Taylor Swift joined NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series for an intimate acoustic set featuring three songs from her latest LP, Lover. The singer-songwriter — and recent Rolling Stone cover star — approached the mini-show like an episode of Behind the Music, detailing the inspirations behind “The Man,” “Lover,” “Death By a Thousand Cuts” and Red highlight “All Too Well.”
“Tiny Desk is one of my favorite corners of the Internet,” Swift noted before the performance. “It’s an opportunity for artists to decide a different way to showcase their music. So you’re kind of inundated by overwhelming opportunity and choices. I decided of take this as an opportunity to show you guys how the songs sounded when I first wrote them. So it’s just me. There’s no dancers…unfortunately.”
She opened on acoustic guitar with “The Man,” her earnest strums subbing in for the album version’s booming synths. Before playing the single, she explained that the song’s core themes had been bouncing around her head “for a very long time.”
“Over the course of my life, it has occurred to me that we have a bit for double-standard issue in our society,” she said. “It’s something I’ve thought about about 700 million times a day for the last 10 years of my life. And I was always wondering, ‘Can I write a song about this? Is there a concise and catchy way to write a song about this? What angle would I take if I were to write a song about this?’ So I decided the most fun thing to do would be to imagine what my life would be like, and what people would say about my life, if I did all the same things — but if I was a man.”
Swift switched to piano for Lover‘s title track, a slow ballad that she said originated from a sudden, mysterious burst of inspiration.
“It was one of those weird moments: in the middle of the night, in my PJs, stumbling to the piano because I got this idea,” she said. “There’s a line in the song I’m really proud of: ‘With every guitar string scar on my hand, I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover.’ That line is really special to me because I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing breakup songs, and songs about things not turning out the way you wanted them to, or songs about what you thought would be love and it turned out not to be that at all — just the struggle of life.
“Songwriting is just really a cathartic, therapeutic thing to me,” she continued. “So there are a lot of things I’ve written about in life that are the harder things I’ve had to go through. So I took that as a metaphor for the times I was learning to play guitar: I’d play until my fingers bled when I was a kid, and I still have those marks from that; those times I’d be changing a string and it’d pop, and I still have those scars from that. But it’s also a bigger metaphor for — in life, you accumulate scars. You accumulate hurt. You accumulate moments of learning and disappointment and struggle and all that. And if someone’s gonna take your hand, they better take your hand, scars and all.”
The vocalist returned to guitar for “Death By a Thousand Cuts,” which, as a breakup song, is an outlier on what she calls the overall “very, very happy, romantic” Lover. During the album’s writing process, several of her friends went through breakups, and she wound up inadvertently immersed in the mood of heartbreak.
“This all culminated in me waking up one day with all these breakup lyrics in my head,” she continued. “So I was like, ‘It’s still here! Yes!’ So I ended up writing a song that’s a breakup song on the Lover album. I was like, ‘This song is my proof that I don’t have to stop writing songs about heartache and misery, which for me is incredible news.”
Swift finished the show with a piano set take on one older song, “All Too Well,” which, as she noted, many critics — including our own Rob Sheffield — have ranked as her greatest song to date.