On an obvious, commercial level, it makes perfect sense for Taylor Swift to record end-credits for teen-targeted films. In 2012 she teamed up with T Bone Burnett and the Civil Wars for “The Hunger Games’” signature tune “Safe and Sound.” It helped lift the pic’s soundtrack to No. 10 on the Billboard chart, nabbing a Golden Globe nomination and a Grammy in the process.
Late last year she partnered with Fun guitarist Jack Antonoff to pen and perform “Sweeter Than Fiction” from the Weinstein Co.’s “One Chance,” for which she’ll once again be competing for best original song at the Golden Globes.
Yet on a less obvious, artistic level, it doesn’t make much sense at all. Writing for characters, and fitting her style into the tenor of an existing film, isn’t consistent with Swift’s m.o., which favors an inward-looking songwriting process that tends to attract such adjectives as confessional, intimate, purgative ….
“Also ‘diaristic,’” Swift interjects. “That’s a popular one.”
Diaristic though she may be, Swift does not actually write from a diary.
The closest she comes is the array of notes on her cell phone, filled with “phrases I thought of that would be better if you twisted it around in some way, phrases that rhyme really well with this other phrase that you could twist to make a sort of off-rhyme … I’m always making notes.” So marrying these stray observations with a more distanced perspective is hardly incompatible with her method.
“It’s almost a relief to turn the microscope around and not have to be so introspective, and draw directly from your life,” she says. “When I see a story play out and see all the different themes, one of them will always jump out at me. Like, with ‘Hunger Games’ there were so many different themes to draw from, and the one we drew from was ‘empathy.’”
For “One Chance,” inspired by the story of Paul Potts, a warehouse manager and amateur opera singer who won the first season of “Britain’s Got Talent,” Swift drew upon the outsider perspective that, for all her popularity, has long been a constant theme of her music.
“He’s a struggling opera singer, and no one gets it,” she says. “Which I related to a little bit growing up (in Pennsylvania) being so obsessed with country music — in my school, everyone was a little bit perplexed.”
Though it often gets lost in the swirl of celebrity and stagecraft that surrounds her, Swift has always been a songwriter first and foremost — she was, after all, the youngest tunesmith ever signed by Sony/ATV publishing. But adapting the wide-eyed yet subtly cynical teenage songwriting perspective on which she staked her early fame into a more mature, adult outlook is still a work in progress, and one that Swift seems to approach in an analytical way.
“Jody Rosen did a profile of me recently where he called (my songwriting) both purple and precise; a mixture of some very purple lines and some very precise details. I thought that was very astute,” she says. “I know I obsess over the different facets that people have to their personalities if you pick them apart. I’m obsessed by the idea that in real life there’s no such thing as a bad guy or a good guy. So thinking in character or writing from the perspective of a character, it’s really like picking one version of who I am.
“When I’m writing my own stuff, it’s about picking the specific corner that I want to view the world from. But for a character, it’s lucky when you have a really good performance. (Watching ‘One Chance’) I could see a song playing out as I saw the facial expressions, it was easy.”
This year will also see Swift take an onscreen role in another Weinstein production, Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of dystopian young adult novel “The Giver,” in which she plays the doomed “receiver” Rosemary. Yet these forays into film will likely be but footnotes to the yet-untitled and unscheduled fifth album she’s just beginning to sketch out.
While Swift composed the whole of her third album, “Speak Now,” alone, her latest, “Red,” saw some of its biggest successes arise from her songwriting partnerships with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Gary Lightbody, Dan Wilson and, most lucratively, Max Martin and Shellback. Her fifth will again see her work with the latter two, and the value of collaboration comes up several times in conversation with the singer.
“My favorite people to work with are the bluntest,” Swift says, “the ones who will say no. It’s important to have someone say, ‘That’s not good enough, go write a better pre-chorus,’ so I can go back to the drawing board. I don’t want people thinking if they’re too hard they won’t get to write with me again, when in fact it’s the contrary.”
Martin is perhaps the most commercially consistent hitmaker of the past few decades, and in Swift’s renewed partnership with him, it’s possible to infer the kinds of pressures the 24-year-old must be under to churn out another smash LP on par with her previous four. To date, even Swift’s lowest-selling album has been certified quadruple platinum, and her current 79-date world tour has already grossed $115 million.
“I have lot of goals, and one of them is to know when to stop,” she says. “I love the sound of applause but I don’t want to become addicted to it in order to feel whole. It’s the creative part of music-making that I could never live without.
“Hopefully in your life you make graceful decisions, dignified career choices. There are lots of different directions to go in, and I’m not anywhere close to being out of ideas here. But as I grow older, I hope I can continue to rely on gut feelings and continue to be self-aware. Self-awareness is usually the first thing to go when people lose touch. So ideally I can keep my wits about me.”