Taylor Swift: The Garden In The Machine
Swift joined Sony/ATV at age 14, making her the youngest artist ever signed by that behemoth company. And then, she went to work writing with some of Music City’s biggest and brightest writers, including the likes of Angelo Petraglia, Brett James, Troy Verges, Mac McAnally and Brett Beavers.
“I’ll never forget the days when I would be at school, and then my mom would pick me up and drive me downtown to one of those publishing houses. I’d walk in and write with a new songwriter almost every single day.
” The fact that most of those songwriters were at least twice her age wasn’t lost on her.
“I knew that going into those meetings with those hit songwriters was something I was lucky to get to do,” she says. “And I knew that being a 14 year old girl, anybody would – understandably understandably – think, ‘I’m gonna have to write a song for a kid today’. But I didn’t want anyone to walk out of the meeting thinking, ‘I wrote a song for a kid today.’ So, I would walk in with 10 or 15 almost-finished songs. Or with developed ideas – finished melodies or choruses. I just wanted to make sure that everybody knew I was serious about it. That I didn’t just take it lightly.
” Of course, Swift doesn’t take anything in her career lightly. And that fact is reflected in her incisive, efficient songwriting. Even her earliest material is characterized by thoughtful – perhaps meticulous – word choice and deliberate melodic construction, with nary a lazy rhyme or aimless tune to be found. And that’s thanks, no doubt, in large part to those daily writing sessions, which she cites as learning experiences – both the great sessions and not-so-great sessions.
“I’ve experienced almost every kind of writing session that you can experience: The kind where you try and write a song for seven hours, and you never end up finishing it. The kind where you write a song in 30 minutes. The kind where you’re writing with someone who clearly doesn’t take you seriously. Or the kind where you’re writing with someone who just gets you and gets what you want to say. But nowhere in that process – even during the bad or harder experiences I’ve had – did I ever sit there and say, ‘I’m at a disadvantage because I’m young. I’m at a disadvantage because I’m a girl. I’m at a disadvantage, I’m entitled, I deserve more respect.’ I have always been respectful of every situation that I’ve been in with other songwriters because I feel like you learn something from every experience – even the bad ones. If you have a writing session where someone doesn’t take you seriously and kinda scoffs at your ideas, you can make a note to self: ‘Never do that to someone else’. You learn something from everything that you go through. I know that, looking back, I learned something from every single experience that I had writing on Music Row.”
Out of those writing sessions came one particular creative relationship that would become highly productive for both collaborators. Liz Rose, whose previous success as a songwriter was highlighted by Gary Allan’s hit single “Songs About Rain,” co-wrote two thirds of the songs that would become Swift’s eponymous debut album, including the lead single “Tim McGraw” and the smash hits “Picture To Burn” and “Teardrops On My Guitar.”
“We fit really well together as a writing team,” Swift explains of her relationship with Rose. “Because she doesn’t sing or play guitar. She just lets me take the idea where I want to go, as far as the melody and the tone of what I would like to say to someone. Then she takes her life experience and her knowledge and her intuition and adds to it. And it’s just a really great collaboration.” Swift’s debut album was released on Big Machine Records, an independent label launched in 2005 by industry veteran Scott Borchetta. Borchetta first became interested in Swift while serving as senior vice president at Universal Music, and convinced the young singer to sign with his startup company.
The album titled Taylor Swift was released on October 26, 2006. A collection of epistolic pop-country songs about the ups and downs of falling in and out of love, its first single was “Tim McGraw,” a coming of age ballad with a bittersweet undercurrent. The rest of the album’s songs featured tightly woven lyrics and firm hooks, and featured Swift’s exuberant – if not perfectly polished – vocals.
Taylor Swift sold just shy of 40,000 units in its opening week, a highly respectable figure. But as the weeks went on, and “Tim McGraw” climbed up the charts (eventually peaking at #6 in January 2007), the album did something that albums don’t typically do: it kept selling at a fairly consistent pace. In fact, it wasn’t until January 19, 2008 – 63 long weeks after it first appeared on the Billboard charts – that the album had its highest-selling week, moving approximately 47,000 units.
“The sales of my first album really surprised me,” Swift admits. “After the first week, I thought to myself, ‘I would be incredibly lucky to see this album certified Gold. Or certified anything.’ And I was just hoping for the best and not expecting anything. You never expect that an album is going to pick up steam and start selling more and have its highest selling week way after the fact. I remember being on the road and opening up for Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts and George Strait, and I’d get the sales for that week and think, ‘It’s really weird that it sold more this week than it did last week.’ I’d think that every single week, and I didn’t know what was doing it. All I knew was that I was signing autographs for hours every night after shows, and, you know, really getting to know my fans – and feeling a lot of love from them. But I guess it didn’t click with me that that might be driving a sort of viral record.”