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folklore

July 24, 2020

folklore (stylized in all lowercase) is Taylor’s eighth studio album, released on July 24, 2020, through Republic Records. A surprise album announced without pre-release promotional campaigns, folklore was written and recorded while in isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. It portrays what Taylor called “a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness” rising out of her imagination and manifests vivid storytelling from largely third-person narratives that detail heartbreak and retrospection. folklore won the coveted award for “Album Of The Year” at the 2021 Grammys, making Taylor the first woman to win the honor thrice.
Categorized as an indie folk, alternative rock, electro-folk, and chamber pop record, folklore marked a musical departure from the upbeat pop sound of Taylor’s preceding studio albums. It is a collection of stripped-down songs driven by piano and guitar, with production from Aaron Dessner, Jack Antonoff and Taylor herself.

«I used to put all these parameters on myself like, ‘How will this song sound in a stadium? How will this song sound on radio?’ If you take away all the parameters, what do you make? And I guess the answer is...folklore

Taylor Swift
Taylor kept the creation of the album a secret from even her closest friends. In December 2020, she told Entertainment Weekly, “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. But 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. […] 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.”
Table of Contents

Background and Release

Taylor announced folklore as a surprise release on her social media accounts sixteen hours before its launch. The album was released eleven months after Taylor’s seventh studio album Lover (2019), the fastest turnaround for a Taylor studio album at the time, beating the one year and nine months gap between reputation (2017) and Lover. In October 2020, Taylor told Paul McCartney in an interview for Rolling Stone:

«I had originally thought, ‘Maybe I’ll make an album in the next year, and put it out in January or something. But it ended up being done and we put it out in July. And I just thought, 'There are no rules anymore.'»

Taylor Swift

Taylor announced that the music video for the album’s lead single “cardigan” would debut at the same time as the album’s release. During the YouTube premiere countdown to the music video for “cardigan”, Taylor revealed that the album lyrics contained many of her signature Easter eggs: “One thing I did purposely on this album was put the Easter eggs in the lyrics, more than just the videos. I created character arcs and recurring themes that map out who is singing about who…For example, there’s a collection of three songs I refer to as the Teenage Love Triangle. These three songs explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives”.

The code name used for folklore was woodvale. Taylor referred to the album as “wistful and full of escapism. Sad, beautiful, tragic. Like a photo album full of imagery, and all the stories behind that imagery”, and described “cardigan” as a song that explores “lost romance and why young love is often fixed so permanently in our memories,”. She also named the self-written track “my tears ricochet” as the first song she wrote for the album.

A documentary detailing the making of folklore along with an acoustic performance of its songs, folklore: the long pond studio sessions, was released to Disney+ on November 25, 2020, accompanied by its live album.

Album Artwork

The photos for the album, shot by photographer Beth Garrabrant, are characterized by a grayscale, black and white filter. Regarding the references going into the project, Beth Garrabrant said: “From the very beginning Taylor had a clear idea of what she wanted for the album’s visuals. We looked at Surrealist work, imagery that toyed with human scale in nature. We also looked at early autochromes, ambrotypes, and photo storybooks from the 1940s. I was thrilled when Taylor said that she envisioned the series in black-and-white and that she was keen on having everything shot on film.”

« I had this idea for the [folklore album cover] that it would be this girl sleepwalking through the forest in a nightgown in 1830. Very specific. A pioneer woman sleepwalking at night. I made a moodboard and sent it to Beth, 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. 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.»

Taylor Swift
The digital cover artwork depicts Taylor in a misty forest with a morning fog in the distance, standing alone, wearing a long, double-breasted plaid coat over a white prairie dress, gazing “in awe” at the height of the trees meadow. On the backside cover, she stands turned away from the camera, wearing a slouchy flannel-lined denim jacket slumped around her arms, and a white lace frock, with two loose braided buns low towards her nape.
folklore deluxe edition by Taylor Swift (Republic Records, 2020)

Composition

folklore has been described as an indie folk, alternative rock, electro-folk, and chamber pop album with elements of indie rock, electronica, dream pop and country. Devoid of any pop songs, it marked Taylor’s departure from the contemporary pop sound of her previous works. The album consists of cinematic, downtempo ballads with an “earthy”, lo-fi production and elegant melodies that together lend a modern spin on traditional songcraft, largely built around “nearly neo-classical” instrumentals, such as: soft, sparse and sonorous pianos, moody, picked and burbling guitars, fractured and glitchy electronica, throbbing percussions, mellow programmed drums and Mellotron, sweeping orchestrations with “ethereal” strings and “meditative” horns. Taylor told Paul McCartney: “There’s so much stress everywhere you turn that I kind of wanted to make an album that felt sort of like a hug, or like your favorite sweater that makes you feel like you want to put it on. Like a good cardigan, a good, worn-in cardigan. Or something that makes you reminisce on your childhood.”

