Taylor Swift: 'Maybe I should just lighten up'
She's the all-American country-pop superstar whose idea of letting rip is baking cookies. But, with a straight-talking new album and her 21st birthday imminent, is Taylor Swift about to reopen an old war of words with Kanye West?
The celebrity wrestle that shocked the world took place on 14 September 2009. Well, it raised a few eyebrows, at least. In the bling corner: the hip-hop "visionary", fashion-plate and all-round ego-monster, Kanye West. In the gingham corner, the teen-queen of pop-country music, Taylor Swift. At the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) in New York, Swift had taken to the stage to accept the award for Best Female Video. She had sold 13 million copies of her self-titled 2006 debut album and 2008's follow-up, Fearless, had made Swift the youngest winner of the Grammy award for Album of the Year. Here was a wholesome heroine to America's adolescent girls, well on her way to becoming the biggest-selling digital artist in history.
But West, self-appointed oracle of all that is really dope, wasn't happy. As a wide-eyed and thrilled Swift attempted to give her thanks, West grabbed a microphone and told the assembled luminaries and viewing millions that Beyoncé was more deserving of the award.
Swift – tall, blonde, peachy-clean and gowned like a teenager at her first posh do – gaped. The crowd booed. Sitting down the front, Beyoncé looked mortified. West strode off into another notorious night. Job done.
Revenge, thinks Taylor Swift, is a dish best served acoustically, with some pointed lyrics. Last month she took to the stage in LA to perform at this year's VMAs. The singer, who secured her first publishing deal for her songwriting aged only 14, played a new, as-yet-unreleased song from her upcoming third album Speak Now. "I guess you really did it this time," she cooed as she sat on a stool with her acoustic guitar. "Lost your balance on a tightrope/ Lost your mind tryin' to get it back/ Wasn't it easier in your lunchbox days? Always a bigger bed to crawl into... and everybody believed in you..."
The song is called "Innocent". Is it all about Kanye West?
"You are just so direct!" replies Swift when I put the question to her. Really, it's not that shockingly direct a question. But Swift was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, the daughter of well-mannered, well-groomed, well-heeled parents (both worked in finance). She moved to Nashville with her family when she was 14. She may have become, in the four quick years since releasing her debut album, a multi-millionaire with, in America at least, a cacophonic celebrity status, comprising countless awards, magazine covers and a nascent Hollywood profile (she was in the romcom Valentine's Day). But Swift retains what we know as Southern manners, is demure and polite, and practically perfect in every way. At time of writing, her latest Tweet to her 4,401,654 followers is this: "Baking pumpkin spice cookies with cream-cheese icing because I'm very excited. Because a new song is coming out on iTunes at midnight!"
She may also be baulking at being put on the spot because this is her first full interview outside of America in support of Speak Now. She's such a superstar in her homeland that carving out time for this meeting has taken months to arrange. I am only allowed to hear four songs from her new album, once, 20 minutes before meeting her. I have to sign a pre-interview contract, promising not to kidnap her and sell her into white slavery or something.
We're sitting alone in a subterranean conference-room in the quietly plush offices of her Nashville-based label. Big Machine Records is housed in a plain-looking wooden house in the area of the city known as Music Row. Her sparkly image comes beaming at you from all angles. The walls groan with sales awards from the North American market, and a smattering of international honours. She has yet to sell serious amounts of records in the UK, although her November 2009 show at London's Wembley Arena was a 12,500-capacity sell-out.
Beanpole-thin and lanky (she's 5ft 11in), Swift is dressed for autumn ("My favourite time of year!"), complete with grey beanie pulled tight on her springy curls.
"The song 'Innocent' is a song that I wrote about something that really, really emotionally impacted me," she begins. Ordinarily, Swift speaks with an almost spooky confidence. Sentences are fully formed and loquacious. Still, she's clearly spent extra time rehearsing this answer. "And when something really big happens in my life and I have a million different feelings and emotions running through my mind throughout the course of the day, a lot of times it's hard to figure out what to say or what to write about it. Because you feel so much about it.
