The Taylor Swift Era
Taylor was only 14 when she was signed by the Sony/ATV Tree Publishing house. She’s the youngest songwriter to ever be hired by the music industry giant. She showed up to co-writing appointments with seasoned Music Row pros such as Troy Verges, Brett Beavers, Brett James, Mac McAnally, and The Warren Brothers expecting to be underestimated, then persuaded them of her seriousness by presenting a dozen song ideas prepared in advance. She eventually formed a lasting working relationship with Liz Rose. They began meeting for two-hour writing sessions every Tuesday afternoon after school. Rose thought that the sessions were “some of the easiest I’ve ever done. Basically, I was just her editor. She’d write about what happened in school that day. She had such a clear vision of what she was trying to say. And she’d come in with the most incredible hooks”.
SIGNING WITH BIG MACHINE RECORDS
Taylor also had a development deal with RCA, which she left voluntarily when they didn’t offer her a record deal after one year. The company wanted to keep her in development until she was 18. She later recalled: “I genuinely felt that I was running out of time. I wanted to capture these years of my life on an album while they still represented what I was going through”. Taylor also stated that she didn’t feel like RCA wanted her to sing her own songs. At an industry showcase at Nashville’s Bluebird Café in 2005, Taylor caught the attention of Scott Borchetta, a DreamWorks Records executive who was preparing to form his own independent record label, Big Machine Records. She became one of the first signings, and her father, Scott Swift, purchased a three percent stake in the fledgling company at an estimated cost of $120,000. Taylor began working on her eponymous debut album shortly after signing the record deal. She persuaded Big Machine to hire her demo producer Nathan Chapman, with whom she felt she had the right “chemistry”. Taylor wrote three of the album’s songs alone, and co-wrote the remaining eight with writers Rose, Robert Ellis Orrall, Brian Maher, and Angelo Petraglia.
Big Machine Records was still in its infancy on the release of the lead single, “Tim McGraw“, in June 2006, and Taylor and her mother Andrea helped “stuff the CD singles into envelopes to send to radio”. At this point, she transitioned from Hendersonville High School to homeschooling. She was a straight A student and got her high school diploma one year early.
“Taylor Swift” was released on October 24, 2006. As fans soon found out, it is best listened to on CD, because you’ll want to be able to flip through its scrapbook-style booklet. The printed lyrics contained easy-to-crack codes (strategically capitalized letters that spelled out the names of song subjects), and the acknowledgements ended with a postscript that captured the cheeky specificity of the autobiographical authority she claimed: “To all the boys who thought they would be cool and break my heart, guess what? Here are 14 songs written about you. HA.”
THE FIRST TEENAGE COUNTRY MUSIC STAR
On paper, Taylor seemed poorly positioned to carve out a place for herself in the thoroughly adult world of country music. But she wanted to prove that a young, female perspective could carry emotional weight in country music. She spent much of the year on the road promoting “Taylor Swift” with a radio tour and television appearances. Once she had her debut collection of 11 songs to discuss, she was fond of pointing out that she’d dreamed one up in math class (“Tim McGraw”) and written another for a school talent show (“Our Song”). Borchetta has said that record industry peers disliked his signing of a 16-year-old singer-songwriter at first but that Taylor tapped into a previously unknown market — teenage girls who listen to country music. A lot of them discovered her on MySpace, where she famously did her own posting and personally answered messages. Country artists had long been known for their accessibility, but she took the impulse further, projecting something more like chummy, confiding friendship. The fact that she’d amassed so many online followers helped persuade country-radio programmers to play her songs; not only did she pledge fealty to the format, she was on to something way too big and important for them to ignore.
Jon Caramanica of The New York Times described “Taylor Swift” as “a small masterpiece of pop-minded country, both wide-eyed and cynical, held together by Taylor’s firm, pleading voice”. Following “Tim McGraw”, four more singles were released throughout 2007 and 2008: “Teardrops on My Guitar“, “Our Song”, “Picture to Burn” and “Should’ve Said No“. All were highly successful on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, with “Our Song” and “Should’ve Said No” both reaching number one. For the former, Taylor became the youngest person to single-handedly write and perform a number-one song on the chart. “Teardrops on My Guitar” became a moderate commercial success, reaching No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The album peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and has the longest stay on the chart by any release in the 2000s. As of August 2016 the album has sold over 7.75 million copies worldwide. Taylor also released the holiday album “Sounds of the Season: The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection” in October 2007 and the EP “Beautiful Eyes” in July 2008. She promoted her debut album extensively as the opening act for other artists on their tours.
Taylor won accolades for “Taylor Swift”. She was one of the recipients of the Nashville Songwriters Association’s “Songwriter/Artist of the Year” in 2007, becoming the youngest person to be honored with the title. She also won the Country Music Association’s “Horizon Award” for “Best New Artist”, the Academy of Country Music Awards’ “Top New Female Vocalist”, and the American Music Awards’ “Favorite Country Female Artist” honor. She was also nominated for “Best New Artist” at the 2008 Grammy Awards.