"Were you as sweaty as I was tonight?" Taylor Swift asks as she takes a seat on one of the many padded blue tables in the NFL training room at New Jersey's MetLife Stadium. That would be a no: She just wrapped a seriously athletic two-hour show in which she breakdanced, led a psychedelic drum circle and jumped down from the stage to high-five hundreds of fans.
"It's kind of exhilarating, walking through a crazy, insane mob," she says. "The most miraculous process is watching a song go from a tiny idea in the middle of the night to something that 55,000 people are singing back to you."
Swift's Red tour documents her wild ride from twangy teen singer-songwriter to dubstep-dabbling pop megastar. The massive production – which includes a 190-foot stage with a catwalk and a staircase onstage, nine huge video screens and a dozen backup dancers – feels surprisingly intimate, partly because of Swift's habit of going on long confessional tangents.
"I am getting to the point where the only love worth being in is the love worth singing about," she says. "Sitting on a bedroom floor crying is something that makes you feel really alone. If someone's singing about that feeling, you feel bonded to that person. That's the only way I can find an explanation for why 55,000 people would want to come see me sing."
While Swift designed the 2011 Speak Now tour in the vein of A Midsummer Night's Dream, she took a new approach this year. "I picture this taking place in New York City," she says of the stage show. "And so you got you've got high intensity excitement and you've got the darkness of all of it and you've got all the fleeting moments of reality, and it's a little bit less of a fairy tale."
The show also includes openers that have included Ed Sheeran (who opens all shows of the tour), Austin Mahone and Joel Crouse. "I want people's head spinning at everything they saw and heard," says Swift.
"She really has every single thing you could expect from a big show," says Sheeran, who adds he's had to adapt his set for Swift's audience. "I've stopped swearing so much when I perform, because there are a lot of young kids in the crowd."
Sheeran has also faced the challenge of filling a stadium with only an acoustic guitar. "I've been trying to work out my own way of doing it," he says. "My show is a lot more off-the-cuff [than Swift's]. I'll decide to play a song, like, two minutes before, so it's less regimented."
Before tonight's show, Swift attended four fan meet-and-greets and ran through a quick soundcheck with special guest Patrick Stump, who rose onstage in an elevator to surprise fans with Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)." "It's my jam!" says Swift.
Adds Stump, "She started talking to me about the hydraulics [of the elevator], and I'm like, 'It's crazy how good at this you are. You know all your shit.'"
Since her stadium gigs happen mostly on weekends, Swift has spent plenty of downtime lately at her new beachside mansion in Rhode Island. "There have been a lot of kitchen dance parties with my girlfriends," she says. She's been listening to tons of Carly Simon (who just joined her onstage in Massachusetts) and devouring novels, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins. "They're great stories, and they kind of take you away," she says. And she's already putting together a wish list of collaborators for her fifth album: "I'm jumping in headfirst."
After the show, her workday still isn't quite done. She has one more meet-and-greet scheduled in Club Red, a shrine decked out in photos of Swift and old stage costumes. This one is reserved for fans dressed in the most outrageous costumes: Several girls wear tutus, and there's one dude covered head to toe in red plastic Solo cups. The chatty room falls silent when Swift arrives at midnight. One young fan from Long Island starts crying in the corner. Soon, Swift hugs two girls from the Netherlands, who hand her some waffle-and-syrup cookies from back home. "Oh, my God, I love these," Swift says with a gasp. "Are these for me to keep?" They nod.
Later, as the Dutch girls wait for a train back into New York, they're still buzzing. "I'm so happy," one of them says, staring at a photo of herself with Swift that she's already uploaded to Instagram. "That was the greatest moment of my life."
Here is the full Q&A from our interview with Swift:
Onstage, you discussed writing a lot of songs in your bedroom at 2 a.m. What's it like to go from that to playing it for a huge stadium?
I think the most miraculous process is watching a song go from a tiny idea that you have in the middle of the night to a song that a group of 55,000 people is singing back to you so loudly that you can hear it louder than your own voice coming out of the speakers, in a concert in a stadium. And I think that for me, that's the final part of the process. You know, I'm still so in love with songwriting because it's never the same. You never get the same fragment of information as an idea. It's never just a chorus or a first line – it's always something different. And to piece it together in the crossword puzzle that ends up being your song and have it end up here is so rewarding, you know.
You also talked about the "fiery, difficult, complicated emotions" that drive those songs. You seem very comfortable talking about those emotions at length onstage.
I am getting to a point where the only love worth being in is the love worth singing about. And kind of mad love. I think that for me, when you experience something that's worth writing a song about, chances are it's the same kind of intense feeling that someone else has felt, and it has led them to be sitting on a bedroom floor crying, or walking through a crowded room feeling alone or feeling misunderstood by the person who's supposed to know them better than anybody else. Those are things that make you feel really alone, and if someone's singing a song about that feeling, then you feel bonded to that person, and I guess that's the only way I can find an explanation why 55,000 people would want to come see me sing.
The show gets pretty dark. During "Red," there's a moment where what looks like blood is spilling across the video screens. Is that somebody's blood?
Actually, no. I've never been into shock value and gory and scaring people. It's actually paint, so it's actually just supposed to be the general concept of something red and something flowing – just red things. Like, there's red fabric, red paint being thrown against a wall. It's not blood. "God, we went to Taylor's show – it was really violent!"
What did you do today? I was wondering what you do on a day when you play a show like this.
It's a pretty hectic day. And it started with two really big meals. I eat a really big breakfast.
When is your first one?
That's at 10 a.m. And then I drive to the venue, get to the venue. We did soundcheck with Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy. I've been so excited for it for so long, because that song has been my jam for a really long time. Anyways, I did soundtrack with Patrick Stump and ran a few things in the stadium and then went to catering and had a really big lunch.
