There’s a safety pin search underway at Yahoo’s Santa Monica headquarters. After Lucy Hale’s stylist locates two, the Pretty Little Liars star breathes a sigh of relief as he pins up the straps of her denim top. “No nip slips,” Hale, 24, says to no one in particular, adjusting her top in the mirror of a conference room-turned-dressing room. “That wouldn’t be a good thing.”
Hale already knows what works in country music: five-inch faux snakeskin strappy shoes and a short leather skirt, yes. Too much cleavage, no. She strides confidently into the studio to perform three songs from her debut album, “Road Between,” for a Yahoo Music session that will be beamed over the Internet.
Long before she became Aria on Pretty Little Liars — before she began acting at all— Hale grew up in Memphis, singing along with her favorite Disney princess in her bedroom, and later, along with her favorite country queens, Martina McBride and Shania Twain. When she was 13, Hale won a Fox singing competition show called American Juniors. The wide-eyed teen and her mom moved to Los Angeles to pursue her singing career, but acting roles came easier than a record contract and Hale found herself willingly sidetracked as her musical dreams temporarily receded into the background.
Last year, Hale resurrected those dreams. Over several months, she filmed the ABC Family television show during the week in Los Angeles and flew to Nashville every weekend to record Road Between, working with many top Music City songwriters to find the right mix of tunes that captured her sassiness (“Goodbye Gone”), her romantic side (“Kiss Me,” “You Sound Good To Me”) and her vulnerability (“Nervous Girls”).
Hale sat down with Rolling Stone Country to reflect on how music allows her to play her most fulfilling role: herself.
Not everyone knows you were a singer first. People can be very hard on artists when they try to go in a different direction.
I’m wanting people to give me that chance, but at the same time, I kind of had that attitude towards people that do it too. It’s just how we’ve been trained and almost brainwashed to think that people in one area can’t do it all but I’m out to prove that wrong.
When did you realize you could sing?
The whole reason my mom figured out that I liked singing and could sing was I would sit in my bedroom and sing “A Whole New World” [from Aladdin] on repeat. It was when we still had boom boxes and I would have to rewind the tape and play it.
In addition to Princess Jasmine, you were also a big Britney fan, right?
Everyone’s always like, “Wait…” because I tell them my influences, which are Shania Twain and Martina McBride, and then Britney Spears is thrown in the mix. I wasn’t really allowed to watch MTV, but late at night when my parents were sleeping I would watch music videos and I remember seeing this beautiful young girl dancing in risqué clothing and singing this unbelievably catchy song, and it was just so intriguing to me. And like every girl in America, I became a Britney Spears fan.
What kind of creative outlet does singing fulfill for you that acting does not?
I live in a world where I play characters and I don’t always get the opportunity to be myself. As a young female, it’s kind of weird to talk about your true feelings. You’re not allowed to be upset and you’re not allowed to be angry and you’re not allowed to be pissed off, and so with music you can kind of release all that. For me, it was a way of being okay to share my true feelings because I don’t necessarily always get to do that.
What’s harder? Shooting a weekly series or going on a promotion tour where you’re up early visiting different radio stations day after day?
It’s a toss up because there’s a lack of sleep in both. But the radio tour was extremely fun because for four months I didn’t really have to go through hair and makeup. I didn’t have to learn lines. I could go in and sing and be myself and it was the most fun I’ve had in the longest time that I can remember.
“Nervous Girls” is about how we are our own worst critics. What about that song appealed to you?
“Nervous Girls” definitely spoke to me because when you look at someone who’s on a TV show or who’s a singer or actress, you think, “Wow. This person has it made. They’re living the life and they’ve all got it together,” and that’s not necessarily true. I never want people to think that I’m any different from them or I’m like on this pedestal, because I’m not.
You met Martina McBride while you were recording your album in her husband’s studio. What was that like?
I had met John, her husband, and I had met her girls, because they’re fans of Pretty Little Liars. Then one day, Martina was cutting background vocals for her album. John was like, “You want to go in and say hi to her?” She’s so kind and just so normal. It’s just great to see someone who’s found tremendous success still just be really, really cool. So that was a pretty cool moment in my life.
Who’s the last person you fawned over?
I was at the iHeartRadio Country Festival in Austin in March and was walking out to go back to my hotel and Luke Bryan just walked past and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. Oh, that’s really awesome!”
Did you say anything to him?
No. Absolutely not. I’m too shy. I met him once in Nashville, ran into him in the studio, like physically actually ran into him, and he was really nice. He had his hunting clothes on and he’s beautiful.
Your fans call themselves Halers.
It’s not extremely original, but, hey … as long as I have a support system I’m happy. At first somebody had mentioned something like Halestormers or Halestorm, but there’s a band [named Halestorm].
Right. A rock band whose lead singer is named Lzzy Hale.
When you say Lzzy Hale, it kind of sounds like Lucy Hale and people get really confused because we don’t look alike or sound alike.
But you do look like Selena Gomez.
Yes, I do. I get that every day of my life.
Have you ever signed an autograph as Selena Gomez?
I’ve never signed her name, but a lot of people take a picture of me because they think it’s Selena and I don’t correct them unless they ask. A week ago, I was taking a picture with someone and this woman was like, “Selena, can I please have you take a picture with my daughter?” So I was like, “I’m really sorry, but I’m another actress. I’m not Selena.” She was so mind-boggled because she didn’t know who I was. She was like, “Well, why is this girl? …” I think she thought I was pretending to be her. It was really funny.
It’s a tough time for women in country music; a solo female hasn’t had a No. 1 since Fall 2012. Are you worried?
That is crazy. I was listening to a radio station the other day for, I swear to you, three hours and I think I heard Miranda Lambert twice. It’s unfortunate because there’re so many amazing females out right now and I have a feeling it’s about to change. There’s too much talent out there and we have so much to say.
Have you felt pressure to move to Nashville to focus more on music?
If I could move to Nashville today, I would. Sometimes I get frustrated because I can’t always be out on the road and performing and move to Nashville because I physically can’t be there. I’m shooting a TV show, which I also love. But I just have to keep in the back of my mind that I’m in exactly where I should be right now and things will work out.
Are you leaving Pretty Little Liars to focus on your music?
No. No. I would never abandon something that has gotten me to where I’m at. That show has been so good to me. I do the show because I love it and I committed to that show from the beginning as long as it goes. We joke that we’ll do a “Golden Girls” episode because we’re all getting older and we’re still playing 16.
What you think Aria’s favorite song on the album would be?
I’m trying to think of where she’s at with Ezra right now. Maybe “Goodbye Gone.” She’s a little angry right now.
So is Ezra dead?
Oh, I can’t tell you that, but nice try.