Taylor Swift's 'Red': The Billboard Cover Story
Ten days before the release of Taylor Swift's fifth album, "Red," Scott Borchetta is in "redundancy mode." That means checking, double-checking and triple-checking every aspect of the 16 tracks on the album. Nothing about the process is musical; it's all a case of security.
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"Every day that the album doesn't leak is a victory," says Borchetta, president/CEO of Big Machine Label Group. "It's out in the field -- it's being manufactured, it starts shipping -- so there are a lot of daily phone calls. I only sleep three or four hours a night and get back to it, adrenalized."
The clampdown isn't just in Borchetta's office. People who worked on the album have been asked to not say a word until it's released Oct. 22. Swift and her band have a string of nine TV performances during the album's first 10 days of release, and they're sticking to the four songs that have been prereleased on iTunes.
"We're really paranoid, knock on wood, about a leak," Swift says, "so we don't even go near a song that hasn't been released. We don't even practice them."
The concern is understandable. "Red" sits atop a list of anticipated albums, but few are seen as so bankable, with so much potential to be the biggest seller of 2012. Indications, based on sales figures of the tracks released prior to that of "Red," are that Swift will again have a strong out-of-the-gate performance: The lead track, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" has sold 2.3 million downloads since it hit iTunes in late August, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "State of Grace," released a week prior to the album, immediately shot to the top of the iTunes sales chart, pushing Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble" to No. 2.
Beyond that, the album represents a significant transition for Swift, who ventured into multiple contemporary genres by working with seven new producers, instead of just Nathan Chapman, the composer/musician/producer who has collaborated with her regularly since her first single, "Tim McGraw," in 2006.
"On this particular record I tried to operate from an emotional place," Taylor says during a 45-minute interview that focuses strictly on the creation of "Red." "I made the emotion of the song a priority rather than asking, 'What should we do from a production standpoint, or what works in this genre?' Instead, it was, 'What did that emotion feel like when I wrote the song?' And whatever the answer was determined what the track sounded like and what my vocals were supposed to sound like."
"I'm 22. I'm all over the place, so my record is all over the place. Part of this record is acknowledging [that] all these emotions are very loud and very different from one another."
Swift chose to dive head-first into dance-pop with Max Martin -- who's been crafting clubby chart-toppers from the mid-'90s (Backstreet Boys) to now (Justin Bieber) -- and his frequent collaborator Shellback (Maroon 5, P!nk). Similarly, she relied on producers Butch Walker (Avril Lavigne, Fall Out Boy), Dan Wilson (Josh Groban, Weezer) and Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Beyonce) to steer her through sonic territory closer to their past successes than hers. Swift's vocal performances are indeed noticeably different from track to track -- "I Almost Do" and "Sad Beautiful Tragic" are decidedly country vocals; "The Lucky One" is a country-styled story-song about fame given a pop presentation; her duet with Ed Sheeran, "Everything Has Changed," is Swift at her most plaintive.
Throughout the conversation, Swift refers to the emotions behind the songs and how they drove the entire album's creation, even if it meant less cohesiveness from track to track. "I'm 22," she says. "I'm all over the place, so my record is all over the place. Part of this record is acknowledging [that] all these emotions are very loud and very different from one another. At one end of the spectrum you have 'Sad Beautiful Tragic,' which is a breakup song in the form of a funeral march, and you also have 'Never Ever Getting Back Together' again, which is a breakup song in the form of a parade."
When it came time to decide the track order, Swift had only a starting point: "State of Grace" and "Begin Again" were the bookends, as both were about a "significant and kind of damaging relationship."
"I never like to put two happy songs in a row or two of the same kind of sadness in a row," she says. "It's just about establishing a flow and playing it over and over again so it sounds like that's the order of things. It's a gut-feeling thing."
Swift has certainly done well trusting her instincts. She's the reigning Billboard Woman of the Year, an honor that recognized her sales (more than 50 million digital tracks and 22 million albums at the end of 2011, according to SoundScan) and multitude of awards (Academy of Country Music and Country Music Assn. entertainer of the year; Billboard Music Awards for top country album, top Billboard 200 artist and top country artist). Since receiving the Woman of the Year honor, she's branched out elsewhere, voicing a character in the animated film "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax," hosting "Saturday Night Live," acting in film ("Valentine's Day") and TV ("CSI"), and collaborating on a song for the "Hunger Games" soundtrack with the Civil Wars.
The expanded resume didn't hurt her day job though: "Speak Now" has sold 4.2 million copies in the United States (according to Soundscan), and the tour that followed grossed $123.7 million from 110 shows (according to Billboard Boxscore). More than 1.6 million fans came out to see her on the "Speak Now" tour, which wrapped in March in Australia. It was a highly theatrical event, one that saw Swift in numerous vignettes on a collection of elaborate sets. The tour took nearly nine months to plan, Swift says, noting that she was concerned because the set list was devised so far prior to the release of the album, before knowing which songs would be hits or fan favorites.
This time, neither Borchetta nor Swift offered any details on plans for the "Red" tour, beyond a goal to not repeat the "Speak Now" shows. "I would love for there to be elements of theater on the 'Red' tour, and I would also like it to be even bigger and wilder than we thought before," Swift says. "I don't know how, but we have to come up with ideas that will surprise people, ideas that will make people feel like it was worth spending an evening with us. I'm already thinking about different ways to do that."