As Taylor Swift re-releases her third album, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), super fan Emma Clifton revisits her 2010 interview with the then up-and-coming star, and why she thinks Taylor’s neediness is her superpower.
“Hi, it’s Taylor!”
Because I have spent almost two decades interviewing people for a living, I am often asked who my favourites have been. I have many a long, complicated answer to this (and honestly, I normally tailor it to the question asker, depending on how impressive I want to sound). But the truth is, 13 years ago I interviewed the then up-and-coming singer Taylor Swift for her album Speak Now, and I can distinctly remember getting off the phone with her and saying out loud to myself, “Holy shit, she’s going to be the biggest star in the world.”
It’s hard to pin down what it was exactly it was about our chat that tipped me over the edge from fan into superfan. Was it the fact that she referenced Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk (a personal fave), or complimented my strong Kiwi accent, in a tasteful lie? Who can say. But whatever constitutes as an x factor, she had it in spades even then. And this was before I’d even heard the album, which contains one of the most low-key horny songs ever written (Sparks Fly) and an absolutely savage break-up ballad, Dear John.
The Lucky One
Back when I worked for teen publication Creme magazine, alongside Capsule’s Alice O’Connell who was the editor, we were lucky enough to interview many young celebrities at the beginning of their careers. We chatted to One Direction when they were on hour 12 of being cooped up in an Auckland motel room, losing their minds in a polite, British boy band way. There was also the time that Alice interviewed Twilight hunk Taylor Lautner twice and he remembered her the second time, and when she told us this it was at the peak of our Twilight obsession, and I screamed so loudly that the staff from the current events magazine The Listener came over to tell me to shut up (fair).
I remember getting off the phone with her and saying, “Holy shit, she’s going to be the biggest star in the world.”
There were also times when we would be interviewing young stars who were already household names by the time they hadn’t finished high school, where you would get off the phone with them and think, “God, I hope you have good people around you.” Time and time again they seemed destined to get eaten up by the Hollywood machine. In fact, in my experience of five years’ worth of interviews at Creme, that was the most likely end result.
There are obvious exceptions to this – I normally dreaded doing any interviews with Disney actors, as they were so mind-numbingly media trained, but the then 12-year-old (!!!) Zendaya was one of the coolest people I’d ever spoken to. But for every Zendaya, there were multiple other depressing stories. Two of the three Glee stars I interviewed are now dead. There have been so many breakdowns, rehab stints, overdoses, so many times I have asked myself ‘whatever happened to…’ and the answer has been something tragic. The scrutiny of being in the public eye is a gauntlet at any age, but becoming a celebrity as a teenager is a unique type of poisoned chalice. Fame is often fast, brutal, and always, always hungry for more. Not everyone makes it out.
In late 2010, Taylor Swift was 20 years old and about to release her third album Speak Now, the album that followed her smash-hit record, Fearless. Fearless had turned Taylor from a country music star into a mainstream success, as well as making her the youngest artist at the time to win Album of the Year at the Grammys.
I had heard Love Story the year previously and burst into tears immediately, securing me as a Taylor Swift fan for life. She was earnest and romantic and loved a reference to Romeo & Juliet (hers had a notably happier ending than the original). The process of getting an interview was arduous, as it always is, because New Zealand is not exactly a lynchpin of success when you’re an overseas act trying to promote something. But thanks to the team at Universal, it happened, and I was given a 20-minute slot to interview Taylor at 8am on a Saturday morning.
This is an UNHEARD of amount of time; usually you are lucky if you get 10 minutes to turn into a full story, which is a nightmare in itself but even harder for a youth title, where you are quite often interviewing 13 year olds – not exactly succinct. But at just 20 years old, Taylor was already a masterclass in celebrity: funny, smart, warm but ironclad in her boundaries. The minute I got too close to her personal life, she deftly switched topics in such a friendly manner I didn’t even realise what was happening, even though it was literally my job. She was a total pro.
I asked her if she ever regretted being so open in her songs and she was immediate in her answer that she had never been afraid of the repercussions of writing such personal lyrics. That’s an instinct that has only grown stronger in her albums since. Back then, the most cutting song on Speak Now was her almost seven-minute long ballad about her teenage romance with singer John Mayer (who was very much not a teenager at the time).
Now, at age 33, the subject matter of Taylor’s songs have grown up alongside her: hints of adult heartbreak, infidelity, her mum battling cancer, the song Bigger Than The Whole Sky that many have interpreted as being about miscarriage.
She is still perfectly willing to emotionally nail herself to a cross for the millions of fans who see themselves in her lyrics
Currently, Taylor’s global Eras tour is seeing her perform over three hours’ worth of songs each night, many either written about her recent ex Joe Alwyn, co-written with him or about her fear that she’s going to die alone. She’s working it out, in front of us, the most Taylor Swift of Taylor Swift experiences; heartbreak in real time, on a stage.
That openness has been removed from so many parts of her life as she has shut herself off as so many famous women eventually have to do – once a prolific social media user, she’s now barely on it; she rarely, if ever, gives interviews anymore – but she is still perfectly willing to emotionally nail herself to a cross for the millions of fans who see themselves in her lyrics.
Somewhere along the way, she’s gone from being a country star, to a guilty pleasure, to the biggest star in the world – like Capsule’s Kelly, I also feel like there’s been a recent switch where Taylor is currently EVERYWHERE (but as a super fan who had to endure the snake period, iykyk, I’m bloody thrilled about it).
As the saying about creativity goes, what is most personal is most universal and for her legions of fans, Taylor’s personal heartbreaks speak to the universal experience of loving, and losing. There’s an oft-quoted theory that fame freezes you at the age you become famous – despite her millions, despite her fame, despite the fact that she’s a white, wealthy, conventionally gorgeous female, there is a part of Taylor that will always be the yearning 15-year-old girl that in turn speaks to our own most earnest selves. “I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try,” as she sings in Mirrorball. That’s her superpower, as strong now as it was then: to find the need that lies within all of us and wrap it in a melody.
One of the final questions I asked Taylor in that 20 minutes was the classic teen mag question: “If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were 13, what would you say?” She let out a big laugh. “I would say nothing. I would say, ‘have fun.’” I’d like to hope she would give herself that same piece of advice, another 13 years later.