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“I try to think of it as spillover rather than crossover. I’m not leaving anybody… I’m just giving more to everybody.”
TO THE SWIFT GO THE SPOILS
An exclusive HITS dialogue with Taylor Swift
This has been quite a year for young singer-songwriter phenom Taylor Alison Swift, who celebrated her 18th birthday this week (12/18) with a just-received Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, a CMA Horizon Award, a hit Top 40 single in “Teardrops on My Guitar” and a double-platinum album in her self-titled debut for Scott Borchetta’s red-hot Big Machine label.

Born in Reading, PA, Taylor began to perform as a child, in part inspired by her grandmother, an opera singer. By the age of 10, she was already performing at karaoke contests, festivals and fairs, as well as writing her own songs. By 11, she went hat in hand with her demos to all the major record labels on Nashville’s Music Row, inking a publishing deal with Sony/ATV before Borchetta spotted the 15-year-old and signed her to a record deal. One of the reasons Swift went with the newly formed indie label was Borchetta’s belief in her songwriting, as he encouraged her to cut her own material.

Swift’s album was released last October, after the first single, “Tim McGraw,” went to Country radio, five months after she’d introduced it at the Academy of Country Music Awards. She also opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill on their Soul2Soul tour, and has toured with Brad Paisley, George Strait and Rascal Flatts.

Tall, willowy and blonde, Taylor Swift is at once a wide-eyed teenager and a young veteran, but she was giddy with joy on-stage upon hearing Dave Grohl announce her Grammy nomination, delighting the crowd by hugging him and fellow Foo Taylor Hawkins and then everyone in sight. With the support of Universal Republic’s Joel Klaiman, “Teardrops on My Guitar” is rapidly turning Swift into a crossover star. She’ll perform on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve Show on Dec. 31, and just played at the national prime-time telecast of the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center.

HITS spoke with Swift just as she was ready to board a plane to L.A. for the Grammy nominations press conference.

It’s been quite a year for you.
Unreal. Awesome. My 18th birthday is next week, so it’s just crazy to look back. I think, if you asked me a couple of years ago if I’d be flying out to L.A., announcing Grammy nominations, performing on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve Show and for the tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center… I just didn’t think this was going to happen. And the album just went double platinum last week, so I’m buzzing.

I’m thinking you’re going to receive some Grammy nominations yourself tomorrow.
I’m not expecting anything because I want to have a good day regardless of whether I get nominated or not. I’m just trying to think real positively about it because I’m the only person in Country music who’s been invited out there, which is a big deal to me. To be out there with all these other performers from different genres. I think if I’m nominated for something, I would start hyperventilating…and all that good stuff. I’m really excited to see what happens.

You’ve been working towards this for a relatively long time for such a young performer.
I’ve been recording demos since I was 10 and 11. I flew to Nashville with my mom, drove up to record labels in our rental car and, while she waited outside, I’d knock on people’s doors, walk in and introduce myself. “Hey, I’m Taylor. I’m 11. I want a record deal. Call me.”

You were self-motivated in that regard?
I pushed my parents. They’re not musically inclined. They were happy in Pennsylvania. I was just so obnoxious about wanting to move to Nashville. I asked them so many times, they eventually agreed, thinking it might be a cool thing to have a change of scenery and get me closer to where I needed to be if I was going to make this crazy dream happen. I have such an amazing family. They are a blessing.

What are some of your earliest musical memories?
Seeing my grandmother get up and sing in front of people in church every single Sunday kind of made me feel that singing wasn’t all that out of the ordinary. I was conditioned to do the same thing. I never had stage fright.

What was it about country music that attracted your interest?
I grew up with amazing influences, these strong female power voices on the radio like Faith Hill, Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks. That was a golden age of country music in the ‘90s. I grew up with that period. It was really cool music, and it also crossed over from Country to Pop.

Was LeAnn Rimes someone you looked to as a role model?
When I was 6 or 7, she was a big inspiration to me because she showed you could do it at a young age. You can’t have aspirations without basing some of it on the fact it could happen.

What did you start writing about when you were 11, 12?
Heartbreak, even though I hadn’t experienced a lot of it. The second song I ever wrote, when I was 12, I put on the album, “The Outside,” which was about not fitting in at school. Writing’s always been my way of expressing myself and getting things off my chest. And I’m so thankful that I could turn that into something productive. 

