Billboard Woman of the Year Taylor Swift on Writing Her Own Rules, Not Becoming a Cliche and the Hurdle of Going Pop
Taylor Swift never doubted that her fifth album, 1989, would sell 1 million copies in its first week. But others were not so confident. "Everyone, in and out of the music business, kept telling me that my opinion and my viewpoint was naive and overly optimistic -- even my own label," says Swift, recalling the run-up to 1989's October release in the vast living room of her penthouse loft in downtown Manhattan. "But when we got those first-day numbers in, all of a sudden, I didn't look so naive anymore."
In fact, 1989 moved 1.29 million copies in its first week, the biggest seven-day sales of any release since 2002, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Swift, who turns 25 on Dec. 13, became the first artist to hit that 1 million-week milestone three times -- breaking a record not just for women or twentysomethings, but all musicians. It was an accomplishment that she engineered, maintaining worldwide ubiquity throughout 2014 with the European and Asian legs of her $150 million-earning Red Tour, a savvy and accessible social media presence, and tireless promotion, taking on everything from TV appearances to a role as New York's "global welcome ambassador." And as she made the leap from country to pop, her fans stuck by her, eager to follow an idol charting her own course.
Swift asserted her freedom and influence more than ever in 2014, including moving from Nashville to New York's chic Tribeca neighborhood and pulling her music from Spotify, which led to widespread debate over streaming and compensation for artists. She also revealed a burgeoning feminist consciousness, delivering an impassioned defense of actress Emma Watson's speech at the United Nations about gender equality and assembling a social circle of strong young women including Lorde, Karlie Kloss and Lena Dunham. "Taylor is like this force of protective energy," says Lorde. "She looks after everyone she knows. We're both interested and involved in the workings of the industry. I have this thing in my head that she should do seminars -- 'Swift's 13 Steps' or something."
Swift was raised in Wyomissing, Pa., the daughter of Scott Kingsley Swift, a financial adviser, and Andrea Finlay, a former marketing executive. The family, including her younger brother Austin, relocated to Nashville when Swift was 14 so she could pursue her musical ambitions. "Working in those writers' rooms," she says, in between sips from a Starbucks cup, "writing several songs a day with several sets of collaborators, it teaches you discipline." Since the release of her 2006 debut, Taylor Swift, she has won seven Grammy Awards and has sold more than 30 million albums and almost 80 million song downloads worldwide, according to her record company, Big Machine Label Group.
Still, given today's music business climate, BMLG president/CEO Scott Borchetta admits that it was tough to gauge realistic expectations for 1989. "When you have the entire industry saying, 'Well, it might only be 800,000, but that's a great number,' you start to question if the market could bear it," he says. "My job is to make sure she had all the information." And Swift's job, of course, is to push past all that. Says Borchetta: "I learned a long time ago: Don't ever doubt the power of Taylor Swift."
There has been so much talk about you moving to New York, but people forget that you grew up in Pennsylvania, just a few hours away.
Oh, yeah -- people have no idea! I summered at the Jersey Shore every year. When I first discovered that I was in love with performing, I wanted to be in theater. So growing up, New York City was where I would come for auditions. I was 10, but I was as tall as a 16-year-old, and then you'd have a 22-year-old who could play 10, and they'd get the role. Then I started taking voice lessons in the city, so my mom and I would drive two hours and have these adventures.
I went to a Knicks game a few weeks ago, and people were like, "Oh, it's your first Knicks game!" I actually have a photo of my first Knicks game. I was 12 years old and I was in a halftime talent competition, but I didn't win because the kid who won sang "New York, New York," and I was like, "Here's a song I wrote about a boy in my class ..."
You have been criticized for the tone of the 1989 song "Welcome to New York." Has it made you think any differently, hearing people say that this is a difficult time to afford to live in the city?
Absolutely. But when you write a song, you're writing about a momentary emotion. If you can capture that and turn it into three-and-half minutes that feel like that emotion, that's all you're trying to do as a songwriter. To take a song and try to apply it to every situation everyone is going through -- economically, politically, in an entire metropolitan area -- is asking a little much of a piece of a music.
I'm as optimistic and enthusiastic about New York as I am about the state of the music industry, and a lot of people aren't optimistic about those two things. And if they're not in that place in their life, they're not going to relate to what I have to say.
It must be a challenge for you to move around, even in this city. Do you have favorite places to go or things to do?
The only places I can't really go are huge carnival-type things, where there could be some sort of stampede. It's happened before. Which sucks, because I love carnivals, and I love fairs. I have a hard time accepting the fact that my life is abnormal. I admit it now, but I'm not going to stop grocery shopping just because it tends to be a very hectic situation. If I ever have a family, that's when I would start to think about the inconvenience of it -- if I had to explain to a 4-year-old why all those men are pointing cameras at us and why people are staring. At this point, I can handle it because it's just me, and my friends are really good about it, too. If I had friends who made me feel bad about it, I'd feel like I was a burden to them.
