Lauren Alaina Talks Overcoming Personal & Family Struggles Through Honest New Album: 'I Was Freed With This Music'

John Shearer/Getty Images for ACM
Lauren Alaina poses for a portrait at the 4th ACM Party For A Cause Festival on April 1, 2016 in Las Vegas. 

It's been six years since Lauren Alaina was runner-up on Season 10 of American Idol (coming in second to fellow country singer Scotty McCreery), a time span that means the 22-year-old singer has fans who aren't even aware of her Idol days. But even those who know her from Idol may not realize the life she's been living behind the scenes. Alaina suffered an eating disorder while her parents went through a divorce, all while her father dealt with life as a recovering alcoholic. During all this, Alaina was putting on a facade as she paved her way as an artist.

It hasn't been an easy journey, but as Alaina celebrates her first album since her post-Idol debut, Road Less Traveled, she feels more liberated than ever. How did she do manage to do that? Letting it out in song.

"I wrote Road Less Traveled to make myself feel better and process what I was going through," Alaina tells Billboard. "I wrote close to 300 songs over the last few years just trying to figure it out."

After narrowing those few hundred tracks down to 12, Alaina had an album that she felt really "told my story," releasing Road Less Traveled on Jan. 27. The first single -- the title track from the album, co-written by Meghan Trainor -- was officially released on July 11, 2016, but recently took off on both country radio and the Billboard Hot 100. Peaking at No. 80 on the Hot 100 (Feb. 18 chart), "Road Less Traveled" continues to climb on country radio, sitting at No. 7 and giving Alaina her first top 10 single on the Country Airplay chart.

On the heels of Alaina's success, Billboard chatted with the country sweetheart to talk about what life is like now, getting vulnerably honest on Road Less Traveled, and her hopes for helping fans who may be going through what she overcame.

Once American Idol was over and you were thinking about your future, is where you’re at now kind of where you imagined yourself six years later?

That’s such a tricky question to answer, because I was 16 on the show, so I was really young and I didn’t really know what my artistry was going to be yet. I’d been writing songs since I was 9, but I hadn’t really figured it out yet. I tried out for my favorite TV show, it worked out, and it all happened really quickly. I would say the success I’ve had now has always been a goal of mine – I can’t believe it, I wake up every morning and I’m kind of shocked by it each and every day. It’s been a really great six months for us, which is awesome, but I just didn’t really know what to expect, ever. I would say in the last three or four years, I’ve had a better understanding, and I am where I planned to be in the last few years.

What has the process been like, discovering who you want to be as an artist?

I went through a lot of really big life-changing experiences in the last few years, and I feel like that’s probably what’s pushed me to find what I’m passionate about and what’s important to me. When you go through really hard times, you really figure out who you are, how you respond to things and how things affect you. Which is a total bummer sometimes [Laughs]. Those things that happened – my parents’ divorce, overcoming my eating disorder, my parents getting married to different people, my dad’s recovery from alcoholism – all of those things gave me my story and made me who I am. I would go through those things a million times to feel the way I feel now and know the things I know now about myself. I really feel like I found myself, and when I found myself, I found the music along with it.

Is that why you think it’s so important to be so honest in your music?

I think my favorite artists are honest artists and as a songwriter, that’s what you have to do. You have to be willing to put yourself out there in a really vulnerable way. I really wrote the album accidentally [laughs]. I wrote it to make myself feel better and process what I was going through. When it was time to put the album together, it had kind of written itself because I had a collection of songs that told my story and kind of reintroduced me. Which I think is super important for someone like me, coming from a TV show -- people don’t really get to know who you are as an artist on something like that because you’re doing cover songs. You’re showcasing your personality and things like that more than the artistry. It was six years ago, which is crazy for me to even say, but I wanted people to know where I’ve been and what’s changed about me. That’s the thing with the music business is, I’m on stage a lot and I’m in front of people, but they don’t know me unless I tell them who I am. It can be a really lonely business. [On Idol], we never talked about my dad’s alcoholism, we never talked about my eating disorder -- I felt like my life was a big secret and I just couldn’t do that anymore. I needed to free myself from secrets, and this album helped me do that.

It’s almost like this album was an emancipation album for you.

I really think that’s such a great way to describe it. Because I wasn’t necessarily pinned down in any way, I just wasn’t as honest and open to who I really am. I’ve done a lot to overcome those feelings, and I think people can see the difference now. And I want other people to get to that place, because it’s a really scary place to be to be super insecure and worried about what other people think about you all the time. That has been the goal for me, I just want to be bold and brave and encourage other people to be that way.

I’ve just learned to accept who I am and who my family is, and learn that no one is perfect and everyone has a story. Everyone doesn’t necessarily share that story with you, so you don’t know what someone’s going through. People had no idea I was going through those things because I wasn’t telling them. It was ridiculous because I was trying to go out there and pretend my life was perfect. Just don’t judge a book by it’s cover – I know that’s such a cliché thing to say, but it’s true. You don’t know who people are unless they tell you, and even then they’re probably only going to tell you the best parts. I wanted an album for people to feel secure, to listen to those 12 songs and feel good about who they are.

So how does it feel to have it be on the Hot 100, which means it’s resonating outside of just the country world?

I don’t even know how to comprehend that, that is so unreal to me. I love country and what I grew up being passionate about, the genre I wanted to be in. But to be able to have a song that is pushing outside of that, I don’t even know what to say. That makes me want to cry – in the best way possible [Laughs].

What has it been like seeing fans connect with the song? Do you have any stories of fans telling you how they relate to it?

I have a lot now. I’ve always heard stories, but I feel like because people know that this album is full, front to back, of my stories, that they’re more willing to tell me theirs -- which is so exciting for me because I wrote these songs, and I wrote them to hear other people’s stories. One girl came to me and she had an eating disorder and said that she had been going through recovery. She said she listened to “Road Less Traveled” every day and it makes her feel empowered. I was that girl, I had that eating disorder and I’ve been recovering from that for a few years. I know how it feels, and it’s a scary thing to go through. I think because her story is pretty similar to mine, the emotions I felt with her telling me that – it’s crazy that a song could make her heart connect with mine like it did, and that was really special. I’m just excited that music can do that, and that I get to be a part of it.

When you’re honest with fans, you really get to be more connected with them than ever.

It really does, because I was freed with this music and now other people can be too. It’s weird... in life, we all think we’re alone in whatever we’re going through, we think people don’t understand and you don’t want to tell people because you just think they won’t get it. But really, we’re all kind of walking these paths that have different situations going on, but common things and everyone can relate to someone else in some way -- and music has a cool way of connecting the dots. And I think it’s so great that I was able to take the most difficult three or four years of my life and turn them into something positive. Being honest can help other people get there. It’s a scary thing to do, but it’s so worth it once you do it.

Is it a challenge to perform some of these songs sometimes because of how truthful the lyrics are?

Yes and no. Because some of them are so personal, and some of them are about my parents’ lives more than mine – that’s a little trickier. I don’t ever want to upset my family or make them feel like I’m saying anything bad about them, because I have a great family and I love them for who they are. I try to tell it in a way in the live show that it brings a connection to it, but I try to make everyone win. Because really, everyone did win – my parents are happily married now and my dad’s sober. As funny as it sounds, it does sound pretty funny when you hear the story, but it’s who we are. Everybody has a story and a crazy family. Everybody has stuff going in their family that they don’t want to talk about – I just kind of changed my mind about that and decided to talk about it [Laughs].