The country/pop superstar branches out musically on new album ‘Red,’ which comes out next week.
Just outside downtown, Taylor Swift is preparing for an upcoming performance, taking her band through We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together at a local rehearsal hall. With all the electric instruments running straight to the soundboard and into musicians’ headphones, the only things audible are the voices of Swift and her background singers, acoustic guitar and drums.
Stripped down that way, devoid of all the production extras brought to the single by Swedish duo Max Martin and Shellback, Never Ever sounds more like a folky singalong than the frothy concoction that had the biggest digital sales week of any song by a woman in Nielsen SoundScan history. It still retains its essential earworm quality, though, with a hook that gets in your head and refuses to leave.
That’s exactly what Swift had in mind.
Later, in a sidestage room, the ponytailed singer calls Never Ever “a definitive portrait of how I felt when I finally stopped caring what my ex thought of me.” But Swift still had to exact vengeance on the guy who “made me feel like I wasn’t as good or as relevant as these hipster bands he listened to.”
"So I made a song that I knew would absolutely drive him crazy when he heard it on the radio. Not only would it hopefully be played a lot, so that he’d have to hear it, but it’s the opposite of the kind of music that he was trying to make me feel inferior to."
And why would Swift want to create a single specifically designed to torment someone?
"Because that’s fun."
Aside from acting on the impulse to drive former boyfriends aurally insane, Swift continues to make dramatic artistic strides on Red, the 22-year-old’s fourth studio album, out Monday. Her lyrics are less likely to take on a petulant tone; she’s less apt to play the victim, more willing to own up to a role as willing participant in relationships, even the ones that aren’t healthy.
Red also shows Swift expanding her musical vocabulary. She recorded duets with British singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody. After recording her first three albums in Nashville with Nathan Chapman, she worked with seven sets of producers, including Chapman, on Red’s 16 tracks.
"It was almost like an apprenticeship," she says.
That collaborative impulse grew out of her 2011-2012 Speak Now world tour, in which she covered different songs in nearly every city and invited artists including Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Usher and James Taylor to sing onstage with her.
"We had so much fun pulling other artists in and letting their styles rub off on our performances, singing their songs and having it become sort of a duet," Swift says. "(So) it just felt natural to want this to be a group album.
"Writing Speak Now was a very solitary experience. It ended up being something I was so proud of, but it was a very different dynamic than getting text messages from 12 people when something good happens."
Before the tour wrapped in March, Swift already had an album’s worth of material in the can. Only about half those recordings made the final version of Red.
"During Speak Now, when I went to (label head) Scott Borchetta and said, ‘The album’s finished,’ he said, ‘No, it’s not — you need to keep writing.’ With Red, he came to me in January and said, ‘I think the album’s finished.’ This time, I said, ‘No, it’s not — I need to keep writing.’ "
At that point, she went to Chapman, with whom she had sold 16 million albums, and told him she wanted to work with other producers, too.
"I encouraged her to branch out and to test herself in other situations," says Chapman, who co-produced half of Red’s songs. "Her artistry is so strong that I wasn’t worried if she were to work with other people that she would chameleon into their sound. I was more excited for these other guys to get to have Taylor’s sound on their stuff."
Swift wound up writing and producing songs not only with Martin and Shellback, but also Jeff Bhasker (fun., Kanye West) and Dan Wilson (Adele, the Dixie Chicks).Butch Walker, who once covered Swift’s You Belong With Me, produced Everything Has Changed, her duet with Sheeran, while Snow Patrol producer Jacknife Lee produced The Last Time, her duet with Lightbody. Dann Huff, who has produced Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts, worked with Swift and Chapman on three songs.
"I chose the artists and the producers because I like their style," Swift says. "I didn’t choose them because I wanted to force my style on them; I chose them because I wanted to learn from them. So they’re true collaborations, it’s not just somebody else singing on one of my songs that sounds like one of my songs. It’s a real mixture of the two influences."
On the resulting album, Swift sounds less like the country-pop singer of Our Song and Mean and more like the young woman once obsessed with Dashboard Confessional who now runs with Selena Gomez and Hot Chelle Rae. Swift has always had a thread of heart-on-the-sleeve punk-pop melodicism running just beneath the pedal steels and guitar banjos, but it shows more prominently on Red.
Red begins and ends on romantically hopeful notes with State of Grace and Begin Again, respectively. “This is the golden age of something good and right and real,” she sings in State of Grace. But Swift’s history with men being what it is, things head south quickly.
Chronologically, the album began with All Too Well, a song she wrote almost two years ago with Liz Rose, one of her earliest and most regular co-writers. The song came after a six-month writing drought that followed a particularly toxic relationship.
"There’s a kind of bad that gets so overpowering you can’t even write about it," she says of that time. "When you feel pain that is so far past dysfunctional, that leaves you with so many emotions that you can’t filter them down to simple emotions to write about, that’s when you know you really need to get out."
Another track, Treacherous, written with Wilson, is one of the most overtly sexual songs Swift has ever written and includes the line, “I’ll do anything you say if you say it with your hands.”
"That song was about a person that I knew, from the minute I saw him, that it would end in fiery, burning wreckage," she says. "There’s something about that magnetic draw that doesn’t really let up. You walk toward it anyway."
After a string of bad relationships, Swift says, “I can say I’d honestly rather be happy than have 30 to 40 songs that I’ve written about these thrilling, exciting, horrible, unhappy times. I know red flags, and I steer away from them, because I have a priority on being happy.
"At some point, you grow out of being attracted to that flame that burns you over and over and over again. Thankfully, I hadn’t learned that lesson yet when I wrote this record."
As usual, Swift avoids discussing identities when it comes to the subjects of the new material. Asked about her relationship with 18-year-old Conor Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., she gets practically non-verbal.
"I like the way the stories of my relationships sound to music more than the way they look in print, in gossip columns or in me talking about them in interviews," she says. "I think it’s a better way of telling the stories."
Besides, if Swift declines to discuss a current relationship, she believes fans will get the story eventually.
"My fans don’t feel like I hold anything back from them," she says. "They know whatever I’m going through now, they’ll hear about it on a record someday. They’ll hear the real story. There’s a little bit of lag time. It’s not as instant as going on a gossip blog. But it’s much more accurate."
In addition to We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, Swift already has released four other songs to iTunes: Red, State of Grace, Begin Again and I Knew You Were Trouble. Together, they outline the album, musically and thematically, while leaving several surprises for the album release. However you hear them, though, there’s not much country.
Swift fans that also like country music may love Red, but country music fans who also like Swift might not find it so appealing. The country mix of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together stalled at No 16 on USA TODAY’s country airplay chart shortly after its release. (It’s No. 3 on USA TODAY’s top 40 chart.)
"Her single was not met with a lot of love from our audience," says Gregg Swedberg, program director at country station KEEY-FM in Minneapolis. "I honestly believe this album is as good or better than the last one was. That doesn’t mean it’s as good for country as the last one was."
For Swift fans, though, she’s practically her own format. She has already sold more than 3.8 million downloads from Red, and the anticipation for the album’s release shows an eagerness on the part of her audience to hear more of her new directions.
"I’ve grown in the sense that I’ve allowed my influences to infiltrate my music more," Swift says. "Going into the studio with producers I had never worked with before was definitely a way of stretching musically. I knew I couldn’t make the same record twice. I mean, I could have, but I’m not going to. With my fans, I’ve established a level of trust, and part of that trust is that I really don’t want to bore them."