“I Love Living a Life That I Can Write About”: Talking with Taylor Swift, Artist of the Year
Taylor Swift sold so many records in 2012, the only people who didn’t buy one are probably named Jake and John. Her fourth album, Red, is yet another blockbuster, selling 1.2 million copies in its first week, far outpacing every other week-one sales tally for 2012. (Mumford & Sons’ Babel placed a distant second with 600,000). But Red is far from a safe record for Swift. She stretched her sound by co-writing with Swedish hit mafia Max Martin and Shellback and dueting with moon-eyed British folkies Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, and tackled assorted adult subjects with the same precision she previously saved for high-school crushes. Don’t let the off-white sundresses and kitty-cat Instagrams fool you. At 22, Swift is clearly no innocent: She’s in charge of her career to a degree that few artists can dare match, and she’s an exceptional songwriter who still hasn’t peaked at her craft. We spoke to Swift by telephone while she was in Los Angeles for a TV appearance and video shoot.
As Popdust’s Artist of the Year, how would you categorize your 2012?
My year was more like a two-year process, actually, culminating in a surprisingly pleasant reception for Red.
Why surprisingly pleasant?
I had a lot of fears that people wouldn’t like me stepping out of boxes and allowing all of my musical influences to show. I had so much fun making this record, but I often feel like when things are too much fun, how can they turn out well?
Do you typically think that way? If things are going well there must be another shoe about to drop?
I always feel like there must be another shoe about to drop, the ceiling must be about to cave in, the floor must be about to drop out from under me. That’s why I’m so grateful for good times. I was sitting at the kitchen table talking to my mom last night and I was like, “I’m so content right now. How am I this content?” I’ve learned to value those moments when my life feels balanced, when everything that I’ve put forth musically has been completely understood by my fans.
It must be nice that you can talk to your mom that way.
Oh yeah, my mom and I have a really, really close relationship. She’s the main reason I’ve been able to find a center emotionally. Because I do deal with a lot of anxiety—not crawl-up-in-a-ball-and-rock-back-and-forth anxiety, but doubts and insecurity, about everything. And I try to be as self-aware as possible, which ends up making me question things. So to get back to your original question, I guess the way that I would describe this year is that all of my hopes and dreams about this album came true, surprisingly to me. [laughs]
Would you describe yourself as an anxious person?
I wouldn’t say so, no, but I’ve watched so many people’s lives and careers and read so many stories and biographies that I never want to make that crucial mistake that starts you on that downward spiral. I always want to be super self-aware about where I am in life, work hard, and try to do the right thing. And sometimes when you’re trying to do all those things, it can make you kind of nervous. But I also really like to have fun and hang out with my friends. I love living a life that I can then write about. You have to have magic in your life if you’re going to write about it.
You exert an enormous amount of control over your career for such a young artist. Do you come to decisions easily, or do you worry them to death?
I’m decisive about big, important decisions: about my career, my album, what single’s coming next, what cover image is going to be on the album, where we’re going to tour. Things like that. What I’m not decisive about is where to go eat dinner tonight or what to order. I always let my friends choose where we’re going to go, because today I decided where I’m going to be for the next two years of my life.
What does Red says about who you are right now? What clues does it give about the person you’ve become?
This record is really bold and risky for me, especially sonically. It says that I’m much more willing to take chances at this point in my life. All for the sake of really living, for the sake of learning as much as I can and taking a chance on something knowing it could be dangerous.
Is that true in your personal life as well as your professional life?
Absolutely. At 22, I’m just trying to live a magical life, and part of that is excitement. Twenty-two is an age where people say, “Go out and make your mistakes! Live your life! You’re young!” I know that I can’t live that way completely because everything I do is documented and speculated on, but I still want my life to be spontaneous. I don’t want my life mapped out for me. I want some uncertainty. That’s both exciting and scary to me, and I like living in that place right now.
If your life was the basis for a rom-com, there’d be the scene where the famous singer sneaks away from her handlers and has some little adventure that she’s not supposed to have, to prove that she still can do that kind of thing. Do you ever feel the need to do that?
The fun thing about my life is that I don’t have any babysitters. Like, if I wanted to go out clubbing tonight and stay out all night every night for the rest of this month, no one would tell me not to.
It’s just that I don’t really feel like it!
You appear to be an almost infuriatingly well-raised, well-grounded person.
I feel like because I was signed to an indie label [Big Machine] and was able to make all my own creative decisions—write songs with whom I wanted to write, pick which songs ended up on the record, pick the singles, pick what I wear, what events I go to, where I perform and what I perform and how I perform—when you’re given that much freedom there’s not that much to rebel against.
That’s an interesting point. But you must hang out with a lot of young musicians and actors who have the complete opposite professional life from you, where every move they make is essentially plotted for them. Do they sometimes seek you out for career advice?
