Taylor Swift Talks 1989 and More

When Taylor Swift took to the Internet to tell the world 1989 was "her very first documented, official pop album," the tremors were mighty. The only true shock, though, was the multiple-Grammy winner’s willingness to eschew an extra layer of award nominations (via Country categories) in the name of musical honesty. But then, isn’t that Taylor Swift’s modus operandi? Her instincts once again appear to be spot-on, as the new album garners mega-sales by the standards of any era, as well as the most rhapsodic critical response of her career.

Working with executive producer Max Martin, Swift assembled a coterie of musical confidantes and began creating an album that actually refused to embrace any sub-genre, not just country. The New York TimesJon Caramanica wrote that, "by making pop with almost no contemporary references, Swift is aiming somewhere even higher, a mode of timelessness that few true pop stars even bother aspiring to."

In some ways Swift wants to grow up, or beyond what people expect. A highly creative young artist already 10 years into her career, she cast her nets with the dry, almost funk of "Style 2.6," the cheer-style pound-down of the #1 smash "Shake It Off" and the hilarious self-satirizing bit of truculence that is "Blank Space" for a collection that is pure fun and all heart, while still somehow embodying the sense of wonder that keeps her from ever seeming bitter or cynical. She comes across the same way in conversation, as you’ll discover.

How does it feel to be on the verge of your self-described first pop album? Are you afraid that having made the statement, it’s a whole other scale of judgment?
I’m excited and thrilled and filled with more energy than I know what to do with! There is something so electric about getting to make the record that you want exactly the way you want it.
This is a record where I got to go exactly where I thought each song needed to be, and we didn’t think about anything except that. There were no considerations other than the music—and that was great.|

Were you surprised by some of the responses to your announcement? Some of the outcry about you leaving the format seemed to miss the point.
I don’t really think people were surprised I made a pop album; I think they were surprised I was honest about it.

Honesty is one of your calling cards.
Right, I know. But who tells you what they’re doing and is honest? Even though I didn’t make a Nashville-centric album, I wanted to respect Nashville and all the songwriters—and tell the truth about what I was doing. "I Knew You Were Trouble" was obviously pop, but I’d not stepped out into making a record like this.

You can paint a wall green and call it "blue," but it’s clearly not blue. That would go over badly, because people know. So, it felt like it was important to tell people what [1989] was. When people trust you, they believe you’re investing them with a piece of your life—and their lives in turn, so you want to keep that trust at every level.

You've never been one to shy away, but has the honesty about your music allowed this even greater degree of confidence?
Listening to my music is a really accurate way of telling how my life has been going lately. It’s always been a huge goal of mine to never let the idea of "celebrity" deaden the sharpness of my lyrics and the honesty in my storytelling. Being truthful and open is what got me here, so I’m not about to start writing songs that could be about anything or anyone. My confidence level is different every day, and it’s never going to be a constant for any of us, but right now I genuinely love the way my life is. I think that comes through in music, even if it’s a very subtle undercurrent. I didn’t want to write some overt "I’m a strong independent woman!" song, because I think strength can be much more graceful and understated than that. If you know you’re strong and happy and free, it’s just as great to simply live your life from that place as it is to shout it.

What do fans tell you about how your music has affected them?
Because my music comes from a very vulnerable place, my fans usually tell me equally honest and raw confessions about their lives. One thing I’ve heard a lot lately from them is that we’ve grown up together. I put out my first album almost 10 years ago, so it’s like these people have been reading my diary for half my life. And since they’ve heard me sing about heartbreak or insecurity or humiliation or loss or joy or infatuation, they don’t feel so alone in experiencing those things in their own lives. We crave the feeling of being understood, the feeling we get when someone says "Me too, I know exactly how you feel," and music has the ability to create that comfort.

So is it simply a matter of going, "OK, I’m making a pop album"?
About a year into the process, I started knowing what the album is. I work on an album two years, and I usually end up walking away from some of it, but I get focused. But the decision to make this album was very natural for me; I found myself just running towards what felt right to me. As it was evolving, to not do that wouldn’t have been right.

So, it was a conscious decision.
Over the years, I’ve made a conscious decision to seek new ways of crafting a lyric, or a story, to find new ways to set up a song. I am consciously trying to tell the truth—or look at life in the songs, but in different ways. I never want to go into the studio just to make people dance.

So with this record, was it to lean towards the ’80s pop thing? Because, to be honest, this feels a lot like what was going on the radio at that time. Were you even born then?
It was something I discovered when I was young! [laughs] I watched a lot of Pop Up Videos when I was a kid, and they did a great job of educating my generation on that kind of ’80s pop. There was this endless feeling of potential. People were wearing bright colors; they were making bold statements; it was shiny and happy. You couldn’t listen to it and not feel good.

