Taylor Swift: Writing her own songs — and rules

In a genre where the feminine perspective was defined by the very traditional “Stand By Your Man” mentality of Tammy Wynette, but tempered with Kitty Wells’ sassy declaration that “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” today’s female artists stand tall and proud on their own. Ranging from the “good ol’ girl” posturing of Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” to Martina McBride’s empowered heroine taking a stand on “Independence Day,” the modern country woman is in control of her destiny. And control is a risky commodity, especially when forging a career.

Topping the sales and airplay charts is the youthful and multitalented Taylor Swift, who at the tender age of 19 has become the most popular and successful breakout artist in many years. In what seems like a charmed life, the outgoing and talented young lady has achieved so much in such a short time, through pure ambition and the unconditional support of her family.

In a recent phone interview she talks about the love in her home.

“My parents kept these baby books on my brother and me, and every detail of our lives were in there. They saved everything! It shows just how much love they had for us,” Swift says.

Even though neither Mom nor Dad had any musical talent or aptitude, they supported Swift’s dreams and goals.

“My parents had nothing to do with music, they were both into business and finance. They never expected me to do music, but somehow I found something completely different from what they did,” she says.

The Swifts were so enthusiastic about their daughter’s dreams of stardom that they relocated from Pennsylvania to Tennessee in order for Taylor to have more immediate access to the country music industry in Nashville. With very little formal music education, Swift relied on some informal training to get started.

“I picked up a few guitar chords and progressions, and that was the start. The few formal lessons I had seemed too much like math, and I preferred to work with feelings and emotion,” she explains.

She acknowledges having ongoing vocal training. “It is important to take care of my voice, so I have had vocal training since I was little. I’m constantly working on improving my singing style.”

A natural writer, she started with poetry in the third grade, and even wrote an unpublished novel at one point. But songwriting became Swift’s preferred medium.

“I loved poetry, putting words into rhythm. I get to focus on the things that fascinate me, like how people treat each other. There is no real pattern, no way to predict love, it’s a never-ending challenge. I always loved history, romanticism, and I like to look at the contrast between fairy tales and the reality of love. We are always told about ‘happy ever after,’ but that first letdown is very interesting,” she says.

The opportunities to perform at open mikes and songwriter showcases around Nashville proved to be a good education for the young artist.

“I was playing in coffeehouses and other similar places when I was 13, including corporate offices on Music Row. Most of these were just short acoustic sets, and I still like doing some acoustic songs in my concerts,” Swift says.

In spite of Swift’s talents, there were setbacks. In the country music industry, the “big money” comes from songwriting and publishing, and most songs are written by a committee in order to have the broadest fan appeal. The “artist” is often just the vehicle for delivery of the songs. Swift, even at the young age of 14, was clearly a gifted songwriter with a keen awareness of the real world and emotional issues of teenagers, but record labels wanted her to do other people’s songs. She refused, and rarely even collaborated with other writers.

“Songwriting is a fun process for me, and I don’t want to have to argue with a co-writer about some small part of a song,” she says. “Co-writing can be wonderful and I do it when I get the chance, but I write fast and when I am on the road, I don’t have time to collaborate.”

Swift’s hard stand on doing her own material paid off, and she ultimately became one of the youngest writers ever signed to a publishing deal in Nashville. The hits started flowing, her popularity grew by leaps and bounds, and in what must be considered an amazing feat, Swift was the top-selling artist of any genre in 2008.

When asked how she seems to have avoided letting her success go to her head, she simply replies, “The roar of the crowd is a gift, you have to earn it, and I never take it for granted.”

Inquiries about feeling like she missed out on typical teen experiences are met with stoic rationalization. “I left high school when I was 16 and was home-schooled, but I am more thankful for the two years I went to a regular high school than I ever imagined,” she says. “In this business, a lot of young artists don’t go to school at all. The experiences I had in those years inspired so many songs, but I am also lucky to have had two years on the road, making music.”

College is another issue.

“All my friends from high school are now in college, our lives just took different directions. I had to ask myself if I wanted to walk away from music, but I was learning what I wanted, plus the perks are really cool,” she says laughing. “I get to walk the red carpet at award shows, and designers send dresses to my house. That’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened. Plus, I get to take care of the people that I love, and I like spreading it around. Like my Dad says, ‘You can’t take it with you when you go.’ ”

Concert preview:

Taylor Swift – 2009 Fearless Tour with Kellie Pickler and Gloriana

7 p.m., Sept. 3, Arena at Gwinnett Center, 6400 Sugarloaf Pkwy., Duluth; Tickets are $20-$52.50; 770-813-7500, www.gwinnettcenter.com

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.