Well, my girlfriends who are in music or acting, when we hang out we do not talk shop. We just talk about relationship stuff and our lives. It’s funny, because I have no idea what movies my friends are working on right now. I just know that when they get off work, they come over and we have dinner and talk about, you know, what we did last weekend.
How do you think you’ve changed and developed as a singer?
Listening back to my old records is interesting for me. Even watching old interviews is weird, because I’ve been putting out records since I was 16. My speaking voice is different from 16 to 18 to 20 to 22. And my singing voice is sooo different. I think that from touring year after year you develop muscles that you didn’t have before, you develop confidence that you didn’t have before. It’s still is an effort not to get nerved out at awards shows. Everybody deals with that to some degree. But over time I’ve gotten more and more confident as a performer.
When you say your speaking voice has changed, have you lost your twang?
I think I talk how my friends talk. When I first moved to Nashville I was hanging out with all these kids with Southern accents, and I’d say “y’all” more and stuff like that. And now, I don’t know, I travel the world and I’ve developed my own way of talking.
Is there a lyric on Red you’re especially proud of?
The lyric I’m most proud of is from “All Too Well”: “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / so casually cruel in the name of being honest.” That was something I came up with while ranting during a soundcheck. I was just playing these chords over and over onstage and my band joined in and I went on a rant. Those were some of the lines I thought of.
Who were you ranting at?
Hmm. I was going through a really hard time then, and my band joined in playing, and one of the first things that I came up with, just, like, spat out, was “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise, so casually cruel in the name of being honest.”
That’s a tough line.
[Laughs] It’s very… pointed.
How does writing with other people compare with writing by yourself? Is writing with others a very intimate experience?
Every cowriter is a different scenario, but they all start out with the same thing. I come in with a musical idea and I’ll play it for them on the guitar. But before that, I’ll tell them, for about 20 minutes, exactly why I want to write that and what I’m going through and why this guy did this and how it made me feel and when I met him and how I haven’t talked to him in 13 days and why I feel this and that. [laughs] And then I’ll play them the idea and say, “Do you want to work on this?” And if they say yes then we write that song.
So you do have to lay yourself bare a bit.
I like to. If I’m going to write with someone, I want them to know that I trust them, that I trust them to know what I’m going through so they can get into my head and help me convey my thoughts in the most honest way possible. If I’m going to write with you, you’re going to know the ins and the outs of how I’ve been feeling lately.
Some 2012-related questions: Did you vote in this year’s presidential election?
Yes, but I had to file an absentee ballot because I was in London.
You don’t have to say who you voted for, but by any chance does it rhyme with Shmarack Shmobama?
I never talk about politics. Like, strict rule, I just don’t, because I don’t think it’s my place to.
Did you take anything away from the results of the election?
I’m sorry, I just don’t talk politics. Politics and religion. It’s kind of like being at a dinner party. I feel that at 22 I really shouldn’t be proclaiming what I think politically. I’m a singer, and I think that’s what people want to see me stick to. When I’m older and wiser and I’m more read-up on things, maybe then I’ll voice my political opinions.
Have you seen the TV show Nashville?
I’ve only seen the pilot.
How come only that one episode?
I’ve been busy!
Fair enough. Have you binged on any other TV shows this year?
Well, the Law & Order: SVU marathons are always on. That’s where I find my solace.
They are a constant presence in all our lives.
Olivia Benson is always there when we need her.
Last book you read?
Last book I read… the last book I read was Girls Like Us [Sheila Weller’s best-selling biography of Carole King, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell; Swift is rumored to be playing Mitchell in the movie adaptation].
Did you read 50 Shades of Grey?
[Laughs] No, I didn’t.
What were your favorite songs of 2012?
“Lego House” by Ed Sheeran, and, hmm… “Anything Could Happen” by Ellie Goulding.
Both are very melancholy, rainy-day Brits…
Yeah, I get into that thing, for sure. Let me think, what else… I’m actually going through my playlists right now. Ooh! “Madness” by Muse. That song’s so good.
You grew up in a very stable, financially secure household. When you meet artists whose backgrounds are much different than yours—harder, more unsettled—do you ever think, wow, these people have such different material to draw from than me?
I’ve never looked at my life and thought, I wish I could write about having different circumstances. And if I want to jump into a character, I’ll do something like my song for the Hunger Games soundtrack. When the Hunger Games people came to me and said “we want you to write from Katniss’ perspective,” it was really crazy to read that book, jump into her skin, and to have a whole different set of hopes and fears in front of me.
Would you like to do more of that kind of role-playing in your songwriting?
There are endless possibilities of where I could take the narrative of what I do. I haven’t started to conceptualize what the next record will be, but there are always ideas that I have flying around. I guess I’ll just try each one out until I find something that fits.
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