As instructed, I removed my shoes before entering the tour bus. As I was introduced to Taylor Swift, I extended my hand in formal greeting, but instead country’s hottest young star star pulled me into a enthusiastic embrace.
At 18, Swift plays by her own rules. After selling a remarkable 3 million copies of her self-titled debut, she has been setting up her sophomore album (in stores this week) the new-fashioned way: showcasing a new song at the Summer Olympics, another on “Grey’s Anatomy,” two singles on country radio and two others on iTunes.
She comes off as the girl next door - preoccupied with boys, beauty and her blog - but Swift is also one of the shrewdest operators and boldest talents in Nashville.
She writes or cowrites her own don’t-mess-with-me love songs, which have attracted a new generation of teen girls to country music. She’s poised, polished and popular enough to appear this fall on the World Series, the MTV Video Music Awards, “Good Morning America,” David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, the American Music Awards and CMT’s “Crossroads” (duetting with Def Leppard!) to trumpet her new CD, the aptly titled “Fearless,” sure to be one of the best sellers of the year.
When we visited on her tour bus, Taylor covered a wide range of topics, including the economy’s effect on country music; a video shoot that kept her up until 5:30 a.m., and how much politics she’d bring onstage in this election year. We promised to chat again before her album was released.
“Guess what I just did?” Swift exclaimed, dispensing with the pleasantries, when I picked up the phone the other day.
It was the morning after her Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series - she sang the National Anthem at the first game in Philly - so I expected some baseball talk.
“I voted!” she said instead. “I waited in line for two hours and then I voted. Everyone’s early-voting in Tennessee, I guess. It was like the most amazing feeling when I got to push the red button that says ‘cast your vote.’ When I pushed that button, I felt so completely 18 and American.”
She was genuinely excited and even recalled our previous conversation - how smart is that? - about the election.
Throw a question at Swift and she has a tendency to repeat it - like a student stating her opening thesis, or a beauty-pageant contestant buying time while she considers what to say. But Swift’s answers are assured and well-spoken. Even on the fluff questions - like the Phillies winning the Series (“Ohmigod, I was crying”) or about her boyfriends.
Since she says the songs on “Fearless” are mostly about boys, love and relationships, I had to ask how many dates has she been on in 2008 - and with how many guys?
Twenty dates with the same guy, she said without hesitation. But five or six questions later, she insisted on correcting herself. “It’s bugging me that I told you 20 dates,” she blurted. “I was on way more than 20 dates. And I dated two guys.”
I didn’t ask her to name names, but anyone who reads Perez Hilton - and that includes Swift, who said she also reads JustJared.com and People.com daily - knows that she has been linked to Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers.
One of the most striking songs on “Fearless” is “15,” a look back at freshman year for her and her BFF, Abigail.
“It says, ‘I should have known this, I didn’t know that, here’s what I learned, here’s what I still don’t know,’‘’ she said. “It took me a really long time to figure out how I was going to tell all these different stories about meeting my best friend and watching her get her heart ripped out and me having to choose a career over a boy.”
Swift wrote eight of the 13 songs on “Fearless” by herself. While the album tends to be teen-focused, there are more mature songs this time. A prime example is “The Way I Loved You,” cowritten with John Rich, the ubiquitous song doctor to the country stars. Her most emotional vocal, it’s about a more complex relationship: “I miss screaming and fighting and kissing in the rain/It’s 2 a.m. and I’m cursing your name/You’re so in love that you act insane/And that’s the way I loved you.”
“It’s about being in a relationship with a nice punctual, practical, logical guy and missing the crazy, complicated, frustrating guy,” said Swift.
Swift grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Wyomissing, Pa. At 11, she started pitching her songs in Nashville, where her family relocated a couple years later. Her self-titled CD was released in late 2006 on the impetus of “Tim McGraw,” a wistful remembrance about a courtship conducted against a backdrop of songs by country star McGraw. The disc also featured feisty hits - “Teardrops on My Guitar,” “Picture to Burn” and “Should’ve Said No.”
That disc won her country’s rookie-of-the-year prize, the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award. She was so hyped that night that she was “absolutely shaking the entire performance.”
Since then, Swift has made the transition from giddy teen (“I’m obnoxiously excited,” she gushed at the 2007 Minnesota State Fair about achieving a No. 1 album) to polished pro. Of course, she can slip into the total teen mode without provocation.
How much time does she spend blogging on her MySpace page?
“I post a blog every couple days and I post a video blog once every two weeks. I spend a lot of time (responding) to fan e-mails. It’s really, really important to me, to make sure people know that I love them, I appreciate them and I’m nothing without them. I’ll never forget about them. I’ll always be on MySpace as much as I possibly can trying to get back to them. Sometimes I get so addicted to it that I can’t stop commenting people back. There’s always one more that’s so sweet. I’ve stayed up all night doing it.”
What makes her happy?
“Video editing. If I weren’t in music, I’d be a music video director. I’ve been doing a lot of video blogs on MySpace.”
What makes her sad?
“When someone calls you on the phone and breaks up with you,” said Swift, whose current favorite sad songs are Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Low” and Jesse McCartney’s “It’s Over.”
When I asked her to describe herself, she sketched a complex portrait in words: emotional, creative, quirky, competitive, vulnerable, independent, grateful and social as well as sarcastic and vengeful.
The daughter of a stockbroker and a saleswoman, Swift has natural business instincts. Her latest side project is the Taylor Swift dolls at Wal-Mart and Toy R Us.
“They have my video outfits on and they sing songs when you push the button on her stomach,” said Swift, who used to play with dolls but was more interested in their houses, stables and RVs. “All the little girls are loving them; that’s why we decided to put out a doll. Her hair isn’t as curly as mine, but other than that, it’s pretty accurate.”
Her mother, Andrea, usually travels with her. She appreciates her mom for looking out for her best interests and not being “afraid of hurting your feelings. It’s so important for me that my career goes in the right direction. If that means someone says to me ‘That dress looks bad,’ if it’s the truth, I can take it.”
In the spring, Swift plans to launch a line of sundresses at Wal-Mart.
“I was raised by a stockbroker so I’ve always been conscious of what the market is doing and where the economy is. I never want to put my name on something that an 18-year-old girl struggling through her freshman year of college can’t afford or a family of four who won’t spend $150 for a dress.”