Entertainment Music

Monday 21 October 2019

Don't go breaking my heart - Taylor Swift opens up

Taylor Swift is single
Taylor Swift is single
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white.) Taylor Swift attends the Winter Whites Gala in aid of Centrepoint at Kensington Palace on November 26, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
Taylor at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards in California in August
‘I think we all wonder what the perception is of us to strangers’ — Taylor in New York in April
‘I think if it were to be right, it would be someone who is very sunny and bright’ — Taylor with her ex, Harry Styles, in New York in 2012
Taylor with her ex, John Mayer, in New York in 2009
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

She's the biggest pop star in the world. So, naturally, Taylor Swift wanted to bare her soul to Barry Egan.

She even told him she felt talking to him was like talking to herself. Here, in our exclusive interview, she reveals her innermost fears and doubts; how she had her heart 'ripped out' by the end of her relationship with heart-throb Jake Gyllenhaal; why she always picks the wrong men (albeit famous ones such as Harry Styles); how she uses her lyrics to process the emotions of a break-up - and why she will only run out of having break-ups to write about 'if I stop having break-ups'

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 with a courtyard filled with flashy cars straight out of a James 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 on those three songs and anything else that you might care to ask her. The correspondent from a Japanese magazine is leaving just as I am going in. "She is very talkative," he says, as an English journalist sits down to his turn after me at the iPod. It is quite an operation.

"'Star' used to be reserved for a small number of people," playwright Tom Stoppard once said, "and when the star category became so vast, they came up with 'superstar,' and then they came up with 'megastar.'"

Taylor Swift - for it is she - is a megastar with bells on. Last year, the cover of New York magazine spelled out her contribution to popular culture's zeitgeist: "Not Katy. Not Miley. Not Gaga. Why Taylor Swift is the Biggest Pop Star in the World."

In person, Taylor Swift looks like a 1930s flapper siren, reimagined for a new age of pop ultra-stardom with a touch of the girl-next-door thrown in. She is extremely polite and almost impossibly normal and, above all, fun. Her girl-next-door, down-to-earth demeanour belies the vast scale of her jaw-dropping success.

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 Taylor 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 particularly difficult to see why Forbes magazine estimated that the 24-year-old woman sitting in front of me made something in the region of $64m last year.

"It's not the hardest job to have in the world," she says with disarming charm of this day of international media interviews, as I take a seat opposite her. "I try to remind myself of that. I'm sitting in a chair, talking about music. It's not that big of a deal."

Taylor Swift, however, is very much a big deal. 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.

The ballad All Too Well included the even more famous line: "You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest". The song's reputed target is the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, whom she dated in mid 2010, and broke up with a year later. Scurrilous reports even had it that Jake took then 20-year-old Taylor's virginity and then dropped her, abominably, on her 21st birthday.

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 - or what critic Robert Christgau described as her "diaristic realism." 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 thought, too, 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.

"Like, if I was that girl, exactly as they write about me, what would be my mission statement? What would be my life story, my life's motto. So I just wrote that song," says the singer, who was born on December 13, 1989, raised in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, and released her self-titled debut album when she was a mere 16 years old.

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," she says, adding that being her is sometimes akin to an out-of-body experience.

"I think we all wonder what the perception is of us to strangers," she explains. "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 then they'd have a different opinion of me than someone who has only heard one song."

And if you could have an out-of-body experience and listen and watch yourself, what would you think of Taylor Swift?

"Ohhh. I don't know! I think I would be," she says sweetly, pausing, "I think I would like my lyrics."

I say that for such a big star, the lyrics on the new album are almost novelistic - "I'll end up in flames or I'll end up in paradise"; "Boys only want love if it is torture."

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. Did you read the book?" she asks.

Frank Sinatra threatened to kill himself if she didn't come back to him, I reply.

"You totally read the excerpts in Vanity Fair," she gushes.

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 Sinatra from 1951 to 1957.

She seemed to revel in driving Frank literally mad, I suggest.

"Uh-huh," Taylor Swift 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", she explains.

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?" she says.

"You have people who have really, really, incredibly, intensely positive feelings about you," she laughs, "and then you have people who are giving you intense senseless criticism. I can always handle constructive criticism."

Aren't you worse for listening to the intense senseless criticism? I wonder.

"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. They are the eunuchs in the harem.

"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. And that's the opposite end of that pendulum swing."

And then you'd be on medication, I say, by being in that world.

"I have a really high priority on staying sane. It's a huge deal," she says.

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 and emotional barriers to protect myself."

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. "What is interesting is that it is about my life when I write it and then I put it out into the world and it is about someone else's life when they're listening to it."

You said something fascinating in an interview about that song Revenge: "I used to think people could steal your boyfriend . . ."

Taylor finishes the quote, "But no one can steal your boyfriend from you if he doesn't want to leave."

"Exactly," she says, suddenly all girl power. "An interesting part about having grown up with all of my inner thoughts and lessons and doubts and fears and anger issues being put into these songs and these lyrics is, sometimes, you change your mind. Like, sometimes you handle things differently."

"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:

"I stay up too late, got nothing in my brain/That's what people say mmm, that's what people say/I go on too many dates, but I can't make 'em stay/At least that's what people say mmm, that's what people say/. . . And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate."

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

And who are you?

"Me? Wow! You are really . . . "

I'm Irish. We're obsessed with death and sex and God.

"I am too! So this is like talking to myself. 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 their life is being . . . 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. So, I think, that's the group I'm in."

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; I wouldn't be on stage."

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," Taylor says. "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."

As Taylor tries to suture her wounds, some of her critics are sharpening their long, bloody knives. They don't know what to make of Taylor's brand of l'amour. "Retrograde, a prude infatuated with white-knight romance," went one criticism in the Noughties.

Dodai Stewart, in a post on the website ­Jezebel entitled, 'Taylor Swift is a Feminist's Nightmare,' wrote: "For Taylor, 15 means falling for a boy and dreaming of marrying him. My 15 was more like: Flirt with this one, make out with that one, try a cigarette, get drunk, lie to your parents, read some Anais Nin; [Swift's] image of being good and pure plays right into how much the patriarchy fetishises virginity, loves purity, and celebrates women who know their place as delicate flowers."

Maybe a more important point that these critics are missing is that if Anais Nin was around today she'd probably be writing lyrics like those in Revenge or All Too Well and putting them to music so we could tune in to MTV to hear about her tortured love life.

The question of Taylor's 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." Boo hoo.

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 not as much about writing about a boy or a guy or losing a guy. 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. It is a constant struggle. 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. I think if 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 haven't been looking for a very 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," she says. "I had ambition in my career and, you know, you're looking for someone who always seems like an obstacle, a challenge, and that is not necessarily what will end up making you happy."

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. I called him my best friend. He is one of my best friends. But it has never occurred to either of us to date. We would never do it."

I ask her about All Too Well.

"That was a song I wrote that was very brutally honest and kind of," she pauses, "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 from beginning to end was kind of 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 (all together now: "You call me up again just to break me like a promise") I will never, ever, ever, watch Donnie Darko - the 2001 supernatural classic starring Mr Gyllenhaal, his sister Maggie and Drew Barrymore - again.

Although she has never publicly admitted that Mr Gyllenhaal was the subject of the song - until now, effectively, to LIFE - 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 hang out! 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 tomorrow on Big Machine Records

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