Swift turns to big pop

Taylor Swift performs at the MTV Music Awards earlier this year. Photo by Reuters.
Taylor Swift performs at the MTV Music Awards earlier this year. Photo by Reuters.
Taylor Swift makes a grown-up move on Red, writes Randy Lewis, of the Los Angeles Times.

During the 13 months that Taylor Swift canvassed the globe on her 2011-12 Speak Now tour, she was joined on stage by a steady parade of celebrity musician friends and admirers: Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber in LA, Usher in Atlanta, Selena Gomez and James Taylor at Madison Square Garden in New York.

On the surface, the guest appearances were simply a bonus for fans - a little something to generate extra tweets.

But the move seems to have had an unanticipated side effect on the star - and her new album, Red.

"I reached a moment in making this album where I just wanted to get into the studio with people who do things differently than I do and see how they do it," said Swift (22), during a recent break in rehearsals in North Hollywood.

"It was really more of an experience decision. I really never want to get stuck making the same album more than once."

Red, Swift's fourth album, is an unapologetically big pop record that opens new sonic vistas for her, thanks to collaborations with pop-world heavyweights including Max Martin and his frequent songwriting and production partner Shellback, Ed Sheeran, Jeff Bhasker and Semisonic singer Dan Wilson.

The new alliances manifest in the big-beat pop chorus of the album's first single, We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together, which she wrote with Martin and Shellback, who produced it. The title track, her essay on a best-of-times, worst-of-times relationship, opens over a simple banjo accompaniment, but quickly kicks into rock overdrive with pounding drums and a throbbing bassline. The song 22 applies a strong dose of Auto-Tune to mechanise her vocal over what sounds like programmed electronic drums.

And she's gained considerable attention for the peppery syncopated rhythms in I Knew You Were Trouble and the hints of dubstep she, Martin and Shellback weaved into her tale of yet another star-crossed romance.

With only the most fleeting traces of the country music with which she launched her career, the album creatively too takes her deeper into the pop world than Speak Now, for which she proudly wrote all 14 songs single-handedly. It became the first album in more than five and a-half years to sell more than 1 million copies in its first week of release when it came out two years ago.

On the floor of the rehearsal studio, Swift displays the same fire in the belly and intense drive that she exhibited at 17, shortly after the release of her 2006 debut album, Taylor Swift. But there's a new authority in her voice, perhaps culled from her transition over the past half decade from a wide-eyed ingenue to one of the biggest pop stars of the new millennium.

More obvious to the outside world than all of that is the increasingly sophisticated - and refined - fashion sense she's developed as a top-rank model and cover girl.

"One of the things I'm proudest of is that I feel like every one of the three albums I've put out so far stand alone in one way or another," she said, sitting on a couch in a small room off the rehearsal hall. She had been working with her seven-piece band and half a dozen dancers before their VMA show performance of We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together, the first single off Red that recently brought Swift her first No 1 hit on the Billboard 100 pop singles chart.

"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."

Swift might be two months shy of 23, but she has 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 honoured for her songwriting by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the publishing rights organisation, 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 has 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 is exploring the more nuanced relationship issues she is encountering as an adult: in the former, recognising her vulnerability when she is 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 did not work out, coming to the realisation that it is OK to be alone.

Everything Has Changed, which she and duet partner Sheeran wrote - while sitting on a trampoline in the backyard of her house in LA, she noted - conveys the swept-away feeling of young love, 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".

"For me, when people make speculations, I hope that they are 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 has earned from creating a debut album that has 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 US.

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 had 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 conceptualise 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 colours to paint with."

This is the same voracious thirst for knowledge she exhibited early on, and that persuaded her parents to move to Nashville with their ambitious 14-year-old daughter.

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

Case in point: We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together reaching No 1 on the Billboard 100 pop chart, one of the few commercial peaks she had not yet conquered. It has also become a bona-fide hit in England, a sign of the solidifying international appeal she has been building for several years, a rarity for Nashville-based musicians.

Meanwhile, Swift continues to be a lightning rod for attention, positive and negative. For every award she collects, such as her six Grammys including the album of the year for Fearless, she weathers withering blows from listeners and music critics who question her vocal abilities, even her enthusiasm whenever good news comes her way.

"I never have the moment where I feel like it's too much," she said. "But there's definitely the moment where I get sad that I feel like sometimes people don't believe in anything being genuine anymore. That no matter what, there's someone questioning everything that I say or do."

She makes no apologies for her pursuit of happiness or for her ubiquitous and often-criticised expressions of wide-eyed, open-mouthed surprise each time she is on the receiving end of an award.

"The No 1 piece of advice other artists have given me," she said, "is 'Live in the moment. Really, really understand that this is amazing'. Some of them have said, 'I let it pass me by; I didn't realise how great it was till after.

And I acted really cool when it was all happening, and then afterward I realised I'd let it pass by'. "If you really take that advice to heart, you freak out when you win an award." - MCT

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