Taylor Swift broke all her rules with Folklore — and gave herself a much-needed escape

The pop star, one of EW's 2020 Entertainers of the Year, delves deep into her surprise eighth album, Rebekah Harkness, and a Joe Biden presidency.

“He is my co-writer on ‛Betty’ and ‛Exile,’” replies Taylor Swift with deadpan precision. The question Who is William Bowery? was, at the time we spoke, one of 2020’s great mysteries, right up there with the existence of Joe Exotic and the sudden arrival of murder hornets. An unknown writer credited on the year’s biggest album? It must be an alias.

Is he your brother? 

“He’s William Bowery,” says Swift with a smile. 

It's early November, after Election Day but before Swift eventually revealed Bowery's true identity to the world (the leading theory, that he was boyfriend Joe Alwyn, proved prescient). But, like all Swiftian riddles, it was fun to puzzle over for months, particularly in this hot mess of a year, when brief distractions are as comforting as a well-worn cardigan. Thankfully, the Bowery... erhm, Alwyn-assisted Folklorea Swift project filled with muted pianos and whisper-quiet snares, recorded in secret with Jack Antonoff and the National’s Aaron Dessner — delivered. 

“The only people who knew were the people I was making it with, my boyfriend, my family, and a small management team,” Swift, 30, tells EW of the album's hush-hush recording sessions. That gave the intimate Folklore a mystique all its own: the first surprise Taylor Swift album, one that prioritized fantastical tales over personal confessions.

“Early in quarantine, I started watching lots of films,” she explains. “Consuming other people’s storytelling opened this portal in my imagination and made me feel like, Why have I never created characters and intersecting storylines?” That’s how she ended up with three songs about an imagined love triangle (“Cardigan,” “Betty,” “August”), one about a clandestine romance (“Illicit Affairs”), and another chronicling a doomed relationship (“Exile”). Others tell of sumptuous real-life figures like Rebekah Harkness, a divorcee who married the heir to Standard Oil — and whose home Swift purchased 31 years after her death. The result, “The Last Great American Dynasty,” hones in on Harkness’ story, until Swift cleverly injects herself. 

And yet, it wouldn’t be a Swift album without a few barbed postmortems over her own history. Notably, “My Tears Ricochet” and “Mad Woman," which touch on her former label head Scott Borchetta selling the masters to Swift’s catalog to her known nemesis Scooter Braun. Mere hours after our interview, the lyrics’ real-life origins took a surprising twist, when news broke that Swift’s music had once again been sold, to another private equity firm, for a reported $300 million. Though Swift ignored repeated requests for comment on the transaction, she did tweet a statement, hitting back at Braun while noting that she had begun re-recording her old albums — something she first promised in 2019 as a way of retaining agency over her creative legacy. (Later, she would tease a snippet of that reimagined work, with a new version of her hit 2008 single "Love Story.")

Like surprise-dropping Folklore, like pissing off the president by endorsing his opponents, like shooing away haters, Swift does what suits her. “I don’t think we often hear about women who did whatever the hell they wanted,” she says of Harkness — something Swift is clearly intent on changing. For her, that means basking in the world of, and favorable response to, Folklore. As she says in our interview, “I have this weird thing where, in order to create the next thing, I attack the previous thing. I don’t love that I do that, but it is the thing that has kept me pivoting to another world every time I make an album. But with this one, I still love it.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’ve spent the year quarantined in our houses, trying to stay healthy and avoiding friends and family. Were you surprised by your ability to create and release a full album in the middle of a pandemic?
TAYLOR SWIFT: I was. I wasn't expecting to make an album. Early on in quarantine, I started watching lots of films. We would watch a different movie every night. I'm ashamed to say I hadn't seen Pan's Labyrinth before. One night I'd watch that, then I'd watch L.A. Confidential, then we'd watch Rear Window, then we'd watch Jane Eyre. I feel like consuming other people's art and storytelling sort of opened this portal in my imagination and made me feel like, "Well, why have I never done this before? Why have I never created characters and intersecting storylines? And why haven't I ever sort of freed myself up to do that from a narrative standpoint?" There is something a little heavy about knowing when you put out an album, people are going to take it so literally that everything you say could be clickbait. It was really, really freeing to be able to just be inspired by worlds created by the films you watch or books you've read or places you've dreamed of or people that you've wondered about, not just being inspired by your own experience.

