It takes about 30 seconds of conversing with Taylor Swift to realize that this excited teenager is also a savvy, no-nonsense careerist. Here is a lady who knows exactly what she wants and is bullet straight in going for it.
Swift, who will turn 17 on Dec. 13, is still riding high on her first single, "Tim McGraw." It is easily the most sensuous and catchy coming-of-age song since "Strawberry Wine," and her accompanying music video shows these adolescent emotions coming to a boil.
"I wrote [the song] in my freshman year of high school," Swift explains. "I got the idea in math class. I was just sitting there, and I started humming this melody. I kind of related it to this situation I was in. I was dating a guy who was about to go off to college. I knew we were going to break up. So I started thinking about all the things that I knew would remind him of me. Surprisingly, the first thing that came to mind was that my favorite country artist is Tim McGraw."
A native of Wyomissing, Pa., near Reading, Swift has been obsessed with performing since she was 10.
"Every single weekend, I would go to festivals and fairs and karaoke contests -- any place I could get up on stage," she recalls. "The cool thing about this is that my parents have never pushed me. It's always been [my] desire and love to do this. That's what makes this so sweet. ... If I had been pushed, if I didn't love this, I would probably not have been able to get this far."
One of Swift's early mentors was country singer and bar owner Pat Garrett, who scored several minor hits in the 1980s.
"I started out singing karaoke in his roadhouse -- his little bar -- when I was 10 years old," she says. "He'll vouch that I was in there every single week saying, 'I'm just going to come back if you don't let me win one.' I was kind of like an annoying fly around that place. I just would not leave them alone. What they would do is have these karaoke contests. And if you won, you got to open for, like, Charlie Daniels or George Jones. I would go until I would win."
Swift made her first foray into Nashville when she was 11, but nothing came of it. Two years later, however, her family bowed to her ambition and moved to Music City. Even at 13, her talent was striking. It earned her attention from several major labels and, ultimately, a development deal from RCA Records. That deal, although it never yielded her a record, did give her the muscle to secure a publishing contract with mammoth Sony/ATV Music when she was only 14.
Although Swift denies having any malice toward the labels that overlooked or neglected her, a glimmer of resentment still shines through.
"I can understand," she says. "They were afraid to put out a 13-year-old. They were afraid to put out a 14-year-old. Then they were afraid to put out a 15-year-old. Then they were nervous about putting out a 16-year-old. And I'm sure if I hadn't signed with Scott Borchetta [head of Big Machine Records], everybody would be afraid to put out a 17-year-old."
Borchetta signed Swift in 2005, and she recorded her album during a four-month period just before the year ended. Big Machine released "Tim McGraw" in June and her self-titled album in late October. Swift wrote three of the album's 11 songs on her own and co-wrote the rest.
Not surprisingly, the songs are about young love and angst.
"You listen to my album," Swift says, "and it sounds like I've had 500 boyfriends. But that's really not the case. I found that you don't have to date someone to write a song about them."
Take, for example, "The Outside," a song she penned when she was 12.
"I was going through a really tough time in school and facing a lot of rejection among my peers," she explains. "I found that I was alone a lot of the time, kind of on the outside looking into their discussions and the things they were saying to each other. They really didn't talk to me. In the process of coming to that realization, I started developing this really keen sense of observation -- of how to watch people and see what they did. From that sense, I was able to write songs about relationships when I was 13 but not in relationships."
Then there's "Should've Said No," which she wrote just a week before her final recording session. "Basically, it's about a guy who cheated on me and shouldn't have because I write songs," she zings. Indeed, some of her songs cite the names of actual or might-have-been boyfriends, while others spell them out in code. (To "crack" the code, Swift explains helpfully, one simply has to jot down the capital letters in the order they appear in the lyrics printed in the liner notes.)
"We switched [album] producers a bunch of times," Swift says. "I started off with this demo producer who worked in a little shed behind this publishing company I was at. His name was Nathan Chapman. I'd always go in there and play him some new songs, and the next week he would have this awesome track, on which he played every instrument, and it sounded like a record. We did this for a period of a year to two years before I got my record deal.
"Then, all of a sudden, it was, 'OK, we're going to use this producer' or 'We're going to use that producer.' So I got to record with a bunch of really awesome producers in Nashville. But it didn't sound the way that it did with Nathan. He had never made an album before. He had just recorded demos. But the right chemistry hit. Finally my record label president said, 'OK, try some sides with Nathan.'" In the end, Chapman produced all but one of the cuts.
Swift spent much of this year doing a radio tour to promote "Tim McGraw" specifically and the album generally. "Radio tours for most artists last six weeks," she observes. "Mine lasted six months. That's because I wanted it to. I wanted to meet every single one of the people that was helping me out."
The whirlwind life hasn't hurt Swift academically. Last year, she had a perfect 4.0 grade point average. Now a junior, she's being home-schooled, although she admits she's seldom home. She hopes to accelerate her studies and graduate early.
As she was nearing the end of her radio tour, Swift got a call from Rascal Flatts, asking her to open nine shows for them. With only a two-day advance warning, she hit the road with the trio, initially backed only by a guitar player and a fiddler. Next year, she will open for George Strait.
"I'm still in the 'Oh-my-gosh-this-is-really-happening' phase," Swift confesses. "After all these concerts that I do, people line up and want me to sign things. I still haven't been able to grasp the fact that if I sign a piece of paper, it might mean something to somebody."
One thing Swift won't have to worry about while she's on the road is writing songs for her next album. "I've been very selfish about my songs," she says. "I had this dream of this project coming out for so many years now that I just stockpiled. I'm so happy that I did because now we have a second album full of songs and a third album full of songs, and I don't have to lift a finger."