Bon Iver’s gruff voice accusing “I can see you standing, honey, with his arms around your body” on track four of Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, is startling.
Just as the whole record came as a surprise this week, his deep, raw vocals are a welcome jolt, juxtaposed against Swift’s airy “I had a marvelous time ruining everything” admission fading out from the set’s previous track, “The Last Great American Dynasty.”
So how did Bon Iver (real name Justin Vernon) find his way onto Folklore?
The National’s Aaron Dessner, who co-produced Folklore (alongside Swift and one of her regular musical partners, Jack Antonoff), told the tale behind remotely recording “Exile” in a pair of release-day interviews.
As he recalls, the beginnings of “Exile” — originating from the image of “an exiled man walking the bluffs of a land that isn’t his own, wondering how it all went so terribly, terribly wrong,” according to Swift’s album notes — came from Swift and the mysterious William Bowery.
“Taylor wrote that one with the singer-songwriter William Bowery. When Taylor sent it to me as a voice memo, she sang both the male and female parts — as much as she could fit in without losing her breath,” Dessner explained to Pitchfork. In a conversation with Rolling Stone, he added that Swift and Bowery “got it to a certain point, then I sort of interpreted it and developed a recording of it.”
“We talked about who she was imagining joining her,” he said, “and she loves Justin’s voice in Bon Iver and Big Red Machine. She was like, ‘Oh my god, I would die if he would do it. It would be so perfect.’ I didn’t want to put pressure on Justin as his friend, so I said, ‘Well, it depends on if he’s inspired by the song but I know he thinks you’re rad.'”
Dessner shared further details: “And then we sent it to Justin and he re-did obviously the male parts and changed a few things and also added his own. He wrote the ‘step right out’ part of the bridge, and Taylor re-sang to that. You feel like, in a weird way, you’re watching two of the greatest songwriters and vocalists of our generation collaborating. I was facilitating it and making it happen, and playing all the music. But it was definitely a ‘Wow.’ I was just a fan at that point, seeing it happen.”
“He’s so versatile and has such a crazy range, and puts so much emotion… Every time he sings when I’m in his presence, my head just kind of hits the back of the wall,” he said of Vernon.
At that point — and “even though the pulse of” another Folklore track, “Peace,” came from him — Vernon did not know the scope of the project, which was recorded socially distanced, in the middle of a pandemic, and successfully kept a secret until Swift was ready to make her announcement.
“Even Justin Vernon had not heard anything else except ‘Exile,'” said Dessner.