Stepping off Music Row and into the small but stylish lobby of Big Machine Records, a visitor quickly realizes it’s not just the walls that reveal the story of Taylor Swift’s meteoric rise to stardom. Even the floors have a tale to tell. With much of the vertical real estate already claimed by industry awards, framed national magazine covers, and gold and platinum records, the staff has adopted the tactic of neatly stacking the continuous stream of accolades and achievements along the baseboards. All that’s needed is a break in a busy intern’s schedule to grab a hammer, a few nails and search out any open wall space.
The photo most often found framed inside with all that precious metal is certainly a familiar one to millions of her fans: the cover of her first album, 2006’s Taylor Swift. Knowing what we know now about Taylor, it’s a striking image. Gazing back at us are the calm yet intense eyes of a sixteen-year-old girl who knows she has much to say, but isn’t really sure if anyone will want to listen.
“It’s crazy, the first time making an album, not knowing if people are going to care what I write in a song,” Swift admits. “And then the second time around…knowing that there are people who are going to know the lyrics that mean so much to me. It makes it all worthwhile.”
A second time around. It’s hard to believe it’s already time for Taylor to follow up her triple platinum debut. Especially considering that, two years after it’s release, it is still near the top of the country charts.
What’s even harder to believe is that Taylor Swift has yet to turn nineteen.
And when it came time to put a name to her sophomore effort, Swift decided on one word that just might be the perfect adjective to describe her journey to this moment. FEARLESS.
After all, this is the girl who, at the tender age of 10, had the guts to take the stage at every karaoke contest, festival, and county fair that passed through her hometown of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. This is the girl, who at age 11, took a trip to Music City and left in her wake a trail of amused receptionists as she dropped off her homemade demo tape at every label in town. This is the girl who, at only 14, relocated with her entire family to Nashville to sign a songwriting deal with one of the most prestigious publishers in all of music. This is the teenager who signed her first record deal before she could drive. Who sidestepped the major labels in town to take a chance with a smaller start-up label. Who had the guts to step from an ACM awards stage and into the audience to introduce herself to Tim McGraw live on national television – just seconds after playing the last chord of her first hit song that bears his name.
It’s safe to say Taylor Swift knows a thing or two about being FEARLESS.
“It’s a big deal to title your album, so I wanted to make sure that it was the right call,” says Swift. “I started thinking about the word ‘fearless’ and what it means to me. It isn’t that you’re completely unafraid. I think fearless is having fears, but jumping anyway.”
Jump? With this record, Taylor Swift takes a flying leap. FEARLESS is a creative snapshot of an undeniable talent taking the next big step, both in her life and in her music. The high school freshman who once sang of “trying to find a place in this world” has now seen so much more of it. It shows in the new music.
“I think that when you grow up two years, you learn a few things,” reflects Swift. “Some people have been saying that the songs seem more mature. You know I wasn’t really going for that. I just wrote what was happening to me. I grew up a little bit and that came into my songwriting.”
It’s important to remember here — these are truly her words. Following an impressive trend established on her debut CD, Taylor has once again written or co-written every song on FEARLESS – including seven tracks by herself. Songwriting is a craft Swift has been honing since first strumming a chord on a guitar at the age of 12. By that evening, she had written her first tune. She was hooked. Her life became consumed with songs. Every spare moment was spent writing, playing, or thinking about music. Even while hitting the books as a straight-A student at Hendersonville High School, just outside of Nashville, she was doodling lyrics in the margins of her notebooks.
Even now, with her life barreling down the country music fast lane, Taylor still makes it a priority to put the guitar, pen, and paper she keeps nearby to good use. And it’s not easy with her schedule. After signing her record deal, Taylor left her high school locker behind to be home-schooled out on the road. Now instead of English and Latin class, Taylor has been studying George Strait, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts on tour. Instead of class pictures, she’s posing for the covers of Rolling Stone, Billboard and Seventeen.
Now, more than ever, making music has become her way of making sense of all the madness. Writing songs helps her stay grounded as her career launches into the stratosphere. But for listeners popping in Taylor’s new CD and expecting to hear a laundry list of lyrics on the plight of country music superstar rising through the ranks, FEARLESS is going to surprise you.
“I didn’t want to write songs about being on the road and being in hotels and missing your family and missing your friends,” insists Swift. “When I was like 14 or 15 and I would hear those things on an album…being alone, living out of a suitcase… and I was always like, ‘Ugh, skip!’ I’m inspired by boys and love. Those are my favorite things to write about and I don’t think that that is limited to high school. I’d rather write songs about how I’m feeling and the relationship side of things.”
