Taylor Swift is telling a story about her very first concert. It was LeAnn Rimes performing in Atlantic City, and Swift was eight years old. “I was totally freaked out,” she says of watching the country singer perform live. “Seeing this person who was my hero… it was just crazy.” The irony is that these same words are uttered by millions of fans around the world today about the 21-year-old singer-songwriter and Berks County native, who grew up on a tree farm in Wyomissing surrounded by gardens and all sorts of animals.
A Girl and Her Guitar
Brandishing a glittery guitar, those trademark tresses and innate musical talent, Swift has surpassed her childhood role model in a little more than a decade. To call her a star is no exaggeration: Swift is the youngest musician to ever win Album of the Year at the Grammys and has sold more than 20 million albums to date, as well as more than 33 million paid song downloads, making her the top-selling digital artist in music history. Her latest album, Speak Now, released last October and Swift’s third full-length CD, charted an unprecedented 11 songs from one album in a single week on the Billboard Hot 100. Offstage, Swift is a CoverGirl spokesmodel and has a starring role in the 2012 animated book adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.
Swift is calling from Nashville, the place she has lived since she was 14 and where, today, she is in the midst of a month of rehearsals for the US leg of her latest world tour. (Part of her rehearsal regimen is staying fit. “I have to work out all the time,” she says. “I really don’t like the running, but you’ve got to be prepared.”) The 78-show tour, which kicked off in May, will bring Swift back to the Keystone State on August 6 at Lincoln Financial Field. It’s just about the time of year that Swift, perhaps around the same age as when she attended that LeAnn Rimes concert, would have been splashing around the beach in Stone Harbor, where she vacationed with her parents growing up—and sang lots of karaoke.
“Before I started playing guitar, I would just practice my singing,” says Swift. “I’d sing the national anthem and karaoke to win opening spots for artists coming through the Roadhouse in Stroudsburg and bars in Stone Harbor. I’d karaoke anytime—I even had my own little machine I’d carry around with me.”
Songs from Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks (“anything by the Dixie Chicks,” she says) may have helped her to win over local audiences in the Delaware Valley, but these days Swift, who famously pens all of her own music, is recognized for her songwriting abilities just as much as her girlish voice and plucky guitar playing.
Top, Minnie Mortimer ($34). Similar styles, South Moon Under; Kissing Bird ring, Odette ($85). Bracelet, Swift’s own
Writing from the Heart
“I’ve heard the expression that when you’re a writer you have the toughest hours because you never stop working… every single day, all hours of the night,” says Swift, who wrote her very first song the same day that she learned to play three chords on a computer repairman’s guitar when she was 12 years old.
“I don’t really write songs in a structure. I write about my life. And it helps me to feel better about anything causing me pain or confusion. It’s a little addictive because it helps you figure things out in your life. If I think of a line that paints a picture, I’ll write it down. Some [songs] come four lines at a time and I’ll have a chorus. Other times I really have to work at it. But I have to say that my favorite songs were all written really quick.”
It’s Swift’s autobiographical writing style that has earned raves from music critics and ratings from entertainment news outlets, who are notorious for dissecting song lyrics that may have been inspired by some of Swift’s rumored beaus: Joe Jonas, John Mayer and Taylor Lautner, specifically. When asked if she ever has any second thoughts about sharing those songs with the world, Swift declares that she has no regrets.
“It’s never been that something is too personal,” says Swift. “It just seems like all you have is your life story, your memories and what you leave behind.”
Swift is still surprised at how her from-the-heart honesty has resonated with female fans of all ages. “I look out into the crowd and there are girls my age, women there with their moms and grandmothers—and I feel so lucky,” says Swift. “The thing that connects us, at one point or another, is that we all dream about love, want to be in love, are hurt by love. Love and loss, and all that.” But in spite of this universal material, she admits, “I can’t say I expected [women to relate]. It’s amazing to me.”
It’s safe to say that Swift’s karaoke days are firmly behind her, but she still carries a piece of them with her when she gazes into the sea of faces at her sold-out concerts.
“I think there are lessons I’ve come to learn in retrospect,” she says. “Like not taking for granted the really small shows, which weren’t even my shows—just my turn to sing karaoke. Now I’m looking into a big crowd of people and I’m able to appreciate [those times] so much. You have to find balance between being in the moment and getting to where you want to be. You’ve got to appreciate where you are when you’re there.”