Seventeen-year-old country star Taylor Swift talks about walking away from a major deal, acting her age, and ''Tim McGraw''
Who’s the biggest new female artist of 2007? In at least one sense, and possibly a couple of others, it would have to be country upstart Taylor Swift. Literally, for starters: At 5’11”, she’s hard for anyone to measure up to — even Amy Winehouse on a full towering-beehive day. And at age 17, she’s sold more than a million copies of her self-titled and largely self-penned debut album, which was released when she was 16. (With sales consistently averaging between 30-40K a week, double platinum is a foregone conclusion by the end of the year.) Her two singles have gone like gangbusters, too, with ”Tim McGraw” selling more than 625,000 as a digital download and ”Teardrops on My Guitar,” the follow-up, selling 457,000 so far. Only Miley Cyrus, a.k.a. Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, can match that, but Swift has done it without the benefit of massive TV exposure.
She’s currently on tour in amphitheaters, opening for Brad Paisley. ”Taylor Swift was one that I called my manager when I heard her album and said, ‘We have to get her out on tour,”’ says Paisley. ”And for her to have written that record at 16, it’s crazy how good it is. I figured I’d hear it and think, ‘Well, it’s good for 16’ — but it’s just flat-out good for any age.”
EW sat down with Swift recently for a piece in our Spotlight pages; here’s some more of that chat.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tim McGraw told me the only thing he was worried about when he heard about your song was that it might be taking a shot at him.
TAYLOR SWIFT: That would probably be the only thing I would worry about too, if [there were] a song called ”Taylor Swift,” that they weren’t making fun of me, like that ”Go Away Paris Hilton” song. ”Go Away Taylor” — as long as it wasn’t that, it would be fine.
You’ll probably be a multiple nominee at the CMAs this fall.
I have all these countdowns on my phone for the CMAs and all the awards shows. I get so excited about these things because I love to dress up. But I wear cowboy boots so that when I walk down the stairs I won’t fall. I have this fear of falling in front of large groups of people. That’s why I tend not to wear heels.
I was going to ask if you wear heels often, since that might make you a pretty towering presence.
Exactly. I’m 5’11”, so when I wear heels, it’s definitely a really good view that I have. I’m like 6’2 when I wear heels, so I tend to wear cowboy boots a lot.
Going back a few years, since you’re such a veteran in many aspects of this, even at 17: You had your first songwriting deal at 14, and you had an RCA development deal before that at 13?
You did your research! That’s exciting. Yeah, I did.
So does that mean everyone was thinking you were going to make a record at 13?
I was hoping for it. A development deal is where they’re giving you recording time and money to record, but not promising that they’ll put an album out. And they can kind of shelve you, in some circumstances. After a year of development, we just decided that we wanted to look around, so we walked. And it’s not a really popular thing to do in Nashville, to walk away from a major record deal. But that’s what I did, because I wanted to find some place that would really put a lot of time and care into this. And it ended up being a record label that wasn’t even in existence yet: Big Machine Records happened, and then got major-label distribution with Universal, and things have gone pretty well since then.
Walking away from that first label, was that because of the material you thought you would be asked to record? You were so new to songwriting, I’m assuming that, at age 13, you weren’t necessarily thinking you had to do all your own songs.
Actually, I’ve been writing since I was 12, so I had so many songs I wanted people to hear. It was a combination of things, why I left, [but mostly] just because I did not want to be on a record label that wanted me to cut other people’s stuff. That wasn’t where I wanted to be.
And you knew that at 13 or 14?
I did, and it was something that I wanted to be addressed. I didn’t want to just be another girl singer. I wanted there to be something that set me apart. And I knew that had to be my writing. Also, it was a big, big record label with big superstars, and I felt like I needed my own direction and the kind of attention that a little label will give you. I just did not want it to happen with the method of ”Let’s throw this up against the wall and see if it sticks, and if it doesn’t, we’ll just walk away.” I wanted a record label that needed me, that absolutely was counting on me to succeed. I love that pressure.
NEXT PAGE: ”When I turn 18, I may do something crazy, like go out and vote or something”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve said you’ve written or cowritten about 200 songs. Looking back on those songs you wrote at 13 or 14, do you think ”Wow, those were immature,” or were there actually some good ones?
TAYLOR SWIFT: Of course there are the songs where I’m like, ”Wow, that was in my experimental stage.” But then there are other songs where I go back and I’m like, ”Well, I could change this, but that melody’s really cool.” I actually put a song on the album that I wrote when I was 12, and it’s called ”The Outside.” It’s about what I was going through at the time. I was a complete outcast at school and never fit in, never felt like I belonged. A lot of times back then when I was 12 or 13, I would write songs about relationships, when I wasn’t in relationships, because I would look at other people and try to observe what they were going through. But in the case of ”The Outside,” I was writing exactly what I saw. I was writing from pain. And I’ve always felt so lucky, because I’ve never needed an escape like drinking or drugs or anything like that to escape from the bad days. Music has always been that escape for me.
Are all the songs on this album that autobiographical, or were some written in that early spirit of youthful conjecture?
There’s one on the album called ”Tied Togerher With a Smile” that I wrote about one of my friends, who is this beauty queen, pageant princess — a gorgeous, popular girl in high school. Every guy wanted to be with her, every girl wanted to be her. I wrote that song the day I found out she had an eating disorder. There are a couple songs on the album like that, that are just watching other people and making observations. But most of the songs on the album are about actual people that have been in my life. I tend to be kind of blatantly obvious, and with my songs, I’ll even mention names a lot of times.
