CMT Insider goes inside the world of country music’s most popular teenager, Taylor Swift. Host Katie Cook takes a tour of Swift’s tour bus, chats with the star about her sophomore album, Fearless, and learns about her transition into adulthood.
In this excerpt from Cook’s interview, Swift talks about her need to create music — and her need to leave her hometown in Pennsylvania to pursue a career in Nashville. The second part of the interview appears Friday (Nov. 28) at CMT.com.
CMT Insider: Let’s start at the beginning. What is your earliest memory of music?
Swift: My grandmother was an opera singer, and so she was always singing, either around the house, or every single Sunday she’d get up and sing in front of the entire congregation at church. Also, Disney movies. I would come out of Disney movies singing the entire songs, and my parents were like, “Didn’t you just hear that once?” So I think that was my first real comprehension of the fact that music was what I remember the most from a movie. Not exactly the plotline as much as the music.
When did music really turn into an obsession for you?
Music was always subliminally the thing that drew my attention. I started to realize it when music became all I wanted to think about and all I wanted to do was sing. I was brought up with parents who went to college and had business degrees and worked in offices, so that’s what I thought I was going to do when I was in third grade. They’re like, “So what are you going to do when you grow up?” “I’m going to be a stockbroker like my dad.” I didn’t know what a stockbroker was, but I knew that I wanted to be a stockbroker because that’s what my dad did. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized maybe it would be possible to have a career in the thing that I loved, which was music.
When did you first visit Nashville?
I first visited Nashville after I watched this TV program about Faith Hill. It said that she went to Nashville and that’s how she made it in country music. So ever since I saw that TV program when I was about 10, I was obsessively, obnoxiously bugging my parents every day — “We’ve got to go to Nashville. Can we go to Nashville? Can we go on a trip to Nashville like now? Or maybe spring break, can we go to Nashville?” Everything led to that. It was like, “So how was your day at school today, Taylor?” “Great. Can we go to Nashville?” I would bug them every day about it until finally we planned a trip to Nashville. It was on spring break, and I was 11 and I had this little demo CD — a karaoke CD of me singing songs by Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks and LeAnn Rimes. And I marched up and down Music Row with these demo CDs, and I’d walk in and hand them to the receptionist while my mom and my little brother were parked outside in a rental car.
You went in all by yourself?
That is so brave.
Thank you. I don’t think I knew any better.
What did you think was going to happen?
I thought that they might be like, “Oh, cool, you want a record deal? Here you go. Sign right there.” I don’t think I knew what was going to happen. I knew what would happen if I didn’t try, and I knew I would end up staying in the same place and never knowing what would have happened if I had tried. What that trip resulted in was not me getting a record deal — “Here, sign on the dotted line. Let’s make an album. You’re 11.” It was really more of me looking around this huge town and this huge place that is Nashville and realizing that there were hundreds of thousands of other people that wanted to do exactly what I wanted to do. I realized that there needed to be something about me that was different, and I needed to figure out something more than I had already figured out. I had figured out the whole performing and singing thing. I just realized I needed something else. So I went back to Pennsylvania and started writing songs and playing guitar.
What were you hearing from people? Was it that you were too young? Was there something that came up over and over again?
Most of the time, I only reached the receptionist level, and they were like, “Oh sure, sweetie. I’ll give this to them.” Wastebasket. But they were very nice. But sometimes I would make it past. There’s a woman who works now at my record label that met with me the first time I came to Nashville. When I would meet with people like that, I think they honestly saw that there was sort of a little bit of potential, but Nashville has been scared for a very long time of young people. When I was making the rounds first trying to get a record deal, the thing that I heard the most is: “Country music does not have a young demographic. The country music demographic is 35-year-old females, and those are the only people that listen to country radio. So you, being a teenager, are not going to fit into country music because the only people that listen to country music and country radio are 35-year-old females.”
That’s what I heard everywhere I went, and I just kept thinking that can’t be true. That can’t be accurate because I listen to country music and I know there have to be other girls everywhere who listen to country music and want some music that is maybe directed more towards them, toward people our age. So I kept trying because I didn’t believe that there was just one tiny demographic, that there was this one pinpoint you had to hit to be able to apply to country music. I thought that it could be broader than that.
When did your family move to Nashville?
After the trip that we initially took and met with people on Music Row, I went home and decided that I needed to learn a few more things before I went back. I learned guitar and I learned songwriting, and I never put it down. I would play guitar for four hours a day, and my mom would make me stop, and we’d have to tape up my fingers. So instead of playing at karaoke bars and things like that where I needed to drag my little karaoke machine everywhere, I would go with my guitar and I would plug it in at coffee houses, and I would bring my little amplifier and plug it in at Boy Scout meetings. I would plug it in at all these different places, little random places where you could play. I now had a portable instrument, and I could go accompany myself, and I could play anywhere I wanted to. That really expanded the places where I could play and my abilities. I played so much that I came a long way in a short period of time.
When I was about 12, we started going to Nashville and taking trips every two months or so, going to Nashville for a week trying to meet songwriters, trying to get my foot in the door at different places. Eventually, we scored this meeting with RCA Records when I was 13. I went into RCA, and I pulled out my guitar and I played them a bunch of songs, maybe 20 songs. The A&R people there said, “We want to sign you to a development deal.” And that was when I was 13. A development deal is not a full-on record deal. It’s not “All right, we’re going to make an album. Let’s go.” It’s “We’re going to sponsor and pay for your demos that you do over this next year, and we’re going to see how you grow as an artist. And then in a year, we’re going to decide whether we want you or whether we want to develop you for more time or whether we want to drop you.” It’s a non-committal commitment, but I was elated. I was just, “Oh, my gosh! This huge record label wants to sign me to a development deal! I’m so excited!” So we started coming to Nashville more and more and more, and eventually we just decided to move.
Did that seem like a big sacrifice for your family at the time?
Living in Pennsylvania was great, and it was an incredible place to grow up, but I didn’t have any friends, so I was like, “Sure, let’s move. I’ll miss my friends even though I don’t have any.” So that wasn’t a big deal for me. But my dad had to transfer his work to Nashville. For a while, he was commuting back and forth and it was an incredible sacrifice for my parents to make and I’ve never forgotten it.
The second part of the interview runs Friday (Nov. 28) at CMT.com.