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Taylor Swift makes a grown-up move on 'Red'

The pop star has prided herself on writing her own material. But on her new album, she is happy to collaborate with other pop heavyweights. Maybe it's another sign of maturity.

October 18, 2012|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times

"This album does that too," she said. "The reason being that, with 'Speak Now,' it was really important for me to write every song on it myself.... And for this album, it was really important for me to collaborate."

"I think the 24 guests she had on the 'Speak Now' tour really opened her mind to a lot of things," said Scott Borchetta, head of Big Machine Records, the fledgling label he launched in 2006 and turned into one of the music business' rare 21st century success stories largely on the shoulders of a 15-year-old singer-songwriter he had signed named Taylor Swift. "It really opened her mind musically and sonically."

Swift may be two months shy of 23, but she's spent half her life writing songs, and the last eight of those doing it professionally, having landed a songwriting contract with Sony/ATV Music when she was just 14. With "Speak Now," she set a record for the most songs by one artist to debut in the Billboard 100 pop singles chart in the same week: 10, all of which she wrote herself. She was just 20 when she was honored for her songwriting by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the publishing rights organization, with its Hal David Starlight Award.

Despite all the attention on the six collaborative tracks on "Red," including the single, 10 remain Swift solo compositions. Thematically, "We Are Never, Ever…," "Trouble," "Treacherous" and "Everything Has Changed" are aligned with the songs about misfiring romances that she's been writing since she was a doe-eyed teenager desperately seeking a happily-ever-after story ending.

In "Holy Ground" and "Begin Again," however, she's exploring the more nuanced relationship issues she's encountering as an adult: in the former, recognizing her vulnerability when she's not the one being pursued ("for the first time I had something to lose"); in the latter, she looks back with clarity on the value of a fling that didn't work out, coming to the realization that it's OK to be alone.

"Everything Has Changed," which she and her duet partner Sheeran co-wrote—while sitting on a trampoline in the backyard of her house in L.A., she noted—conveys the swept-away feeling of young love, and likely will lead to speculation that it's about her current relationship with Kennedy clan scion Conor Kennedy. A more likely candidate is "Starlight," in which Swift, who still considers Nashville her home base, sings of her 17-year-old date and telling "how we snuck into a yacht club party pretending to be a duchess and a prince." It's another rock ballad with an insistent Coldplay-inspired pulse.

"For me, when people make speculations, I hope that they're making speculations because they read the lyrics," she said. "I really want people to read lyrics; I want people to care about lyrics. I think it's important that a song is more than just a thing you can tap your foot to in the car or dance to in a club. So if them speculating about who the song is about means they're reading my lyrics, it's less of an irritating thing."

Because she scored her first hit record — the savvy, country-superstar-name-checking single "Tim McGraw" — and a platinum-selling debut album while she was in high school, Swift has foregone a formal college education.

But there are the real-life credits she's earned from creating a debut album that's sold more than 5.2 million copies, and its successor, "Fearless," the biggest-selling album of 2008 in any genre, which has racked up sales of more than 6.6 million copies in the U.S.

In that sense, "Red" may constitute her master's thesis in pop music production, because she has worked and studied intensely, one on one, with experts in the field.

"I wanted to know how Jeff Bhasker makes those drum sounds," she said, fixing her eyes intently on a visitor while describing her thought process that kicked in after she'd been working for about a year on the follow-up to "Speak Now," initially once again just using her own songs. "I wanted to watch Max Martin conceptualize a pre-chorus that gets stuck in your head as much as the chorus. I wanted to see him suggest a post-hook, or a bridge that sounds like another chorus. I wanted to see how all that unfolds.... I loved watching everybody have their own process. I think moving forward that just gives me more colors to paint with."

This is the same voracious thirst for knowledge she exhibited early on, and that persuaded her parents, Scott and Andrea Swift, to move from Wyomissing, Pa., to Nashville with their ambitious 14-year-old daughter and her younger brother, Austin, who's now enrolled at Vanderbilt University in the country music capital.

Consequently, her aim on "Red" was to genuinely collaborate rather than simply add musical window dressing to what she'd been doing all along.

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