Taylor Swift wowed the crowd at the NSAI’s 2022 Nashville Songwriter Awards Tuesday night, revealing some of her writing secrets as she took home the Songwriter-Artist of the Decade award.
Swift took the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Tennessee and was awarded for her work between 2010 and 2019, a period that included the hits “Fearless,” “Mine,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Shake It Off,” “Style” and “Blank Space” and saw her crossover from country star to mainstream music phenomenon. Swift’s acceptance speech, which lasted over ten minutes, had the audience listening intently as the multiple Grammy winner laid out her songwriting process and also included an acoustic rendition of “All Too Well (10-Minute Version)”.
The singer-songwriter revealed that her “dorky” writing method would cause her to categorize songs into three genres, which she named “Quill Lyrics”, “Fountain Pen Lyrics” and “Glitter Gel Pen Lyrics”. “I came up with these categories based on what writing tool I imagine I have in my hand when I wrote it down — figuratively. I actually don’t have a feather anymore. I broke it once when I was angry,” Swift said.
Swift is the first female musician to receive the NSAI’s Songwriter-Artist of the Decade award. Previous winners have included Toby Keith (2000-2009) and Vince Gill (1990-1999).
Read the full text of Swift’s speech:
I would like to thank you [Bart Herbison, the NSAI’s executive director] for introducing me in such a generous way and I want to thank the NSAI for bringing all of us together for this event. To me, this evening feels brimming with genuine camaraderie between a bunch of people who just love making things. Who love the job. They live for that rare, pure moment when a magical cloud floats down right in front of you in the shape of a song idea, and you just have to grab it. Then mold it like clay. Prune it like a garden. And then wish every lucky star or pray to whatever power you believe could make its way into the world and make someone feel seen, understood, feel united for a moment in their sadness or heartbreak or joy.
I’ve learned from working in the entertainment industry for a longer period of time that this company operates with a whole new, new, new, next, next, next mentality. For any artist or songwriter, we all hope for a great year. A great album cycle. A great run on the radio. And nowadays one song that is going viral on TikTok. A glorious moment in the sun. Because on your next project you will probably have to invent something new to be. Think of all the new things to say and new ways to say them. You will have to entertain people. And the fact is, what entertains us is that we either see new artists popping up or established artists showing us a new side of 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 this because I am receiving this wonderful award for ten years of work here, and I cannot possibly explain how nice that feels. Because as I see it, this is an award that celebrates a culmination of moments. Challenges. Gloves put down. Albums I’m proud of. triumphs. Strokes of luck or misfortune. Loud, embarrassing mistakes and the subsequent recovery from those mistakes, and the lessons learned from them. This award celebrates my family and my co-writers and my team. My friends and my fiercest fans and my toughest opponents and everyone who has come into 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 a copy.”
20 years ago I wrote my first song. I always dreamed of one day bouncing through the different musical worlds of my various sonic influences and changing the production of my albums. I was hoping that one day the mixing of genres wouldn’t be such a big deal. There is so much discussion about genre and it always leads to a conversation about melody and production. But that might be leaving out my favorite part of songwriting: lyricism.
And I’ve never talked about this in public because, well, it’s stupid. But I’ve also, in my mind, secretly established genre categories for lyrics I write. Three of them, to be exact. They are affectionately known as 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 I have in my hand when I figuratively wrote it down. I don’t actually have a feather. Lake. I broke it once when I was angry.
I categorize certain songs of mine in the “Quill” style when the words and phrasing are outdated, when 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 as she sews a lace curtain, then I’m writing in the Quill genre. I’ll give you an example of one of my songs that I would categorize as Quill.
“How do you know that?”
I would meet you where the mind meets the bones
In a faith forgotten land
From the snow your touch brought forth a glowing glow
Tarnished but so grand”
Skip to Lyrics Category #2: Fountain Pen Style. I would say most of my lyrics fall into this category. Fountain pen style means a modern storyline or references, with a poetic twist. Take a common phrase and reverse its meaning. Trying to paint a vivid picture of a situation, down to the peeling paint on the door frame and the incense dust on the vinyl plank. Put yourself and the one 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.
“Because here we are again in the middle of the night
We dance through the kitchen in the light of the fridge
Down the stairs, I was there
I remember it all too well
And here we are again when no one needed to know
You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath
Holy prayer, and we would swear to remember it all too well”
The third category is called Glitter Gel Pen and lives up to its name in every way. Frivolous, carefree, resilient, perfectly syncopated 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 telling you you look like an angel in the bathroom. It’s what we need every now and then in these fraught times we live in.
“My ex-husband brought his new girlfriend; she’s like ‘oh my god’ but i’m just gonna shake and to that guy over there with that good hair won’t you come baby we can shake, shake, shake.’
Why did I create these categories, you ask? Since I love doing this, we are lucky enough to call a job. Writing songs is my life’s work and my hobby and my never-ending thrill. I am touched that you, my colleagues, have decided to honor me in this way for work that I would still be doing if I had never been recognized for it.
Lately I’ve been on a joyride down memory lane. I re-recorded my first six albums. As I go through the process of meticulously recreating every element from my past and revisiting songs I wrote when I was 13, 14, and 15, that path leads me straight to the music line. How my mom would pick me up from school and take me to my co-writing sessions with dozens of writers (and some of you are in this room tonight) who decided 15 years ago to give me their time, their wisdom, their faith before anyone thought writing with me was a productive afternoon. I will never forget you, each of you.
Part of my re-recording process involved adding songs that never made the original albums, but songs I hated leaving behind. I went back and recorded some for my version of my albums. Fearless, my version, came out last year and while I was figuring out songs for it, I came across one I wrote 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 Warrens to tell them I was cutting our song 17 years after we wrote it, I’ll never forget the first thing they said. “Well, I think this is the longest hold we’ve ever had.”
In 2011, just over a decade ago, my trusted co-worker and confidant Liz Rose came to my apartment and I showed her a song I was working on. I was going through a rough time (like the natural state of being 21) and had written verse after verse after verse, a song that was too long to put on an album. He clocked in at about 10 minutes. We started editing, cropping, cutting out large 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 added this 10-minute version with the original verses and extra bridges. When we wrote it, I never imagined that that song would resurface ten years later or that I’d be playing it for you tonight.
But a song can defy logic or time. A good song takes you to your true 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 if you can call it your career, you are very lucky. You should be thankful for it every day, and all the people who thought your words were worth listening to. This city is the school that taught me that.
To be honored by you means more than any genre of my lyrics could ever say.