By Brian Ives
Six years is a long time to wait between albums for any artist, particularly a new one. But since Lauren Alaina released her debut album, Wildflower, in 2011, the one-time American Idol contestant went through a number of life events that can only be referred to as traumas. Her parents divorced, she battled bulimia and she nearly lost her singing voice.
Happily, things are looking up for her: her new album, Road Less Traveled, is an artistic quantum leap from her debut. And, although her debut was six years ago, she’s still regarded as “new” — at least by the ACMs, who nominated her for Best New Female Vocalist.
In a lengthy and revealing interview with Radio.com, she spoke about all of the above, and also about what it took for her to come back with her triumphant new album.
So, it’s been a long six years for you.
Everything changed for me in the last six years. I moved to Nashville, my parents went through a divorce; my dad’s an alcoholic, and he went to rehab when my mom asked for the divorce. I had vocal cord surgery. I overcame an eating disorder. There’s all these really big, life-changing experiences. And honestly, it was really hard to go through, and it was painful. But it was worth it because I have the record of my dreams. I would’ve never created this music or written these songs or had this new music without all of these things I went through.
And I think that that’s the cool thing about music is that it heals. It heals pretty much anything, especially for me. As a songwriter, I would go into these sessions and write these songs and try to get these stories out, because I was bottling them up and trying to process them, and then it just happened to make an album. I didn’t get to write [much on] the first album. This one’s really special because I’m not only the artist singing the music, I’m the person who wrote the songs as well.
Did your label prevent you from writing on your first album?
I don’t think that anyone was trying to keep me from writing the first album. It’s just when you’re on American Idol or a TV show like that, you wanna capitalize on that momentum, and you want to use that to your advantage, obviously, so the best way to do that is to get the music out as fast as possible. And there’s no time to create, really. You have to take something that someone else has created and someone else has written and make it your own.
And I’m so proud of that first album. I actually did write one of the songs on the album. It was called “Funny Thing About Love,”. Gosh, that was so long ago.
I just felt like I needed the time, I needed those six years to figure out who I wanted to be, and it’s so hard when you’re on a TV show like that, because you go from being an everyday person—I was a sophomore in high school—to overnight, you’re on national television every week.
And then you go out on tour and you have an album, and you don’t really stop to think, “Who am I as an artist?” At least that’s how it was for me. Some people that are older, I’m sure, already have more of an idea of the direction they wanna go, but I was so young, and I just went from singing in school to singing on tour. So it took me a while for sure to figure out who I am. It was very difficult, because I was sixteen, and no one knows who they are when they’re sixteen.
Obviously, I knew I wanted to be a singer, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say and what was important to me yet. And it took some heartache and some happiness and some learning and growing to be able to dig in and decide what that is for me, and decide what my message is, and decide who I am as an artist. And I’m so excited because I feel like I really did that with this album. I was sometimes brutally honest on this album.
It’s going to be hard to follow this album up, inspiration-wise.
So many life-changing things happened, and I went through big, big changes. Hopefully, I don’t have to go through stuff like that every single time to make an album! It will be difficult to match that for the next album.
On the song “The Road Less Traveled,” you sing “You won’t make yourself a name if you follow the rules.”
I just feel like in society and in public, we have this unspoken expectation that we’re all trying to meet. And there’s so much pressure to try to fit in.
The line, “You won’t make yourself a name if you follow the rules” is one of my favorites in “Road Less Traveled.” I’m a goofball, and I have this huge personality, and I used to try to hide that. I used to try to kind of dim my light. Now I just embrace my personality, and it’s not for everyone, and that’s fine, but I think I have to be myself, and I think we all have to be who we really are.
It seems like you’ve come to the realization that you want to have hits like a lot of other country singers, but you don’t want to be like any other country singers.
People always ask me who my role models are and who I want to be like, and I don’t wanna be like anybody; I wanna be me. I look up to a lot of people, and they have had great influences on me, but I wanna be original and different.
