Erica Nicole

Country singer Erica Nicole photographed in 2014.

 David Abbott

Listening to newcomer Erica Nicole's 2014 single "I Listen To My Bad Girl," the last thing you'd expect to learn about the Atlanta singer is that she's struggled with hearing loss since her teenage years. Now, in an exclusive interview with Billboard, Nicole admits that while she had been able to keep it a secret for a while, she feels it's finally time to talk about it.

"For a long time, I have kept it in the hush hush category about it," Nicole tells Billboard. "Getting to share my story with fans, people should get to know me at my core. I feel guilty that I have kept it a secret for so long, because I think it's something that should be shared with people. I'm able to follow and live my dreams. Hearing impairment doesn't slow me down, and I wouldn't want it to slow anyone down -- whatever your dreams might be."

The EN Music/Cafe Nashville recording artist says she's had to change her approach to singing, but feels music the same way as before. "Being a singer, and someone who was trained classically to sing as a child, I heard everything by ear when I was little. I could sit down and play piano by ear -- if I heard something, I could play it. I can't do that now."

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She hopes her story will make a difference to anyone that faces a hurdle in life. "I want my story to inspire people to never let someone tell them to keep something a secret," Nicole says. "Being able to share my story of how I overcame it, how I go into the studio and try to deliver the best vocal that I can -- if that can inspire another child, adult, or a 65-year old woman, I want to connect with those people."

She stresses that her team has always known about her hearing, but it took a while to find the right producer who could make her feel comfortable. "I started to question myself. If I'm in the studio and can't hear myself, what am I doing? I almost changed career paths because of it. I was tired of being discouraged."

Nicole says Kent Wells -- a veteran producer of Dolly Parton, Travis Tritt and others -- helped her adjust. "I was in the studio recording a ballad. I'd learned the song, lived with it, and felt it. Kent said, 'I really think we need to change up that second verse going into the chorus just a little bit.' I instantly shelled up, and thought, 'Here we go again.' He sensed me being nervous and said, 'Let's run through it and get a feel for it.' He tried to sing it for me, and I couldn't hear it. I was getting very uncomfortable. He said, 'Hold on a second.' Christine -- who sings all the backgrounds on my stuff -- was in the studio, and he gets her to record exactly what he was envisioning, he gives me the headphones, and says, 'Here, listen to her singing, and then we'll take her voice out, and punch you in.'

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"I remember getting a little teary-eyed because nobody had ever done that for me before. Sure enough, I did. I could hear her notes, and I felt we were in-sync on pitch. I tried it, and nailed it."

Earlier this year, Erica Nicole lent her name and her talent to ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities) to help raise funds and awareness for those facing such obstacles in their lives.

Nicole tells Billboard that she is about 80 percent deaf in her right ear, and between 65-75 perfect in her left. But if you go to one of her performances, you won't be able to tell it. She wears in-ear hearing aids, and approaches the stage with as much confidence and swagger as any other artist.

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As for the salacious title of her latest single, "I Listen to My Bad Girl," the Georgia native tells Billboard it's really not that way at all. "For me, I really believe in living in the moment. That was my way of saying, 'If you've been married for 10 years and you have two kids, get your husband and go on a hot date, kick up your heels on the dance floor, have one more drink when you normally wouldn't -- live in that moment.' Don't be destructive, don't get arrested, but take it in, and have fun with it. A large part of 2014 has been getting to share who I am with people -- letting them into my world and letting them see who I really am."

Erica Nicole has an as-yet-to-be-named new single, which will be out this fall. She's slated to perform the National Anthem at the Sept. 14 New York Mets-Washington Nationals game at Citi Field.