“Sorry about the construction noise — they’re knocking down the whole of fucking London around here.” Lauren Aquilina is speaking to Popjustice from a balcony, but not like that bit in Evita. Partly because she’s in Acton, and partly because in this instance she’s only on the balcony because there’s no mobile signal in her apartment, and her BT line isn’t working. She’s been on the phone to BT all day, she says. This is not how popstars should spend their time.
Mind you, two years ago it seemed as if Lauren’s popstar days were done. After the release of her album Isn’t It Strange?, the 21-year-old singer announced her retirement from music in an emotional post, telling fans: “I’ve known for a good few months now that this ‘Lauren Aquilina’ album was not only going to be the first, but also the last.” On the topic of being a full-time artist she acknowledged that “the cons now outweigh the pros and I’ve been pretty unhappy for a long time”; she was relieved, she added, “to be able to leave something behind that no longer makes me happy.” In another part of the note, she wrote: “Although this industry isn’t an easy ride for anyone, the truth is I’m not sure I was ever cut out for the pressure of being an artist. When I realised what a negative impact my career was having on my mental health, I realised something needed to change.”
Long story short, her excellent new Psycho’s single’s out tomorrow and it sounds like the YouTube embed below. Keep scrolling to read about how Kylie Minogue unwittingly helped turn things around, Lauren’s failed attempt to become an air steward, and the tax benefits of crying on doorsteps.
You’ve got a new single out! I thought this wasn’t going to happen again. And for a long time, I guess, you thought the same thing?
I did. I really, really did. I promised myself! I promised myself this would never happen again, but here we are.
Let’s do some scene-setting here. Do you remember where you were when you made the decision to leave music?
The moment it clicked was the morning my album came out. I woke up alone in my apartment, and I was so depressed. I thought: “This isn’t what it’s supposed to be like — when your album comes out it’s supposed to be a happy thing.” But I felt so shit. I didn’t want to ruin music for myself or be bitter about it. I thought: “I’ve got to get out now.”
It’s not unusual for artists to feel a sense of anticlimax when a debut album comes out, but the situation was clearly very different in your case.
The anticlimax thing was definitely a big part of it — I’d built it up in my head to be this amazing thing. I’d been telling people when I was five years old that I was going to sign a record deal, not that I understood what ‘record deal’ meant. Then when I did sign one, for about a week I was like: “Great! I’ve made it! Career sorted.” Obviously I quickly realised that of course when you sign a record deal that’s when the actual work starts. I felt like my team had a lack of faith in me, I had a lack of faith in me, nobody really believed it; it felt like a very forced thing and it didn’t feel fun. I’m still proud of the album and there are songs on there I still love, but musically now I’ve come on in leaps and bounds in terms of creating the thing I actually wanted to create. Before, there was always an element of compromise.
Can you remember how you felt as soon as you’d posted on your socials saying “album’s out, I’m off”?
A huge weight had been lifted. I was so relieved. Everyone was really nice about it. I thought I’d get mean tweets — “you ungrateful bitch! Why are you giving up a record deal!” — but everyone was very understanding, and it opened up a conversation for me about mental health in the music industry. I ended up going on BBC Breakfast and talking about that, and it was good to end up being part of that discussion.
It was only a couple of years ago but it feels like even in 2016 people were reluctant to speak frankly about how the music industry deals with young creative minds. In 2018 it feels as if labels and managers better understand the duty of care they have, but the conversation was in a very different place two years ago.
Yes, it felt like a completely different time. I’m glad people are talking about it now. It feels like the whole music industry is different now too, actually — 2017 felt like a weird, cursed year, where the UK didn’t break any artists and the labels didn’t quite understand how to make the most of streaming. It feels like everything is in a better place now.
In the note you wrote in 2016 you talked about how much money had to be spent on launching an artist, and how lack of radio support could kill a career. Both those things are still true to an extent but since then the continued rise of streaming seems to have made a huge difference to both those things.
It’s all in a much better place now. It’s back in the artist’s hands now, a bit. You don’t need loads of money and loads of backing to make something good and for it to get traction online. Which is very cool.
Over the last two years how have things changed for you? How did you come round to thinking, “actually, maybe I do want to go back into this shitshow”?
Well. I was going to quit forever. I was applying to be an air hostess at the end of 2016, and—
Hold on, we need to talk about this. Had air hostess always been Plan B?
To be honest, I was just really having a crisis. There was an element of wanting to be running away, and being able to be far away. That was appealing for me.
I mean, air stewards do always have to come back on another flight. That’s kind of part of the job.
