Taylor Swift named her fifth album after her birth year, 1989, but 2014 is the year of her rebirth. After wooing the mainstream with four albums of her pop-flavored brand of country, Swift waves goodbye to Nashville with 1989, ditching guitars for new wave-y synths, courtesy of hitmakers including Max Martin, Shellback, Ryan Tedder and Fun‘s Jack Antonoff, who she met through his girlfriend and her “best friend” Lena Dunham.
But the LP also marks a personal transition for the 24-year-old: She has a new cropped haircut, debuted a more sophisticated street style and, perhaps most symbolically, moved from Nashville to New York in March. In the past, Swift often seemed to use her music to call out a string of ex-boyfriends. Some already have pointed to One Direction‘s Harry Styles as the inspiration for new single “Out of the Woods.” She is, however, currently single — ” in the past two years [boyfriends] have not been a priority,” she says.
Swift’s mature metamorphosis is going swimmingly so far: “Shake It Off” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the album is arguably the best of her career, and industry forecasters expect it to sell 800,000 to 900,000 first-week copies — the best sales week for an album in 2014. As 1989 arrives Oct. 27 on Big Machine Records, Swift reveals the reasons behind her professional and personal transformations. “I’ve gone through so many phases and I’ve had to learn so much in front of the entire world,” she says. “I feel much more equipped to deal with things now.”
Your music and your life have both totally changed since your last album. What’s going on?
I like to look at albums as being sort of statements. Visually, sonically, emotionally, I like them all to have their own fingerprint. This time I’m kind of just doing whatever I feel like. I felt like making a pop album, so I did. I felt like being very honest and unapologetic about it, so I did. I felt like moving to New York — I had no reason to, it wasn’t for love or business — so I did. I felt like cutting my hair short, so I did that, too. All these things are in keeping with living my life on my own terms. That’s what I’ve been celebrating about this phase in my life because it has made me really, really happy.
Is that why you made “Shake It Off” the first single? It’s sort of like a mission statement about doing your own thing.
“Shake It Off” is about how I deal with criticism and gossip and humiliation and all those things that used to level me. Now I deal with those things by laughing at them. I didn’t want it to feel victimized. Four years ago I put out a song called “Mean” from the perspective of “Why are you picking on me? Why can I never do anything right in your eyes?” It was coming from a semi-defeated place. Fast-forward a few years and “Shake It Off” is like, “You know what? If you’re upset and irritated that I’m just being myself, I’m going to be myself more, and I’m having more fun than you so it doesn’t matter.”
Relocating to Manhattan seemed to be really key for you — you start 1989 off with “Welcome to New York.”
That song is about the kind of wide-eyed optimism with which I approached my move to New York. I was so excited by the idea of embarking on a new adventure, and the way that that song sounds is basically mirroring that emotion, like, “Anything’s possible here.”
In the past you’ve had a lot of so-called “ex–boyfriend” songs. What about this album?
I think “boycentric” is the word people sometimes use for it, but it’s not a very boycentric album because that hasn’t been the focus for me. In the last two years it has not been a priority. So if there’s a song about relationships, it’s reflecting back on an old relationship and what I learned from it. I don’t think anyone from my past or in my life will be really upset by this album. This is the most excited I’ve ever been about an album — it in no way feels like, “Oh, this again…”
What makes 1989 so exciting?
This album was made completely and solely on my terms, with no one else’s opinion factoring in, no one else’s agenda factoring in. I didn’t feel that I was having to think too hard about the musical direction. In the past, I’ve always tried to make sure that I was maintaining a stronghold on two different genres, and this time I just had to think about one, which was creatively a relief. It was nice to be honest about what I was making.
Why go pop now?
I think what made me decide to do that was that, looking back on my last album, Red, when people would ask me, “What’s your favorite song?” I would always say, without hesitation, “I Knew You Were Trouble.” So when I went in the studio to start this album, I wanted to make sure that this album was different than anything I’d done before, and I was naturally gravitating toward those pop sensibilities and expanding that way. But it wasn’t until about a year in that I admitted to myself and my team that this is a pop album. We can’t call it country; that would be the most disingenuous thing we can do, and out of respect for a [genre] and a music town that I adore, I have to be honest. I think being upfront with people that you care about is the most honest way of going about your life and your decisions.
Has there been any backlash from Nashville?
Well, they know that they’re the ones who brought me to the party and they know I am very well aware of that. But I honestly haven’t experienced anyone really being upset. I think that me being honest and unapologetic about it helps people understand that I’m not trying to fool them. I’m not assuming I can paint a wall blue and tell them it’s green.
What’s the primary difference between making pop and country songs?
When you’re making pop, you can make a hook out of different elements that I wasn’t able to do previously, and that has been thrilling for me as a songwriter. You can shout, speak, whisper — if it’s clever enough, it can be a hook. Playing around with different sounds has been exciting as well — sounds from the ’80s I was obsessed with, like, synth pop. I love the production of Peter Gabriel and Madonna in the late ’80s, and Annie Lennox and Sinéad O’Connor as far as vocal styling.
How did you get so into music that came out before you were born?
I love looking back at music history and pop culture history. I’m fascinated by the attitude that the late ’80s seemed to have. In pop music, everybody was taking chances and being creative for the sake of being creative. Everybody was reinventing themselves and taking bold risks and challenging their art. In fashion, everyone was challenging the norm, too — “What are the normal colors we can wear? What are the normal things we can rebel against?” There was a general feeling of intense optimism and endless potential, that really anything was possible. All those things seem to have incorporated themselves into my life in the last two years. I look at this album as me starting over.
This article first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.