CMA Awards 2018

Taylor Swift's Label Boss Scott Borchetta Talks 10th Anniversary of Her Debut Album: 'It Was a Lightning Bolt For Me'

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Taylor Swift and Scott Borchetta attend the 48th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 7, 2013 in Las Vegas.

Sometimes it just feels right. When Big Machine Records founder Scott Borchetta met a then-15-year-old Taylor Swift, he had no doubt the teenager was bound for greatness. Unlike some others in Nashville, Borchetta could sense that he was in the presence of an unusually talented, focused young woman who would change both their lives. "True talent is ageless," he told Billboard about his feelings during that first meeting more than a decade ago. "The amount of songs in her and sophisticated ideas at 15 were pretty extraordinary." 

Borchetta went deep on Taylor Swift, which was released 10 years ago today (Oct. 24), delving into the songs that touched him, the process of making the album and even pulling out some of the mind-blowing notes from his first few meetings with Taylor and her folks.

Taylor was only 15 when you met her, and a number of people in Nashville had already passed because they thought she was too green. But you had no trepidation, right?

I was blown away from the first minute all the way through to today. The songs have always been what's been central to me and to our relationship. I got her songs immediately. You can never predict what it will become, but I knew we had someone really special. I look at my notes from the first meeting...

Oh wow, read me some of those notes!

I put down 'this could be your Mick Jagger.' One page literally says, 'Taylor takes Japan.' Another was 'cover or Rolling Stone, host Saturday Night Live.' She had that type of energy where I thought, 'man, we might be able to run the boards.' It was a lightning bolt for me.

Had you ever felt that before? 

For me she was the first one we signed that was 'game on' for us.

What sold you? Was it a song, something she said?

First off she could go from being this really funny teenager with this great sense of humor to being incredibly sophisticated. I was all in from the beginning. There wasn't ever that lifting an eyebrow like, 'hmmm.' You can have all personality in the world, the looks, etc., but if you don't have the songs it doesn't close the deal. I heard the songs first and then met her.

There's something about letting a freshman in high school have songwriting credits on all the songs, including three solo credits. That still feels like a huge deal.

Oh yeah and nobody believed it. I would say, 'look she's a real writer.' It was hard for people to [believe].

Were you worried about releasing a first single named after a major country star? "Tim McGraw?" 

That was my idea. When the song came to me it was called 'When You Think Tim McGraw.' I said, 'Let's just call it Tim McGraw.' I told Taylor, 'they won't immediately remember your name, they'll say who's this young girl with this song about Tim McGraw?' If you think back to the beginning of the label, we knew we had to strike quickly and aggressively and go for the brass ring. There was no building it for five years. You had this artist with a ridiculous desire and talent who was more than willing to lock arms and take this down. How can we cut in line and get there faster? She was all about it. She was a charging bull.

 

Did you let Tim hear it first?

After we cut it I went and played for Tim's manager and he said, 'wow okay, what do you want me to do?' I said 'I just want to make sure you and Mike Curb don't sue me!' He went home, played it for Tim, Tim played it for Faith [Hill] and she loved it.

Talk about "Picture to Burn," which kind of set the template for Taylor's songs about hard breakups. Were you surprised at how upset it made her sound? 

No, I loved it. I think that was the second or third song she played for me in our very first meeting. That was the song where I pointed and said 'that's a hit song,' and I had her play it again. I heard the first line and said, 'did you really just sing that?' That might have been the moment where [she thought] 'this guy gets me.' The great ones regardless of the time have that edge. If it were 20 years earlier it still would have risen to the top. She had that teen angst in those songs that is really at the heart of great rock n' roll. What was not usual at all was her taking you on and calling you out. Who is this young girl calling me out and really standing up for herself and demanding that you respect her space? It was such a... wow... who is this?

 

"Teardrops On My Guitar" is one of the more traditional sounding ballads on the record, but it's clearly from a teen perspective. Was there something about the vulnerability that spoke to you?

We talked a lot about it and I asked, 'do you actually want to say Drew?' We had a version where it was 'you' instead of 'Drew.' She said 'the song's this,' and she was right. What I love about those early records -- and it's still with her but she's spread the sonic playground so wide -- if you listen to them there's such a beautiful sadness to many of those things she wrote. Such a great heartbreak to her voice, you can't just create that.

 

Listening now, "Our Song" is another pretty traditional track on the record -- riding in the car, listening to the radio, it's super twangy, banjos, front porch steps, praying, her mama's there... but still it had that unmistakable feeling of a teenage voice trying to figure things out...

The lyrics were genius. I remember the first time she played it, it's so visual. She's talking about sneaking out of the house and it's such a great visual of that teenage moment, but she wanted to have those Southern visuals as part of the narrative. When it's a great artist they just suck all that in from around them and at the end of the day it's just great storytelling. All those things are real. She did write those words on a napkin.

"Tied Together With a Smile" has such a specific lyric about a young girl struggling with an eating disorder. 

There's real stories behind all of those songs and that girl was struggling mightily with food issues.

Not something you typically hear in country songs...

Do you hear it in any songs? You don't have to handicap it. It's such a personal and interesting take. Here's this girl I go to school with who has real issues and she's tied together with a smile. I remember first time I heard it [thinking] 'where does it all come from?'

The story is that "Should've Said No" was added at the last minute and is one of the most powerful songs on the album. Why was it important to include it?

On the last day in the studio Taylor called me and she said she just finished a song and she really wanted to cut it and asked 'do you need to hear it?' I said 'you sound pretty excited about it, just cut it.' That was a very real moment and I just trusted her higher instincts. For all of our records I've left them open until literally the last possible day because she's always writing and when she gets in creative zone... I learned very early on to leave the door open as long as you can because there may be one more thought she has to finish it in her mind. For most of our records she had something come through in the last minute that put a bow on it.

 

Is there a specific memory you have that crystallizes that time in your mind? Before things went supernova?

There are so many because there was no plan B. We had to win. Maybe more for me than her, she was 15 and had her whole life ahead of her. For me this was my shot so whether we verbalized it or not we knew this was it. There were so many fun victories. The first thing that was a real validation was when she won the [2007 Country Music Association Awards best new artist] Horizon Award. At that moment when you're starting a new label with no industry support, with a brand new artist with no industry support, for us to win for her -- which she totally deserved it -- and show the industry that we could win a major award. We felt like we were putting down an anchor here. And on our gold party night where I wore a platinum-colored tie. It was like, 'congratulations on gold, but platinum is our goal.'

Did you try to give her any direction that she rejected?

She was always very open. Her process is she'll take things in and while she might at first say, 'hey no,' then she might call back and say, 'I've been thinking about that and I'm gonna try it.' Or 'I'm gonna try it and then I'm gonna do this.' Even with some early lyrics changes, she was so intuitive and such a sponge. The quickest learner that I've ever worked with.

That reminds me of what people said about Michael Jackson as a child, how he would study everything happening in the studio and then come back years later with his variation. It sounds like she was just soaking it all in.

You could see in her eyes when it was coming. She would literally go to this other place, step away, say something into her iPhone and then be like, 'Okay, I'm back.' You talk to Max Martin today and I would guess he would say she loves the collaboration because she's always willing, but also very direct.

It ended up spending 277 weeks on the charts. You knew that would happen right?

[Laughs] Dark Side of the Moon was truly the goal!

I have to ask, what's next? She's traditionally released an album every two years in October and we're running out of October. 

The first rule of Taylor Club is you don’t talk about Taylor Club.