The album does not completely avoid “digital beats, plush synths” characteristic of Taylor’s pop music, but instead “dials them down until they are an almost invisible texture”. Rolling Stone noted that the vibe of folklore resembles that of “Safe & Sound“, Taylor’s Grammy-winning single for the Hunger Games film soundtrack (2012). Co-producer Jack Antonoff told the publication in 2021:

«I was surprised at the level of it [Taylor's willingness to switch genres]. I thought it was beautiful. I loved the work she was doing with Aaron. I loved the work she and I were doing. I thought it would speak to her people. I didn’t know it would become what it did. It was just her sort of like pulling it back, like, ‘Let’s try some shit.’ And that’s the algorithm I focus on, the one in my head where it’s like, ‘If you make things you really love, you find your people for it.'»

Jack Antonoff

Lyrics and Themes

Upon the release of the album, Taylor noted how isolation played a big role in the making of folklore and how it helped her during the lockdown period: “In isolation, my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness. Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory. I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve.”

Compared to much of Taylor’s older discography, the songwriting on folklore reflected her “deepening” self-awareness, formed “vivid” storytelling, and showed a “higher degree of fictionalization” that was less “self-referential”. The songs are also notably less upbeat than on Lover. In October 2020, Taylor told Paul McCartney in an interview for Rolling Stone that she wanted to make sadness the central theme of the album in a way that made it less scary and more comforting because some may have needed it amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

«I think sadness can be cozy. It can obviously be traumatic and stressful too, but I was trying to lean into sadness that feels like somehow enveloping in not such a scary way— like nostalgia and whimsy incorporated into a feeling like you’re not all right. Because I don’t think anybody was feeling like they were in their prime this year. Isolation can mean escaping into your imagination in a way that’s kind of nice.»

Taylor Swift

The songs explore points of view that diverge from Taylor’s life, including third-person narratives. She told The New York Times in 2021: “I’ve always been so curious about people with synesthesia, who see colors or shapes when they hear music. The closest thing I’ve ever experienced is seeing an entire story or scene play out in my head when I hear Aaron Dessner’s instrumental tracks.”

The imaginary narratives described in folklore include a scandalous old widow hated by her whole town, a scared seven-year-old girl with a traumatized best friend, a ghost watching her enemies at her funeral, recovering addicts, and a fumbling teenage boy. Three of the tracks — “cardigan”, “august” and “betty” — depict a love triangle between three fictitious characters: Betty, James and an unnamed woman, with each of the three songs written from the perspective of each of those characters in different times in their lives. Commenting on the maturity of the album’s lyrical execution, NPR‘s Ann Powers compared the album to releases by other artists when they were thirty years old, such as: The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. (1972), Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark (1974), or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life (1976). Many songs on folklore also incorporate cinematic imagery in their lyrics. Taylor told Paul McCartney:

«I was reading, you know, books like Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, which I highly recommend, and books that dealt with times past, a world that doesn’t exist anymore. I was also using words I always wanted to use – kind of bigger, flowerier, prettier words, like ‘epiphany,’ in songs. I always thought, 'Well, that’ll never track on pop radio.' But when I was making this record, I thought, 'What tracks? Nothing makes sense anymore. If there’s chaos everywhere, why don’t I just use the damn word I want to use in the song?' […] I have favorite words, like ‘elegies,’ and ‘epiphany,’ and ‘divorcée,’ and just words that I think sound beautiful, and I have lists and lists of them.»

Taylor Swift

Commercial Performance

folklore turned out be to be a massive success for Taylor and broke many records in the first 10 weeks of its release. It broke numerous streaming records upon release, including the Guinness World Record for the biggest opening day for an album by a female artist on Spotify. The album sold two million copies in its first week globally, 1.3 million of which were sold on its first day.

