Taylor Swift: Power, Fame And The Future – The Full NME Cover Interview
Taylor Swift’s dressing room smells like Madonna. It’s thanks to a scented candle presented by the old queen of pop to the new, after Swift commented on the aroma of Madge’s own chambers. “But hers has a hint of eucalyptus mist, too,” says Taylor. “I don’t have the wherewithal to work a steamer – it seems very complex.”
As we speak, a display of alien-looking purple flowers arrives from Mary J Blige. Also delivered this morning was a presentation box of M&M’s imprinted with the images of Swift’s two cats. “I am freaking out about them,” she says, zipping across the room. “I sent pictures to all my friends.” She plops back down on the sofa. “So… that’s my dressing room vibe!”
We’re backstage at the 1989 Tour, the blockbuster arena spectacular in support of Swift’s world-beating album of the same name. This is the fourth of an unprecedented five sold-out nights at LA’s Staples Center, and Swift is loving every minute. “I was thinking about this yesterday and it hit me: I don’t want this tour to end. Ever,” she says. “And that’s never happened to me before.”
Part of the fun of the 1989 Tour is its revolving cast of surprise special guests. Last night, Alanis Morissette joined her to sing angsty 1995 hit ‘You Oughta Know’, and comedian Ellen DeGeneres walked the catwalk dressed as what Swift describes as “a disco ball ballerina”. The guests keep things fresh where nerves no longer do. “I [only] get nervous for TV or any situation in which I feel there are people in the audience who hate me,” she says, hugging her legs to her chest. “If there are a considerable amount of people in the first couple of rows who I know are wishing I would trip and fall onstage, that stresses me out. So not at my shows. Maybe an awards show or something…”
Swift has, as she puts it, “had a lot of very… off the wall things happen” at awards shows, whether going home with so many trophies you feel embarrassed for the other performers or being interrupted on stage at 2009’s MTV VMAs, when Kanye West decided Swift’s Best Female Video nod was an insult to Beyoncé. “I’m one of the few [to have experienced that] – and the other one is in the next dressing room,” she says, gesturing towards the wall. “Did you know Beck’s here?”
Singer-songwriter Beck, target of West’s ire at this year’s Grammys, is tonight’s guest performer. So is this some kind of survivors club? “No, me and Kanye are on such good terms now, six years later,” says Swift. “It took a while… But I had to tell Beck this story earlier. I was at dinner with Kanye a week after the Grammys, he stops what he’s saying and he goes, ‘What is this song? I need to listen to this every day.’ I say, ‘It’s Beck, it’s on an album called ‘Morning Phase’, I think you’ve heard of it…’ We just burst out laughing. And he says, ‘Hey, sometimes I’m wrong.’”
Looming over the weekend, this year’s VMAs pose their own threat, following a back-and-forth with rapper Nicki Minaj. Affronted at not being nominated for her own ‘Anaconda’ video, Minaj tweeted, “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.” Swift took this as a swipe at her own supermodel-tastic ‘Bad Blood’ video and tweeted back, setting in motion a two-day media feeding frenzy in which everyone from Katy Perry (Team Nicki) to Ed Sheeran (Team Taylor) waded in and, at its conclusion, Swift issued an earnest apology to Minaj.
So that’s going to be awkward, right? Swift exhales deeply. “It’s not any person in particular or any situation that makes me feel nervous about the VMAs, it’s that I don’t know what to be nervous about.” How did she feel when it started blowing up? “I don’t want to talk about it,” she says. “But I send text messages now. If there seems to be some kind of misunderstanding, I go to someone’s management, I get their number and I text them. It’s an important lesson for anyone to learn in 2015.”
Taylor Swift is experiencing a funny kind of fame. Her album ‘1989’ is a cultural milestone, a new generation’s answer to ‘Thriller’. While that album’s mega-success set Michael Jackson on course for a peculiar life, he arguably had an easier ride than Swift. She lives in a world in which her every word, move, outfit and Instagram post is dissected in real time. “I’m in the news every single day for multiple different reasons,” she says. “And it can feel, at times, if you let your anxiety get the better of you, like everybody’s waiting for you to really mess up – and then you’ll be done. A lot of the time I need to call my mom and talk for a really long time, just to remind myself of all the things that are great and all the things that matter. If you do something that defines your character to be not what the public thought you were, that’s the biggest risk.”
The question is, what do the public think of Taylor Swift? The brilliant, fizzy 2014 single ‘Shake It Off’ spoke of tutting hordes – “They say I stay out too late, go on too many dates” – but Swift is the opposite. The luminous glare of public attention has challenged pop stars to go further and further to shock: weed smoking, body part-flashing – none of it means anything any more. Taylor is the opposite. She has an enviable coterie of high-achieving female friends, among them models, writers, singers and actresses. She dresses immaculately. She doesn’t swear at all in an hour’s conversation. She sells perfection, and that’s the most difficult look to sustain. Miley and Rihanna don’t claim to be role models. Taylor does.
“It’s not about trying to be perfect,” she insists. “Not to try and sound like the good witch in The Wizard Of Oz or something, but I really do want to do good things with what I have, and that’s it. I don’t think my brain could cook up very shocking things for the sake of being shocking.”
Recently, Swift’s been flexing her business muscle, personally taking on first Spotify and then Apple, who she called out for not paying royalties to artists in the trial period of Apple Music. Astonishingly, Apple’s Senior VP Eddy Cue capitulated to Swift’s will the very next day. You’d call it a David & Goliath battle but first you’d have to decide which is which. Swift is the archetypal tall poppy and the shears are already out, from gossip websites questioning the hierarchy of her friend ‘squad’ to a viral video in which comedian Lara Marie Schoenhals plays a bubbly Swift introducing the Salem witches and “the fabulous 51 victims of Bill Cosby” to the stage.
If there’s a backlash brewing, Swift intends to – well – shake it off. “There’s really nothing I can do about it, because I’m living my life the way I want to live it,” she says. “If you want to be snarky about me sharing my stage with other artists and giving these fans – who’ve paid their own money to see a show – more than they expected to see that night, if you’d like to be snarky about that, then go ahead.”
Swift seems preternaturally well adjusted for a 25-year-old operating under such intense scrutiny, but she’s far from her first flurry of success. Having moved her family from Pennsylvania to Nashville, she signed to RCA Records at 14 and tapped into an under-served market of teenage country music fans. “In 10 years of touring and writing albums, and having my confessional songwriting misunderstood, misconstrued, paraphrased, investigated, I’ve never wavered. This is the way I want to live my life,” she says. Does she ever think about the things she’s lost in her pursuit of a music career? She looks back incredulously. “There’s nothing I would change about my life!” You wouldn’t like to be able to walk down the street unnoticed?
“Nah! I want to play stadiums.” She extends both hands as if weighing the options. “Playing stadiums… walking down the street… I’d choose playing stadiums. It’s a trade-off. There’s no way to travel two roads at once. You pick one. And if you don’t like the road you’re on, you change direction. You don’t sit there and go, ‘Oh, I wish I could have all the good things in the world and none of the bad things.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
If Swift has a dark side, it doesn’t surface during NME’s eight hours being escorted around the Staples Center. First, she’s goofing around during the soundcheck with Beck and St Vincent, whose guitar playing she enjoys so much she hoots, “I need more of that in my life!” Soon after, Swift is in full uniform – high heels, slip dress and hazard red lips – for the first of many meet-and-greet sessions, which take place in a mini museum containing costumes in glass cases. On the way in, Swift bowls over with an update. “I just heard John Legend is coming tonight so I called Chrissy [Teigen, Legend’s wife] to see if he’d sing ‘All Of Me’ with me,” she says, breathlessly. “He’s going to do it. No rehearsal! No pressure!” She pulls a face of exaggerated, excited worry.
The show itself is phenomenal. There are killer songs. There are costume changes. There’s a catwalk that rises up and swings around so Swift can serenade each section of the audience. The fans, in turn, show undying devotion.
One holds up a placard that says ‘Taylor Is Life’. When John Legend does come out, #AllOfMe starts trending on Twitter.
Back in the dressing room, Swift speaks about the challenge of following the stellar ‘1989’. Does the thought scare her? “Nooooooo. How could the next one be as big? Maybe the next album will be a bridge to somewhere else. Or maybe I’ll just go ahead and change everything.” I ask for a hint from the handful of songs she’s written so far and she replies with a scoff. “No! Why would I do that?! God!” The 1989 Tour wraps up in December. After that, Swift says, “I think I should take some time off. I think people might need a break from me. I’m going to… I don’t know. Hang out with my friends. Write new music. Maybe not write new music. I don’t know.” She genuinely looks like she hasn’t really thought about it yet.
The next night sees more guest stars (Justin Timberlake, gal pal Selena Gomez, Friends’ Lisa Kudrow) and the conclusion of the LA run. That weekend at the VMAs, Swift sings with Nicki Minaj, Minaj turns her attention on Miley Cyrus, Cyrus’ errant nipple dominates headlines and Taylor’s new video is accused of being a “colonialist fantasy” in various thinkpieces. Swift doesn’t comment; dignified silence is often the best response. Her life seems exhausting, like one big chess game. But she’s wired for it. After the show, Taylor’s dad is hanging around. I tell him how much I enjoyed the show. “Sure,” he says, “But who’s having the most fun? Taylor is. As always.” Dad probably knows best.