There are few artists working today who can generate the frenzied level of excitement around a new release as Taylor Swift—something the singer-songwriter knows all too well, given her decision to drop her eighth album back in July, Folklore, as a closely-guarded surprise. While Swift announced the mellow, indie-inspired record just 16 hours before it hit streaming services, Folklore debuted to some of the best reviews of Swift’s decade-long career; it was at the top of the Billboard 200 for eight weeks, and, as of this week, earned her five Grammy nominations.
You might imagine Swift was taking a well-earned break after the success of Folklore. But last night, she took to Twitter to announce yet another surprise gift to her fans: Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, a documentary premiering on Disney Plus today that dives deep into the rich tapestry of stories Swift explored throughout Folklore, along with a series of live performances recorded with two of her key collaborators on the project, The National’s Aaron Dessner and producer Jack Antonoff. Having recorded the album separately, the trio convened in September at Dessner’s Long Pond Studios in upstate New York to play the entire album live—an experience that Swift describes in the opening scene as “the first time Folklore felt like a real album.”
Inside the cozy, timber-walled studio, Swift and her Folklore gang do more than just make music. Across a series of (literal) fire-side chats, they discuss the making of the record over whisky and wine, offering an intimate window into the conversations that led to the album. And Swift being Swift, there are plenty of Easter eggs dropped throughout the film’s 106-minute runtime, providing a rare insight into Swift’s songwriting process and personal life.
Here, find the five things you need to know about Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions—from the true stories behind her favorite tracks, to the previously-unannounced presence of Swift’s boyfriend on the album.
Swift reaffirms that Folklore is her least autobiographical record yet
Part of the interest surrounding Folklore and its unusual release was the fact that—in place of Swift’s famous ability to weave the narratives of her personal life into her biggest hits—almost every track on the album seemed to be written about characters far outside her orbit. When Swift chose to give no interviews around Folklore’s release, her fans were left to fill in the gaps, with many of them digging deep to uncover the stories that might have inspired each track.
Now, as Swift opens up about the album’s backstory, they can rest assured the more abstract mode of lyrical storytelling Swift embraced on Folklore was very much intentional. “This was the first album where I’ve ever let go of that need to be 100% autobiographical,” Swift says early on in the film. While her period of self-isolation did allow for some intense self-reflection, an experience she discusses with Antonoff in particular at various points in the film, it was also an opportunity for her to open up her horizons culturally in a way she wouldn’t usually have time for—something that manifested in the rich cast of characters that populate the album. “I was watching movies every day, I was reading books every day, I was thinking about other people every day,” she continues. “I was kind of outside of my own personal stuff. It’s allowed to exist on its own merit without it just being, oh, people are listening to this because it tells them something they could read in a tabloid.”
And she really did her research to tell those stories
One of the undisputed highlights of Folklore for fans and critics alike was “The Last Great American Dynasty,” a track which saw Swift flex her storytelling muscles by recounting the history of Rebekah Harkness, a socialite who became one of the wealthiest women in mid-century America before plowing millions into a dance company, losing her fortune, and spending her twilight years in her Rhode Island mansion a haze of prescription drugs and alcohol. The plot twist? “And then it was bought by me.” In 2013, Swift moved into Harkness’s holiday home and quickly became obsessed with her life story. In the documentary, she notes that she had wanted to write a song about Harkness since she first discovered the history of her home, but it was only when writing for Folklore that she found the perfect opening line that allowed everything to fall into place.
It’s not the only historical reference contained within Folklore, either. While discussing the track “Epiphany” toward the end of the album, Swift confirmed fan theories that it was written from the perspective of her grandfather, Dean Swift, who fought in World War II at the Battle of Guadalcanal. “I had been doing a lot of research about it,” says Swift in a conversation with Dessner. “He never talked about it, not with his sons, not with his wife. Nobody got to hear about what happened there. So I tried to imagine what would happen in order to make you never be able to speak about something. I realized that there are people right now taking a 20-minute break between shifts at a hospital who are having this trauma happen to them that they will probably never want to speak about. I just thought, this is an opportunity to maybe tell those stories.”
