For a singer-songwriter who pours out her heart in song to near transparency, Taylor Swift is tightlipped when it comes to having probing discussions about her personal life.
Over a recent lunch in a near empty pizza parlor, the 20-year-old deflects questions that may reveal details about the love and heartbreak that inspired many of the songs on her third album, the instant blockbuster “Speak Now.”
The guy in “Dear John” is John Mayer, right? Which song is about Taylor Lautner? Who’s Swift referring to on “Better Than Revenge”?
Don’t expect Swift to tell you.
“The one thing that allows me to sleep at night is knowing that I’ve never confirmed who I write my songs about,” the lanky blonde says with a sly smile.
And what about those strolls through Brooklyn with Jake Gyllenhaal? “I don’t want to talk about it,” she says, with typical sweetness.
But as indirect as she may be in interviews, she was resolute that “Speak Now,” like her other multiplatinum albums, be raw and reflective of her personal journey over the last two years, despite her superstar status.
“I think the only hesitation I’ve seen her struggle with on this new album — was she being honest enough — ‘Am I telling everybody exactly how I feel?’” says Nathan Chapman, who co-produced “Speak Now” with Swift and has worked on all of her albums.
That led to one song being bounced from consideration after she played it for her guitar player — and he gave it the thumbs-down.
“He said to me, ‘I don’t think that song is as honest and direct as you’ve been in your other music that I’ve heard from this record,’” she recalls. “As soon as he said that, I scratched that song off the list and added him to the list of the people that I always play music for.”
“Speak Now” may be the most personal record of her young career. It may also be her best. The follow-up to the Grammy-winning “Fearless,” '‘Speak Now” debuted last month to near-universal acclaim. It also debuted to over 1 million in sales in its first week, with the largest album debut for any artist since 50 Cent in 2005.
Days after the achievement, Swift — looking glamorous in a black lace dress accentuated by diamond-like bling on her ears and fingers (“Urban Outfitters!” she exclaims proudly) — is still trying to comprehend the magnitude of it all.
“Mostly the feeling that I’ve had is just overwhelming gratitude,” she says. “I wrote an album for two years. I slaved away over every single detail of every line, of every lyric, and made an album that I was proud of.”
Swift has always taken a page from her diary to inform her songwriting, and “Speak Now” is no different. The searing “Dear John” ballad seems to confirm tabloid rumors of a romantic relationship with Mayer, her former mentor; “Back to December” seems to be about a romance with Lautner that ended due to Swift’s missteps. Other tunes seem to give listeners a glimpse into Swift’s personal life.
While there has been plenty of speculation about who’s who on “Speak Now,” Swift refuses to let those thoughts consume her.
“If I factor in that millions of people may possibly speculate who that song is written about … I may start to edit my songs down to nothing,” she says. “So I keep them very, very one-on-one, just ‘message in a bottle’ to the person I’m writing the song to, about or for.”
One message she’s confirmed publicly is for Kanye West on “Innocent,” which she debuted at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. West boorishly interrupted Swift’s victory speech at last year’s awards. It’s an incident that neither has been able to completely shake (though it’s a footnote for her and a detriment to him).
The lyrics are sympathetic to West and don’t take him to task: “I think that there are a lot of people who expected me to write a song about a situation … and stomp my feet and throw a tantrum about it, but that just simply isn’t what I was feeling.”
But Swift is weary of the subject. Right before this year’s VMAs, West went on an emotional Twitter rant where he apologized to Swift; in recent weeks, though, he seems to have taken jabs at Swift, saying “Fearless” didn’t deserve album of the year and seemingly taking some credit for Swift’s million-week sales.
When told of the latter comments, a surprised Swift exclaims, “What?” She rolls her eyes, but quickly regains her composure and says with a steely glaze: “I didn’t have a lot of choice in that situation, but the only choice that I’ve made after the fact is to not talk about it, and that’s the only choice I can continue to make.”
Perhaps the only other moment from the past two years that tripped up her otherwise magical ride to the top occurred after her triumph at the Grammys, when after becoming the youngest person to win a best-album Grammy, some critics assailed her onstage vocal performance during the show.
Criticism is rare, butwhen it comes, it’s usually centered on her voice, which doesn’t go unnoticed on the song “Mean.” On it, Swift assails her critics as “pathetic” and pictures a landscape where she soars over dreary naysayers.
“Criticism is something that is a very case-by-case situation and scenario for me, because sometimes I can tune it out and go about my day and still feel OK despite hearing something negative,” she says. “But other times it levels me, and in times like that the only thing I can do to feel a little bit OK about it is to write a song about it.”
It’s the mantra that has gotten her to the top of the pop world before 21, a milestone she’ll reach in December. The album is on track to sell at least 2 million before the year is out. It’s sure to get a boost from her first prime-time special on Thanksgiving evening on NBC.
Right now, Swift is the undisputed queen of the industry — pop, country or otherwise. But the queen is a young adult trying to figure out how to soak in all the success without losing herself. To that end, she still hangs out with her core group, which includes her parents and brother; her best gal pal, Abigail, made famous in her songs; and musical compatriots like her bandmates.
“Trying to balance living between hope and fear, and some days being closer to one end than the other, and trying to figure out where I stand on that whole thing — that’s taught me a lot,” she says. “I guess the sigh of relief (is) that I’m living in this moment that I still feel understood by my fans. The fact that we’re still on the same page, my fans and I, that makes me happy.”