Behind the Album: Taylor Swift, ’1989’

On the creation of her first official pop album, which won the Best Album of the Year Grammy, in the words of the artist and her collaborators

She made the album 1989 mostly in 2014, when she was 25. Named after the year of her birth, it was a title which Taylor Swift explained was a perfect way of defining and owning the music she was making, which was less country and much more about synth-driver 80s pop.

It was a title and realization which came to her with surprising clarity one night at 4 am.

“I woke up,” she said, “and I [decided the album is] called 1989. I’d been making ’80s synth pop, so i thought I’m just gonna do that. I’m calling it a pop record. I’m not listening to anyone at my label. I’m starting tomorrow.”

That’s where it began, with the brave intention of defying anyone who tries to steer her away from the music that she felt was true to her. She didn’t want to create songs that might be right for now according to anyone else’s calculations. The idea was to embrace that which was the genuine music of her heart and soul. Rather than go the usual rational route of following any trends which might bring millions to you music, she had the confidence, which some considered crazy, to trust her own passion as the deciding factor, to make a record true to herself. She know if that was a success, then it was a triumph on her own terms. If it failed, those would be her terms as well, but it would have been real. Still, success was the hopeful outcome. It was never her intention to make a statement, regardless of the reaction. Her vision was emboldened by her faith that the music closest to her soul, the songs which genuinely expressed here inner truth itself, and not some stylistic experiment calculated to connect commercially at that moment in time, was the obligation of a true songwriter. It wasn’t the advice she received from the music folks around her, who wanted her – as they always do with commercial artists – to keep doing what she was doing. Don’t change! This works!

Yet the truth was that she wasn’t comfortable with the Country label she was given, as she felt she was a real pop artist, one moved more by the synths and sonics of her childhood than the Country music she came to embody. She loved that music and its great songwriting traditions. But she was a child of 1980s America more than anything, and knew her music should express her true musical soul.

But, despite the doubt of those ever-present doubters, who clung to their certainty that she was not a real artist, but a manufactured pop star with no true creative core of her own, in fact she is. Every one of the songs, as confirmed by those collaborators, began with a full song or a partial one that she brought in. Her songs were shaped by co-producers and co-writers, but always started with her, and always with the intention of being real. 

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This album, although created with a several collaborators (including Swedish producer/songwriter/hitmaker Max Martin) proved she is an artist, and not some manufactured pop star. Interviews conducted with these collaborators article confirm this, as well: the vision for the songs and production was Taylor’s. Translating that vision into songs and a cohesive album required collaborators. Yet all of them were enlisted not to create her album for her, but to create the album she envisioned. It was about expressing her real self in songs, but in a way her fans would embrace. To to this, she knew, would require working with coilaborators unified in this mission of creating something great and commercial. But also- and this is the big distinction – something true. At a time when “something true” was not considered an important priority in this industry.

Max Martin, however, understood exactly what she wanted. And he agreed it was the wisest way to go. Maybe not the safest, but the best in terms of creating the career she wanted. 

Her vision, which Max and the others went a long way in manifesting according to her precise, unwavering concept, became exactly what she hoped for. Instead of distancing fans who already loved her music, or alienating Country enthusiasts, it was a tremendous success and expanded her career profoundly. Awarded with the Grammy for Album of the Year at the 58th Grammy Awards – she was the first female artist ever to win the Album of the Year Grammy twice. She also won a Grammy that night for Best Pop Vocal album.

Not only were the songs critically praised as transcending the empty pop they felt cluttered the Top Ten, there were immense hits. The album has seven hit singles, three of which went to number one. (“Shake It Off“, “Blank Space“, and “Bad Blood.”) Many magazines, including Rolling Stone, named 1989 as one of the best albums of the year and also included it in as one of their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.

Its sales were so gargantuan that she earned the distinction of being the first artist to have three albums sell more than a million copies during the first week of its release. After eleven weeks at the top of the charts, the album was designated as a Platinum album, as certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The Platinum status in America signifies sales of one million copies of an album, or two million copies of a single. 1989 had the distinction of being certified as “Platinum, nine-fold,” which means not one million copies, but nine million. 

“I liked the idea of collaborating,” she said. “But with 1989 I decided to narrow down the list. It wasn’t going to be ten producers, it was going to be a very small team of four or five people I always wanted to work with, or loved working with. And Max [Martin] and I were going to oversee it, and we were going to make a sonically cohesive record again.” 

She turned to artist/producers whose music moved her, and shared her sensibility of creating music that was about now – and sounded modern – but timeless, too. Classic. An album for the ages.