"And I was really grateful to get to perform the song on the VMAs because here I am, putting together this album that has this recurring, subtle theme running throughout it, that you need to say what it is that you feel when you know what it is you feel – at that moment." In fact, a week or two after our interview, a story runs around the world after Swift tells a US magazine, "I imagine I'll be getting a few text messages from people [including, it seems, ex-boyfriends] once the album comes out."
She says she "had a lot of options" in the run-up to the awards ceremony. MTV's flagship awards show is a crucial PR platform for any performing artist, but she could have chosen not to attend. Or she could have seized that moment, done the obvious, and played "Mine", the first single from Speak Now. "But I performed a song nobody had heard before, and I'm proud of that. Because it was the right thing to say."
Because she knew "he" would be there? Swift shoots me a silent but (I think) purposefully comic glare.
"It's important to tackle life head-on," she replies, with added saccharine sweetness that again, seems to be deliberately cartoonish. "And there have been a lot of situations where I've kept to myself and not said anything when I don't know what to say. But when I know how I feel about something, I have to say that at that time."
"OK," I reply, adding that I'm going to assume that it's about West, who turned 33 this June. "Your lyric '32 and still growing up' is the crucial piece of evidence."
"Is that it?" she says with an arch of a manicured eyebrow.
Is she seriously going to go round the world for the next two years denying that "Innocent" is about Kanye West?
"Did I deny anything here?" she says lightly. "I wouldn't deny you information like that," she adds with a playful smile.
As ginormous tween, teen and post-teen American cultural phenomena go, Taylor Swift is pretty cool. Yes, she's polished, poised and confident. The 13-year-old who trawled round Nashville's song publishers in search of a deal – and the 14-year-old who persuaded her entire family to up sticks for Nashville when she landed that deal – must have been a formidable force.
But she's different, too, from her peers of stage and screen. She has little of that robo-precociousness possessed by Disney stars such as Miley Cyrus, none of the vacuous celeb shine of Paris Hilton, and certainly none of the wheels-falling-off fame-demons of Lindsay Lohan. I've been to Cyrus's house, to a Milan fashion show with Hilton, and to Lohan's 18th birthday party, and have the weariness in my soul to prove it. Swift is way more functional, grounded, real. And talented.
"All my life, since I was about eight, all I wanted to do was be on stage," goes the opening instalment in her intensely busy, supremely focused potted bio. "First it was children's theatre, and I was auditioning for all these musicals..."
Then she fell "hopelessly in love" with Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill. She watched a TV special on Hill which described how the 1990s' first lady of country had moved to Nashville "and that's how she got discovered. So this little bell went off in my head and I automatically decided that Nashville was the place where dreams come true. The place you have to go. That was when I was about 10, and that's when I started the non-stop, 'Hey Mom and Dad, can we move to Nashville?'"
That focus, it seems, was always there, and handed down from her parents.
"When I was younger, probably six or seven, I used to follow my dad around and say, 'I'm gonna be stockbroker like you,' and I had no idea what a stockbroker was, of course! ' But as I grew up, my parents would always just say to me, 'You can do whatever you wanna do in life – as long as you work hard to get there. You have to work hard for every single baby step that you get that is closer to what you want. And we will support that until you change your mind and want something else. And when you want something else, we will be your cheerleaders in that too.'"
More than pop, hip-hop, R'n'B or rock, country music spoke to the pre-adolescent Taylor because "I felt there were more stories told. And stories that I could latch on to and be on the edge of my seat [listening to] from the beginning of the song to the end. And," she sighs a little, as if she's had to justify her country tastes on many a previous occasion, "my definition of country music is really pretty simple. It's when someone sings about their life and what they know, from an authentic place.
"And, you know, a lot of country artists sing about topics in their life that are authentic. One guy will write about how he grew up on a farm and fell in love and raised kids on that same farm. Some people sing about how, when they get sad, they go to the bar and drink whiskey. I write songs about how I can't seem to figure out relationships and how I'm fascinated by love..."
Her most famous relationship has been with Joe Jonas, of Disney's God-squad pop siblings the Jonas Brothers. He reportedly finished with her over the phone. What did she learn from that relationship? "Well, the thing about my personal relationships is I usually feel much more comfortable talking about them in music. That's what I do. The only way that I know how to deal with anything in life, and process feelings and thoughts about anything that affects me, is to write songs about it."
