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ELLE Interview: Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift is talking about love. And her new album, Red. The two concepts seem indivisible. “Most of the songs are about very tumultuous relationships that I encountered over the past couple of years—none of them were anything mundane or normal. It was always just amazingly great or amazingly awful or just frustrating and confusing or incredible and exciting and wonderful and magnificent and magical or terrible. Nothing in between.”
That’s one of the first things the 22-year-old phenom said to me in our interview, and yet it stuck in my head even more than the catchy chorus of one of her latest singles, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It stuck in my head because that’s also the perfect way to describe meeting Taylor Swift.
Let me explain.
Let’s start with the magic. When she breezes into the Los Angeles studio for our photo shoot, wearing a patterned sundress and oxfords, she is all smiles and hand shaking. It’s impossible not to be struck by her beauty and easy charm. Her frame, at five feet 11 inches, is lithe and graceful. Her voice lilts, and her feline eyes crinkle up at the corners when she laughs—which is often. I suspect that she wakes up looking like this, with no need to put on her face before she leaves home. Her face is just on.
It’s suddenly so clear that some people are just born to glitter onstage.
PHOTOS: Taylor Swift’s style evolution
Taylor dishes on her beginnings and how far she has come, on the next page…
It’s incredible to think about where she started, though: a self-described nerd who was raised in Pennsylvania and moved to Nashville when she was an awkward teen to “make it.” Now Swift tops the
Forbes highest earners list (purportedly raking in $57 million last year alone) and is practically in need of a wheelbarrow to collect her various award statuettes onstage.
And yet Swift seems intent on living a “normal” life. She talks about going to the grocery store or a park with the dreaminess most of us would reserve for, well, any of the stuff Swift does day to day (photo shoots!
Famous boyfriends! Makeup and glitter!)—even if she has to walk wearing headphones so she “can’t hear the clicking” of the paparazzi.
“I’m always analyzing everything, so I thought a lot about what my life might be like if this actually happened to me,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d get to still be the same person. I would watch all these
True Hollywood Stories, and it seemed like a lot of people didn’t get to live the life they loved once they’d made it.”
Swift seems to have been able to bring the best of her “old life” into the frenzy of fame. “When you can still just call your best friend that you had in high school and talk about the same things you used to talk about, that’s when you know it’s okay.” Or when you can call up fellow stars like pal Selena Gomez, I add. “A lot of my friends now are stylists or actresses,” she admits. “But we never end up talking shop. We’re always just talking about our lives and our feelings and our relationships and our constant, never-ending,
perpetual mini-dramas that happen on a daily basis.”
I’ve already seen that for myself.
How life and love inspired Taylor’s new album, Red, on the next page…
Swift is sitting in the makeup chair, talking into her phone at such speed that I know instantly what it is: It’s
boy problems, man. “Shut up right now. Did he really say that?” she asks incredulously before launching into a pep talk to the likely teary chick on the other end of the line. Is it Emma Stone, I wonder? Or Selena? Or some girl from Pennsylvania? Swift flits her eyes up at me and I suddenly understand how my mom must have felt when she’d accidentally pick up the phone I monopolized throughout my teen years. Mo-
ommm, go awayyyyy.
Later, though, I can’t resist talking relationships with Swift, who at this point is known as much for her romantic entanglements with men, from Joe Jonas to Jake Gyllenhaal, her broken hearts and gossipy lyrics as she is for her prodigious musical talents. (Although—side note—she’s dating Conor Kennedy and even bought a house near the famed family estate in Hyannis Port, Mass.) “I have a lot of sayings,” she adds, lighting up like a firefly. “Like, if you’re debating whether you want to break up with a guy or not, I always ask myself the simple question of ‘Do you want more or not?’ When they leave and they go home to their house, do you wish they would turn around and come back to yours? And ‘I don’t know’ usually equals no in almost any scenario. I was just talking to my friend about that today.”
It’s good advice. But, more than anything, it makes me remember the excitement of being young—before mortgages or jobs or bills made life narrower and more complicated. (Of course, Swift has all of those at this point, but I don’t think bills cause any stress.)
And what recalls the flurry of youth more than those early
heartbreaks—the ones that hurt so much you thought you’d die, because you had nothing to compare them to yet? On this topic, Swift is verbose. “My album is actually a little bit of a life justification for me at this point, you know?” she says, tucking her feet up underneath her. “Because when you have a relationship that does nothing but hurt you—I know you learn lessons from everything you go through in life—when you’re just reeling from the pain of loss and you’re crying with your best friends on a three-person conference call and you’re just sitting there thinking ‘Why did this person come into my life if it hurts so much to lose them?’ you can sit there and say ‘Well, I got tracks six, seven and 12 out of it.’” She must realize where this line of thought can be taken. “I mean, it’s not to say that I go out looking for bad relationships that end terribly, but they’ve produced some songs I’m really proud of.”
And even though you’d think she has expounded every thought she’s had about love into tracks like “Our Song” and “You Belong With Me,” we slide easily into girlie chatter. She has read
He’s Just Not That Into You. (“I love that book.”) She thinks that when you find the right guy, “it’s not going to be a problem that you are who you are.” And I, apparently, give
philosophical advice like her brother. (“He’s perfect to go to for any kind of love advice because the only advice he really gives me is ‘You know there are no rules, right?’”) She calls him when her friends are out of suggestions. She’s done with tricks when it comes to dating. (“I used to do that like it was some sort of new project, like ‘This time I’m not going to text him back for 20 minutes each time he texts me.’”)
