Belfast Telegraph

Taylor Swift: My lyrics help me to deal with break-ups

Taylor Swift talks to Barry Egan about her innermost fears, how she had her heart 'ripped out' by Jake Gyllenhaal and why she always seems to choose the wrong men

By Barry Egan

To interview her is to pay a state visit. You know you're dealing with a star of astronomical proportions when the record company sends a car to pick you up at the airport. And there is someone from her management team to bring you to a waiting room on the 10th floor of a grand hotel straight out of a Bond movie.

What follows is almost ritualistic. You sign a confidentiality agreement form. Then, after a while, someone comes to take you to a suite where you are given an iPod. Then another person hands you earphones and presses play so that, amid much secrecy, you get to hear three songs from the star's new album, called 1989, after the year of her birth.

Once that is finished, you are brought to another, much bigger, much grander suite, where the star awaits your questions. The correspondent from a Japanese magazine is leaving just as I am going in. "She is very talkative," he says, as another journalist sits down to his turn after me at the iPod. It is quite an operation.

Taylor Swift - for it is she - is a megastar with bells on. In person, she looks like a 1930s flapper siren, reimagined for a new age, with a touch of the girl-next-door thrown in. She is extremely polite and almost impossibly normal and, above all, fun.

The Guardian described Ms Swift's supersonic rise from "ringletted country artist, teenage sweetheart of the American heartland, to feminist role model and the world's most charming pop star" to become "the kind of culturally titanic figure adored as much by gnarly rock critics as teenage girls, feminist intellectuals and, well, pretty much all of emotionally sentient humankind."

Pretty much all of emotionally sentient humankind appears to have bought at least one of Swift's albums. She's sold over 30m copies of them. And when you factor in world tours that sell out in the blink of an eye, and endorsements and what-have-you, it is not that difficult to see why Forbes magazine estimated that the 24-year-old made something in the region of $64m (£39.6m) last year.

Her every utterance and action is world news, or at least trending on Twitter. Her lyrics are dissected by culture vultures as though they are the Dead Sea Scrolls of post-teen angst.

Her 2010 song Dear John had the famous lines, "Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?/The girl in the dress cried the whole way home/ I should've known". It is about singer John Mayer, who was 32 when he and Taylor broke up in February, 2010. Then there was the 2012 song, I Knew You Were Trouble, about One Direction's Harry Styles, whom she was dating for a time in 2012.

Most memorably, perhaps, was when singer Joe Jonas broke it off with Taylor in 2008, and then began dating actress Camilla Belle: the song Taylor wrote, Better Than Revenge, was nigh venomous: "She's an actress/She's better known for the things that she does on the mattress".

Swift's lyrics are not so much autobiographical as heart-rending and sometimes pure vicious lines ripped from her private diary. Her new album does not disappoint in the heart-on-bloody-sleeve department, either.

I ask Taylor what goes through her mind when she wrote lyrics such as, "You look like my next mistake". This is one of the three songs I got to hear from the new album seconds before our interview. "Actually, that song was a joke," she smiles. "I wrote that as a joke. And I think people think I'm serious when they listen to it." I nod to the effect that I, too, thought she was serious.

"But the idea of that song is that I was sitting around, thinking about the media's fictionalised, cartoon version of me," she says, "where I'm like this jet-setting serial dater/man eater. I was thinking about that perception. And I was thinking about how interesting it might be to write from that perspective, if I was that way."

What emotions come up for the public when they hear the words Taylor Swift? I ask her. How do you think the world sees that person?

"That is such an interesting question, because I think about that all the time. I think we all wonder what the perception is of us to strangers. But I think there is no real right answer to that, because everyone has their own opinion based on how much of you they've been exposed to.

"Like, if someone has listened to all my albums they'd have a different opinion of me than someone who has only heard one song."

Asked what kind of books she reads, Taylor says, "Oh my gosh, I like to read historical things. I like to read biographies. I really like things that actually happen.

