Like most of us, all she wanted was to be heard. Little did she know as she sat in her childhood bedroom in Wyomissing, Pa., giving voice to feelings about crushes, heartache, and troubled friendships, that one day millions of people would respond. That she would be a superstar before she was even old enough to vote.
By Amy Engeler
At 3 a.m., with all the houses dark up and down her winding suburban street in West Warwick, Rhode Island, Jo-Ann Frey, 37, lights a candle so she can see well enough to dust her furniture. Careful not to turn on any lights or make noise that might wake up her family, she drifts from room to room with her candle and cleaning supplies, waiting until she feels sleepy enough to climb back into bed. That feeling doesn't come -- and when she hears the alarm in the bedroom go off...
Swift's self-titled album was released in 2006 and went multiplatinum, setting the tone for what would become the then-16-year-old's trademark: Disarmingly autobiographical songs that resonate across age and gender. Her follow-up, Fearless, released two years later, also sold millions and won four Grammy awards. Last year, Swift was the best-selling musician in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, and Forbes ranked her the 12th most powerful celebrity this year, with annual earnings of $45 million.
Most people would take this opportunity to do a victory lap. But Swift, who turns 21 in December, is far too busy performing at the 44th annual Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 10 and canvassing the country on a tour supporting her latest album, Speak Now, which was released in late October to acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
Plus, it's not her style. Instead, she shows up for those in need, as she did this past summer when she appeared as part of Nashville Rising: A Benefit Concert for Flood Recovery, a cause to which she donated $500,000. Swift was also one of the first celebrities to call attention to the disaster, appealing to the public and media immediately after the devastation, which happened in May and caused an estimated $2 billion in damages to the Nashville and middle Tennessee area.
It's not a surprising reaction for someone so attuned to other people that, even though her new album would seem a guaranteed success, she says she is "excited and nervous" to hear reactions to her latest work. "These songs are basically my journal entries from the last two years," she says, "And that, of course, makes me much more vested in how people hear them."
Swift's Early Songwriting
So how does a young woman -- who relies on her normalcy to connect with her audience -- keep her feet on the ground, especially when they are so often walking the red carpet in Manolo Blahniks? By being grateful. "I remember dreaming about the possibility that if I worked really hard and things went miraculously well, some day people would care about what I had to say," says Swift. "And I've never let go of that feeling. The fact that people care about my lyrics is so incredible to me."
Swift grew up with her stockbroker father, stay-at-home mother, and younger brother, Austin. She began writing poetry in second grade and turned to songwriting at 12 to help her deal with feeling like an outcast at school. After performing at every county fair, sporting event, and karaoke contest that would have her, she convinced her family to move to Nashville, Tenn., when she was 14. It didn't take long to reassure the Swifts they had made the right choice: Within months, the prodigy had been signed as the youngest staff songwriter ever at Sony/ATV Publishing, a position she credits with her work ethic.