She’s writing her future
Taylor Swift doesn’t bat a blue eye at rewriting history.
Take the 18-year-old’s latest single, “Love Story.” It’s all about romance and destiny -- two subjects that often occupy her teenage brain. She even invokes the names of the world’s most celebrated star-crossed lovers in this sunny hit that’s steadily climbing the country singles chart.
It’s Romeo and Juliet with a significant difference: Nobody dies.
“I was going through a situation like that where I could relate,” the energetic singer-songwriter said recently on a whirlwind visit to Los Angeles. “I used to be in high school where you see [a boyfriend] every day. Then I was in a situation where it wasn’t so easy for me, and I wrote this song because I could relate to the whole Romeo and Juliet thing. I was really inspired by that story.
“Except for the ending,” she quickly added. “I feel like they had such promise and they were so crazy for each other. And if that had just gone a little bit differently, it could have been the best love story ever told. And it is one of the best love stories ever told, but it’s a tragedy. I thought, why can’t you . . . make it a happy ending and put a key change in the song and turn it into a marriage proposal?”
Whether it’s Shakespeare, dating or a disintegrating music business, Swift is only too willing to reshape the rules according to her own ideas about how things ought to be. She’s demonstrated that repeatedly since she was a brazen 12-year-old who went door to door down Nashville’s famed Music Row of record company offices saying, “Hi, I’m Taylor! I write songs and I think you should sign me.”
When most of her peers were busy with after-school sports or drama club, she would head off every day to her job at Sony/ATV Music Publishing where, at 14, she was hired to write more songs, as a professional in the country music capital.
Now, after selling more than 3 million copies of her 2006 debut album, “Taylor Swift,” the tall and perky blond with the thick curly tresses is gearing up for another onslaught of activity with the impending arrival of her sophomore album, “Fearless,” due out Nov. 11. Although it’s poised to be one of the big-gun releases of the holiday season, that doesn’t intimidate Swift or her record company one iota.
“I think any time you’ve had this kind of success it starts to get weighty,” said Scott Borchetta, president of Big Machine Records, who signed Swift even before his label was fully up and running. “But she’s delivered a brilliant record.
“We’re all keenly aware of what’s going on in the economy,” Borchetta said. “So the conversation really centers on the reality that the new album will do whatever the market will bear.
“But looking at the economy of scale, and at what a hugely successful record can do right now, it’s already hugely successful. The first single is screaming. We’ve had a half-million paid downloads for ‘Love Story,’ and ‘Fearless’ is just opening up. What that means by the time Nov. 11 rolls around, we have to kind of wait and see.”
For Swift, who also co-produced the new album, it’s all about getting her material out to listeners.
“You have to hear the song we just recorded yesterday!” she tells a visitor. The song she’s talking about, “Forever and Always,” was born near the end of the recording process, and Swift pleaded with Borchetta to let her add it to the album a day before she had to turn in the final version.
“It’s about watching somebody fade away in a relationship,” she said. “They said they were going to be with you forever, that they loved you, and then something changed in the relationship and you don’t know what it is, but you’re watching them slowly drift. That emotion of rejection, for me, usually starts out sad and then gets mad. This song starts with this pretty melody that’s easy to sing along with, then in the end . . . I’m bas- ically screaming it because I’m so mad. I’m really proud of that.”
Although that might seem like a strange comment coming from a country singer, Swift said that she felt as though she achieved something authentic and raw.
“When I go into the studio, it’s really more about portraying the song in a way that gets the feeling across, rather than every phrase being exactly perfect. . . . I think it’s the writer in me that’s a little more obsessed with the meaning of the song than the vocal technique. All that stuff is like math to me. Over-thinking vocals and stuff -- I never want to get to that point.”
Swift was a high school sophomore when her self-titled debut was released, and before long, she had exchanged public school for home schooling so she could keep up with the mushrooming demands on her time. She scored new artist honors from the Country Music Assn. and the Academy of Country Music and watched wide-eyed last December when her name was called among the nominees for the best new artist Grammy Award, a prize she ultimately lost to a much darker talent, Amy Winehouse.
TV talk show hosts love Swift because she possesses such a rare collection of traits. With her cover girl beauty and effervescent personality, she’s great on camera, and she brings with her a suitcase full of songs that aren’t ashamed to voice the perspective of a living, breathing and sometimes heartbroken teenager.