"I just read this book by Peter Evans called The Secret Conversations, the Ava Gardner biography. It is not necessarily biography; it is a book he wrote about the process of interviewing her for her biography that she then decided she didn't want to do."

Would your relationships be as, er, feisty as Ava's? I ask. "No - she and I are very different. We have very different personalities. But I love Ava Gardner," she says of the American legend who had a tumultuous marriage to Frank Sinatra from 1951 to 1957.

She seemed to revel in driving Frank literally mad, I suggest. "Uh-huh," Taylor says, looking at me, wondering where this is going. And you have the potential with your music and your lyrics to drive exes mad.

She laughs. "I think that the only way that I know how to process difficult and complex emotions that I can't figure out how to navigate through in my own mind is to write a song about them and then they become simplified to me. It's almost like I then know how to process them, when I write a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/out."

I felt like I had looked in your diary with some of these very raw lyrics, I say to her, as the bottled water sits unsipped to her left.

"I feel like my diary has been public since I've been 16," Taylor replies, "because that is true. And I mean, it is very interesting living your life that way because as things have progressed and as you get more known and more, I guess, recognised and all that, there are higher stakes to being vulnerable.

"Like, opening up your diary to the world; you know you are going to have some people go, 'Hey, yeah, I relate to that. I felt that too', and then some people are going to be, like, 'She's so annoying,' You know?

"You have people who have really, really, incredibly, intensely positive feelings about you and then you have people who are giving you intense senseless criticism. I do try to limit the amount of senseless criticism that I listen to, but I do read journalists' take on my music, because I think that helps me grow.

"And, honestly, if someone whose job it is to study music has an opinion, then I think that's valid. There have been times when I have read a review and thought, 'You know what, I could work on that for the next record.'"

But you're the one who sells millions upon millions of records. You can do it; they can't. "Yeah," she laughs. "But it's a fine line, because I love to watch other people's careers. I love to study other people's career arcs and things like that.

"And one thing that I do notice a lot is a lot of celebrities cannot handle constructive criticism. So they only listen to the positive feedback and then they exist only in this world where they surround themselves with sycophantic people who tell them everything they want to hear all the time."

How do you stay sane? "Well, I over-think a lot about everything." You're 24. If you didn't over-think you wouldn't be sane.

"Yeah! Exactly! And especially as a songwriter you have to stay open. You have to stay open to feeling things - like rejection and, you know, loss and disappointment; and reminiscing about things. It is just the same as you have to still feel joy and enthusiasm and excitement. As a songwriter, I can't put up barricades."

Were you always so honest? You wrote Revenge when you were 18. To be that young and write the lyrics, "She's an actress/She's better known for the things that she does on the mattress".

"I just always wanted to be able to say what I actually felt, and put it into a song and put it out into the world," Taylor answers. "Like, two albums ago I had a song that I put out called Mean that was about this critic who would not get off of my back and wanted to end my career with his reviews alone. I felt very victimised by it. So I wrote this song that was, 'Why have you got to be so mean?' It came from a place of such hurt.

"Then fast-forward and the way that I now handle criticism is reflected in Shake It Off," she says referring to her new single, which is old-school pop in the mould of Gwen Stefani's Hollaback Girl, with Taylor, tongue-in-cheekily telling the haters to jump in the Hudson River.

"Shake It Off is a much different way of dealing with it," she explains. "Which is kind of like, 'Okay, you don't like me for being myself? I'm just going to be myself more.'"

And who are you? "I think what's interesting - and I have been thinking about this a lot - is the idea of celebrity and fame and all those strange concepts is that it affects people differently in every situation. I see a lot of people where it overtakes them and it becomes them.

"Then I think I've seen other people - I hope I'm in this group - where they remain in somewhat of a normal mind-frame and have sort of a self-awareness about the fact that there are all these completely weird and abnormal circumstances swirling around their life. And they are just trying to stay in a normal mind-space about all of it."

Isn't it a slight dichotomy? In the sense that you have written a lot of songs about failed relationships and break-ups. If you meet Mr Right and the relationship is fantastic, will your creativity crumble? Does that worry you?

