“I’ve never talked about this publicly before,” said Taylor Swift, teasing the audience as she accepted an award in Nashville Tuesday night, leading at least some of the attendees to be on the edge of their seats. And because it was an audience mostly of songwriters, they stayed there, even when the secret to be revealed turned out to have to with classifications of different types of lyrics she has kept in her head for years.
She went on to say that “it’s dorky. But I also have, in my mind, secretly, established genres categories for lyrics I write. Three of them, to be exact: They are affectionately titled Quill Lyrics, Fountain Pen Lyrics and Glitter Gel Pen Lyrics. … I came up with these categories based on what writing tool I imagine having in my hand when I scribbled it down — figuratively. I don’t actually have a quill. Anymore. I broke it once when I was mad.”
The speech was given during the annual Nashville Songwriter Awards, held at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium, where Swift was being honored with the Songwriter-Artist of the Decade award. She was being celebrated by the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) for her work in the 2010s.
Swift also performed at the ceremony, doing a rendition of a song that is of the 2010s but also very much of the 2020s, in a way few if any others have been: “All Too Well (10-Minute Version).” Before singing the epic-sized version of the tune accompanied by her acoustic guitar, Swift said, “I never could’ve imagined when we wrote it that that song would be resurfacing 10 years later or that I’d be about to play it for you tonight. But a song can defy logic or time. A good song transports you to your truest feelings and translates those feelings for you. A good song stays with you even when people or feelings don’t.”
Swift had a great punchline in her speech, although it was one that was “written” by the songwriting sibling team the Warren Brothers. “Part of my re-recording process has included adding songs that never made the original albums, but songs I hated to leave behind,” she noted. “‘Fearless,’ my version, came out last year and as I was choosing songs for it, I came across one I’d written with the Warren Brothers when I was 14. … When I called the the Warrens up to tell them I was cutting our song 17 years after we’d written it, I’ll never forget the first thing they said: ‘Well, I think that’s the longest hold we’ve ever had.’”
The singer-songwriter-superstar did not keep anyone guessing as to what exactly she meant by the different types of writing-instrument-based categories she was revealing. A “quill song,” she explained, is “if my lyrics sound like a letter written by Emily Dickinson’s great grandmother while sewing a lace curtain” — and she quoted a snippet from “Ivy,” from her 2020 album “Evermore,” as an example.
“Glitter Gel Pen lyrics,” she said, “are the drunk girl at the party who tells you that you look like an Angel in the bathroom” — and “Shake It Off” was the illustration. As for “fountain pen style,” that’s “trying to paint a vivid picture of a situation, down to the chipped paint on the door frame and the incense dust on the vinyl shelf” — which fans could all too easily guess meant “All Too Well.”
The full text of Swift’s speech at the Ryman:
I want to say thank you to Bart (Herbison, the NSAI’s executive director) for introducing me in such a generous way and i want to say thank you to the NSAI for getting us all together for this event. For me, tonight feels brimming with a genuine camaraderie between a bunch of people who just love making stuff. Who love the craft. Who live for that rare, pure moment when a magical cloud floats down right in front of you in the form of an idea for a song, and all you have to do is grab it. Then shape it like clay. Prune it like a garden. And then wish on every lucky star or pray to whatever power you believe in that it might find its way out into the World and make someone feel seen, feel understood, feel joined in their grief or heartbreak or joy for just a moment.
I’ve learned by being in the entertainment industry for an extended period of time that this business operates with a very new, new, new, next, next, next mentality. For every artist or songwriter, we’re all just hoping to have one great year. One great album cycle. One great run at radio. And these days, one song that goes viral on TikTok. One glorious moment in the sun. Because on your next project you’ll probably have to invent a new thing to be. Think of all new things to say, and fresh ways to say them. You will have to entertain people. And the fact is that what entertains us is either seeing new artists emerge or established artists showing us a new side to themselves. If we are very, very lucky, life will say to us ‘your song is great’. The next thing life will say is ‘What else can you do?’
I say all of this because I’m up here receiving this beautiful award for a decade of work, and I can’t possibly explain how nice that feels. Because the way I see it, this is an award that celebrates a culmination of moments. Challenges. Gauntlets laid down. Albums I’m proud of. Triumphs. Strokes of luck or misfortune. Loud, embarrassing errors and the subsequent recovery from those mistakes, and the lessons learned from all of it. This award celebrates my family and my co-writers and my team. My friends and my fiercest fans and my harshest detractors and everyone who entered my life or left it. Because when it comes to my songwriting and my life, they are one in the same. As the great Nora Ephron once said, “Everything is copy.”
Twenty years ago I wrote my first song. I used to dream about one day getting to bounce around the different musical worlds of my various sonic influences, and change up the production of my albums. I hoped that one day, the blending of genres wouldn’t be such a big deal. There’s so much discussion about genre and it always usually leads back to a conversation about melody and production. But that leaves out possibly my favorite part of songwriting: lyricism.
