,” says Dessner. “She is one of my favourite singers and people, really. She can sing incredibly highly and she sounds amazing. She sounds amazing low. And she’s brave. She’s sang with Big Red Machine so many times where she can barely hear herself and she’s completely in it. She’s one of my favourite people I have ever worked with and a good friend.” 

Hannigan appears on Hutch, alongside Sharon Van Etten and Shara Nova of cult group My Brightest Diamond. It’s a moving homage to Scott Hutchison, late frontman of Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit, who died by suicide in May 2018. 

Scott Hutchison's death was just very sad. It’s heavy. It was important to write it and include it. I loved Scott and, I think like a lot of people, have missed him

“Hutch is very much a tribute. It is also a plea for people to get help when they need it,” says Dessner. “I’ve struggled with depression. I’ve lost other friends to it. Whether someone pulls out of a tail-spin or not – it’s a very thin line. So it [Hutchison’s death] was just very sad. It’s heavy. It was important to write it and include it. I loved Scott and, I think like a lot of people, have missed him.” 

Big Red Machine aren’t a big touring entity like The National. But they do play live and in 2017 delivering a pew-shaking concert at a former church on the northside of Cork city as part of the Sounds from a Safe Harbour festival (curated by Dessner’s friend Mary Hickson). 

The gig was a machine-tooled assault. Yet Vernon’s wariness of the spotlight was clear. With his trucker cap low over his face, the contrast between the Bon Iver leader and National singer Matt Berninger was striking. 

“Matt – he’s much more of a performer,” nods Dessner. “He gets lost in the emotion of it. It’s fairly crazy, I guess, where he eventually goes to. Whereas Justin kind of sinks into the music. In a way, he’s taking lots of risks musically. They’re just very different. Justin takes a long time between Bon Iver records. He doesn’t make stuff to make it. He has to feel really inspired.”

Folklore and Evermore were two of 2020’s stand-out records. Even so, it’s still a surprise to slap on Big Red Machine and hear Taylor Swift’s voice blasting through the speakers as it does on Birch (another duet with Vernon) and Renegade. 

It’s also hard not to be struck by how far things have come. Thirty years ago it is unthinkable that indie rock and pop would have crossed over so thrillingly and without even a twinkle of controversy. 

Aaron Dessner on Justin Vernon: ‘He doesn’t make stuff to make it. He has to feel really inspired’
Aaron Dessner on Justin Vernon: ‘He doesn’t make stuff to make it. He has to feel really inspired’

Imagine, for instance, the reaction had REM’s Peter Buck made an album with Shania Twain in 1997. People’s heads would have exploded. The NME offices would probably have spontaneously combusted. What next? Dogs and cats living together? Morrissey becoming a persona non grata? 

“The boundaries between genres have been melting a long time,” says Dessner. “Indie music or alternative music is kind of a myth now. It used to be that way. But working with Taylor – we didn’t have any outside influence at all. There was never a moment when… I mean her record company didn’t even know [about the collaboration] until a few days before [release date]. There was no compromise in terms of what we were making.”

How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? by Big Red Machine is released on Friday, August 27th

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