I spent a lot of time trying to be more blonde or thinner or whatever. I’d wear the dresses [other singers] would wear. And I got really sick and tired of trying to be something I’m not, and it’s so much more comforting to walk into a room in something I feel good in, because I felt like I was constantly putting on a show, and now I don’t have to do that. I don’t feel the need to do that anymore.
It’s so weird how people like to make comments online and will say things about my appearance because I’m not a model, I’m a singer. And I know that I’m basically a brand. But I used to think that what I looked like was more important than the music. At one point I was so obsessed with what I looked like that the music just wasn’t right. And then when I flipped that switch and stopped caring what people think about me so much, that’s when the music really came into play, and that’s when I wrote “Road Less Traveled,” and that’s when I wrote the whole album, because I stopped caring what people think, and I was able to write good music because I wasn’t trying to write a hit anymore. I was just writing whatever I wanted to write that day or whatever was important to me.
I wasn’t in a beauty contest, I was in a singing contest. And I used to forget that; I used to forget that I’m a singer. I’d think of myself as, “I’ve gotta be this” and “I’ve gotta be prettier” and I’ve gotta be all these things. I’m like, it doesn’t really matter.
The album starts off with “Doin’ Fine,” and in the song, you address the fact that people know a bit of what you’ve gone through over the past few years.
I wanted this album to reintroduce who I am and to really set up my story and all of the things that have happened in the last few years. And “Doin’ Fine” is probably the most brutally honest song on the album.
I wrote it about my parents’ divorce. My father’s an alcoholic—a recovering alcoholic. He’s a little over three years sober now. And then my mom married a family friend, and my dad married a 29-year-old.
And I started talking to people about what was going on, and I realized that we all have crazy families. We all have drama and things going on in our lives that we don’t necessarily want people to know about right away. And I just wanted to put it in a song, because I wanted to just let it out and to just embrace who I am and embrace my family. I’m proud of my family. I’m proud of my dad, I’m proud of my mom, and I’m proud to be their daughter. And they’re great parents and great people, and we all make mistakes.
But my dad is sober now and [he is] a great person and my parents are happily re-married. And as messy and scary and ridiculous as it was in the beginning, it all worked out in the end.
How did your dad feel about you singing about him so directly in your song?
My dad is so great about me being open about his alcoholism because I think he wants to help people too. And it was really scary for me to tell his story. I tell my story all the time in songs, but to tell my parents’ personal stories is a little bit trickier. And I played it for my dad, and I called my dad and asked him and we talked about it, and my mom. It’s really personal about her as well.
And they’re really supportive, and I think that when I sent it to them they even realized how it affected me and got a whole new perspective on my point of view. And it was a really cool moment. My mom said that it was her favorite song that I’ve ever written, and I didn’t see that coming. I was just putting their dirty laundry out on the line, basically.
And that was such a relief because I never want to upset my parents or make them feel like I’m talking bad about them, because I’m proud of them both, and I love them both.
Your dad married a 29-year old; you’re 22. That must have taken some getting used to.
Everything that happened in the last few years was hard to get used to! But it was so—the whole divorce and my parents getting remarried… it’s always weird when your parents are with other people. But it was good for me to see them happy. It all sounds crazy, and my dad’s wife is seven years older than me, and my mom married one of my dad’s really good friends from high school, but it worked out somehow, and that’s the really beautiful thing about it.
You sing, “I blamed God, I blamed myself.” Most country singers thank God, they don’t blame God. Was that a tough line to write?
Gosh, I was trying to blame anyone. I wanted it to be anybody’s fault. I wanted someone to be mad at, and I was mad at everyone at one point. I didn’t know how to feel. I’m pretty religious, and I remember talking to God and being like, “Hey, I’m down here. What’re you doing? I’m trying to talk to you here, and I don’t feel like you’re talking back.” And I remember thinking, “Aren’t you supposed to fix things? Why aren’t you fixing things?”
But I didn’t know that He was fixing things. In that moment I thought I was lost and there was no way out, and He was already working on it, and He was already healing my dad from his addiction, and He was already healing all of our hearts. And it took a while, but we got there.
And I think when something really traumatic happens, something that’s shocking, we try to find someone to blame. I blamed myself for a long time. I was trying to blame anyone, because it’s easier to be mad and to point fingers than it is to say, “Okay, how is this affecting me, and what can I do to make it better?” But I don’t blame anyone anymore. It was just something that happened, and we all grew from it.
You also had to deal with issues with your vocal cords.
I had polyps on my vocal cords, and I kind of knew when I was on Idol that I had them. They found them when I was on American Idol because when you go through the show they take you to a vocal doctor and let you see your vocal cords. I had them then. And I think I had them since I was a little girl, and they just got worse. Obviously, I was pretty unhealthy for a while with an eating disorder. That was straining. I never took voice lessons, so I never warmed up my voice, I didn’t really know how to take care of it.
And it finally was too much eventually, and I had to have the surgery, which was the scariest thing that ever happened to me because I love to sing. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t sing anymore. And there’s a chance when you have that surgery that you never sound the same or you’re not able to do what you were able to do before. It can limit your vocal ability, or it can really help your vocal ability. It pretty much doubled my range, which was such a huge blessing, because I was scared to death.
And I didn’t talk for a solid month. I was not able to say a single word for a solid month… and if you spend five seconds with me you realize that was the most torturous thing I’ve ever been through because I never stop talking. I talk in my sleep! But it was worth it. I did it because I wanted to heal. I think I started singing four months after the surgery, which is a long time. I wasn’t able to listen to the radio because I couldn’t even hum along.
It was the craziest thing, but it was so worth it. And I remember when I was singing again, or talking, my voice was really high-pitched and I don’t have a high-pitched voice; I have kind of a lower voice. I sounded like Minnie Mouse. I was like, “Oh, no. This is not good.” I was scared to death, and then it finally started healing, and I was able to use all of my voice again. It was so much better.
Were you nervous when you returned to performing live?
I don’t usually get nervous for shows. I’m not a super nervous person; I don’t have stage fright. But there was a difference after the surgery when I started again, because it was a new voice to me, and I was still trying to learn how to use it. We could only clear the [touring] schedule for so long. I have to keep touring; I have to keep working.
So it was interesting at first. I was kinda scared and I would hold back, and now I don’t do that anymore. It’s been a couple of years now. It definitely made me a little nervous. It’s like having knee surgery, and you can’t just go run a marathon after you have a knee surgery. So I had to kind of “baby step” back into it.
You’re as country as they come, but you invite people from all kinds of backgrounds to your party — whether they are country or not — on “My Kinda People.”
I had this moment in the last few years where I just decided not to judge a book by its cover anymore. Because when I was on American Idol no one knew that my dad was an alcoholic; no one knew that I had family problems; no one knew I had an eating disorder because people only know things about you if you tell them or if they see it happening.
And I feel like we all have something going on, and I just wanna be accepting of all people. That’s hard to do. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, but I love all types of people, and I want that to be my message as an artist. Self-acceptance and acceptance of others is super important to me. I try to love as many people as I can and to be as kind as I can. I want to encourage that because I think that’s such a better way to live than to be sad, lonely and judge-y.
Not a lot of country singers have addressed issues around body image, which you did on this album.
My favorite artists in the entire world are artists who talk about learning to love who they are and are empowering: Katy Perry, Beyonce. Alessia Cara, I’m obsessed with her right now. Shania Twain. Growing up listening to Shania, she sang songs like “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.” She’s proud to be a woman.
And I feel like there haven’t been a lot of women on country radio in the last few years. It’s really been changing lately. And I don’t know why I decided to write about body issues. I think because I had such a problem; I had an eating disorder for six years, so I felt like that was just natural for me to talk about.
And I needed to hear those things, and I didn’t feel like I was really hearing them as much on country radio. There are things that men can say that women can’t say, and there are things women can say that men can’t say, and I think it’s important to have both those perspectives on the radio.
I feel so encouraged that I have a song on the Top 15. So many women in the past two to three years have had Number Ones and had songs in the Top 10: Kelsea [Ballerini], Jana [Kramer], Cam, Maddie & Tae, Cassadee Pope. There are all these women now that had Number Ones and Top 10s and have just been dominating, and I just feel really honored to be able to be a female voice that is being heard now as well. I’ve been waiting six years for that.
But people sing about [body image] all the time on pop radio. I feel like I got lucky because I did go through that, and now I get to share that, and hopefully people can hear that and relate to it and heal from it, because we’re all flawed and we’re all insecure.
No one sang about birth control before Loretta Lynn sang “The Pill,” or about being a single woman after a divorce before she sang “Rated X.” But it must be difficult to be the first to sing about taboo subjects.
I was definitely nervous. Because people don’t talk about body image, and they don’t talk about those pressures in our format. So it was definitely scary. I didn’t know how people would react. But I feel really supported, I was actually kind of surprised at how many people have reached out and said that they have similar problems. That’s the thing about an eating disorder, or any kind of problem, is that you think you’re alone, and you think that no one will understand, but really there are, unfortunately, too many people that understand.
You address that a little bit more on “Pretty.”
I came in the spotlight at sixteen — actually fifteen. I was on national television when I was super young, and I had the eating disorder when I went on the show, and it just got way worse once I was on national television and had all these people commenting on my weight and what I looked like. I was already insecure about it. And people were talking about it, which made it ten times worse.
And I had such a messed up definition of the word “pretty.” I thought I had to look like someone else to be pretty. I thought I had to have blonder hair and make my hips smaller; I was desperately trying to be thin, and that is not what pretty is. Pretty to me now has nothing to do with what you look like. I take good care of myself; I like to dress up; I like to feel confident. But I think someone who is super beautiful is nice to people and has an outgoing personality and makes people smile, and that’s what pretty is to me now. I had a really messed up definition of that.
On “Three,” you talk about what you’ve gone through, and what you’ve given up, for those three minutes on the radio.
I’ve had six singles now, and “Road Less Traveled” is my first single to break the Top 15. It’s my first single to break through the Top 30! I’ve been really fortunate lately. I’ve worked a long time to have that radio success. It’s always been something that I’ve been trying to do. I’ve released five other songs that didn’t do that, [but] finally it happened.
And I missed so many things along the way. I’ve missed birthday parties, and I’ve missed family events. I missed high school; I didn’t go to high school. I have a boyfriend that I’ve had for four years, and I’ve maybe seen him half of the time we’ve been together. Just like a lot of things that I miss to do what I love. And I wanted to write a song that addresses the things I’ve missed and the sacrifices I’ve made for the people who made those sacrifices with me. And they didn’t choose to, really; I was the one who chose this lifestyle, and my family and my friends all have to sacrifice as well. They don’t get to see me, and I don’t get to see them as much as we would like.
But they’re so supportive, and I wanted to recognize that. I wanted to call that out for them, and then I wanted to write it as well for the fans, because in the bridge I say I do it for the three girls who come to my show that are in the third row that they’ve saved up for, and they sing all the words to all my songs. That’s the moment when I know I’m where I’m supposed to be, and that’s when I’m like, “Ah, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
There’s nothing better in the world than that feeling, being onstage and seeing girls in the audience that are young versions of me and that are there enjoying the music. And I would say “Three” is my favorite song I’ve ever written. It’s really, really personal to me and really important to me.
“Same Day Different Bottle” must have been difficult to write.
