(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Studio A at Capitol Records in Hollywood is the fabled place where Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, the Beach Boys and other stellar names in popular music made some of their most beloved recordings over the last half century.
On an unseasonably pleasant day last summer, however, the artist sitting dead center in front of the imposing 60-channel mixing board was Taylor Swift, the erstwhile teen queen of country-pop music who has dominated sales charts and captured the ears of her generation as firmly as any of her celebrated predecessors.
To Swift's right is Nathan Chapman, the producer she worked with on her multiplatinum 2006 debut album, "Taylor Swift," and its even bigger-selling 2008 follow-up, "Fearless," albums that have sold nearly 11 million copies combined.
On the other side of the glass partition separating the control booth from the studio, leading an orchestra of 28 string players, is Paul Buckmaster, the veteran British conductor-arranger whose string arrangements contributed substantially to the sound and success of Elton John's earliest records as well as more recent recordings by country star Tim McGraw and rock group Train.
It's the first time Swift has used an orchestra on record, and she sounds thrilled with what she's hearing as the violinists, violists and cellists bow edgy accents and dramatic countermelodies on two tracks — "Haunted" and "Back to December" — from her highly anticipated third album, "Speak Now," which will be released Monday worldwide.
"I couldn't sleep last night I was so freaked about this," Swift, 20, whispers nervously to a visitor seated next to her. "You should have seen me all geeky when I saw the names of the new songs on the sheet music out on their music stands. I was like, 'Oh my God, it's happening.'"
"Speak Now" represents a big musical step for Swift. It's one she's taking with a confidence that's made her a favorite of millions of teen girls as well as many of their parents, just as it's bred a legion of skeptics who argue that no one could remain so genuinely thrilled every time she or he steps in front of a TV camera.
Scott Borchetta, the veteran Nashville music executive who signed her at age 16 to his nascent Big Machine Records label, is impressed at how she's handled the success she's achieved in the last four years, becoming the biggest selling act in all of pop music.
Her debut album was a left-field hit many saw as a fluke. Then "Fearless" came out and proved Swift's appeal was anything but happenstance. Now, Borchetta recognizes the high expectations.
"We're not sneaking up on anyone with this one," he said. "For the first time in her career, we're not the underdog. All eyes are on her."
Case in point: the new album's first single, "Mine," leaked on the Internet ahead of its scheduled release date, kicking the campaign leading up to the album release into high gear early. It quickly rose to No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart and has sold more than 1.1 million digital tracks, pushing her total digital track sales above 30 million.
"In one breath, you could say everything is on the line," Borchetta said. "But when you really step back, it's just record No. 3, and this is not going to be her last record, whether it sells 5 million copies or a million and a half. That's for her fan base to decide."
Her own material
Back in the studio, Swift is wearing a light blue flower print miniskirt and a white top under a long, lightweight white sweater that dangles below the hem of the skirt. Her waist length brown hair is woven into a single braid that falls over her left shoulder, far enough into her lap that she often fiddles with it during the session with the orchestra.
The strings, however, aren't there simply to add musical sweetness; Swift and Chapman, who share production duties as they did on "Fearless," want them to add sonic bite and palpable emotion. The use of the orchestra is one indication of how Swift, pegged as the young singer and songwriter who created a niche for age-specific pop- country music and quickly came to own it, is growing up.
Another was her recent arena concert tour, a conceptually ambitious production that presented not just a cavalcade of her hits and album tracks to tens of thousands of fans each night, but a show that took them inside the head, heart and imagination of a typical teenage girl, warts and all. (She'll headline a world tour next year that's scheduled to include 85 shows in 18 countries.)
Where she'd worked on her first two albums with various writing partners, this time the songs are hers and hers alone — a source of pride for Swift, who views herself first and foremost as a songwriter.
"It was a great move for her," said John Ivey, program director for KIIS-FM (102.7), L.A.'s leading Top 40 station. "I can't tell you how many times on the last two records I heard people say 'She couldn't have possibly written this; it had to be the other writer.'"