Were you isolated from your peers in school by being involved in music so intensely?
There was a period of time in middle school when I was friends with this clique and, all of a sudden, they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore. I didn’t know why. Maybe it was because, on the weekends, they were all starting to party and I was playing at singer-songwriter nights. All of a sudden, I found myself really, really alone. I would go to school and not know who I was going to talk to that day. And that’s a really, really scary thing for someone at that age, or any age, for that matter.  Music, for me, was the reason I never resorted to something harmful to make myself feel better, or ease the pain. I never got into drugs or alcohol because I always had this thing I could lean on and put every bit of pain I was feeling into.

What was your first big break?
My life has been a series of big breaks, including last month’s CMAs. That was huge for me. They’re all milestones. There wasn’t one thing that did it for me because there were so many stepping stones in between. Meeting certain people, doing certain events, meeting contacts that led to this and that. My first big break came when I got a record deal. I was 15 and had been a signed songwriter for Sony/ATV for a few years at that point. I was doing a songwriters’ showcase at the Bluebird Café and Scott Borchetta happened to be in the audience. At that time, he was still with Universal Records Nashville, but I got a call from him a week later and he told me he was starting a new record label.

How did you feel about going to a brand-new record company?
It was scary. The label didn’t even have a name or an office. I had a choice between the majors that were offering me deals or taking a huge chance, and it’s obvious what I chose because my record label let me write every song on the album. They let me stretch out and do things differently than a major label might. I think I totally made the right choice.

What was it that attracted you to Big Machine?
I was a writer first, so I got to hear about the industry though that perspective. I’ve always been motivated by trying new ways of doing things, being different. And there’s nothing more different than being on a record label literally from the ground up. Seeing it start, loading furniture into the office, and watching it grow. I felt like I will never, ever get that kind of experience anywhere else.

You seem to be a fan of the music, as well as other artists, like with your song “Tim McGraw.”
At the time I wrote that, I was just composing songs for my publishing deal. This was just another song. I didn’t see anything special about it. I literally wrote it in 15 minutes.

What was the inspiration for “Teardrops on My Guitar”?
I had the biggest crush on a guy in my class in school, and every single day he would come in and tell me about his girlfriend. He had no idea I liked him. I kept that secret at school, but when I went home, I wrote a song with his name in it. Whereas, in my personal life, I couldn’t be blatant and come out with the truth, I was able musically to be very obvious about it.

Do you have any time for your own relationships?
I could, if I wanted to, but I don’t. What happens if I’m on a phone call with a potential boyfriend and my publicist tells me I have to do an interview?  I don’t want that situation to happen. I don’t want that conflict. I love what I’m doing too much.

How do you feel about working with Universal Republic in terms of crossing over to Pop radio without alienating your country fans?
I’m a country singer. I wear cowboy boots to radio stations, whether it’s Pop or Country. I feel like there’s been a great deal of headway made in being open-minded about my music. When I first came out with “Tim McGraw,” I was 16 years old. If people can accept that, they can pretty much accept variations on what we’re doing. I just look at it as more people hearing my music, which is always a positive for me. I try to think of it as spillover rather than crossover. I’m not leaving anybody… I’m just giving more to everybody.

Do you enjoy doing live shows?
Performing my songs has always been comfortable for me because I wrote them. It would be harder for me to try to sell a song I didn’t write. That would be a little bit of a stretch for me. Singing songs I’ve written about people I’ve met and feelings I’ve had, that comes naturally for me. I don’t feel any pressure…as long as you’re being completely honest.

Do you write while you’re on tour?
I’ve been writing on the road like crazy. There are so many songs we wanted to put on the first album, which we’ll put on the second instead. There’s a lot of material because I spent so much time as a songwriter. There’s a lot of stuff that I can’t wait for people to hear.

So there’s spillover.
There’s spillover in a lot of aspects of my life right now.

What do you listen to for your own pleasure?
I don’t listen to rock, pop or country—I listen to good music. If a song is good and it’s by Kanye West, I’m going to listen to it, just as I would a good song by Faith Hill. That’s how I’ve always been about music. I try not to pigeonhole things. If it’s good, I like it, especially if the lyrics pertain to my life.

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