Singer and songwriter Lauren Alaina
“People would come up to me in the grocery store, and I was so confused by it at first because I never tried out for that show to be famous. I just loved to sing.”
When wished a Happy New Year over the phone, Lauren Alaina repeats the phrase and then says, in that unmistakable Southern drawl, “I’m pretty excited about this year.” And she should be: The powerhouse vocalist, who sang her way into the spotlight on season 10 of American Idol at age 15, just released a brand-new album with 12 songs—all of which she co-wrote—including the triumphant hit single and title track, “Road Less Traveled,” inspired by her own journey of self-love and -acceptance. But that’s just the beginning of what Alaina has in store for 2017. In addition to playing the lead role in a forthcoming film titled Road Less Traveled, this month she’ll be joining one of her own idols, Martina McBride, on the CMT Next Women of Country Love Unleashed Tour. Stronger and more determined than ever, Alaina is poised to have her biggest year yet; and, here, she starts it off by getting candid with JEZ about her Georgia roots, her not-so-easy road to fame and her newly embraced role-model status. @laurenalaina
Let’s start from the beginning. When did you first fall in love with singing?
I don’t really remember when I started singing, but I have always loved it. My mom said I could sing better than I could talk when I was little. I used to tell people everywhere I went that I was going to win American Idol someday. I didn’t think it was realistic—like, that was always my dream, but I’m from a really small town in Georgia, and most people stay there forever. You don’t really leave Rossville. So I said I wanted to be a special education teacher and I wanted to be a pediatrician, but in the back of my head, I always thought, ‘I want to sell out arenas.’ And it worked out! I ended up trying out for American Idol when I was 15, and I got second place, and I got a record deal at 16. And it’s just all kind of been me working my tail off since then.
How crazy was the American Idol experience?
Going through that process, I was scared to death! This is a little funny story: I tried out for this thing called Chattanooga Idol, and, basically, you audition for this, and if you win Chattanooga Idol, you don’t have to stand in the line [for American Idol]; you get to go to the front of the line and audition first. Well I got fifth place, which is hilarious. And I saw the guy who won Chattanooga Idol, and he did not make it. I watched him walk away, and I said to my mother, ‘We’ve got to GO, Mom. We have no business being here! I don’t want to go through that again. I already didn’t win Chattanooga Idol, that was bad enough!’ And my mom said, ‘You have to stay. You said you were going to do this since you were 6 years old. You’re staying. You’ll kick yourself forever if you don’t.’ And if my mom had not encouraged me to do that, can you imagine how different my life would be now? I may still be working at CiCi’s Pizza!
I can’t imagine! And then once the show started airing live, America fell in love with you.
It was the craziest process ever because I was so young. I was in school, and I had to go to school every day. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and one of the most rewarding. It was almost like boot camp—it set me up for everything in the music business and every interview and everything I could ever need to know. It was like I was going to college at age 15 to be a singer. People would come up to me in the grocery store, and I was so confused by it at first because I never tried out for that show to be famous. I just loved to sing and it was my favorite show. I had no idea that that one decision set up my entire future.
What was it like having your first album, Wildflower, debut at No. 1?
Girl, you have no idea! I came from a really small town, and all the sudden I was doing things I had watched people do on TV. I was like, can somebody pinch me? But I’m not going to lie, it was really hard because I was so young and that pressure was a lot. I actually had an eating disorder for about five years because I was trying so desperately to be this superblonde, superthin, perfect girl that I thought I had to be, because that’s kind of this weird thing that society was telling women at the time. I think it’s gotten so much better now. People are at least addressing it and trying to make it better, but this was when social media was really starting to take over everyone’s lives, and people were just fearless behind their computer screens. And I was a small-town girl who grew up playing softball—I had an athletic build. I’m not a naturally small person. And that was fine, but when you’re 16 and people are calling you fat, you don’t really know that.
That’s awful. How did you handle all of that?
I got better, but it took a long time. Just a lot of things happened over the past few years getting ready for the album [Road Less Traveled]. My dad’s an alcoholic, which we really kept under wraps on the show… that’s not really something you come out and say. But, anyway, my mom asked for a divorce a few years ago, and my dad checked himself into rehab, and we’re doing all of this in the spotlight, and we’re trying to keep it a secret. Then I had to have vocal-chord surgery and I changed management, and all of these things happened in this two-year span.
Did you channel those experiences in your songwriting?
Most of the songs on the new album came from that hurt place. I have this song called ‘Doin’ Fine’ that I wrote about my parents’ divorce, and I have a song called ‘Same Day Different Bottle’ that I wrote about my dad’s alcoholism. I made the record of my dreams because I went through the hardest years of my life, and I really found myself as an artist and as a songwriter because I decided that was my message. I want my message to be encouraging; I want it to be like Alessia Cara and Katy Perry, like the country version of that. I don’t feel like that’s happening right now on country radio... a woman’s perspective on insecurities and how to overcome them and how to feel comfortable in your skin. That’s what I want to share. Let’s all be nicer to ourselves. Let’s find ways to appreciate who we are, and to be nice to other people. That’s why it’s so exciting for me that ‘Road Less Traveled’ has done so well because that song is purely about that. I’m so passionate about the subject matter, and I got to write it with two of my great friends [Meghan Trainor and Jesse Frasure], so it’s crazy.
You’ve toured with several country-music superstars—what have you learned from sharing the stage with them?
On the Jason Aldean tour, it was so awesome because it was me and then Luke Bryan and then Jason Aldean—they co-headlined that tour, and then I was freaking out on the side stage every night. That was my first official tour after Idol, and I got to sing the Kelly Clarkson duet with Jason Aldean every night. And I’ll tell you what I learned: I learned what it sounds like to have 20,000 people screaming at you, and nothing has ever fired me up or made me more inspired and more driven to get there than anything else. Every night I felt like a boss. ... And this year, I start with Martina McBride, and I’m dying. I used to jam out to some Martina McBride growing up; she basically taught me how to sing. I would scream my lungs out trying to hit those notes, and now I finally can, thank goodness. But, Lord, I probably damaged my vocal chords trying to be able to sing like her.
You also have a movie coming out this year to coincide with your album launch. You’re one busy girl!
So, I have never been so excited for a year as I am for 2017. Really, having a song in the Top 20 is going to change everything for me, but this movie was so incredible. We shot it in Knoxville, [Tenn.], and it’s [also] called Road Less Traveled. Obviously music is my No. 1 priority, but it was so cool to find out that I have a natural ability for [acting]. There’s a lot of room for improvement because my first project just happened to be a movie, which is like jumping into the deep end of a pool when you’re learning how to swim, but it was fun and challenging and it made me step it up, and I had great actors who made me better. I’m so proud of it, and we used five of my songs throughout the movie, and it’s going to be out soon. I think we’re shooting for the first quarter of the year.
What’s your biggest takeaway from your journey as a singer-songwriter?
I’m one of the lucky ones. It’s not often that you have a dream as a child and it stays the same your whole life and actually happens. And I know that, and I know how blessed I am. Sometimes I just have to remind myself that God is in control, and this is where I’m supposed to be... and that the hard work is worth it because it’s what I’ve always wanted.