"Yeah! I think about that all the time," she says.

Why don't you just lie about your relationships then? You could be in a happy relationship and pretend not to be.

"I wish!" she exclaims. "God, if I didn't have 40 paparazzi outside my door every day, then that would be a lot easier, but I do think about that a lot, because songwriting is the only reason I do this. Like, if I didn't write my own songs I wouldn't be a singer."

Are you saying you have to be miserable in order to write songs?

"No. I am saying I have to write songs in order to be onstage. So if my inspiration ever dried up, it's kind of like, you wonder if that can really happen. I think after a certain period of time, you have learned a skill; you know how to be open to inspiration at all times; you know how to catch ideas when they kind of land in front of you."

Her tortured love life has become almost an international obsession. Last month, she was asked by Rolling Stone if she had ever been in love. The answer from the girl who has been romantically entwined to various degrees with Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Harry Styles and Conor Kennedy, was typically Taylor in its Jane Austen melodrama: "Not real love. Not the kind that lasts."

I ask Taylor if she will ever run out of break-ups to write about.

"I would probably run out of break-ups to write about if I stopped having break-ups," she laughs, "because my music is very autobiographical. But, on this new album, one theme that you will see that has kind of faded is the idea of the guy, the boy, has faded into the background.

"It is more reflective on relationships and the lessons I've learned and taken away from those relationships."

What lessons are those?

"There are a lot of them," answers the young woman who once called one of her songs We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. "You heard a song called Out Of The Woods [on the new album], which is kind of about me realising that there is no happily ever after. Every day is, 'Are we going to make it till tomorrow?'

What kind of guys are you drawn to?

"Right now?" she asks "I haven't been looking. I haven't dated in a really long time."

But, generally, some people when they are in a bad space will be drawn to partners who accentuate or reinforce their low self-esteem. Or if they are in a good space, they will be drawn to someone who brings them up.

"I don't know," she says, "I have always had that - you dream about the ideal situation, if you ever were to meet someone and it were to be right, it would be someone who is very sunny and bright. I think that would be the ideal match. But then again, I have no idea. I don't know. I don't know anything! I haven't been dating in a really long time.

"I've just been focusing on music and my friends. I think it is really important for twentysomethings to take some time to themselves and figure out who they are on their own terms."

I say to Taylor that if all her lyrics - with the exception of this new album - are autobiographical, then she seems to be meeting the wrong guys on a regular basis?

"I think, I have thought about this a lot, I may have been mistaking my idea of always challenging myself in my career for always looking for someone who is a constant challenge in my personal life.

"If I was to put some sort of psychological spin on it, it would be that I had ambition in my career and, you know, you're looking for someone who always seems like an obstacle, a challenge"

Why not just fall in love, Taylor?

"You're full of these questions that have no answers! Would you be able to answer that question?"

Give me a glass of whiskey and I'll have a go, I say. She laughs.

Did you really call Ed Sheeran a substitute boyfriend? "No! Who said that?" She roars with laughter again. "I never called him that. He is one of my best friends. But it has never occurred to either of us to date."

I ask her about All Too Well.

"That was a song I wrote that was very brutally honest and kind of hard to release because putting that out into the world is kind of exposing people to the fact that you've got your heart sort of ripped out when you were 19, 20. But telling the story of it was like a way of saying goodbye to it for me."

And healing yourself as well.

"Oh yeah! Ab-so-lutely."

I say that I used to love Jake Gyllenhaal's movies, but when I listen to the words of All Too Well, I will never, ever, ever, watch Donnie Darko, the 2001 supernatural classic starring Mr Gyllenhaal again.

Although she has never publicly admitted that Mr Gyllenhaal was the subject of the song - until now - Taylor cracks up laughing for the trillionth time in the evening.

"Oh my god! You and I are going to be best friends. We are just going to go to Ireland and hang out in a pub."

I'm 47. You're 24. I'm married.

"Bring the family. We'll talk about life."

Taylor Swift's new album, 1989, is out now on Big Machine Records

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