You use real names, and I’m sure even without names, people can figure out it’s them.
Oh, definitely. The funny thing is, there are so many people in the town where I live, Hendersonville [outside of Nashville], that think they do have a song written about ’em. You go out into this big world and you go on tour with all these people, and you go back and it’s still a small town and they still gossip about it. I think it’s one of everybody’s favorite things to talk about — who my songs are written about. [Laughs] There are definitely a few more people who think that I’ve written songs about them than there actually are.
There are so few singers of your age making it in country. In the pop world, it’s more common for girls your age to have a success — but you always sense they’re just chafing against the limits of propriety until they turn 18, and then the minute they do they’ll start competing with the Pussycat Dolls like everybody else.
When I turn 18, I may do something crazy, like go out and vote or something. [Laughs] I’m just really more of a laid-back person. I’ve never been a party girl. I’d rather write a song about something or rather be doing something to further my career. I know that sounds like I’m a robot, but I honestly love this. Yesterday, I did five hours of radio remotes, which is where you walk around to all the different radio stations and you’re interviewed by everybody. And I honestly love that. That was the most fun part of my day yesterday. And I guess a lot of people don’t like that, but for me, I’ve just never been into going to parties as much as I’ve been into doing this. I guess I got used to having to make that choice when I was little. Because, you know, popular girls in school start partying when they’re like 12. And I had to choose between being popular or not messing my life up. So I think making that choice has kind of made a permanent mark on me to be responsible. Also, when you put out a single, whether you like it or not, you’re a role model, so you have to accept that.
So you don’t try to dispel the role-model thing or put that out of your mind?
No. When I’m about to make decisions, my point of reference is the 6-year-old girl in the front row of my concert. I think about what she would think if she saw me do what I was considering doing. Then I go back and I think about her mom and what her mom would think if I did that.
NEXT PAGE: ”Don’t ask. I just am a Def Leppard freak”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you feel about your age being an angle in your success?
TAYLOR SWIFT: I’ve never wanted to use my age as a gimmick, as something that would get me ahead of other people. I’ve wanted the music to do that. So we’ve never hidden the fact that I’m 17, but we’ve never wanted it to be the headline. Because I want the music to win. I think the actual truth of the matter is that being 17 has been sort of an obstacle, just in proving yourself to radio and proving yourself to middle-aged people listening to the radio. It’s just a number on my birth certificate. But I’m very respectful of that number, you know?
If you look at the research that the country radio format compiles, a lot of it says that the core listeners are older women — and these older women mainly want to hear male singers. Does that mean the older female audience for country has accepted you, or you’ve brought in a younger audience?
I think there’s a little bit of both. In addressing the stereotype that middle-aged women want to hear male voices: I think they want to hear female voices too, but they want to hear female voices singing songs that they believe. But I think one of the cool things about this is that MySpace is one of the main reasons I’m here, along with radio and and word of mouth. And MySpace is pretty much a younger thing, at the moment. We just crossed over like 14 million plays on my MySpace page since June of last year. So yeah, definitely, it’s bringing a completely different audience to country music. And I am so grateful for that. I don’t know what I did to make that happen, because everybody was talking about it. I would go to CRS [Country Radio Seminar] before I was ever signed to a record deal, and I would listen to people say, ”Someone needs to bring in that younger demographic.” And what I’m hearing is that we’ve done that, and we kind of stumbled upon it. I wasn’t trying to be exclusive as to who would like it.
When you had the song ”Tim McGraw,” I thought, well, maybe older women can listen to that and think it refers to remembering a song off Tim McGraw’s first album, as opposed to one off the last one, ”Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” which is what really inspired you.
[Laughs] I think the reason why ”Tim McGraw” worked out was it was reminiscent, and it was thinking about a relationship that you had and then lost. I think one of the most powerful human emotions is what should have been and wasn’t. I think everyone can relate to that. That was a really good first song to start out on, just because a lot of people can relate to wanting what you can’t have.
I was reading that one of your faves is Def Leppard.
I love Def Leppard so much. If I ever did [an episode of] Crossroads — like CMT does Crossroads with a rock band and a country singer — that would be my choice, probably. Don’t ask. I just am a Def Leppard freak.
Maybe you could seek out their old producer, Mutt Lange, to produce you, since all the Shania records he does sound like theirs.
I loved her records. But that’s a completely different kind of thing than my music is. I’m really more acoustic-based. And yeah, some of the songs will have guitar licks that are more rock-based or whatever, and will have hints of all the music that I’ve been influenced by. But we try to keep a really strong acoustic base to my music.
You’re on the road with Brad Paisley till November. He’s a notorious prankster, so I’m guessing there are some fun and games on the tour.
We pranked him first, all the opening acts. You can go on MySpace and watch it. You know how his single is called ”Ticks”? I went online and I ordered these giant tick costumes — like big, giant sumo-wrestler-looking tick costumes — and me and Kellie [Pickler] dressed up in them and ran out on stage and started dancing all around him. And then Jack Ingram, the other opening act, came out in this white exterminator suit halfway through the song, with a sprayer, and proceeded to kill us on stage.