What'd you eat?
I don't know, just whatever they have, because that's gotta carry me through pretty much the show and the meet-and-greets, because hair and makeup starts at 4:30, and then I have four different meet-and-greets before the show. And then before the show we have a huddle where one of us makes an inspirational speech. Patrick's the one who made it tonight, which was wonderful. And then we go and walk into a stadium and play a show for two hours.
After the Speak Now tour, this one even seems a little bigger. You have the levitating and the Victorian dresses and the chandeliers. Did you have a specific way of thinking on what this tour would be like?
I did, actually. I thought a lot about how this tour was going to be different from the Speak Now tour. I was really proud of the Speak Now tour, but I'm proud of this tour for a different reason. When I was conceptualizing this tour from the very beginning, I thought about how if these two shows were to exist in two different worlds, I picture the Speak Now tour existing in a Midsummer Night's Dream/Romeo and Juliet-inspired fantasyland, and I picture this taking place in New York City. And so you've got high intensity excitement and you've got the darkness of all of it and you've got all the fleeting moments of reality, and it's a little bit less of a fairy tale.
Ed Sheeran has opened all the shows on the tour, but you are also rotating lots of other openers like Austin Mahone, Joel Crouse, Florida Georgia Line – kind of like your own traveling festival.
I have a pretty wide, eclectic taste in music, and I know my fans do too. We seem to have that in common. I want fans to leave the show at the end of the night with their heads spinning from everything they saw and heard. I want them to fall in love with a new artist as much as I want them to fall in love with ballet or dubstep or musical theater, and all of the other elements in the Red show they may not have seen before. Variety in entertainment can be so inspiring, and that's why I like to create different worlds with each song. It's why I like surprising the crowd with special guest performances they didn't expect. The fans have made my world a magical place to live in, and I guess this tour is me trying to do the same for them.
Does giving these acts a shot have any connection to the idea that a lot of acts, like Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, gave you a chance early on?
I'll never forget the people who gave me a chance to open up for them early on in my career. When I was a teenager, my biggest lessons came from Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, George Strait, Rascal Flatts and Brad Paisley. I learned so much from opening up for those artists, and it also taught me how to treat your opening acts and make them feel like they're part of a family, not just a tour. It's why we all hang out so much and go out to dinner and celebrate our achievements together. For me, it was the coolest feeling in the world when I realized Austin, Ed and I had all gotten nominated for VMAs. I'm so proud of them.
How do you feel you have grown as a performer, especially in stadiums?
I feel like you have to push yourself in order to become a better performer, and I never want a fan to leave the show saying, "That was just like the last tour." I like touring extensively because I think the more hours you spend onstage, the more you know who you are onstage. The more you throw yourself out of your comfort zone in the studio, the more colors you have to paint with when you go into the design stages of your tour. At the end of the day, the sound of a screaming crowd is my favorite sound, and the sight of a sold-out stadium is my favorite view. Everything derives from that and revolves around making those people dance, sing along, feel like they aren't alone, and ultimately want to come back and see me next time.
What are some of the weirder thoughts going through your head onstage during the show?
Tonight I was particularly hung up on not chipping another tooth like last show in Pittsburgh, definitely. It had a tip on [the tooth] and it doesn't anymore. I try to be really quick with the microphone, so I'm not standing there just waiting to sing with my mic right next to my face, so I really quickly pulled my mic up to sing and basically uppercut punched myself in the tooth. And then part of it fell onto the stage and I was like, "Oh, I wonder how bad that was. I wonder which tooth that is and I wonder how bad that is," and I was just trying not to chip another one tonight. I'm not doing anything about it. It's just gonna be a little bit jagged, I guess.
Sometimes I get really caught up in reading the signs, and if I get too caught up I will start to read the signs when I'm singing, so I have to make sure I'm only reading signs in musical breaks. [The signs] are all pretty out there most of the time, which I like. There will be people who just make a giant, huge picture of my cat's face, so big that it's all I can see, and that usually gets my attention. My cat out there, giant photocopy of her, eight foot by eight foot.
You're at home, basically.
Right – "this is so cozy!"
You walk through the crowd during "Sparks Fly." Is that scary, having thousands of people trying to get to you?
No. You know, you get scratched a little bit, but that's nothing to be scared of. It's really cool to make eye contact with someone while you're singing. To be able to travel through the entire crowd and sort of surprise people who didn't think they were going to get up close to a performance – I think that's one of my favorite things about having a stage in different parts. It's kind of exhilarating actually, walking through a crazy, insane mob of people.
You posted some images from your Fourth of July party you had this summer. What are your other favorite offstage moments of the summer so far?
I think the Fourth of July was way up there, just because anytime there's face-painting and frolicking involved, I'm really excited about all of those things. I've loved really being with my girlfriends a lot. Like, there have been a lot of kitchen dance parties with my girlfriends. The wonderful thing about playing a lot of stadiums is it's the equivalent to playing three or four arenas, so you have a few more days off. So I've really enjoyed getting to have a summer and also have a really high-intensity job waiting for me.
So you've been hanging out in Rhode Island a lot?
I've been in Rhode Island a lot. I've been in L.A. a little bit. Man, Rhode Island's a good place. It's a really good place.
Are you reading or listening to anything at the moment that you're excited about?
I'm going back and revisiting Carly Simon a lot. I'm listening to a lot of Carly Simon. And I have a copy of [F. Scott Fitzgerald's] Tender Is the Night that I'm about to start reading, because I read it a long time ago and I want to reread it. I've been reading a lot of different things, but I really like [Gillian Flynn's] Gone Girl and [Jess Walters'] Beautiful Ruins. They're great stories. They kind of take you away.