On Taylor Swift's new album, Red there's a song where the 22-year-old superstar sings about a fictional one: a famous singer who spends years under the glare of the spotlight, then ditches her uncomfortable fame for a life of solitude.
It sounds like Swift might be mapping out her eventual exit plan on The Lucky One, which depicts the troubling side of celebrity: tabloids, paparazzi, living life in a bubble. It's certainly a scenario the multimillion-selling Swift can relate to: she's become a fixture in the gossip pages, especially with her penchant for famous boyfriends, including her latest, Conor Kennedy of the storied American political clan.
But if Lucky One has a plotline that Swift would eventually like to live out, for now, it's just a daydream: Swift has come to embrace her larger-than-life status and all the headaches that come with it.
"There's a lot of trade-offs. There's the microscope that's always on you. The camera flashes, the fear that something you say will be taken the wrong way and you'll let your fans down. There's the fear that you'll be walking down the street and your skirt will blow up and you'll be in the news for three months," says Swift, sitting at her dining room table in her apartment in Nashville, dressed in a playful black shirt decorated with dogs and an appropriate red skirt. Her house is decorated with a whimsical flair: flower-decorated walls, a small pond in the living room, kitschy mismatched chairs and hanging from a perch in her living room, dangling paper cutouts of her age, "22".
As she rattles off a few more of the negatives of being in the limelight, she adds: "You're scared of a lot of things for a lot of the time, but the trade-off of being able to get on a big stage and sing your songs, it's worth it."
Swift is perhaps on the biggest stage of her young career with the release of Red, out this week. She's already scored her first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with the Max Martin/Shellback-produced We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. The song is still in the top 10, and has company with her new song, I Knew You Were Trouble, which takes the country star further into pop territory with its use of auto-tune and dance synths.
Though Red still has plenty of tunes that cater to her country fan base, as Swift was crafting the album, she was determined to "step outside my comfort zone".
"On my fourth album, I wanted to do something that wasn't what I've done for the first three," she says.
Scott Borchetta, head of Big Machine Records, has worked with Swift since she was a teenager and watched her grow from a promising young country ingenue to one of music's best-selling artists.
As she worked on the follow-up to 2010's Speak Now, which sold a million copies in its first week, netted her multiple awards and was the anchor for her sold-out world tour, he noticed she was exploring other sounds not usually heard on country radio.
He encouraged her to seek out producers like Martin, best known for crafting hits for Britney Spears, Pink and Kelly Clarkson.
"If you're going to write a country song, run toward country. If you're going to write a pop song, write and produce it with the guys who are the best and biggest, if that's what it feels like," he said.
While she worked with previous collaborators like songwriter Liz Rose and producer Nathan Chapman, she also tapped singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran and Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol; both are featured in duets.
Jeff Bhasker, who's worked with everyone from Beyonce to Fun, to Swift's one-time nemesis Kanye West, was also involved in the making of Red. Swift emailed him directly after admiring Fun's bombastic drum sound and soon afterward, they were recording.
"She came just by herself and brought her guitar to the studio and played me this song Holy Ground on my couch, and sang it all the way through perfectly and I was just blown away at how stone cold she was," says Bhasker, who also worked on The Lucky One.
"Her style of songwriting is very, very honest," he adds. "She's just a really old soul."
Heartbreak is again the muse for many of her songs. While she's seemingly in a dreamy relationship with Kennedy, grandson of the late Robert Kennedy, during the making of Red she had a well-publicised (but brief) romance with actor Jake Gyllenhaal that ended in heartbreak according to those pesky tabloids.
"My mindframe during this recording process and the writing process was the ups and downs of a few really tumultuous relationships that had, you know, various amounts of damage and impact and things that were really tough for me to get through," Swift explains. "And that's typically when I turn to songwriting, when I don't quite understand how to say what I feel because it's all so much."
While she admits that her songs are autobiographical, she sticks to her rule of not disclosing whom they are about: "I just like the way my personal life sounds in songs so much better than I do in quotes and interviews." She declines to talk about her current romance, and even though John Mayer outed himself as the subject of 2010's scathing Dear John, she refuses to confirm it, calling him "presumptuous".
Still, that hasn't stopped plenty of people from writing about the supposed intimate details of her life. Dating a Kennedy who's four years her junior (and happens to be a senior in high school) has only added to media swirl.
Swift isn't oblivious to the attention, but she tries her best to protect herself from it: she refuses to read articles about herself or combat what's being said about her, good or bad.
"Everybody's got their way of dealing with it. And for me, sometimes it's surrounding myself with my friends and venting, sometimes it's staying up at the piano until four o'clock in the morning, sometimes it's watching TV and forgetting about all of it, sometimes it's calling my mother up and crying," she admits. "Sometimes you have a really bad day."
She's developed empathy toward other celebrities: "I understand why people sometimes get so caught up with this because it's a lot of pressure. And when you see someone going through a scandal in the news, I don't sit there and see it as entertainment anymore."
But she knows this is what she bargained for and she's still happy the way it all turned out.
"Sometimes my mom and I just sit there and think, 'Remember when nobody believed this could happen for us, and we didn't even believe it?"' she says. "I mean, we actually got further than we actually ever imagined. I wouldn't change anything."
Who: Taylor Swift
What: New album Red
When: Out now
- TimeOut / AP