These collaborators, in addition to Max, include the great Imogen Heap, a brilliant songwriter who also produces and engineers her own music, and even won a Grammy for engineering. She shared her memories of writing the song and making the record, which reveals Taylor’s real process of songwriting and recording. Especially coming from this source – Imogen Heap – a fellow artist and one with much insight, it confirms Taylor is a real artist.

In addition to Imogen Heap’s memories are those of Laura Sisk, who engineered; guitarist Nikk Ljungfelt, arranger Mattias Bylund, saxophonist Jonas Thander and Grammy Award-winning mastering engineer Tom Coyne.

Taylor Swift, "You All Over Me"

IMOGEN HEAP:  (co-producer/co-engineer): We met at my studio in London. She had the bare bones of “Clean.” She had the lyric, the chorus and the chords. I thought it was brilliant.

TAYLOR SWIFT: I had this metaphor in my head about being in this house, there’s been a drought but you feel like there’s a storm coming. Instead of trying to block out the storm you punch a hole in the roof and just let all the rain come in, and when you wake up in the morning, it’s washed away.

IMOGEN HEAP: I was really writing the tiniest amount just to help her do what she does. I put some noises to [“Clean”], played various instruments on it, including drums, and anytime she expressed she liked something I was doing, I did it more. It was a really fun day.

She recorded all her vocals [for “Clean”] during that one session. She did two takes, and the second take was it. We always thought she would probably re-record it, because we thought it can’t possibly be that easy. But after we lived with it for a few months, we felt it was great. 

TAYLOR SWIFT: The coolest thing about Imogen for me was that there was no one else in the studio. There was no assistant; there was no engineer. It was her doing everything.

IMOGEN HEAP: I knew she loved [“Clean”]. She said she loved it and her mum loved it. But I wasn’t sure it would be included on the album. But everyone felt it had something special. It came together really magically.

NIKLAS “NIKK” LJUNGFELT (guitarist): I played on “Style,” a song I started with Ali Payami for ourselves. He was playing it for Max Martin at his studio; Taylor overheard it and loved it. She and Max wrote new lyrics. But I recorded the guitar on it before it was a Taylor song. It was an instrumental. I didn’t have a clue that Taylor would sing on it. The inspiration came from Daft Punk and funky electronic music. Taylor liked that a lot when she heard the song the first time. [She was] taking a big step from the music she had done before.

TAYLOR SWIFT: “Blank Space” was the third thing I played [Max and Shellback]. And they [said], “No, this is the very first thing we are working on today!” It’s a very sparse track. We just wanted it to be about the lyric and the vocal.  

MATTIAS BYLUND (string arranger): We were listening to a mix when Max Martin came in and said that he wanted me to listen to [some songs]. We got to hear “Shake It Off” and “Wildest Dreams.” We immediately realized these were going to be future hits, and I was really happy to get the mission to arrange and record strings on “Wildest Dream.”

I recorded them in my home studio in Tuve, Sweden. The Mellotron notes through the song were there, and the staccato strings in the chorus, those I dubbed with real strings. I added some big chords and a build-up in the bridge. On the choruses I recorded Coldplay-type rhythm chords.

JONAS THANDER (saxophonist):
I recorded alto and tenor sax [for “Shake It Off“] at my studio in Sweden. Max had recorded some MIDI horn ideas for me, and I came up with my own parts. It had no vocals when I did my part. I recorded all my horn parts, and then overdubbed other players, and edited it in a ten-hour overnight session. Sounds like a lot but I’m really picky. Then I did it all over again after the next recording day. But I love it, so no real harm done on me. People think it’s a baritone horn on the [“Shake It Off”] intro, but it’s a Mellotron.

TAYLOR SWIFT: The Mellotron was really helpful for us in coming up with sounds. Sometimes we later replaced them with real instruments.

JONAS THANDER The first time I heard Taylor’s vocals was when the song was released. It sounded amazing. Those guys really know what they’re doing.

LAURA SISK (engineer): I worked with [producer] Jack Antonoff on three songs, “Out Of The Woods,” “You Are In Love” and “I Wish You Would.” It was just Jack and I in the studio for a lot of the tracking. Especially on “Out Of The Woods.” He and Taylor were collaborating long distance and would send ideas back and forth rapid-fire. The songs came together really quickly. There was a lot of excitement surrounding the music.

When we got Taylor’s vocals for “Out Of The Woods,” I couldn’t stop listening to it. I love the chorus so much and when her background vocals kick in at the end, it brings this anthemic feeling to the song that you can feel even just a cappella.

TOM COYNE (mastering engineer): My job was easy. Max Martin’s collaboration with Taylor Swift pretty much assured the album was going to be big, bold and beautiful. I mastered the whole album in two days. When working with professionals of this caliber, things go smoothly.

IMOGEN HEAP: [Taylor Swift] is a force of nature.

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