And while you’ve worked with several of these producers, most notably Max Martin, but this really is quite a lineup without being a laundry list of collaborators. Is that what you’re talking about?
Yes. I worked with so many great people. Like I said, I got to create exactly the songs I wanted to write, then make the records exactly the way I thought they needed to be. But as I worked on it, I was surprised by a lot of how it came together. This time, it was a very small group of collaborators as opposed to Red, which was a very experimental, far-reaching project that allowed me to head in a lot of different directions and explore. This time, it was more focused. I think a big difference was having everyone kinda understand what we were going for, and we were all working for the same thing. I did five with Max Martin and Shellback…well, one with Max alone. There were two with Ryan Tedder, one with Nathan Chapman, two with Jack Antonoff and one with Imogen Heap.

Kind of amazing.
It’s my dream scenario. And every single one of them brought something very special. Then having Max as the executive producer allowed me to have all that, and also have a record that was sonically cohesive. That I think makes this record also have a place that sets it apart from my other records.

Well, let’s start with Max Martin.
My writing sessions with him are always so exciting. I know we’re going to land on a melody, and I’m going to go to a corner and start writing down lyrics as fast as I can. He inspires that in me. I get ready for him, get together dozens of chorus ideas, pieces of verses and melodies. There is something that happens with him, where it’s not only about keeping up but literally being propelled forward. And I love that.

Then it evolved to the executive producing?
When I was thinking about what I wanted this record to be, I went to him. I said, "Let’s make this sonically cohesive." Max actually recorded all the vocals except the Imogen Heap song—because that was a one-take thing that was so in the moment, we could never match it.

Do you view production as an extension of songwriting?
I view production as an important tool for conveying emotion. How you make the record has a lot to do with what the songs realize. I wanted the songs to sound exactly like the emotions felt.

Like the nervousness of "Out of the Woods"?
Yes! [laughs]

Tell me about that.
Well, it was written about a very specific incident. When Jack and I got together, I had an idea. But really, I wanted to capture how that felt, the nervousness of "Are we out of the woods? Is this over yet?" Because that feeling, it’s more than words. We kept building, and building.

Tell me about working with Imogen Heap.
I've wanted to work with Imogen since I heard her music in high school and fell in love with its eccentricity. I mentioned her in a few interviews about seven years ago, and never really heard anything until I got a random email this year while I was in London. It was Imogen’s management, who said she was in England and would love to write if I was interested. Of course, I was dying to write with her and was in the middle of writing 1989, so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I came up with this idea to bring her called "Clean." It’s about going through heartbreak and feeling like you’re tarnished afterward, how you have to truly experience pain in order to move on from it. My favorite line is "When I was drowning, that’s when I could finally breathe."

I drove out to Imogen’s house where she has a studio in the basement and watched her create the track one instrument at a time. And all very weird instruments I had never seen before. She is a true musical genius. Watching her produce that song is something I’ll never forget. There wasn’t anyone assisting her; no one comping vocals for her. I realized that day that the only reason Imogen is so unique is Imogen.

As a girl and emerging woman, how different is the experience of writing and making music? Do you think the authenticity of your voice—as a writer especially—heightens the empowerment of your songs?
The simple fact is I wouldn’t be a singer if I wasn’t a songwriter; I wouldn’t find it interesting, and I wouldn’t be able to convey the songs with conviction if I hadn’t experienced whatever inspired them, then simplified my very complicated emotions into a simple three-and-a-half-minute thought. Because I’m a writer, I feel completely in control of every aspect of my creative and commercial direction. Every single aspect of my career stems from a lyric I wrote, an album title I came up with in the middle of the night, a new sound I’ve been experimenting with, and then we create a sort of campaign out of those puzzle pieces.

Is growing up in public like that hard?
As a 24-year-old, I’m definitely filled with mixed emotions when I look back at my old pictures, phases, and the lessons I’ve learned with the entire world watching. But the reason I have no regrets is that everything I ever put out was my creation and never some record executive’s idea of what a 16-year-old should be singing about. Even my mistakes have been made on my own terms.

Do you think your songs empower girls—or even 30-, 40-year-old women?
I think my songs go out into the world and become something different for each person who listens to them, and that’s one of the most exciting things about this. Some people come up to me and thank me for writing "Shake It Off," because it helped them with extreme bullying they were facing in school, while some people say it helped them get over the grief they felt after losing a loved one.

And then I have a lot of people tell me they had the greatest time dancing to it drunk at a wedding. At the end of the day, music is empowering for those who want to be empowered and comforting for those who are seeking comfort... and for others, it’s just fun to dance to.