The Oral History of Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’
58th GRAMMY nominees Swift, Imogen Heap, Mattias Bylund, Tom Coyne and others tell the inside story of the Album of the Year nominee
By Paul Zollo
It can take a village to create an album, and in the case of Taylor Swift’s 1989, an international village.
From Sweden to New York City to London to Nashville and beyond, 1989 represents a true team effort. Quarterbacking the team was Swift, a self-assured artist who envisioned the unabashed pop project after awakening in the middle of the night with sudden clarity. With select collaborators such as Max Martin, Shellback, Imogen Heap, and Jack Antonoff onboard, Swift carried out her singular vision of making a “sonically cohesive record.”
1989 proved to be not only cohesive, but another career milestone for Swift. The chart-topping album sold more than 1.2 million copies in its first week and netted the seven-time GRAMMY winner seven total 58th GRAMMY nominations.
Following, Swift and other key players behind her pop triumph share their inside story of 1989.
Taylor Swift (artist/co-producer): I woke up [one morning] at 4 a.m. and I [decided the album is] called 1989. I’ve been making ‘80s synth pop, 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.
I liked the idea of collaborating. But with 1989 I decided to narrow down the list. It wasn’t going to be 10 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 10-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.
Swift: The Mellotron was really helpful for us in coming up with sounds. Sometimes we later replaced them with real instruments.
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.
Heap: [Taylor is] a force of nature.
The 58th GRAMMY Awards nominees for one of the most coveted GRAMMYs comprise an eclectic quintet of artists. This year’s Album Of The Year nominees span roots rock quartet Alabama Shakes’ vibrant Sound & Color, rapper Kendrick Lamar’s timely To Pimp A Butterfly, country singer/songwriter Chris Stapleton’s organic Traveller, Taylor Swift’s pop juggernaut 1989, and The Weeknd’s seductive R&B collection Beauty Behind The Madness.
The Recording Academy asked some of the artists and key collaborators behind these projects to tell the inside story of each nominated album. Following is the Oral History of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Visit GRAMMY.com to read the Oral History of all five 2015 Album Of The Year nominees.
Paul Zollo is the senior editor of American Songwriter and the author of several books, including Songwriters On Songwriting, Conversations With Tom Petty and Hollywood Remembered. He’s also a songwriter and Trough Records artist whose songs have been recorded by many artists, including Art Garfunkel, Severin Browne and Darryl Purpose.
Tune in to the 58th Annual GRAMMY Awards live from Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS.