Two years ago, Taylor Swift's third album, Speak Now, was about to be released and the then 20-year-old country music star had every reason to be confident. Her eponymous first album, which debuted in 2006 when she was only 16, had gone multi-platinum and established her as a musical force whose songs about love and heartbreak resonated with peers and adults alike.
Her follow-up, Fearless, released two years later, sold millions of copies and earned four Grammy awards. By the time Speak Now was ready to greet the world, Forbes magazine had listed her as the 12th most powerful celebrity, with annual earnings calculated at $45 million.
But on the eve her fans first heard Speak Now, Swift told us she was filled with fear. "These songs are basically my journal entries from the last two years," she explained, "and that of course makes me much more vested in how people hear them." In the end, she could rest easy. The album sold more than 1 million copies in its first week and went on to win two Grammys and a spot on Rolling Stone's "Women Who Rock: 50 Greatest Albums of All Time" by female recording artists.
So as she prepared for the release of her fourth album, Red, was she anxious again or confident? The first single off the album, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," has already hit No. 1 on Billboard's charts, and fans are scrambling to guess which former boyfriend the sassy send-off is about (actor Jake Gyllenhaal? singer Joe Jonas?). And just like the last time, there doesn't seem to be too much to worry about.
"I'm really proud of the record," Swift says slowly, "but I'm always nervous about everything. There's a great deal of terror that fills my mind before I do anything, really. We're talking before an album comes out, before a photo shoot, anytime I read my name in print. There's a huge amount of pressure and responsibility because millions of people are going to potentially spend their hard-earned money on the album, and there's a great responsibility for the critics who will write about it, and responsibility for the girl who is going through a breakup and needs a song about what she's feeling, and responsibility for the girl who doesn't feel good about herself and needs a song for that, too, and I worry about saying or doing the wrong thing." Swift pauses for a breath and laughs. "Do you see the rabbit holes I go down?"
Taylor Swift's Songs and Lovers
The stakes may be different for Swift than for most of us, but who can't relate to the desire to connect and feel appreciated? It's this quality that has created such a strong pact between Swift and her fans, who look at pictures of the star cavorting at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., with Conor Kennedy or draped in jewels on the red carpet and still see one of them.
Swift returns the favor by divulging personal aspects of her love affairs in her lyrics, folding in clues to the subject's identity for her devotees. "If there were a guy who had been incredibly kind and good to me, he would have only gotten kind and good songs written about him, and there have been those guys," Swift says unapologetically. "Some of my favorite songs are about the wonderful people who have been in my life, like the singles 'Love Story,' 'You Belong With Me,' and 'Back to December.' But people also need the songs about what it's like to fall out of love or what it's like when your relationship takes a nosedive."
Remarkably, the singer, who has also been linked to celebrities Taylor Lautner and John Mayer, says suitors aren't discouraged. "Everyone starts a relationship well intentioned," she explains. "No one thinks, 'This will have a horrific, crazy downfall, and it will be chronicled on an album that teenagers will be singing to themselves in their bedrooms.'"
Taylor Swift: Homebody
Not long ago, Swift was that adolescent singing her own sad songs in her bedroom. Raised in rural Pennsylvania along with a younger brother, Austin, by a stockbroker father and stay-at-home mother, Swift says she suffered deeply as an outcast at school. She began writing songs at age 12 as a way of making sense of the experience. By 14 she was invested enough in the process that she convinced her family to move to Nashville, Tenn., where she could immerse herself in the songwriting community. Within months of arriving, she was signed as the youngest staff songwriter ever at Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
Throughout Swift's rise to fame, her mother has been her strongest ally. "I think who you are is really about how you are wired and how you respond to situations, and I was really shaped by who I was in school," Swift says. "I was never the person who was sought after or invited to things. My mother's been used to picking up my confidence since I was in middle school and dealing with mean girls. She was never about chasing the in-crowd or being cool. She was with us making grape jam in the kitchen and creating imaginary games with us. She was focused on our being happy."
Family and home are still Swift's greatest sources of pleasure. She owns an apartment in Nashville, lovingly decorated with antiques picked up on shopping trips with her mom while on the road. She counts among her favorite evenings the ones spent there with close friends --"We will have face-painting night or random things like that and talk about our relationships" -- or by herself, "watching an episode of Law and Order, CSI, or Grey's Anatomy, with my cat and some food nearby."
And thanks to her mother's influence, Swift is very comfortable in the kitchen, where she is notorious for churning out baked goods that she parcels out to friends. She's also handy at making herself healthy meals like grilled chicken, brown rice, and green beans. The singer --who admits addictions to Starbucks flavored lattes and Diet Coke -- says sticking to a nutritious diet when she's touring is harder, "but I try to eat a lot in the beginning of the day and not so much at the end." While "snacks come and go," Smartwater is always on board her tour bus to keep her hydrated.
Regardless of where she is, Swift hits the gym for an hour of cardio every day, running on the treadmill or doing the elliptical. "I like to feel really tired afterward, sweaty and disgusting," says the star, who cues up songs by rappers like Nicki Minaj, Santigold, and Game on her iPod to keep her going. "I don't care about losing weight as much as feeling good about myself. You can't indulge without exercising, so I exercise because I love eating and I don't want to have to live without anything. But I also exercise because on the occasional days when I'm feeling low, it always makes me feel better."
Swift's Attitude of Gratitude
When she isn't near a treadmill and finds herself getting caught up in negative thinking, Swift has learned to divide her thoughts into two categories: "things I can change" and "things I can't."
"You'll always be worried about something, but if you can cut that list down by even the smallest amount, that's good," she explains. "You only have so many hours a day, and if you can focus the energy on only the things you can control, it's more productive."
Swift's quickest way to get back on track is expressing gratitude. "The fact is, my life is amazing, so when I'm getting too much in my own head, I try to say all the things I'm grateful for. It can be simple things, like if I'm complaining about how my cellphone is working slowly, I think about how slowly they worked five years ago. It's OK to have glass-half-empty days, but not too many of them. I place a higher priority on being happy than I do on freaking out."
Swift practices the same skills taught by Amit Sood, MD, director of research for the Mayo Clinic's Complementary and Alternative Medicine Program. Focusing on what's positive is a powerful tool that goes beyond making us feel happier: "Studies show that people who are more optimistic tend to have better physical health, lower risks of strokes and heart disease, and higher overall survival rates," Sood says. "They also have better emotional health, lower stress, lower percentages of depression, better relationships, and are better equipped to solve life's problems."
Practicing Positive Thinking
How can you cultivate a more optimistic attitude? Sood says practicing these simple acts on a daily basis can help you lighten up.
Focus on what went right instead of what went wrong. If someone made your coffee weaker than you like, think, "'I'm grateful someone made me coffee.' By being grateful for the little things -- a stranger's smile, a beautiful flower -- you increase your gratitude threshold."
Implement the five-year rule. "If you get a parking ticket, you could be upset about it all day, but you won't remember it in five years. If it isn't going to bother you in five years, don't let it bother you now."
Recognize the importance of lessons, however painful. "See the world as a giant school of and opportunity for learning."
Play the name game. Before you get out of bed in the morning, skip the anxious-making laundry list of the day in favor of naming five people for whom you are grateful. Send out a silent "thank you" to them.
Practice kindness to yourself. "It's difficult to enjoy what you have if you are always trying to improve. Everything you have can be better. Instead, focus on how perfect everything already is."
Swift has coped by writing music, but she says she also now understands that power of being kinder to herself. "One thing I've had to work on is being really tough on myself. My mom says that when I was a kid she always felt bad punishing me because I always punished myself the worst when I made mistakes, locking myself in my room and feeling so bad that I did something wrong or hurt someone. But when I'm writing, I can't second-guess myself. You have to be confident enough to have ideas."
Asked what advice she would have given herself two years ago if she had known then what she knows now, Swift, who turns 23 in December, demurs. "I wouldn't tell myself anything because I've learned so many things in the last two years by experiencing them fully, and learning the lessons completely," she says. "Advice wouldn't have changed that, but even if it might have, the best way to learn lessons is by going through things completely."
The gift lies in getting to the other side, where, from a place of perspective and grace, one might be able to talk -- or sing -- about one's struggles, letting others know they aren't alone. "No matter what path my life follows," says the singer, "I'm always going to be exploring every aspect of human emotion. And I'll always want to get better." At what, exactly? At that, Swift lets out a wonderful laugh. "At everything."
Taylor Swift's Top 10 Favorite Things
1. Favorite drinks: "Smartwater and Starbucks"
2. Kate Somerville moisturizer. "But any kind of moisturizer that you put on before you go to bed will make your skin softer."
3. Makeup bag with black eyeliner, red lipstick, and tinted moisturizer
4. Pearl earrings and necklace she keeps in her change purse. "I'll throw them on if I need to suddenly dress up at the end of the day and don't have time to change my clothes."
5. Pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses
7. Tester of her new perfume, Wonderstruck Enchanted
8. An hour of cardio at the gym. "I try to exercise a lot."
9. Getaways with friends. "My girlfriends and I went to Charleston, S.C., last year on vacation, and I can't wait to go back."
10. Time alone, watching TV with her cat. "That's all it takes."
Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD the Magazine."