How did the decision crystallize to make 1989 a pop record?
Max Martin and [Karl Johan] Shellback [Schuster] were the last people I collaborated with on [2012 album] Red, and I wished we could have done more and explored more. So going into this album, I knew that I wanted to start with them again. Then I thought, "Wouldn't it be amazing to work with Ryan Tedder?" And then I was with Jack Antonoff and Lena Dunham at the beach, and we started talking about our favorite '80s music. All of this started happening organically, and I found myself gravitating toward pop sensibilities, pop hooks, pop production styles.
When I knew the album had hit its stride, I went to Scott Borchetta and said, "I have to be honest with you: I did not make a country album. I did not make any semblance of a country album." And of course he went into a state of semi-panic and went through all the stages of grief -- the pleading, the denial. "Can you give me three country songs? Can we put a fiddle on 'Shake it Off'?" And all my answers were a very firm "no," because it felt disingenuous to try to exploit two genres when your album falls in only one. I never want to pull the wool over people's eyes, because people are so much smarter than a lot of marketing professionals give them credit for.
So what did that mean at the writing level?
This was just me following where I've been headed for years. "I Knew You Were Trouble" was a big signal flare. When I did something like that, that I thought people were going to be freaked out over, and it ended up spending seven weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts, it felt like I had tried on something new that fit really well. So for this album I decided, "Hey, that thing I tried last time? I'm going to make my whole wardrobe into that."
What was your working relationship with Max Martin, who is credited as the album's co-executive producer?
He doesn't do interviews, so people create this Wizard of Oz-type persona because he's seemingly so mysterious. But if you get in a room with him, he's absolutely warm and kind and funny, and honestly, out of the goodness of his heart did so much extra work on this album and never asked to be named anything. I started to experiment and work with other people, and Max knew that I wanted to make an album, not a collection of songs that sound like they're recorded in different studios by different people. So he volunteered to record pretty much all the vocals -- even things he didn't write or produce. He would come in and spend his day away from his kid, away from his wife, and volunteer his time and not ask for anything. And the more that he did that, the more I realized that he deserved credit for that. That's what made him feel to me like co-executive producer.
Did you want "Shake It Off" as the first single for the sound or for the message?
Both. This album is not about boys. It's not about something trivial; it's not about revenge or breakups. It's about what my life looks like now. And that song is essentially written about an important lesson I learned that really changed how I live my life and how I look at my life. I really wanted it to be a song that made people want to get up and dance at a wedding reception from the first drum beat. But I also wanted it to be a song that could help someone get through something really terrible, if they wanted to focus on the emotional profile, on the lyrics. Because I've had people say things to me like, "When my mom died, I listened to this every single day to help me get out of bed." And then I've had people say, "I danced to this drunk at a wedding reception." If they want to forget about the lyrics, they can, but if they want to hang on every word, they can do that, too.
Billy Joel recently said that one reason he stopped writing songs was because people started reading too much of his personal life into his lyrics. Has the way everyone plays connect the dots with your songs become a hindrance to your writing?
I've been dealing with it for so many years now that I expect the media to do it, I expect fans to do it. Human curiosity is never to be underestimated. But I don't have anyone whose feelings are on the line except for me. If I was in love with someone right now, I don't know how I would handle everyone else weighing in on our stories, because when you're in a relationship there are a lot of secrets and a lot of sacred moments that you don't want to divulge. I, however, am 24, perfectly happy being alone, and one of the reasons I'm perfectly happy being alone is that no one gets hurt this way.
What was your biggest challenge this year?
Convincing members of my team that [the pop move] was a good call. People seem to love the album, and we're all high-fiving each other, but I remember all the sit-downs in the conference rooms, where I would get kind of called in front of a group of people who have worked with me for years. They said, "Are you really sure you want to do this? Are you sure you want to call the album 1989? We think it's a weird title. Are you sure you want to put an album cover out that has less than half of your face on it? Are you positive that you want to take a genre that you cemented yourself in, and switch to one that you are a newcomer to?"
And answering all of those questions with "Yes, I'm sure" really frustrated me at the time -- like, "Guys, don't you understand, this is what I'm dying to do?" The biggest struggle turned into the biggest triumph when it worked out.
You have assembled this salon of really famous women around you -- Lorde and Lena and Karlie. How did you build this posse?
Every one of my friendships has a unique and odd beginning. I was watching Girls and I thought, "How mind-blowing is it that this girl is writing, directing and acting in this incredibly profound, raw, authentic view of being a woman in your mid-20s?" So I went to Lena's Twitter and she was following me. I saw her quoting my lyrics. At first I was afraid, because I thought she was being ironic or making fun of me. Then I looked down further and she's talking about my music all the time. So I followed her, and immediately got a direct message back saying, "When can we hang out? We need to be best friends."