Yeah, that’s true. I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was thinking: “What would be the furthest thing possible from music?” It was really sad. I had a breakdown. At one point I was on the British Airways application form — a really long form — and I was seven pages in, and then it went: “Oh, by the way, if you’ve got any visible tattoos on your arm then you can’t apply.” And I do have tattoos on my arms. I just burst into tears. It was like: “I’ve fucked music, and now I can’t even be a fucking air hostess!” It was a really low point for me.
What tattoos do you have?
I have an ocean wave on my wrist, which was to do with my song Ocean, and I’ve got a sun and moon symbol on the inside of my arm, which I just got on a whim. It’s supposed to signify dark times leading to better times, or whatever.
And now here we are!
Here we are. The tattoo came true.
So what happened after the British Airways debacle?
I’d got rid of all my team — I didn’t want to do music any more, so I was like: “Sorry guys, have good careers, but bye.” But then I got an email from a guy I didn’t know, who is now my manager. He’d heard a song I did, and informed me that Kylie Minogue was going to use it as the lead single on her next album. It was all, “Kylie needs this song, what’s your management situation.” And I was going: “Look, if Kylie uses the song it’s great but I don’t want to be in the music industry, sorry but thank you.” I eventually took a meeting with him and he persuaded me that I should be a songwriter for other artists, which wasn’t something I’d thought about before. Kylie didn’t end up using the song 1 but I did get to work with her and she was amazing, and everything I hoped she would be. And I started writing with and for other artists, which is what I’ve been doing ever since. Last year I worked harder than I think I’ve ever worked in my life, and it felt really good after the great depression of 2016 when I’d spent most of my time sitting alone in my apartment. To be out and hustling again was good. I started going on writing trips to LA and Nashville and all these other cool places, and sort of re-fell in love with music.
You talked about being pursued by the guy who’s now your manager, and how he talked you into getting back into music. We’ve also just talked about how labels and managers have a duty of care towards artists, but I suppose there’s also an element of self-care, isn’t there: seeing red flags, and not allowing yourself to get into situations where your mental health will be impacted. How did you know this guy had your best interests in mind, and that he wasn’t just thinking: “Amazing, someone to make cash out of”?
That’s exactly what I thought until I met him, when he turned out to be the nicest person ever. He was very clear in saying that he didn’t want to make me do anything I didn’t want to do, but that he wanted to tell me to my face that I was too good not to do it. He suggested a trial period, without a contract, so I wasn’t tied into anything, and he just put me into some sessions to see how it would go. Also, to be honest, the air hostess thing hadn’t worked out for me, so I was like: “Okay, sure.”
And I suppose by definition the experience of writing for other artists instantly removes some of the pressures that had forced you out of music the first time round?
It’s so nice being able to go into a studio, and to write a song, then to then leave. And that’s it. If an artist uses a song that’s great, but if they don’t that’s also fine. Rather than constantly having all this other shit to do that comes with being an artist, and all the mental pressure, I could put on a different hat every day. It made me way more creative and it made me a better writer.
What songs have you had out so far? There was the Baby Ariel track a few weeks ago, right?
Yes. There was a Fletcher song I did — I’ve been working a lot with her, she’s just signed to Capitol and I think she’s going to be a huge popstar. I’ve also been working a lot with Rina Sawayama, who’s been an angel. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say. I potentially, well, I’m 90% sure that I’ve got the next [REDACTED BECAUSE HOW AWFUL WOULD IT BE IF THE ENTIRE THING WENT TITS UP AS A RESULT OF AN ARTICLE ON POPJUSTICE DOT COM] single, which is featuring [ALSO REDACTED BUT THIS SONG SOUNDS LIKE IT WILL BE AMAZING]. It’s the kind of song that could drop any time! It could drop this Friday! It’s pretty much confirmed. Which is a really big thing for me — the biggest thing yet. I’m a huge fan of both those artists. And it’s such a banger, too. Such a bop.
Where are we with bangers and bops? Bangers feels quite 2016, and bops 2017.
I don’t know what the 2018 version is. I’ll come back to you on that.
As for your own music, how are you releasing Psycho?
I’m going through AWAL 2 who I used at the very beginning of my career, and they’re great because they’re kind of giving me all the services a record label would provide but without any of the scary contracts and throwing loads of money at the wall. I’ve spent quite a bit of my own money on this release but I feel like you’ve got to invest in yourself, you know? It feels nice to be in control of it again: being on a major I felt like I was just watching it happen, and I couldn’t change anything.
Can you give me an example of something that felt like it was out of your control?
