Big Red Machine discussed their new album, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last, and what surprised them most about working with Taylor Swift.
Out of all the bands currently active, Big Red Machine has one of the more unique concepts in that both members already had an established career prior to teaming up. The band got started when The National’s Aaron Dessner messaged Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on MySpace in 2008 for a collaboration. One thing led to another and soon, Big Red Machine was formed. Aside from the musical pedigree behind the band, they also stand out with their ever-evolving sound and style.
That was on full display when they released their second full-length album, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last, with its heavy use of features and collaborations. In this exclusive interview with NYLON Manila, Aaron Dessner talked about their latest body of work, what it’s like working with so many collaborators, and how Taylor Swift pushed him to make the album.
WORKING ON THE ALBUM
While Big Red Machine has been releasing music for more than a decade now, what helps make this album stand out from their other releases was how it embodies Big Red Machine’s original vision of collaboration. “I think with this new Big Red Machine album, I feel like what we set out to do with Big Red Machine originally is to create this collaborative project that has a community of voices, multiple voices…not just one. And I really think we have accomplished it,” says Dessner.
True to his word, the 15 track album is filled with over 29 musicians. Some of the artists include Taylor Swift, Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), Anaïs Mitchell, Ben Howard, This Is The Kit, Naeem, Ilsey, Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Shara Nova (My Brightest Diamond), and The Westerlies. “There are some of my favorite singers and songwriters collaborating with me on this album and it all ties together emotionally because of the music and some of the themes.”
Working on an album with so many artists and musicians isn’t exactly a walk in the park though. Given how there are many moving parts to contend with, the final album may lack cohesion or not sound as connected as it should be. But for Dessner, he saw it a different way. He feels that despite working with so many musicians, they are all connected by one thing, emotion.
“I think that one of the ways that it makes sense that this music is as cohesive as it is, is that I’m coming from an emotional place when I make and write music. Pretty much everything that I write or have recorded in music has an emotional feeling in it before anyone ever sings or writes to it, so I think in this case that really binds it all together.” He goes on to explain that while some songs’ sound may go their own way, ultimately, “there is still an emotional feeling at the heart of it and that kind of binds it together.”
MAKING RENEGADE AND WORKING WITH TAYLOR SWIFT
Arguably the biggest song to come out of Big Red Machine’s new album was Renegade, their collaboration with Taylor Swift. Given how people have been clamoring for Taylor to release new music and that it’s rare for Taylor to appear in work outside of hers, it was an anticipated release. Aaron Dessner is no stranger to working with Taylor Swift. He co-produced Taylor’s chart-topping and award-winning folklore and evermore albums. “While we were making folklore and evermore last year, Taylor and I sometimes talked about experimenting and writing songs together someday for Big Red Machine,” recalls Dessner. “Making music with your friends just to make it—that’s how Big Red Machine started and has grown—and that’s how Renegade came about, too.”
They wrote Renegade after wrapping up production on evermore and Dessner knew immediately that it was meant for Big Red Machine. “Taylor’s words hit me so hard when I heard her first voice memo and still do, every time. I’m so grateful to Taylor for continuing to share her incredible talent with me and that we are still finding excuses to make music together.” They recorded the song in Los Angeles at the Kitty Committee studio in March 2021, which so happened to be the same week that they took home the Grammy for Album of the Year for folklore.
What surprised Dessner the most though about working with Taylor Swift was not how she was as a songwriter, but how she was as a person. “She has a way of making everyone around her feel confident and good and appreciated. I think that goes a long way to her work because she is nice to be around. I always feel appreciated and with all the work we have done and it’s quite a lot—she either disagrees or has a criticism of something—the way that she approaches it is very graceful.” He remarks how Taylor has a “deep sense of gratitude” about her life, her work, and her success. Despite being one of the biggest musicians in the world, Taylor remains grounded, humbled, and grateful about her success.
REALIZATIONS AND THE SPIRIT OF COLLABORATION
Ultimately, working on the album was not only creatively fulfilling, but also a big learning experience for Dessner. Working on all this music during the pandemic made him realize that he could be creative while just at home, what he describes as a “creative renaissance.” Since he’s usually on tour with The National, he didn’t expect to have that much creative output staying in one place.
But after setting up his own home studio, that mindset complexly changed. “Taylor Swift and I made two records and I finished the record with Ben Howard and finished the Big Red Machine record and all in less than a year. It was pretty crazy to realize. I was like, Oh…maybe I should stay home more…you know…”
Dessner also sings a lot more on the album than he normally does in his previous releases which brought out another realization in him. “These songs that are on this record, they feel very important to me and it’s a strange realization that I like my voice.”
At the end of the day working on this album helped him realize the goal of Big Red Machine, to be one centered on friendship and collaboration. “Can you create a project that is an open collaborative project that can be a vehicle for collaboration and friendship to grow with each other and try things and experiment? And that’s what it’s been. So it’s almost like a laboratory where we get together and see what happens. Just like experiments that become great songs and I think at the core of it is a spontaneity.”