To understand Lauren Alaina in this moment, one must listen closely and carefully: the young singer is trying to interpret Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places" while wearing a dental mouthpiece that props open her jaw. This, apparently, is her take on the bizarre Internet fad "The Open Mouth Game."
"Can y'all guess what I was singing?" she asks, popping out the plastic contraption. Alaina's been known to do this sort of thing on Facebook and Snapchat, where you can often find her singing Black Eyed Peas songs while wearing a unicorn onesie. Since it's been five years – "five years, three months, 16 days," as she points out – between the release of her debut album Wildflowers and her new LP Road Less Traveled, she's had to do a lot to keep the fans interested. "It's a miracle I kept my record deal that long," she jokes. In reality, that is a lifetime in the music industry, but time she put to good use to understand herself.
"People would say to me, 'Who do you want to be as an artist?' And I would just look at them because I didn't know," Alaina tells Rolling Stone Country, seated at a Nashville event space with her hair tied into two buns and wearing a black trench coat, a gift from her boyfriend over the holidays. When these questions came, the Georgia-born Alaina was only 16, fresh off of Season 10 of American Idol, on which she placed second behind the low-talking, sideways-mic swinging Scotty McCreery.
Most teenagers, even if they're packed with as much vocal talent as Alaina, don't exactly know where their artistry lies – whether they're discovering it by playing "Stairway to Heaven" in their high school bedrooms or on television in front of millions. "It took me a while of writing to figure that out," she says. "To really be able to answer that question. Now, I can go into writing sessions and tell people exactly what I want to say."
Five years ago – plus those three months and 16 days – Alaina wasn't known as the songwriter she has become. After only one credit on Wildflowers, she had a hand in every track on Road Less Traveled, including 300 others that didn't make the final cut. Though she had started crafting lyrics since 9 years old, Idol exports aren’t exactly expected to have much creative input on their first records, rushed as they are to shelves in the wake of a ratings boost. She was no exception to that rule. Wildflowers smelled sweet, but it was the polyester bouquet to Road's real thing.
"When I moved [to Nashville], people used to see me as the girl that was on American Idol," she says. "And I have worked these past six years to not just be the girl that was on American Idol, but to be Lauren Alaina, this artist who is a songwriter and knows where she is going, and has goals."
Road marks not just a transition from singer to writer, but also the culmination of five years of weathering storms and dodging bullets. In that time, her parents got divorced, her dad was treated for alcoholism, she underwent vocal cord surgery and overcame an eating disorder. Most of that struggle makes its way onto the busbee-produced Road – through personal tales and pop-country confessionals that trace the events of her life and come out inspirational, invoking everything from Martina McBride power balladry to Eighties gems like Berlin's "Take My Breath Away."
"I really wrote this album as therapy for myself. That's how I deal with things," she says in her Georgia drawl. "I write things down and put music behind them. First song on the album, I literally spoke the words [in the writing room]. It was just me, talking the lyrics." That song, "Doin' Fine," introduces the past few years: "daddy got sober, mama got his best friend." Not the easiest turn of events to endure, but, like much of Road – including the title track written with Meghan Trainor – it ends with the takeaway that even the biggest hurdles can be leapt over with enough fortitude, and that everyone has the capability for change. And that Internet trolls, who once attacked Alaina for her appearance and weight – can kindly shove it.
"[This album is] almost brutally honest in places"
These sort of self-esteem boosting songs have become a staple in pop music: Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," Trainor's "All About That Bass," Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" and many more. But in country, short of Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow," such messaging hasn't quite worked its way into the mainstream, at least not in a way that was able to move a radio needle, since the days of McBride's "This One's for the Girls" and Shania Twain. Even then, empowerment was still often in the context of feeling proud to be a woman, not challenging what people expect from you because of it. Miranda Lambert, with "Bathroom Sink" and Jennifer Nettles, with "Stupid Girl," have both hit that nail, but neither track drifted beyond an album cut.
"Road Less Traveled," with lyrics like "dress sizes can't define, don't let the world decide what's beautiful," slides right into that space, hoping to be louder than the body-shaming, deprecating voices in anyone's head. It's a message that has not only resonated with listeners, but on the Billboard charts, too (it's currently Number 17 on Hot Country Songs).
"When we went to put the album together I was like, 'Well, I have a common theme, don't I?'" Alaina says. To understand the person behind Road, all she had to do was listen to herself. "I didn't realize I was doing that until I played back to the songs. It's almost brutally honest in places – it's super scary and super freeing at the same time."