With Ella -- Lorde -- her album came out and I thought it was amazing, so I sent her flowers and congratulated her on a great first week. And I get this text message from one of our mutual friends, [Rookie editor/actress] Tavi Gevinson, and she says, "Lorde is freaking out because she said some stuff about you in an interview and she feels so terrible." She essentially had said that I'm too perfect or something like that -- something that did not even mildly offend me, that I thought was cute. She felt so bad about it, so I said, "It's no big deal. We should hang out sometime." We met up in New York and walked to a park near my hotel, and we ate Shake Shack burgers and got attacked by monster squirrels who wanted our food. I could keep going -- Karlie and I met at the Victoria's Secret show ...
Did you set out to gather these strong females around you? How much is accidental and how much is it because it was the right moment for that?
I never thought too hard about it, but you'll notice a lot of celebrity-type people tend to surround themselves with people whose lives revolve around them. You'll have a posse of these exciting and fashionable cling-ons, and it's because those celebrities need to be fawned over.
I feel uncomfortable being the No. 1 priority in my friends' lives -- I want to be there to make their lives more fun, if they need to talk, to be there for spontaneous and exciting adventures, but I don't want friends who don't have a life outside of me. So whether it's Karlie, who loves what she does in fashion, or Lily Aldridge or Lena or my [childhood] friend Abigail, whose job is making sure that veterans get their compensation checks, the one thing they all have in common is that they love what they do. They have me in their life because they want me in their life, not because they gain from it.
Your mom has been central to your work and your life. Between moving here and meeting all these accomplished women, has that relationship changed at all?
My mom has allowed me to grow up one year at a time. She was very protective when I was a teenager, when every other person would say to us, "Are you going to become a trainwreck? When are we going to see you going off the rails like ...," and then they would name these other girls that they perceived to be trainwrecks, which was lovely. So it wasn't just "Don't drink until you're 21," it was "Don't be seen holding a glass that they could think alcohol is in."
Everybody wanted me to become a cliche. And I wasn't going to let it happen, and my family wasn't going to let it happen. And now I'm allowed to be 24, almost 25, which is nice.
What's your advice for women looking to get into singing or songwriting?
You're going to have thousands of decisions to make that will shape the public's perception of you. Let those decisions be your decisions. Don't let them be some man in a suit's decisions, or some A&R guy with a beanie's decisions.
You have always been so active in promoting new artists. How do you listen to and discover music?
I buy it on iTunes. Things I see trending online, friends on Twitter who tweet about new music. iTunes has really good recommendations -- "You like Lorde, you'll probably like Broods." Well, I do like Broods! Thank you, iTunes.
Which brings us to Spotify. Did you anticipate that your decision was going to be such a lightning rod?
No, not at all. I wrote an entire op-ed piece [for The Wall Street Journal] back in the summer that was essentially foreshadowing this decision. I've talked about it openly and directly, and there's nothing more to elaborate on. Until Spotify starts to fairly compensate the creators of music, I'm not going to be a part of it.
Which websites do you read most often?
No. 1 one is Tumblr, because it allows me to experience my fans' sense of humor. They're sharing not only stories but also GIFs and memes that they've created.
I love Buzzfeed, because they do a really good job of making news funny, or making a complete news story out of a non-news item. Like how I carry my purse in the crook of my arm, and they'll do a slideshow on it. Somehow they come up with these random things to write about that are highly entertaining.
You're coming off of your third million-selling week. Now that you're really only competing against yourself, do you see a time when you'll step away from trying to go bigger every time out?
I have no idea what's going to happen to me, that's the thing. I was really hoping that we could convince people to go out and make 1989 a part of their lives, and that maybe a million people would want to do that. And essentially, my fans wanted to make a statement about music, too. Because they read my op-ed piece, and it was sort of an unspoken pact between us. They proved that they still want to invest in music, that it's important enough to spend their hard-earned money on.
Does it still feel like a struggle to get the acknowledgment for your own work? Even Imogen Heap, who worked with you on the album, wrote on her blog that she had "assumed Taylor didn't write too much of her own music ... and was likely puppeteered by an aging gang of music executives."
Everyone's got their own relationships and dramas, so they don't have time to create a complex opinion of every celebrity. Do I get offended when people don't fully understand how much of the workload is done by me? No, they're busy with their own lives. If someone has studied my catalog and still doesn't think I'm behind it, there's nothing I can do for that person. They may have to deal with their own sexist issues, because if I were a guy and you were to look at my catalog and my lyrics, you would not wonder if I was the person behind it.
When I'm in a room with a writer for the first time, and I bring in 10 to 15 nearly finished songs as my ideas, I think they know that I'm not expecting anyone to do the work for me. I'm not going to be one of those artists who walks in and says, "I don't know, what do you want to write about?" or one of those things where they say, "So what's going on in your life?," and I tell them and then they have to write a song about it. I wouldn't be a singer if I weren't a songwriter. I have no interest in singing someone else's words.