In that vein, what's it like to sit down and write something like “Betty,” which is told from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy?
That was huge for me. And I think it came from the fact that my co-writer, William Bowery [Joe Alwyn], is male — and he was the one who originally thought of the chorus melody. And hearing him sing it, I thought, "That sounds really cool." Obviously, I don't have a male voice, but I thought, "I could have a male perspective." Patty Griffin wrote this song, “Top of the World.” It's one of my favorite songs of all time, and it's from the perspective of this older man who has lived a life full of regret, and he's kind of taking stock of that regret. So, I thought, "This is something that people I am a huge fan of have done. This would be fun to kind of take this for a spin."

What are your favorite William Bowery conspiracies?
I love them all individually and equally. I love all the conspiracy theories around this album. [With] "Betty," Jack Antonoff would text me these articles and think pieces and in-depth Tumblr posts on what this love triangle meant to the person who had listened to it. And that's exactly what I was hoping would happen with this album. I wrote these stories for a specific reason and from a specific place about specific people that I imagined, but I wanted that to all change given who was listening to it. And I wanted it to start out as mine and become other people's. It's been really fun to watch.

Swift's Entertainer of the Year cover reunites the pop star with her Folklore photographer, Beth Garrabrant.
| Credit: Beth Garrabrant for EW

One of the other unique things about Folklore — the parameters around it were completely different from anything you'd done. There was no long roll out, no stadium-sized pop anthems, no aiming for the radio-friendly single. How fearful were you in avoiding what had worked in the past?
I didn't think about any of that for the very first time. And a lot of this album was kind of distilled down to the purest version of what the story is. Songwriting on this album is exactly the way that I would write if I considered nothing else other than, "What words do I want to write? What stories do I want to tell? What melodies do I want to sing? What production is essential to tell those stories?" It was a very do-it-yourself experience. My management team, we created absolutely everything in advance — every lyric video, every individual album package. And then we called our label a week in advance and said, "Here's what we have.” The photo shoot was me and the photographer walking out into a field. I'd done my hair and makeup and brought some nightgowns. These experiences I was used to having with 100 people on set, commanding alongside other people in a very committee fashion — all of a sudden it was me and a photographer, or me and my DP. It was a new challenge, because I love collaboration. But there's something really fun about knowing what you can do if it's just you doing it.

Did you find it freeing?
I did. Every project involves different levels of collaboration, because on other albums there are things that my stylist will think of that I never would've thought of. But if I had all those people on the photo shoot, I would've had to have them quarantine away from their families for weeks on end, and I would've had to ask things of them that I didn't think were fair if I could figure out a way to do it [myself]. I had this idea for the [Folklore album cover] that it would be this girl sleepwalking through the forest in a nightgown in 1830 [laughs]. Very specific. A pioneer woman sleepwalking at night. I made a moodboard and sent it to Beth [Garrabrant], who I had never worked with before, who shoots only on film. We were just carrying bags across a field and putting the bags of film down, and then taking pictures. It was a blast.

Folklore includes plenty of intimate acoustic echoes to what you've done in the past. But there are also a lot of new sonics here, too — these quiet, powerful, intricately layered harmonics. What was it like to receive the music from Aaron and try to write lyrics on top of it? 
Well, Aaron is one of the most effortlessly prolific creators I've ever worked with. It's really mind-blowing. And every time I've spoken to an artist since this whole process [began], I said, "You need to work with him. It'll change the way you create." He would send me these — he calls them sketches, but it's basically an instrumental track. The second day — the day after I texted him and said, "Hey, would you ever want to work together?" — he sent me this file of probably 30 of these instrumentals and every single one of them was one of the most interesting, exciting things I had ever heard. Music can be beautiful, but it can be lacking that evocative nature. There was something about everything he created that is an immediate image in my head or melody that I came up with. So much so that I'd start writing as soon as I heard a new one. And oftentimes what I would send back would inspire him to make more instrumentals and then send me that one. And then I wrote the song and it started to shape the project, form-fitted and customized to what we wanted to do. 

It was weird because I had never made an album and not played it for my girlfriends or told my friends. The only people who knew were the people that I was making it with, my boyfriend, my family, and then my management team. So that's the smallest number of people I've ever had know about something. I'm usually playing it for everyone that I'm friends with. So I had a lot of friends texting me things like, "Why didn't you say on our everyday FaceTimes you were making a record?"

