Every act of creativity is a leap of faith, according to bestselling Artist’s Way guru Julia Cameron, and Taylor Swift knows it as well as any recording artist ever.
Whether pursuing the chiming of a perfect chord, a lyric that is intimate, revelatory, and universal, a melody simultaneously uplifting and unforgettable, a live performance that is exultant, spectacular, and expert, a public persona that is larger than life and instantly accessible, the 25-year-old global superstar has been leaping off of cliffs and learning to flap her wings (masterfully, we might add) since penning her first song at the age of 12.
In “Lucky You,” released when the powerhouse chanteuse was barely a teenager, Swift revealed, “There’s a little girl in this little town/ With a little too much heart to go around/ Live forever, never say never/ You could do better, that’s what she says.”
Despite the seven Grammy Awards, the sale of some 50-million albums, a media spotlight that has intensified to blinding since Swift’s 2006 debut, and this summer’s sold-out, 80-date world tour in support of her recent album, 1989, some things haven’t changed for Swift. She continues to follow her instincts and bliss, never giving less than her level best, stripping bare (and always tunefully) “a little too much heart,” and living by example the bold maxim to which we might all aspire: be yourself.
The 1989 album reveals a Taylor Swift in transition, evolving as an artist. It’s not only different from your previous work, sonically speaking, but lyrically, there is an apparent wisdom and an edge. Did this album feel like a risk to you?
Definitely. On the two albums before 1989 — Red and Speak Now — the narrative was very clear: the main character in the songs was almost always someone who hurt me or had broken my heart or someone I'd fallen in love with. The main characters were “Love” and “Some Guy.” (Laughs) That’s not the case with 1989. This album is a bigger picture, I think, about navigating life in my mid-20s. Each song is about learning a different lesson. Some of them are love lessons, but some of them are not.
How do you take the bold step of evolving as an artist, while continuing to honor fans that have been with you from the beginning?
Making a pop album like 1989 after doing four country albums, after having established myself as a country artist and embedded myself in the genre, is probably the boldest thing I’ve done recently. I could have probably kept making country records for a while and continued to have immense amounts of success with them. No one at my record label understood why I wanted to fix something that wasn’t broken, but I was following an intuition – not the intuition of men in suits in a conference room, but my intuition. That’s probably the boldest thing any of us can do – listening to what our gut is telling us.
So intuition is your guide?
Absolutely – but it’s intuition backed up by a lot of logical, practical thinking. Your intuition has to be followed with a good plan. Chances are that’s a good decision then.
It seems to be working for you. The legendary iconoclast and outlaw country music artist Steve Earle recently sang your praises in an interview with Billboard.
Oh, that’s just insane! That's unbelievable coming from him. My favorite songwriters are the confessional songwriters – the ones that, when you listen to their music, you feel like you've gotten a piece of where they come from, their ideas on life, their ideas on love, things that have happened to them. I like to hear the blood and feel the scars in peoples’ music. Steve Earle definitely puts that forth in everything he does, so that compliment coming from him is just unbelievable to me.
Where does that instinct or intuition come from in your life?
Honestly, I don't know where it comes from. My parents don't know where it comes from. All I can say is: music is my real, true love, and it always has been. Music is the only real, true love I’ve ever had that’s lasted, and I’m pretty proud of that actually.
When we spoke a couple of years ago, you told me about scribbling lyric ideas in the margins of your math homework, running to your locker between classes to record song ideas on your telephone. How has making an album changed for you these past few years?
Writing songs has always come to me in the most involuntary ways, at the most inopportune times. I’ll be in the middle of a very intense conversation with a friend or in the middle of a very public meet-and-greet for the record label and I’ll get this idea I need to record for a song before I forget it. Bits of melody and lyrics, they come to me, they pop into my head, at the most random times. It’s really funny going through your life and it’s a completely regular day and everything’s normal and just moving along and then you get struck with this powerful idea that you have to do something about and it completely changes your day. And if the song’s really good, it could even change your life.
Can you think of a specific moment this has happened in your life?
My friends have all had the experience where we’re in the middle of a conversation and one minute I’m completely present and listening and the next my eyes are completely glazed over and I’m so obviously in my head working on an idea. My friends have all had that experience. It’s happened hundreds of times over the last few years. They’ll always make sarcastic comments like, “Oh, sorry. Didn’t realize you were working.” Things like that.
Where does the creative drive come from in you?
I think that because I started writing songs during my formative years, when I was 12 years old, writing songs during a time of life where I felt that songwriting was really all that I had, there’s an emotional connection and reward there for me: songwriting makes me feel good, satisfied, understood, heard. I was at school during the day, no friends, no one to talk to, very lonely. But it was okay, because all day long, I’d just keep telling myself: it’s okay, when you get home you can write a song about this. I think I carried that mantra through my entire life – through break-ups and rejection, through heartache and loneliness. I can cut through all of it because I can always write a song about it.
Frontier warrior Davy Crockett once described fame as “a shaved pig with a greased tail.” Is it harder for you as an artist to open up in your songwriting today now that the world seems obsessed with every detail of your personal life?
Writing confessional songs has not become more difficult for me, but the repercussions of writing confessional songs have become increasingly intense. I should probably take it as a compliment. I guess it speaks to there being some sort of cultural relevance to what I’m doing, that people actually care what I’m writing about. But it is very interesting as a songwriter to know in my head exactly what experiences shaped a certain song, then to put the song out there and see people – people who weren’t there, who don’t know – tell me what or who I’ve written about.
At the end of the day, you’re still, as you sang on your debut album, “just a girl trying to find a place in the world”, right?
At the end of the day, I have to take the bad with the good because the good is so good — getting to write songs for a living, getting to travel the world singing those songs, getting to hear people who don't even speak English sing every word of my lyrics back to me in perfect English. These are experiences that — nine times out of 10 — balance out any negativity that's happening in my life. I try to focus on the right things.
The 1989 tour was a very different show than the Red tour. How do you plot the creative directions for your tours?
When I was making the 1989 album, the number one question I’d get was, "How do you top the Red album (1989’s immediate predecessor)?" In my head, the answer was always very simple: you just make it so different from Red that you can’t compare the two. If you've got an apple, and someone says, "How are you going to find a better apple?” you just go find an orange. So if the Red tour was an apple, maybe the 1989 tour was an orange. The only thing that was the same about the 1989 tour is that I was there, singing my songs.
Is that an act of confidence or faith?
I think in growing up, I’m finding the right risks to take and the right boundaries to push. I've changed a lot in the last two and a half years, since I planned the Red tour. So maybe it’s a little bit of both. I think a good life takes a little bit of both.