Since her major label debut at the age of 16, Swift has rocketed to stardom with songs that, quite literally, have gotten to the heart of the matter. Now 22, she releases her fourth studio album, “Red” (Big Machine) on Monday. The singer-songwriter ups the pop ante this time around by working with various co-writing and producing collaborators, including Max Martin, Dan Wilson and Shellback.
She is a pop music juggernaut at this point, breaking sales records and winning awards. But at the core of Taylor Swift is a fine songwriter, a young woman who puts her own life in the words of her songs.
We caught up with Swift by phone on the eve of her album release. She talked about stepping out of her comfort zone, singing into a hairbrush to Shania Twain songs as a kid and how she never ever reads her own press.
Q. "Red" is your fourth studio release. Have you gotten used to the pressure of a new album coming out?
A. The stakes are higher now because people all have their opinions of what my records should be and what direction I should go in. You have all these tools at your disposal. You can work with anyone. You can make any choice you want. With that comes a lot of responsibility to make the right choices. When you take a step back and you look at what everybody wants you to do and what everybody is expecting from you, you have to just go back to making the records you want to do. I’m the one who’s going to be playing these songs 400,000 times on tour. I know what my fans have connected to in the past...so I hope I know the decision to make that would be what they want. That decision is the one that is most true to the work that I want to make. That’s what I did here.
Q. On “Red” you wrote 10 songs by yourself and co-wrote 6 with collaborators. What made you decide to work with other songwriters on some of the tracks?
A. I chose to collaborate on this new record because I realized that writing alone had become a comfort zone for me. Although it’s a cozy place to go—and there are 10 of 16 songs written by me alone on this album—I still felt that in order to really push myself and make the adventurous record I wanted to make, I wanted to work with new people who could teach me new things. So much of learning and continuing to evolve is realizing that you don’t know everything. There are so many different people who make music in so many different ways, and I thought it would be really interesting to step into their world for a second. I made a list of people I felt would completely get what I do and I had always admired. I called them and it turned out they wanted to work with me too.
Q. As a songwriter you parse the subject of love, especially heartbreak, in a way that feels emotionally correct. You use colors in the lyrics of “Red” to describe the various stages in a love affair gone wrong. How did you land on that idea?
A. I just started thinking about this break-up I had gone through. I could see the different phases I went through in different colors, how my entire world turns dark blue [when] losing [the relationship]. Then you go through pining away and wishing it had worked out and trying to move on, and that’s a grey color. You think, ‘Why is this happening?’ and ‘Why am I missing something so much?’
Red is one of those colors that can be associated with the most positive of intense emotions, like passion and infatuation and affection and warmth. And it can also be associated with anger and jealousy and frustration and betrayal. It’s a really interesting color to correlate with emotion because it’s only the most intense ones.
Q. Your hit single, the kiss-off anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” set a new record for the biggest digital sales week for a female artist. Your video of the song is nearing 50 million hits on YouTube. It was astonishing to see how fast so many people made video versions of that song and are also getting huge audiences. There’s even a children’s version by boy rapper MattyB that has gotten over 4 million views.
A. It’s been amazing to see the impact of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” because you see people covering it in all these different ways. It has been so flattering. Even my favorite band as a kid, Hanson, covered it and that really made my day.
I’m really excited by the impact of that song because it was just a song that I wrote as venting. I was sitting there in the studio, venting to Max [Martin] and Shellback, and we ended up writing this song. It’s crazy that something that starts from such a simple place can go so far.
Q. The song “I Knew You Were Trouble” is about the fall-out from being involved with the wrong guy. It’s a big, bold, at times clamorous production.
A. I tried to make that song sound sonically how that feeling was when I felt it, which was chaotic and loud and out of control and intense. I wanted the production to sound exactly the same. It was about being true to that emotion. I didn’t want to think too hard about staying in the lines. I wanted it to sound as crazy as it felt. The way the sound turned out, it ended up sounding exactly like it was to experience.
Q. “Begin Again” is different in tone. It reminds me a bit of a production for a classic Jimmy Webb song. In the lyrics you use a lot of specific little details about the ways a past relationship can affect a person.
A. The song is about starting over and meeting someone new, but it has all these undertones of the insecurities that your last relationship placed on you. One of the things that I am always really afraid of—and my friends are always afraid of—is losing yourself in a relationship so much that when you come out of it, you don’t remember who you were. It takes these things like someone laughing at your joke to remind yourself that you are actually funny. The song is laced with all these undertones of insecurity and losing yourself and finding yourself again. We shot the video in Paris with me just wandering around trying to remember who I was before.
Q. You’ve handled your career with a lot of focus. How do you remain composed in the glare of mega-fame?
A. It’s been such an insane whirlwind, but at the same time I had a lot of time to prepare for it. My first record came out when I was 16. There have been periods of adjustment, but it’s been more in the last couple of years. As much as you can possibly get used to it, I’ve really tried to get used to the fact that this is my life and people are commenting on everything. It’s easier if I don’t read anything about myself. You kind of adapt survival skills. (laughs)
So many people who have been through situations like this, my heroes, they always tell me, ‘If I can give you one piece of advice, it would be to live in the moment and appreciate all of it as it’s happening to you.’ That’s why I’m not necessarily cool and collected when I win awards. I’m really excited about it. Honestly, it’s a crazy experience hearing your name called out.
Q. Who were the singer-songwriters and performers that influenced you the most?
A. Growing up in the ‘90s I had a lot of female singer-songwriter idols like Shawn Colvin, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, the Dixie Chicks. Those singer-songwriters really paved the way for me to want...that sort of life where you’re sharing everything with your fans. I really appreciate that when I look back, I think about the fact that I was watching videos on VH1 and watching Shania Twain and Faith Hill become big stars. As a kid that gave me something really cool to look up to. To me, Shania [is] one of those people who has that pure confidence and pure independence. I always loved watching her perform. I just never forgot what it’s like to be a fan, singing into a hairbrush in front of the TV watching a Shania Twain concert special. When these wonderful things happen [to me now], I always go back to that, thinking about how far off I imagined this kind of life being for me.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun