Swift Collaboration: Liz Rose Reveals Secrets Behind Taylor's Early Hits

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Taylor Swift and Liz Rose at the 58th Annual BMI Country Music Awards in Nashville (photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for BMI)
Taylor Swift and Liz Rose at the 58th Annual BMI Country Music Awards in Nashville (photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for BMI)

When Taylor Swift was first rising to stardom, and even for a few years afterward, there were a lot of naysayers who refused to believe a girl that young had that kind of songwriting talent. They looked at the credits on her albums and came to an easy conclusion: Clearly, Liz Rose, her decades-older co-writer, was the genius behind the throne.

"I know," says Rose now, remembering the time when Taylor haters were jumping to give her all the credit. "Look at those lyrics. Those are the lyrics of a 13-, 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old. We certainly weren't writing 50-year-old Liz Rose songs — or 40-year-old, or however old I was then. I don't think like that! It's so funny to me that people could imagine that."

But there's no mistaking what an integral role Rose played in Swift's early success. The Music Row stalwart co-wrote seven of the songs on the singer's 2006 debut album, including her breakout singles, "Tim McGraw" and "Teardrops on My Guitar." For the follow-up, Fearless, released two years later, Rose collaborated on four songs, including the title track, "White Horse," and arguably one of the greatest pop singles of all time, "You Belong With Me."

Suddenly, a then-fortysomething mom improbably found herself as the voice of tween and teen America. Or, to be more accurate, its channeler.

Rose could hardly be humbler when she describes how her co-writing with Swift has worked. She's willing to accept far more credit when it comes to the other collaborations that have led to hit singles — such as "Crazy Girl," the No. 1 country hit for the Eli Young Band that won her an ACM Award last year for Song of the Year. When it comes to Swift, Rose swears that the ideas always sprang directly from the then-curly head of the young star, and that her primary function was to act as a conduit.

"The reason it worked is that I didn't get in her way," Rose says. "With Taylor, it really was editing. That's never anything that she said — that's just how it was! At some point I wondered if I was selling myself short by saying that, because songwriting is songwriting. But with her, that's really what I do, and it's unlike the way I've written with anybody else before or since. A lot of it with Taylor was editing and moving this there and saying, 'Well, what if we said it like this?' I can remember times when I would try and throw out an idea for a new song: 'How about we write this?' And she would just go, 'Yeah, I don't think so. Go and write that with somebody else.' Because Taylor always wanted to write her songs. And there was always so much going on in her brain, you just had to help her get it out and get it down. She always has a reason behind why she's writing something. She's lived it or felt it. She's not making it up."

Rose's favorite of the songs they wrote together was the last one they did, "All Too Well," which appeared on 2012's Red… a sad ballad that is widely believed to memorialize Swift's romance with Jake Gyllenhaal. "There is a very raw emotion in 'All Too Well' that still hits me when I hear it. With that song, when we got together, she had it all in her brain, and it was probably 10, 12, or 15 minutes long! She had a story to get out, so we just sat down and started going through it piece by piece, and as she sang all these things, I just wrote down what I thought were the important pieces that hit." (Maybe when Swift is Rose's age, we can get a boxed-set reissue of Red that includes the unexpurgated eight-verse version.)

Swift was 13 when she first approached Rose after a songwriters' showcase and asked if they could write together. At that point, Rose had just had a hit with Gary Allan's "Songs About Rain," and could have been more discriminating than to agree to sit down with someone who not only didn't have any record deal but, barely being out of puberty, seemed to have an infinitesimal chance of ever getting one. On top of that, as soon as they started writing together, it became clear they were coming up with songs that no one else could ever record but Swift herself.

"Tim McGraw" was one of the first tunes they ever wrote together, and Rose remembers thinking to herself: "Nobody [else] is going to ever cut this song!" But, she explains, "We were just writing a song. I don't even think we thought that song was gonna make the record. We never even demoed that song. I believe that she played it live for Scott [Borchetta, the head of Big Machine Records], and he said, 'Why are we not cutting that song?'"

The fact that their songs were un-pitchable to anyone else in Nashville is part-and-parcel with what made Swift a superstar. "I never wrote with Taylor thinking that we were going to pitch the song. I always knew that we were writing Taylor songs. She really has her own way of saying things. I meet a lot of young girls that think they can be Taylor if I help them out, and I have to say to them, 'These are Taylor's words. There was no magic fairy dust around me. Taylor knew how to write a song at 13. So you need to go figure out how to write your song first.'"

So does every young girl coming to Nashville look Rose up now?

Liz Rose at the 2010 BMI Country Awards
Liz Rose at the 2010 BMI Country Awards

She laughs and sighs. "You can't even imagine. And you know what? It's OK. If I have time, I will write with new people — guys and girls — because if we don't pay it forward and mentor these kids, that's silly. But I went through a thing where they were all obsessed with Taylor, and I would say, 'You know, there's only one Taylor Swift. If you can't write a song by yourself [before you come to me], I don't know what to tell you.' That's kind of what I send them to do. You know, Taylor opened so many doors, and it's unbelievable how she got so many young girls to pick up the guitar and write songs, and so we have to nurture these girls. But as far as there being another Taylor Swift, there's only one. Just like there's one Miranda [Lambert]. You've just got to encourage them to find their own path and their own voice."

Rose didn't write with Swift for her forthcoming album. "I moved to Dallas for a couple of years, and she's been in Nashville and L.A. I think she was working with a lot of track guys" — meaning beat-oriented producers like Max Martin. "I don't know that anybody's even heard it. But whatever she's doing, I bet it's incredible, because she just continues to grow and get better."

Rose has her own publishing company with seven writers. When she's not running that, she's busy co-writing songs for the likes of Little Big Town ("Sober," plus three songs on their upcoming album) or The Voice alum RaeLynn (the new "God Made Girls"). In that vein of songwriting, she gets to veritably vomit out all the lyrics she can and then rely on her co-writers to edit them — pretty much the reverse of what she does with Swift.

She's also opening a home décor store in the fall in Nashville with one of her daughters, Hayley, "because I need one more thing to do, right? This satisfies my shopping bug. Now I just shop and (re)sell it."

Rose couldn't be prouder, meanwhile, of another daughter, Caitlin Rose, who's released a couple of critically acclaimed Americana albums and is working on another for 2015. Did Rose mentor her daughter? "Oh, no!" she exclaims, laughing, as if the thought of self-motivated Caitlin needing a push into music is as ridiculous as the thought of Taylor having required a gentle shove.

Her one regularly scheduled writing stop is a weekend retreat she has every three months with Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey, with LBT's "Sober" having been the result of one of those sessions. Rose plans to enlist those gals when she records her own solo album later this year, which is something that is happening with a bit of reticence, she admits.

"My kids are going, 'Oh no! what are you doing? But it's really fun to pull my skeletons out of the closet and put 'em down on paper. I may get a bunch of the girls I've been writing songs with and figure out how to do a Liz Rose & Friends record. I don't know what I'll do with it, but it's just gonna be fun, and I'll get to embarrass my kids!"