Earning more than 846,000 units in its first-week in the US, folklore debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart, giving Taylor her seventh consecutive number-one album on the chart. The album also reached number-one in Australia, Canada, Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and several other territories. All sixteen tracks of the album debuted simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, with three in the top-ten; “cardigan” debuted at number-one, giving Taylor her sixth chart-topping single in the US and making her the first act in history to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200 charts in the same week, while “the 1” and “exile” reached fourth and sixth spots, respectively.

cardigan” was released as the lead single from the album on July 27, 2020 and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. “exile“, featuring American indie folk band Bon Iver landed at No. 6 upon release and was made the second single. Later, “betty” and “the 1” followed as third and fourth single, respectively. folklore topped the Billboard Hot 200 list for 8 weeks. In November 2020, it achieved the monumental feat of selling 1 million copies in the US, becoming the first million-seller of 2020.

Critical Reception

folklore received widespread critical acclaim, with emphasis on its sonic coherence, relaxed atmosphere, and lyrics based on fictional narratives. Its tracks received five nominations at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards, winning “Album of the Year”. It made Taylor the first woman in history to win the top prize thrice (in three different genres), and the fourth artist overall. The album was also a candidate for “Best Pop Vocal Album”, while “cardigan” was nominated for “Best Pop Solo Performance” and “Song of the Year”, making Taylor the most nominated female artist ever in the latter category with five nods. “exile” contended for “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance”.

At the 2020 American Music Awards, Taylor scored four nominations: “Artist of the Year”, “Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist”, “Favorite Music Video” for “cardigan” and “Favorite Pop/Rock Album” for folklore, and won the first three, extending her record as the most awarded artist in the show’s history with 32 American Music Awards. It also marked the third consecutive year Taylor was crowned the “Artist of the Year”, and sixth overall — the first and only artist to achieve it.

Impact and Legacy

folklore was contextualized as a lockdown project upon release, and earned a reputation as the archetypal quarantine album. The Guardian opined that folklore was a respite from chaotic events. The Daily Telegraph called it “an exquisite, empathetic lockdown triumph”. NME wrote the album will be remembered as “the quintessential lockdown album” that “felt like the perfect accompaniment for the weird loneliness” of 2020. Insider stated that folklore would be known as “lockdown’s one true masterpiece”. Rolling Stone said the album may go down in history as “the definitive quarantine album” for providing comfort and catharsis “just when we needed it most”. Billboard proclaimed that folklore would be cherished as one of Taylor’s most influential albums for transcending the unprecedented times and freeing listeners from a socially distant monotonous life. Uproxx noted how folklore changed the tone of music in 2020, and its impact on the year’s cultural landscape “can’t be measured”. And Yahoo! wrote Taylor became the voice of 2020 by touching “the core of a cultural crisis” with albums that emboding a historic pandemic.

Ryan Tedder, who worked with Taylor on the songs “Welcome to New York” and “I Know Places” noted that since Taylor released folklore, other artists have been wanting to produce music with organic instruments again. In January 2021, Hayley Williams of Paramore released her second studio album, Flowers for Vases / Descansos, which she described as “her folklore.” Phoebe Bridgers suggested that her next record could be inspired by the album. Ed Sheeran said: “I think the catalyst to that [the return of real instruments in mainstream music] was Taylor’s folklore. I honestly think when folklore came out, everyone went, ‘Oh, you know what? Yeah, we should be writing like this, we should be making albums like this!’ So I think all credit for that goes to Taylor, for starting that.”

1 Year Anniversary

To celebrate one year since the surprise release of folklore, Taylor gave fans an anniversary gift: the original version of the album’s bonus track, “the lakes.”

«It’s been 1 year since we escaped the real world together and imagined ourselves someplace simpler. With tall trees & salt air. Where you can wear lace nightgowns that make you look like a Victorian ghost & no one will side eye you cause no one is around. To say thank you for all you have done to make this album what it was, I wanted to give you the original version of 'the lakes.' Happy 1 year anniversary to Rebekah, Betty, Inez, James, Augustine and the stories we all created around them. Happy Anniversary, folklore

Taylor Swift
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General Information
ReleasedJuly 24, 2020
Recorded2020
StudioLong Pond (Hudson Valley, NY)
Kitty Committee (Los Angeles, CA)
Rough Customer (New York City)
Electric Lady (New York City)
Conway (Los Angeles, CA)
GenreIndie Folk
Alternative Rock
Electro Folk
Chamber Pop
Length63:29
LabelRepublic Records
ProducersAaron Dessner
Jack Antonoff
Taylor Swift
Joe Alwyn
TAYLOR SWIFT CHRONOLOGY
Lover (2019)folklore (2020)evermore (2020)
Album Certification
Tracklist
DELUXE EDITION
Album Artwork
The folklore Chapters
Highest Honor
Sister Album

evermore

folklore Era

folklore Era

folklore Songs

folklore: the long pond studio sessions

Taylor's Discography