There’s a song I have out that I actively don’t like, and didn’t want to release, and I was made to release. It’s a song called Echoes. I don’t hate it, but I just didn’t want to put it out. It was different to all my other stuff, and it still is. I expressed all that to the label, but they were like: “No, this song is coming out, this is the right thing.”
I wonder what would happen if there were an international pop amnesty day where every artist could be totally honest about the songs they’d released in the previous twelve months. Because I think a lot of artists find themselves in situations where they’re releasing music they’d rather not. And the question is: do you trust your team enough, so that when they say “this is the best way for us to move forward”, they’re saying that in the best interests of your career, rather than because they don’t have a clue what to do and they’re just taking a stab in the dark?
Yeah. Of course you have to trust your team but usually you should trust your gut instincts more. Especially when you’re a solo artist and you’re the face of it, and you’re the product, and everyhing’s about you. I think fans know when something isn’t authentically you.
What’s the story behind Psycho’s lyrics?
I wrote it last August — a year ago. I wrote it with Jonny Hockings, who has become my writing partner in a lot of things. He’s very good. We wrote it with just a bass guitar and vocal, and that’s how it stayed for ages, and I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever written. Every A&R I sent it to was going: “This is fucking amazing!” But nobody had any ideas about who could sing it.
Who did you want to sing it?
Little Mix were sniffing around it for a while, which could have been cool. But I still knew it wasn’t quite right. That was the main problem: I couldn’t hear anyone else on it. And it’s totally my story — it’s a true story about how I went to my ex-boyfriend’s house in the middle of the night, sat on his front step and cried until he came out and found me.
Paint a picture with words for me here. Had you just split up with him?
Maybe three weeks before. He already had a new girlfriend but I didn’t know that yet.
That’s suspiciously quick!
Suspiciously quick. Anyway that night I’d sent him an emotional text about missing him — it was my first hearbreak. To be fair he was being really nice, offering to call me and everything. And about an hour later, when I suppose he’d gone to bed, I don’t know what came over me but I ordered an Uber to his house and the next thing I knew I was sitting on his front step crying. Quite loudly. He came out, found me, took me inside, talked to me for a bit, calmed me down and got me an Uber home. It’s so embarrassing. So, so embarrassing.
Had you been drinking that evening?
I was completely sober, which just makes it all worse doesn’t it? I was DRUNK ON EMOTION! Obviously looking at it now it was never a good idea, but heartbreak makes you go crazy doesn’t it? And that’s what I wanted to play on in the song. I mean, the song’s kind of funny. It’s taking the piss out of myself.
Also now you’ve got the song out of it the Uber you took to his front step counts as a business expense, so there are tax benefits.
Absolutely! Any Uber with potential song inspiration is a business expense. Definitely.
Is there a happy end to this tale, other than a song coming out of it?
There’s no happy end. But a few months later I started to find it really funny and started telling everyone the story, and that’s how Jonny and I came to write a song about it. Then when nobody else wanted to sing it, I started thinking: “Fuck it. Maybe I should just release it myself?”
What had changed?
I was having dinner with another songwriter I know, called Evan, and we were talking about it, and he said: “I don’t want to sound morbid, but if you found out you were going to die in a month, would you regret not releasing the song?” And I thought yes, probably. The next day I called my manager and said: “Right. I’m going to do it.”
I’m wondering if, having experienced what you did around your first album, and knowing what you know about how it impacted your mental health, you’re in any way throttling your career this time round. In terms of self-preservation are you trying to ensure it doesn’t get so big that it’s unmanageable, or having learned what you did from your first album are you just better equipped now for whatever happens?
That makes sense and it’s something I’m aware of… We are pushing it, and I am trying to do everything I can to give the song its best chance, but I’m going into this with very different expectations from before. I’m seeing this as completely starting again. The main thing is that I wanted the song to be out. The first step is just seeing how my old fanbase reacts to it — that’s the most important thing to me because it’s what I’ve missed the most, having a connection with them and being able to chat with them about music. I haven’t gone into it thinking “I’m going to do a world tour, get three radio pluggers on board and spend half a million on the video”. It’s much more tentative, but the magic of streaming is that you can do that now.
And what comes next?
There’s going to be an EP at the beginning of next year. I already know what the second single is, and I’m just finishing the production on that one now. It’s a bit more of a ‘pop moment’ than Psycho. And there’ll be a few live shows before then, too. That’s where I’m up to at the moment — there’s no five year plan, I’m just taking it a few months at a time.
Sounds like a good plan.
Psycho is out on September 7 (which is tomorrow, but only if you’re reading this on September 6, because that’s how dates work); Lauren will be playing at Camden Assembly on November 8