But, and excuse my repetition, I can’t fathom how she won’t eventually get tired of writing/singing/ performing songs that are quite thematically similar. “I don’t know what else I would write songs about,” she says genuinely. I suggest, only half joking, that songs about doing shots or clubbing on Friday nights do very well. She cocks her head like a glossy cocker spaniel. “I just don’t feel like writing songs about anything other than human emotions because it’s such a fascinating thing…. What else is there other than love?”
Taylor chats about taking time to write Red and just having fun, on the next page…
There is a quality about Swift that is strange—and wonderful in its oddness. She is a poised adult, and yet she’s undeniably childlike. It’s something she seems to carefully cultivate. (Innocence? Unlikely. Whimsy? Probably.) She moved out two years ago, when her friends were already sophomores in college. She tweets about her cat, Meredith, and watches “a lot of TV”—mainly crime shows that make her super-scared afterwards. And then there are the face-painting parties. “My friends and I just try to compete to paint the coolest face,” she says with a
bright smile. “I won one time by drawing a giant squid on my friend’s face with black ink running down her neck. It was crazy. My friend can make your face look like a butterfly or draw a giant unicorn on your face.”
That is crazy. Although it does shed some light on the animal costumes donned by the band in her “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” video, which is racking up YouTube hits as I write this (27 million. No, wait, 31 million. Wait. 43 million!). But Swift doesn’t care if I think it’s odd. “When you’re little,” she explains, “you have so much fun, and it’s like, how do we lose that over the years? I think it’s by forgetting to do stuff like face painting.”
For the first time, Swift has been able to focus on recording an album, rather than squeezing writing and studio sessions into an already crammed touring schedule. “It’s been the most fun summer I’ve ever had,” she says. (Sure, we’re talking about her time spent making
Red, but I can’t help but wonder if she’s also thinking of her time spent with the Kennedys.)
It’s easy to forget that she was the youngest songwriter Sony ever signed or that she wrote her last album entirely by herself or that she’s sold a gazillion albums. But listening to her talk about writing and collaborating for
Red, I’m dazzled by her true
enthusiasm for music. She riffs about Jeff Bhasker’s finesse with drum sounds, Max Martin’s gift for counter hooks and post hooks, Ed Sheeran’s brilliant understanding of chords and Gary Lightbody’s flair for ad libbing. “I wanted what they do to rub off on me,” she says unselfconsciously. “This record just kind of came together. There was less kicking and screaming and pacing.”
Keep reading for why Taylor doesn’t hate her high-school bullies and her "Oh snap!" moments, on the next page…
We’re talking now about the cool girls who used to torment her in school—the ones who left her out and made her hate going to class. I’m expecting her to spike the conversation with a description of a justifiable eat-shit kind of showdown (she told me that those nasty girls lined up to get T-shirts signed at a concert after Swift put out her first album), but instead Swift launches into an explanation about how everyone is a victim in his or her own way, how everyone is full of fear. I tell her I don’t agree—especially when it comes to
bullies. She forges on. “I don’t really have in-your-face moments. I’m always terrified of regretting something afterwards,” she explains. “I haven’t had an ‘Oh, snap’ moment, like running into someone who really hurt me and saying something really witty that really cuts them off at the knees. Then I’m horrible—then they’d walk away and be like ‘Wow, she was just super-mean to me; let’s go talk about her the whole car ride home.’”
Isn’t her song “Dear John” a total public “Oh, snap” to John Mayer, who reportedly
broke her heart? (A lyrical sampling: “Dear John, I see it all now, it was wrong / Don’t you think 19’s too young / To be played by your dark, twisted games?”)
Mayer thought so at least, telling
Rolling Stone magazine that he was humiliated. “It made me feel terrible,” he said. “I’m pretty good at taking accountability now, and I never did anything to deserve that…. I think it’s abusing your talent to rub your hands together and go ‘Wait till he gets a load of this!’ That’s bullshit.”
I gently raise this. It seems like a glaring blind spot in her “I don’t think I look good yelling at people” field. But Swift is unfazed by the contradiction. “All’s fair in music and songwriting,” she says simply. “I think that every guy who has dated me has completely known what they were signing up for—it was not written in fine print anywhere. My life ends up being music. It’s who I am.”
I open my mouth, but I don’t ask the next question that comes to mind: Who are you, then?
Taylor speaks on why it’s careful to think before you speak and the importance of being educated, on the next page…
There are clues that Swift is concentrating on saying the right things.
She queues up hip hop on the sound system for the duration of our shoot, but we’re asked by her publicist not to mention any track names. She speaks thoughtfully but with the deliberateness of someone who has been well trained to handle interviews. She makes sure to always be sugar, never spice.
When I challenge Swift on a few issues that are more academic than
texting etiquette, like how her guycentric songwriting relates to feminism, she pauses. “I just write songs about how I feel about life and how I process love,” she says carefully. “I have a lot to learn about politics and feminism—all these huge incredible concepts. I want to end up being really educated about all these big topics that everyone talks about, but, I mean, it’s like baby steps, you know? And until I really form an opinion that I feel is educated, I just don’t know if I can talk about it.”
In many ways, that’s a fair response. Why speak to something you don’t understand when your words will be so public? In many other ways, though, it’s a cop-out. Swift is a modern, smart woman—she might be wonderfully whimsical, but she’s not a kid anymore.
And then we’re back to magic. Because just when she admits to something mind-boggling, like not wanting her friends to see her
business prowess, she smiles—and I remember that nothing in life is clear-cut. Nothing except the fact that we all grow up. Talented kids become well-rounded artists and then, hopefully, wellrounded adults. But until then, we only have today. And that’s okay with Taylor Swift. “I’m loving being 22. Life has never been more magical than it is right now.”