With Red, one of music’s most successful female vocalists pushes the boundaries to prove she’s ready to grow up. But that’s not to say there aren’t touches of the old Taylor Swift throughout her new album. The catchy song “22,” titled after Swift’s age, opens with the irresistible line: “It feels like the perfect night to dress up like hipsters/and make fun of our exes, uh-huh.” And the addictive “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together Again,” peddles the same kind of girl-power angst that has helped Swift sell 18.4 million albums in the United States since she debuted as a country star at 16.
On her fourth studio album, Swift—who writes or co-writes all of her songs—makes good use of outside help. Swedish producers Max Martin (“I Kissed a Girl”) and Shellback collaborate on some of her feistiest tunes. “The Last Time” is a duet with Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody. The first song on the record, “State of Grace,” sounds like a U2 hit.
Red is so infectious that as I listened to it at a Universal Music office in New York last week, I had to resist the urge not to sing along. Later that day, Swift called me to talk songwriting, feminism, heartbreak, dating, and the one TV show she wished featured more of her music.
Hi Taylor. I loved the album.
Good! I’m glad.
Doesn’t it weird you out that a 30-year-old guy likes your music?
No. That makes me incredibly happy.
Aren’t your fans mostly female?
It’s been pretty even, actually, in the last year or so. Lots of guys out in the audience, which is good to see.
You started out as a country artist, but now I think you sound more pop.
I feel like my music has become a lot of things. It’s hard to label the evolution, but I like there to be an evolution. I just like to paint with all different kinds of colors.
What were you thinking when you went to record your new album?
When I went in to make this record, I recorded the songs over a two-year period. Every time I would come up with a new song that sounded different or unique or new, compared to what I had to done before, I knew we were getting closer. What I wanted was an album that explored the edges and broke new ground. One of my big fears is people saying my songs are all starting to sound the same.
You really wanted to push yourself.
I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone. My comfort zone is writing alone. So to take your inner thoughts and your ideas and feelings and to put them on display in front of someone else in a studio setting, and say, “Hey can you help me with this?”
Are your songs autobiographical?
Sometimes, I write about my own life. And sometimes, I write about situations I see my friends going through. Sometimes, I write about a scene I saw in a movie. I take inspiration from all different places. It’s hard to say what different topics inspire me the most. I think people inspire me the most. If I meet a person who is incredibly complex and all of a sudden, I start thinking in rhymes, that person could be a muse.
Do you ever felt guilty about writing about an ex?
I take these songs and these people who inspire these songs on a case-by-case basis. If there were someone who was a good person, I’m not going to write something bad about them. But if they handle a situation in a way that really messed up my life for a while, that’s what I’m going to write about. For me, I’ve never changed the reason I write a song. Songs for me are like a message in a bottle. You send them out to the world and maybe the person who you feel that way about will hear about it someday.
Aren’t you worried this will scare off guys you might want to date?!
I don’t know. I’ve never had a guy say to me, “I was thinking of asking you out, but I was afraid I would end up in that song.” I have had a guy say, as we were breaking up, “You better not write a song about this.” At which point, I proceeded to write an entire album about it.
I bet you’re not going to tell me who that was.
Do you think your music empowers women?
I write from a place of my personal feelings about things. It’s funny when you write a song and you don’t expect it to turn into what it turns into when it goes out in the world. I wrote a song called “Mean” about a critic who hated me. I put it out, and all of a sudden, it became an anthem against bullies in schools, which is a refreshing and new take on it. When people say things about me empowering women, that’s an amazing compliment. It’s not necessarily what I thought I was doing, because I write songs about what I feel. I think there’s strength when you’re baring your emotions.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.
One of my favorite songs on the album is “22.” To me, it’s like a bookend to “Fifteen,” from your second album.
Having written a song called “Fifteen,” about how much I learned at age 15, and how that was a really heavy year for me. I learned a lot of lessons the hard way and it was a vulnerable age. And 22 is a vulnerable age, but you’re a little more brave. You’re a little more ready to take risks and live with the consequences. To me, the song “22” has a more carefree background to it. Because the age of 22 is much more carefree for me than 15 was.
You’re out in the world. You’re trying to figure out where you’re going. You’re making your way in life. You have all this independence, all this freedom and all these opportunities to make your own mistakes.
Are you not as afraid of failing?
I’m always afraid of failing. I have to quiet that fear if I’m going to get up in the morning. At this point, my fear of failure lies in my fear of taking risks and my fear of taking chances or becoming boring.
Why do you think girls look up to you?
It’s the message. I try to have a normal life and look at things in a normal way, under very abnormal circumstances. That’s always going to be my main goal, that’s always what I’m going to strive for, to be a normal human being. It’s interesting because you’re put in really abnormal situations. You have an abnormal-size microscope covering your life and everything you do. You look at the idea of being 22, that’s when you’re supposed to be out there living and being selfish and making mistakes and messing up. If I mess up once, it’s a headline everywhere.
Do you ever read about yourself?
I don’t, really. If I focus too much about what people think about me on a daily basis—every five minutes there’s a new blog about me, let’s say. If I go through and read all that stuff and care what people are thinking on a minute-to-minute basis about my life, that seems really egocentric. It seems self-obsessed and it would bring out all these insecurities that would make me a horrible person to be around.
I read somewhere that you get stage fright?
Yeah, I do. I get stage fright for awards-show performances and for TV shows that I feel like everybody is watching, even people who don’t like me.
How do you overcome that?
I try to mentally walk myself through it. I say, This is OK; you’re going out there singing a song. It’s a simple thing you’re doing. You’re going out there and singing a song. Your job isn’t that hard. Calm down. Stop freaking out.
Does that work?
Sometimes I have to stop being a baby about it.
Your cat is named Meredith after the hero from Grey’s Anatomy.
Yeah. She’s a really good cat.
Are you still watching?
I’ve been watching the show since it first came out. It’s the one long-term relationship that I’ve had. It’s sort of my dream to get songs on there, to have my songs playing in the background of an episode.
I’m sure we can call ABC and make something happen.
Oh, please do.
Do you see yourself settling down and getting married?
I have no idea. One thing I’ve learned about life and love, you have no idea what it’s going to throw at you. So I just really have no idea where I’m going to end up.
What qualities do you look for in a guy?
I don’t really look for anything. I don’t have a type. I don’t have a specific kind of human being. It’s just kind of an X-factor of sorts. Everybody I’ve ever dated has been a case-by-case situation. None of them have had any real similarities as far as how we met or what kind of relationship it was. I just try to operate based on spontaneity.
Do you get your heart broken more or do you break hearts?
I feel like I get my heart broken more than break hearts. I just kind of, I think that’s been more the case, for sure.
Are you currently in a relationship?
Don’t go there. C’mon.
I was just wondering.
I know you have to ask. But don’t ask.
OK fair enough. I know that after each concert, you hold a tea party for your fans.
We called it the tea party on the last tour. We like to reward people who are in the back rows, or people who didn’t think they had a chance to say hi to me at the show, people who brought signs and dressed up and make puffy-paint T-shirts and go crazy. It’s almost like a spirit award. We round them up and we bring them backstage for a party after the show. I come and say hi and take pictures.
What songs do you have on your iPod?
Um, I have … let me see.
Do you have an iPod?
Yeah, I do. Hold on. I’m looking at it. I have, like, One Republic, Rihanna, Coldplay, that band Passenger. All kinds of stuff. The Sun. Jimmy Eat World.
Thanks for your time.