It's a smooth answer, but one delivered with some sincerity. The only moment in our time together when Swift is anything like uncomfortable or caught off-guard is when I mention Dan Dymtrow. Hours before our 9am appointment, news had broken in The Hollywood Reporter that Dymtrow, her former manager, was suing her parents Scott and Andrea (who play a significant role in managing her affairs, although Swift herself seems to take the lead on most issues). He claims that he's owed "millions" in commissions – their professional relationship ended in 2005, just before she signed with Big Machine.
I ask her: what can you say about Dan Dymtrow?
Swift looks at me blankly. I tell her that he's taking her to court. She still says nothing. Her eyes widen and her mouth drops open.
I say: sorry, to be clear, it's your parents he's suing. She leans back, aghast. Eventually, Swift says something: "Wow."
I say: you didn't know about that? She shakes her head, and looks, for a moment, like the sorrow-filled teen of many of her song lyrics. I feel bad. I feel like Kanye West. And not in a good way.
Taylor Swift turns 21 in December. How will she be celebrating her birthday? "I would love to have a Christmas-themed birthday party like I've always had – strings of lights and wreaths." Maybe, she concedes, she'll be somewhere like Belgium, working, that day – she admits that her itinerary is fixed for the next two years. "But maybe I'll be in Nashville and I'll have a bunch of my band and crew and friends over."
This year she moved out of her parents' home in the nice Nashville exurb of Henderson and invested some of her country superstar millions in a large apartment in the centre of the city. Remodelled to her specifications, it features a "person-sized" birdcage suspended over a pond in her living-room. It's reached by a spiral staircase. There is also a balcony outside her bedroom, overlooking the living-room. She delightedly agrees with my diagnosis of her tastes – interior design by Shakespeare and Hans Christian Andersen – and explains that, "It's just fun having the cage." She likes to watch Grey's Anatomy in it, and eat those pumpkin spice cookies.
If she does have a party, Swift won't be indulging, even though she will, finally, be of US legal drinking age. "I don't drink because I don't really feel like it. It's not like I judge people who do [or that] I don't hang out with people who drink. I just don't really feel like it. Plus, it's not [been] legal."
Does she not like being out of control?
"I think that the reason I haven't really experimented with drinking is because I don't like to feel like I might say something that could hurt somebody's feelings. Or I might come off in a way that I can't control. Maybe I should just lighten up!" she says, smiling. "But for me, I just kind of do what feels right." She insists that, "I don't live by all these rigid, weird rules that make me feel all fenced in. I just like the way that I feel like, and that makes me feel very free."
Songwriting, she says, her eyes shining with bliss, is her other liberation. "I write songs to figure out how to feel about something. And then that helps me get past it. I've been writing songs since I was 12, and when I started I would write about how my days at school were really lonely. And I would get through those days by saying to myself, 'It's OK cos I can write a song about this later, and then I'll feel better.'
"I've applied that saying and that phrase and that thought process to my entire life and every single intense shocking, nationally televised curveball that has happened."
The latter comment is another sly dig at poor old Kanye. Visiting the UK last month, the hip-hopper, vainglorious to the last, said this: "Most people will be like, 'I guess it's OK Beyoncé's video didn't win.' That's not me. After the MTV thing, I quit doing music. I had to get back into the world's grace. I went to Japan, Hawaii, to get away. I thought I was going to give it all up. It's only through divine intervention that I am here today."
Meanwhile, his sweet-smiling nemesis, has smarter, cooler, tougher things to say. The lyrics of "Innocent" find a young woman, almost half his age, telling him in simple and brilliantly dry terms: "Grow up, mate."
Does she know what West makes of the song?
She sighs. "It's such a long story. We would be here all day! I try not to go into it too much because, um, the story is very long and complicated."
Let's guess. Did West (among his other character highlights, he's a notorious ladies' man) try to take her on a date to "apologise". She says nothing and smiles. "Again," I say, "you're not denying anything..."
"It's just a long story," smiles Taylor Swift, the 20-year-old who knows that silence – and songs – speak louder than words and stage invasions.
'Speak Now' is out on Mercury tomorrow
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