As we quickly realize from several of the tracks on FEARLESS, Taylor has found out relationships only get more complicated with age. Songs like “You’re Not Sorry”, “Tell Me Why,” “Forever & Always,” and “White Horse,” the latter of which debuted in the 2008 season opener of the primetime drama Grey’s Anatomy, find Taylor has learned that “happily ever after” endings are not always a given.
“I think I’m very fascinated by the differences between reality and fairy tales,” Swift says. “When we’re little, we read these books and we see cartoons and the bad guy is always wearing black. You always know who he is. But in real life, the bad guy can be incredibly charming and have a great smile and perfect hair. He says things that make you laugh and he’s sweet and he’s funny, but you don’t realize that he’s going to cause you a lot of pain.”
But lest you think it’s all ogres and trolls reeking havoc on the landscape of Taylor’s love-life, there is a welcomed cameo from a prince charming or two riding to the rescue.
The album’s first single, “Love Story,” offers up a countrified version of Shakespeare’s play that is anything but a tragedy. In Taylor’s world, Romeo is still breathing when the curtain closes…and Juliet has a ring on her finger. And in the incredibly infectious “Hey Stephen,” Taylor proves she truly is FEARLESS by singing about a secret crush – who will most assuredly not remain a secret for long. Yes, the boy really exists. And yes, Stephen is his real name. “He has no idea the song is written about him,” Taylor says with laugh. “It’s someone who I’ve always been friends with and always kind of had a thing for…and he doesn’t know. It’s always fun for me to put something on the album that is personal. Something I know I’m going to have to deal with when the record comes out.”
She even leaves listeners with a positive vibe. The album’s final track is a song Swift wrote to inspire her during some of the tougher moments in the early going of her career. “There were times I was working so hard that I didn’t realize that every single day our numbers were getting bigger,” Swift remembers. “Every single day, our fan base was growing. Every single day, the work that we were doing was paying off. Then, during the 2007 CMA Awards, when they called out my name as the Horizon Award winner, I looked over and saw the president of my record label crying. Walking up those stairs, it just occurred to me that that was the night things changed. It changed everything.”
Some things for Taylor, however, have stayed the same. Her steady creative partner Liz Rose is back on board. Rose was a co-writer with Taylor on seven songs from her debut album, and was the first person to encourage her to release “Tim McGraw” out into the world.
Swift has also invited three more talents in to the writing mix on FEARLESS. After getting the title track off the ground with Rose, Swift called on songwriter Hillary Lindsey (“Jesus, Take The Wheel”) to help bring the song in for a landing. Blown away by pop songwriter Colbie Caillat’s talents on her debut album CoCo, Taylor immediately reached out to her to collaborate. The result is “Breathe,” with Caillat adding vocals to the track. “I think she sounds beautiful on it,” gushes Swift.
And the final pairing brought two country forces of nature together in the same Music City studio. Taylor Swift meet John Rich.
“It was always one of my goals to write with John,” says Swift. “I had heard so many things about him. I just wanted to see what it was like to get into a room with him because I know I’m a very opinionated writer and I knew he was a very opinionated writer. So I knew this was either going to be the best thing in the world or was just going to be a complete train wreck.” Not only does the song they created stay on the tracks, it’s proof that two great cooks can rock a kitchen. Taylor and John clicked in a big way recording “The Way You Loved Me,” a song about the age-old story of a good girl pining after a bad boy.
As if writing every song on the album and living the life of a country superstar wasn’t enough, Taylor added even more to her workload when recording FEARLESS. She joins Nathan Chapman, the main man behind the board for her debut album, as a co-producer on the record. “All the songs for the second record, it’s like they were already produced in my head,” recalls Swift. “When I was writing a song, I knew what every instrument was doing. The strings, mandolin, banjo, or dobro. I heard it all. It was just really cool to have all those instruments I heard end up on the album.”
But even as she experiments with new sounds and new directions for her music, Taylor Swift knows the power of a song begins and ends with its lyrics. And it is in two of the softer, more stripped down moments on FEARLESS – the tracks “Fifteen” and “Best Day” — that Taylor’s extraordinary gift for writing shines the brightest as she remembers fondly moments from her past.
We’ve always known Taylor was an old soul, but songs with this level of reflection from someone still so young – they can leave you shaking your head in amazement. Then you remember she’s just a few years removed from her own freshman year – and you understand why her fans, including her over 1 million friends on her MySpace page, love her. She puts to music exactly what they are feeling.
“I want my fans to know – I’m the same girl I was when the first album came out,” says Swift. “I’m just not in high school and I have a different schedule. I feel the same things, I feel the same way. And my songs are where I’ll never hold back.”
That is music to a Taylor Swift fan’s ears.