“I usually generalize it and say I like to write songs about boys, but it’s more than that,” she said over a breakfast of what she deemed “probably the best French toast I’ve had in my life,” along with a couple of scrambled eggs and a glass of fresh orange juice. “I like to write songs about relationships, and the steps that take us to a heartbreak, or the steps that take us to falling in love and all that’s in between. It’s my favorite thing to write about [because] you never run out of material and you keep coming back to it.
“It’s like moths to the flame, no matter how many times you’re hurt by love, no matter how many times you’ve gotten your heart broken, you’ll always come back, no matter how long it takes,” she added. “It could be years, but you will be attracted to love again.”
That’s the thing about being a teenager: Love is always a matter of life and death, every relationship either Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming or Tristan and Isolde. Yet even at a relatively tender age, Swift has figured out how to view her experiences -- and those of her BFF Abigail and others who share their deep, dark secrets -- with an artist’s eye.
“I think as a songwriter you need to have a completely wild imagination about what could be and what might have been,” Swift said. “Some of your most heartbreaking material is what could have been, and some of your most romantic material is what could be.”
Her imagination takes her to a number of different places on the new album. On “You’re Not Sorry,” she begins to see that the apologies she’s hearing from a wayward boyfriend are really those of a first-class liar. “White Horse” addresses the sobering realization that romantic fantasy doesn’t always pan out (“I’m not your princess/ This ain’t no fairy tale”) and “You Belong With Me” is the old story of someone who thinks she’s the true love of a boy who’s involved with someone else (“She doesn’t get your sense of humor like I do/ She’ll never know your story like I do”). The utterly endearing “Fifteen” rolls out a bit of advice to an incoming high school freshman.
Among the most touching new songs is “The Best Day,” a love letter to her mother, with shout-outs to her father, Scott, and younger brother, Austin. (Andrea Swift usually accompanies her daughter while she’s on tour.)
As a whole, “Fearless” represents a major advance in her confidence and acumen as a songwriter and evinces complete faith in her conversational vocal style, one that positions her as the celebrity teen that other girls would most like to hang out with and the one most boys would want to ask to the prom.
That’s still something with which Swift struggles. For most of her time in high school, she and Abigail, who is mentioned by name in “Fifteen,” thought of themselves as ugly ducklings.
“We kind of came to the conclusion in ninth grade that we were never going to be popular, so we should just stick together and have fun and not take ourselves too seriously,” Swift said. “That’s why I had so much fun in high school, because I didn’t focus too much on the fact that I wasn’t really in the clique.”
Not surprisingly, Swift is a master multi-tasker. While previewing the album for a reporter, she simultaneously took part in a telephone conference with members of Def Leppard, the British hard rock band with which she recently taped an installment of CMT’s “Crossroads” series, slated to premiere Nov. 7. (“My mom literally listened to them when she was pregnant with me,” she said, “and then raised me on Def Leppard music.”)
Just as one of her new songs would end, she would race in from the other room, cellphone still glued to her ear, grab her iPod, scroll to the next song she wanted to show off, punch it up, then fly back into the adjoining room, without dropping a beat of her chat with the Leppard guys.
She’s in her now signature look: a sundress and cowgirl boots, her wrists ringed with bracelets made and sent to her by various fans. Her fashion sense is translating into a line of inexpensive sundresses that’ll be sold at Wal-Mart stores. “I always thought if I ever were to do a fashion line, I wouldn’t want to do [clothes] that girls like me and girls my age couldn’t afford,” she said.
It’s one more expression of Swift’s powerful Everygirl connection with her audience, which she’s strengthened with practically a daily presence on her MySpace page.
“Blogging has been really fun because I like to let people into my life as much as possible. Obviously,” she said, bursting into laughter. “I think it’s important for the people who keep you going and support you and have your back out there in the world to know that you’re thinking of them all the time.”
But that takes time and energy, especially when it’s added to everything else Swift does.
“I get tired, yeah. A lot. But . . . I would so much rather be hopping from a plane to a tour bus to go on a stage to doing an interview to doing a talk show to doing this performance to doing that performance to doing an awards show,” Swift said. “So when I start to get really physically worn down, I just mentally go back to the place when I would have to get up really early for a test in high school, and I’m like, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool.’ ”