Was it nice to be able to keep it a secret?
Well, it felt like it was only my thing. It felt like such an inner world I was escaping to every day that it almost didn't feel like an album. Because I wasn't making a song and finishing it and going, "Oh my God, that is catchy.” I wasn't making these things with any purpose in mind. And so it was almost like having it just be mine was this really sweet, nice, pure part of the world as everything else in the world was burning and crashing and feeling this sickness and sadness. I almost didn't process it as an album. This was just my daydream space.

Does it still feel like that?
Yeah, because I love it so much. I have this weird thing that I do when I create something where in order to create the next thing I kind of, in my head, attack the previous thing. I don't love that I do that but it is the thing that has kept me pivoting to another world every time I make an album. But with this one, I just still love it. I'm so proud of it. And so that feels very foreign to me. That doesn't feel like a normal experience that I've had with releasing albums.

When did you first learn about Rebekah Harkness?
Oh, I learned about her as soon as I was being walked through [her former Rhode Island] home. I got the house when I was in my early twenties as a place for my family to congregate and be together. I was told about her, I think, by the real estate agent who was walking us through the property. And as soon as I found out about her, I wanted to know everything I could. So I started reading. I found her so interesting. And then as more parallels began to develop between our two lives — being the lady that lives in that house on the hill that everybody gets to gossip about — I was always looking for an opportunity to write about her. And I finally found it.

I love that you break the fourth wall in the song. Did you go in thinking you’d include yourself in the story?
I think that in my head, I always wanted to do a country music, standard narrative device, which is: the first verse you sing about someone else, the second verse you sing about someone else who's even closer to you, and then in the third verse, you go, "Surprise! It was me.” You bring it personal for the last verse. And I'd always thought that if I were to tell that story, I would want to include the similarities — our lives or our reputations or our scandals. 

How often did you regale friends about the history of Rebekah and Holiday House while hanging out at Holiday House? 
Anyone who's been there before knows that I do “The Tour,” in quotes, where I show everyone through the house. And I tell them different anecdotes about each room, because I've done that much research on this house and this woman. So in every single room, there's a different anecdote about Rebekah Harkness. If you have a mixed group of people who've been there before and people who haven't, [the people who’ve been there] are like, "Oh, she's going to do the tour. She's got to tell you the story about how the ballerinas used to practice on the lawn.” And they'll go get a drink and skip it because it's the same every time. But for me, I'm telling the story with the same electric enthusiasm, because it's just endlessly entertaining to me that this fabulous woman lived there. She just did whatever she wanted.

There are a handful of songs on Folklore that feel like pretty clear nods to your personal life over the last year, including your relationships with Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun. How long did it take to crystallize the feelings you had around both of them into “My Tears Ricochet” or “Mad Woman”?
I found myself being very triggered by any stories, movies, or narratives revolving around divorce, which felt weird because I haven't experienced it directly. There’s no reason it should cause me so much pain, but all of a sudden it felt like something I had been through. I think that happens any time you've been in a 15-year relationship and it ends in a messy, upsetting way. So I wrote “My Tears Ricochet” and I was using a lot of imagery that I had conjured up while comparing a relationship ending to when people end an actual marriage. All of a sudden this person that you trusted more than anyone in the world is the person that can hurt you the worst. Then all of a sudden the things that you have been through together, hurt. All of a sudden, the person who was your best friend is now your biggest nemesis, etc. etc. etc. I think I wrote some of the first lyrics to that song after watching Marriage Story and hearing about when marriages go wrong and end in such a catastrophic way. So these songs are in some ways imaginary, in some ways not, and in some ways both.

How did it feel to drop an F-bomb on "Mad Woman"?
F---ing fantastic.

And that’s the first time you ever recorded one on a record, right?
Yeah. Every rule book was thrown out. I always had these rules in my head and one of them was, You haven't done this before, so you can't ever do this. “Well, you've never had an explicit sticker, so you can't ever have an explicit sticker.” But that was one of the times where I felt like you need to follow the language and you need to follow the storyline. And if the storyline and the language match up and you end up saying the F-word, just go for it. I wasn't adhering to any of the guidelines that I had placed on myself. I decided to just make what I wanted to make. And I'm really happy that the fans were stoked about that because I think they could feel that. I'm not blaming anyone else for me restricting myself in the past. That was all, I guess, making what I want to make. I think my fans could feel that I opened the gate and ran out of the pasture for the first time, which I'm glad they picked up on because they're very intuitive.