“Same Day Different Bottle” is probably the darkest song on the album. It’s all about my dad’s alcoholism. And I have a really cool story with that one. We never talked about my dad’s alcoholism, it was a big secret. And when my mom asked for the divorce, dad checked himself into rehab, and I’ll never forget the phone call. I was in the store, in the middle of the store and collapsed when he called me to tell me that he was going to rehab, because I wanted him to get better.
My mom and my brother and I drove him to the rehab center, and we dropped him off, which is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
And then I went up to Nashville, and I had a writing session with [co-writers] Dan [Couch] and Caitlyn [Smith]. I didn’t really know either of them very well at the time, and it’s always scary when you write with someone new, when you really have something going on, because it’s like talking to a therapist that’s not a therapist, and you’re just telling all your problems to these two people and trusting them to help you create something out of that. And I cried the entire time when we wrote the song.
But I would’ve never written “Same Day Different Bottle” if my dad hadn’t checked himself into rehab, because I would’ve never been able to talk about it. And he made a huge, brave step, and it made me kind of take a brave step as well. It’s so important to my story, and I think a lot of people have people they love that have addictions, and it’s really hard to deal with. It’s hard for everyone involved. It’s hard for the person who is addicted to whatever they’re addicted to, and it’s hard for the families and friends that love them. And I wanted to write the perspective of the family.
In the midst of all the things that you went through, you put out the single “Barefoot and Buckwild.” I’m guessing it didn’t do what you wanted it to; did it make you more nervous about coming back, given that it wasn’t a big hit?
It was really bad timing. I remember it [not doing well] affected me more than any of the other ones [not doing well]. It was like, “Okay, this too? I can’t take another thing.”
And I’m so proud of “Barefoot and Buckwild”; it was the first single I ever wrote, which was cool. It didn’t go as high as I wanted it to, but people still come to the shows and they sing it. It did get enough for people to like it, which is always good. I liked it. I’m proud of it.
But I’m glad it didn’t work. I’m glad none of the first five songs really, really worked, because I wasn’t ready for it, and I didn’t have a grasp on who I was yet. I was still trying to figure that out, and I was in the process of going through the biggest emotional changes that I’ll probably ever go through in my life. And it just wasn’t the perfect representation of me as an artist. It showcased my personality, and I’m super sassy like that.
You’re starring in a movie, tell me about that.
It will be coming out sometime this year, it’s called Road Less Traveled, making it pretty easy on everybody: the single, the album, and the movie have the same name. It was so much fun for me to do that. I’ve never acted, and I got to explore this whole new world and this whole new way of entertaining people.
I just like to entertain. If I’m having a party at my house, or if I’m acting in a movie or I’m on stage in front of a big audience or five people in a bar, I just like to entertain. I’m the lead actress. I got to help in the writing process, and five of my songs from the album are in the movie. I hope I’m at least decent. It’s kind of scary.
Is it about your life?
It has nothing to do with me. My character’s name is Charlotte. I’m a completely made up person. She’s a songwriter in Los Angeles, and she’s from a small town in Tennessee. So there are common themes in her life in my life, but it has nothing to do with me. It’s not a musical. It’s just a romantic comedy, but I’m on a stage a couple of times. I’m not, like, talking and then [sings], “The hills are alive.” It’s not that.
Do you have songs that you didn’t use for the album that you’ve pitched to other artists?
I definitely pitched some of my songs. I heard the other day that I got a cut on someone’s album, but I’m not sure if that’s a real thing. But that was such a compliment to me, because I’m an artist, and sometimes people won’t even consider using your songs if you’re an artist [as opposed to a songwriter] because they think you thought it wasn’t good enough for your album. Which isn’t true. Some of the songs just didn’t fit the album. So I’ll be interested to see if other people cut this song and put their own spin on it. That would be such a big accomplishment for me.
I write songs that sometimes have nothing to do with me. I write them with other people, and it’s their story at the time, so it just may not fit my artistry or whatever I wanna say with the album. It doesn’t make them bad songs, it just makes them not mine, and hopefully, they can fit somewhere, with somebody somewhere.