By Tom Roland
NASHVILLE (Billboard) - Taylor Swift pulled a sweater over her knees. She was seated on a black leather couch in the lobby of Big Machine Records in Nashville, and the office was a bit chilly for the short, frilly skirt she wore.
Despite the brisk temperature, the room held distinctly warm memories for the 20-year-old singer. A handful of framed wall hangings provided a mini-retrospective of her career, including a multiplatinum award for her last album, 2008's "Fearless."
The Big Machine lobby was, in fact, a significant reminder of just how far she's traveled in her quick rise from unknown teen to global star.
When she was still a 16-year-old high school student, there was nothing on the walls in this room. Swift remembered sitting on the floor in the early summer of 2006, stuffing promotional CDs of her first single, "Tim McGraw," into envelopes destined for radio stations around the country.
"With every envelope that I would seal I would look at the address and the station on there and think, 'Please, please just listen to this one time,'" she recalled.
"I would say a little message to each envelope: 'Please, whoever gets this, please listen to this.' There's no promise when you're putting out your first single that people are even going to listen to it."
Not only did the single get heard, it opened the door to sales of more than 4 million copies of her self-titled debut album, awash in songs about broken hearts and high school social dramas.
Her sophomore set, "Fearless," did even better, selling 592,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan, on its way to more than 6 million sales.
Three of the songs reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- a rare feat for a country artist -- as she commanded multiple magazine covers and even a 2009 MTV Video Music Award nomination and win.
When that VMA acceptance speech was infamously interrupted, the fiery Kanye West controversy supplanted the inspirational, dreams-really-do-come-true storyline in her career narrative.
Weeks after the VMA shocker, the Country Music Association presented Swift four awards, including entertainer of the year. In January, she won four more times at the Grammy Awards, with "Fearless" claiming the all-genre album-of-the-year trophy.
NO TIME LIKE 'NOW'
With every sector of the business jittery about the future of the album, the music industry's eyes and ears will be focused quite closely on Swift when Big Machine releases her third project, "Speak Now," on October 25.
Being heard is no longer an issue. Now the questions concern being heard at the right time and the volume with which the public might react.
An online leak forced Big Machine to rush-release the first single, "Mine," in August. It has since sold more than 1 million downloads. The title track, a quirky lyrical exercise that blends the dashed-wedding scenarios of "Runaway Bride" and "Friends in Low Places," debuted at No. 1 on iTunes. It sold more than 85,600 downloads on its first day of release, October 5.
Such leaks are a symptom of the anticipation surrounding the album. The label has shipped more than 2 million copies of the CD. No album has sold more than 1 million copies in its first week since Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III" crossed that threshold in June 2008. As album sales continue to slide, a big debut week for Swift would be an encouraging sign.
The attention hasn't gone unnoticed by Swift, who does her best to distance herself from any expectations.
"I have a lot of anxiety about things on certain days, but I have anxiety because I care," she said. "It's not anxiety that's crippling. It's a five-minute conversation with myself about if a (sales) number really defines this piece of art that I've created and what that means, and what the number's going to be.
"I try to predict what it's going to be, and then I realize that I can't predict what it's going to be, and then I sit there and say something to myself like, 'Well, you're happy today. Enjoy this and be proud of the music that you've made.'"
To date, Swift's music has been somewhat atypical for a country singer. The genre's radio stations primarily target adults between the ages of 25-54. Her youth-based lyrics made her a hit with her teen peers.
Fears that she would remain trapped thematically in Hendersonville (Tennessee) High were, according to one rival label president, obliterated with the first line of "Mine," which references college in the opening phrase.
"Mine" was a turning point in the album's development. Swift and producer Nathan Chapman had begun recording new songs almost as soon as "Fearless" was released. Still, it wasn't until early 2010 when the album truly began to coalesce, first with "Mine" and then with "Innocent," Swift's response to the Kanye West incident.
Public opinion had turned dramatically on the rapper. West tweeted in September 2010 that he "bled hard" because of his actions. He canceled a tour, had to let employees go and was called a "jackass" by the president.
Instead of piling on the venom with the song, Swift's "Innocent" takes a conciliatory tone, painting him as "32, and still growing up now."
"Who you are," she sings in forgiveness, "is not where you've been."
"It took a while to write that song," Swift said. "That was a huge, intense thing in my life that resonated for a long time. "It was brought up to me in grocery stores and everywhere I went, and in a lot of times in my life, when I don't know how I feel about something, I say nothing."
"And that's what I did until I could come to the conclusion that I came to in order to write 'Innocent,' " she continued. "Even then, I didn't talk about it, and I still don't really talk about it. I just thought it was very important for me to sing about it."
Many took the conciliatory tone of "Innocent" at face value, but not everyone. The New York Times referred to it as "petty." A Los Angeles Times critic called the lyrics "slams disguised as 'forgiveness.'"
Those barbs were echoed in many online reader comments. They were, in fact, just the latest round of criticism that has been leveled at Swift, who has endured a backlash not uncommon to artists whose rise to prominence occurs at rocket pace.
The 2009 CMA victories were accompanied by a negative outpouring over the female vocalist-of-the-year honor in particular.
The fallout was even more pronounced when Swift had significant pitch problems during a televised Grammy performance with Stevie Nicks.
"I care about what everyone thinks of me, and I'm not afraid to say that," she said. "There have been times when it's absolutely leveled me and ruined my day. Then there are times when I can hear it and I'm kind of like, 'Oh, I've heard that before,' and I just continue on with my day."
BEYOND THE FAIRY TALE
"Speak Now" could prove to be a pivotal album in Swift's creative progress. Music history is littered with teen stars who were unable to maintain their commercial pace once they hit their 20s. But in most instances, those acts didn't write their own material.
"At one point, the record was not called 'Speak Now.' It was called 'Enchanted,'" Big Machine president/CEO Scott Borchetta said. "We were at lunch, and she had played me a bunch of the new songs. I looked at her and I'm like, 'Taylor, this record isn't about fairy tales and high school anymore. That's not where you're at. I don't think the record should be called 'Enchanted.'"
Swift excused herself from the table at that point. By the time she came back, she had the "Speak Now" title, which comes closer to representing the evolution that the album represents in her career and in her still-young understanding of the world.
"I'm just fascinated by people -- how they live their lives, what they live their lives for," she said. "It's just a never-ending thought process for me about how we end up where we are -- and where we're going."
(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)