The stories behind Swift's 2020 album were further illuminated in Disney+'s Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions.
| Credit: Disney+

Let’s talk about “Epiphany.” The first verse is a nod to your grandfather, Dean, who fought in World War II. What does his story mean to you personally? 
I wanted to write about him for awhile. He died when I was very young, but my dad would always tell this story that the only thing that his dad would ever say about the war was when somebody would ask him, "Why do you have such a positive outlook on life?" My grandfather would reply, "Well, I'm not supposed to be here. I shouldn't be here." My dad and his brothers always kind of imagined that what he had experienced was really awful and traumatic and that he'd seen a lot of terrible things. So when they did research, they learned that he had fought at the Battles of Guadalcanal, at Cape Gloucester, at Talasea, at Okinawa. He had seen a lot of heavy fire and casualties — all of the things that nightmares are made of. He was one of the first people to sign up for the war. But you know, these are things that you can only imagine that a lot of people in that generation didn't speak about because, a) they didn't want people that they came home to to worry about them, and b) it just was so bad that it was the actual definition of unspeakable.

That theme continues in the next verse, which is a pretty overt nod to what’s been happening during COVID. As someone who lives in Nashville, how difficult has it been to see folks on Lower Broadway crowding the bars without masks?
I mean, you just immediately think of the health workers who are putting their lives on the line — and oftentimes losing their lives. If they make it out of this, if they see the other side of it, there's going to be a lot of trauma that comes with that; there's going to be things that they witnessed that they will never be able to un-see. And that was the connection that I drew. I did a lot of research on my grandfather in the beginning of quarantine, and it hit me very quickly that we've got a version of that trauma happening right now in our hospitals. God, you hope people would respect it and would understand that going out for a night isn't worth the ripple effect that it causes. But obviously we're seeing that a lot of people don't seem to have their eyes open to that — or if they do, a lot of people don't care, which is upsetting.

You had the Lover Fest East and West scheduled this year. How hard has it been to both not perform for your fans this year, and see the music industry at large go through such a brutal change?
It's confusing. It's hard to watch. I think that maybe me wanting to make as much music as possible during this time was a way for me to feel like I could reach out my hand and touch my fans, even if I couldn't physically reach out or take a picture with them. We've had a lot of different, amazing, fun, sort of underground traditions we've built over the years that involve a lot of human interaction, and so I have no idea what's going to happen with touring; none of us do. And that's a scary thing. You can't look to somebody in the music industry who's been around a long time, or an expert touring manager or promoter and [ask] what's going to happen and have them give you an answer. I think we're all just trying to keep our eyes on the horizon and see what it looks like. So we're just kind of sitting tight and trying to take care of whatever creative spark might exist and trying to figure out how to reach our fans in other ways, because we just can't do that right now.

When you are able to perform again, do you have plans on resurfacing a Lover Fest-type event?
I don't know what incarnation it'll take and I really would need to sit down and think about it for a good solid couple of months before I figured out the answer. Because whatever we do, I want it to be something that is thoughtful and will make the fans happy and I hope I can achieve that. I'm going to try really hard to.

In addition to recording an album, you spent this year supporting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the election. Where were you when it was called in their favor? 
Well, when the results were coming in, I was actually at the property where we shot the Entertainment Weekly cover. I was hanging out with my photographer friend, Beth, and the wonderful couple that owned the farm where we [were]. And we realized really early into the night that we weren't going to get an accurate picture of the results. Then, a couple of days later, I was on a video shoot, but I was directing, and I was standing there with my face shield and mask on next to my director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto. And I just remember a news alert coming up on my phone that said, "Biden is our next president. He's won the election." And I showed it to Rodrigo and he said, "I'm always going to remember the moment that we learned this." And I looked around, and people's face shields were starting to fog up because a lot of people were really misty-eyed and emotional, and it was not loud. It wasn't popping bottles of champagne. It was this moment of quiet, cautious elation and relief.

Do you ever think about what Folklore would have sounded like if you, Aaron, and Jack had been in the same room?
I think about it all the time. I think that a lot of what has happened with the album has to do with us all being in a collective emotional place. Obviously everybody's lives have different complexities and whatnot, but I think most of us were feeling really shaken up and really out of place and confused and in need of something comforting all at the same time. And for me, that thing that was comforting was making music that felt sort of like I was trying to hug my fans through the speakers. That was truly my intent. Just trying to hug them when I can't hug them. 