Yes, that mysterious writer credit is in fact Swift’s boyfriend
When Folklore was released back in July, many of her eagle-eyed fans took particular interest in a writer credit that appeared across the album’s liner notes. Named William Bowery, the mysterious figure appeared as a songwriter on both “Exile” and “Betty”; when fans were unable to find any prior record of Bowery as a songwriter, they began to speculate that he was, in fact, Swift’s boyfriend, the British actor Joe Alwyn. It turns out they were right, with Swift confirming in the documentary that Alwyn is the brains behind Bowery.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about William Bowery, who is Joe, as we know,” Swift says, her response greeted with laughter by Dessner and Antonoff. “Joe plays piano beautifully, and he’s always just playing and making things up and creating things. ‘Exile’ was crazy, because Joe had written the entire piano part and was singing that Bon Iver part, the whole first verse. So I was entranced and asked if we could keep writing that one, and it was pretty obvious that should be a duet. We’re really big Bon Iver fans, and we knew that Aaron knows him, but I was too afraid to suggest it.” When Swift proposed it could be a duet, Dessner suggested Bon Iver immediately—so it seems that the decision was fated all along.
Is “Mad Woman” a shot at Scooter Braun? Swift remains ambiguous
Outside of the runaway success of Folklore, another story which has been dominating headlines this year surrounding Swift have been the twists and turns in her ongoing fight to reclaim ownership of the master recordings for her first six albums, the rights for which were passed to Scooter Braun after he acquired her former record label and were then recently sold to a private equity firm for a whopping $300 million. Swift has expressed her displeasure on multiple occasions at never being offered a fair shot at buying them back herself—as well as her frustrations that these sales were overseen by Braun, the manager of fellow pop powerhouses Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, who Swift has referred to as a “bully.” (Swift has recently confirmed, however, that she has begun to re-record her earlier albums and will be releasing new versions of the albums, a move that will inevitably end up significantly reducing the value of the original masters.)
Given Swift’s propensity for reflecting what’s going on in her life within her music, many fans looked to the album’s twelfth track, “Mad Woman”—with its story of a woman being treated as delusional for wanting what is rightfully hers—as a more personal tale about Swift’s ongoing battles with Braun, which Swift appears to implicitly confirm in the documentary. “The first time I heard that piano bit you’d written, with those ominous strings underneath it, I knew this was a song about female rage, it has to be,” says Swift in her conversation with Dessner ahead of performing “Mad Woman.” “And then I was thinking the most rage-provoking element of being a female is the gaslighting. There have been instances of this recently with someone who is very guilty of this in my life, and it’s a person who tries to make me feel like I’m the offender by having any kind of defense. I feel like I have no right to respond, or I’m crazy, or I’m angry. How do I say why this feels so bad?”
“Mirrorball” is one of the few windows into her mindset during the pandemic
While the bulk of the album was, as Swift explains in rich detail across the course of the documentary, inspired by stories of other people past and present, it’s on the album’s sixth track, “Mirrorball,” that she provides the most intimate window into her mindset during this tumultuous year. Written in the wake of her tour dates being canceled during the first months of the pandemic, Swift wrote the song as an ode to her fans finding community and solace on the dance floor. “I was like, is this too true?” Swift recalls of writing the track. “It’s one of the only times that the time we are living through is lyrically addressed, I think that the pandemic and lockdown and all of that runs through this album like a thread, because it’s an album that allows you to feel your feelings, and it’s a product of isolation.”
According to Swift, the song also tells a surprisingly candid story about her struggles with being in the spotlight. “Mirrorballs are broken a million times and that’s what makes them shine,” Cyrus continues. “We have people like that in society too, they hang there, and every time they break it entertains us. When you shine a light on them, it’s this glittering, fantastic thing, but then a lot of the time when the spotlight isn’t on them, they’re still there up on a pedestal with nobody watching them. It’s a metaphor for celebrity, but it’s also a metaphor for so many people who feel like they have to be different versions of themselves for different people.”