And I’ve never talked about this publicly before, because, well, it’s dorky. But I also have, in my mind, secretly, established genres categories for lyrics I write. Three of them, to be exact. They are affectionately titled Quill Lyrics, Fountain Pen Lyrics, and Glitter Gel Pen Lyrics.
I know this sounds confusing but I’ll try to explain. I came up with these categories based on what writing tool I imagine having in my hand when I scribbled it down, figuratively. I don’t actually have a quill. Anymore. I broke it once when I was mad.
I categorize certain songs of mine in the ‘Quill’ style if the words and phrasings are antiquated, if I was inspired to write it after reading Charlotte Brontë or after watching a movie where everyone is wearing poet shirts and corsets. If my lyrics sound like a letter written by Emily Dickinson’s great grandmother while sewing a lace curtain, that’s me writing in the Quill genre. I will give you an example from one of my songs I’d categorize as Quill.
“How’s one to know
I’d meet you where the spirit meets the bones
In a faith forgotten land
In from the snow, your touch brought forth an incandescent glow
Tarnished but so grand”
Moving on to Lyricism category #2: Fountain Pen style. I’d say most of my lyrics fall into this category. Fountain pen style means a modern storyline or references, with a poetic twist. Taking a common phrase and flipping its meaning. Trying to paint a vivid picture of a situation, down to the chipped paint on the door frame and the incense dust on the vinyl shelf. Placing yourself and whoever is listening right there in the room where it all happened. The love, the loss, everything. The songs I categorize in this style sound like confessions scribbled and sealed in an envelope, but too brutally honest to ever send.
“Cause there we are again in the middle of the night
We’re dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light
Down the stairs, I was there
I remember it all too well
And there we are again when nobody had to know
You kept me like a secret but I kept you like an oath
Sacred prayer, and we’d swear to remember it all too well “
The third category is called Glitter Gel Pen and it lives up to its name in every way. Frivolous, carefree, bouncy, syncopated perfectly to the beat. Glitter Gel Pen lyrics don’t care if you don’t take them seriously because they don’t take themselves seriously. Glitter Gel Pen lyrics are the drunk girl at the party who tells you that you look like an Angel in the bathroom. It’s what we need every once in a while in these fraught times in which we live.
“my ex man brought his new girlfriend; she’s like ‘oh my god’ but I’m just gonna shake and to the fella over there with the hella good hair, won’t you come on over baby we can shake, shake, shake.”
Why did I make these categories, you ask? Because I love doing this thing we are fortunate enough to call a job. Writing songs is my life’s work and my hobby and my never-ending thrill. I am moved beyond words that you, my peers, decided to honor me in this way for work I’d still be doing if I had never been recognized for it.
Lately I’ve been on a joyride down memory lane. I’ve been re-recording my first six albums. When I go through the process of meticulously recreating each element of my past and revisiting songs I wrote when I was 13, 14, and 15, that path leads me right to music row. How my mom would pick me up from school and drive me to my co-writing sessions with dozens of writers (and some of you are in this very room tonight) who 15 years ago decided to give me their time, their wisdom, their belief before anyone thought writing with me was a productive use of an afternoon. I will never forget you, every last one of you.
Part of my re-recording process has included adding songs that never made the original albums, but songs I hated to leave behind. I’ve gone back and recorded a bunch of them for my version of my albums. “Fearless,” my version, came out last year and as I was choosing songs for it, I came across one I’d written with the Warren Brothers when I was 14. I decided to record it as a duet with the brilliant Keith Urban. When I called the the Warrens up to tell them I was cutting our song 17 years after we’d written it, I’ll never forget the first thing they said. “Well, I think that’s the longest hold we’ve ever had.”
In 2011, just over ten years ago, my trusted collaborator and confidant Liz Rose came over to my apartment and I showed her a song I’d been working on. I was going through a rough time (as is the natural state of being 21) and had scribbled down verse after verse after verse, a song that was too long to put on an album. It clocked in at around 10 minutes. We set out editing, trimming, cutting out big sections until it was a reasonable 5 minutes and 30 seconds. It was called “All Too Well.” Last year when I re-recorded my 2012 album “Red,” I included this 10 minute version with its original verses and extra bridges. I never could’ve imagined when we wrote it that that song would be resurfacing ten years later or that I’d be about to play it for you tonight.
But a song can defy logic or time. A good song transports you to your truest feelings and translates those feelings for you. A good song stays with you even when people or feelings don’t. Writing songs is a calling and getting to call it your career makes you very lucky. You have to be grateful every day for it, and all the people who thought your words might be worth listening to. This town is the school that taught me that.
To be honored by you means more than any genre of my lyrics could ever say.
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Originally published at variety.com