I wanted to talk about some of the lyrics on Folklore. One of my favorite pieces of wordplay is in “August”: that flip of "sipped away like a bottle of wine/slipped away like a moment in time.” Was there an "aha moment" for you while writing that?
I was really excited about "August slipped away into a moment of time/August sipped away like a bottle of wine." That was a song where Jack sent me the instrumental and I wrote the song pretty much on the spot; it just was an intuitive thing. And that was actually the first song that I wrote of the "Betty" triangle. So the Betty songs are "August," "Cardigan," and "Betty." "August" was actually the first one, which is strange because it's the song from the other girl's perspective.

Yeah, I assumed you wrote "Cardigan" first.
It would be safe to assume that "Cardigan" would be first, but it wasn't. It was very strange how it happened, but it kind of pieced together one song at a time, starting with "August," where I kind of wanted to explore the element of This is from the perspective of a girl who was having her first brush with love. And then all of a sudden she's treated like she's the other girl, because there was another situation that had already been in place, but "August" girl thought she was really falling in love. It kind of explores the idea of the undefined relationship. As humans, we're all encouraged to just be cool and just let it happen, and don't ask what the relationship is — Are we exclusive? But if you are chill about it, especially when you're young, you learn the very hard lesson that if you don't define something, oftentimes they can gaslight you into thinking it was nothing at all, and that it never happened. And how do you mourn the loss of something once it ends, if you're being made to believe that it never happened at all?

"I almost didn't process it as an album," says Taylor Swift of making Folklore. "And it's still hard for me to process as an entity or a commodity, because [it] was just my daydream space."
| Credit: Beth Garrabrant for EW

On the flip side, "Peace" is bit more defined in terms of how one approaches a relationship. There's this really striking line, "The devil's in the details, but you got a friend in me/Would it be enough if I can never give you peace?" How did that line come to you?
I'm really proud of that one too. I heard the track immediately. Aaron sent it to me, and it had this immediate sense of serenity running through it. The first word that popped into my head was peace, but I thought that it would be too on-the-nose to sing about being calm, or to sing about serenity, or to sing about finding peace with someone. Because you have this very conflicted, very dramatic conflict-written lyric paired with this very, very calming sound of the instrumental. But, "The devil's in the details," is one of those phrases that I've written down over the years. That's a common phrase that is used in the English language every day. And I just thought it sounded really cool because of the D, D sound. And I thought, "I'll hang onto those in a list, and then, I'll finally find the right place for them in a story." I think that's how a lot of people feel where it's like, "Yeah, the devil's in the details. Everybody's complex when you look under the hood of the car." But basically saying, "I'm there for you if you want that, if this complexity is what you want."

There's another clever turn of phrase on "This is Me Trying." "I didn't know if you'd care if I came back/I have a lot of regrets about that." That feels like a nod toward your fans, and some of the feelings you had about retreating from the public sphere.
Absolutely. I think I was writing from three different characters' perspectives, one who's going through that; I was channeling the emotions I was feeling in 2016, 2017, where I just felt like I was worth absolutely nothing. And then, the second verse is about dealing with addiction and issues with struggling every day. And every second of the day, you're trying not to fall into old patterns, and nobody around you can see that, and no one gives you credit for it. And then, the third verse, I was thinking, what would the National do? What lyric would Matt Berninger write? What chords would the National play? And it's funny because I've since played this song for Aaron, and he's like, "That's not what we would've done at all." He's like, "I love that song, but that's totally different than what we would've done with it."

When we last spoke, in April 2019, we were talking about albums we were listening to at the time and you professed your love for the National and I Am Easy to Find. Two months later, you met up with Aaron at their concert, and now, we're here talking about the National again.
Yeah, I was at the show where they were playing through I Am Easy to Find. What I loved about [that album] was they had female vocalists singing from female perspectives, and that triggered and fired something in me where I thought, "I've got to play with different perspectives because that is so intriguing when you hear a female perspective come in from a band where you're used to only hearing a male perspective." It just sparked something in me. And obviously, you mentioning the National is the reason why Folklore came to be. So, thank you for that, Alex.

[Laughs] I'm here for all of your songwriting muse needs in the future.
I can't wait to see what comes out of this interview.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

For more on our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Dec. 18. (You can also pick up the full set of six covers here.) Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.