Lauren Daigle

Lauren Daigle on Hillsong, Selena Gomez and Defining the Future of Christian Pop

Lauren Daigle never wears fewer than a dozen bracelets. As the 27-year-old singer-songwriter decompresses backstage after a show at Ohio State University’s Mershon Auditorium, about 15 hang on her wrists, to say nothing of her multiple anklets and rings. “Every one has a little story,” she says with a laugh. There’s one with the Acadian flag, a nod to her Louisiana heritage. Another, from her grandparents, is engraved with a heart and “Look Up Child,” the name of her second album, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in September. “Say hello to the piano,” yet another suggests. And then there’s one from Daigle’s manager. “She was like, ‘I don’t want you to ever feel like you have to put boxes around you, especially when it comes to creativity,’” recalls Daigle. It bears a single word: “Limitless.”

Today, that message feels predictive. A two-time Grammy nominee with a smile made for magazine covers and a rich, soulful voice that has earned her the moniker “Christian Adele,” Daigle is the most popular Christian singer in the country and the first to ever simultaneously top five of the genre’s charts. Look Up Child’s sales debut was the biggest for an album by a Christian artist in nearly nine years and the biggest for one by a woman singing Christian music since LeAnn RimesYou Light Up My LifeInspirational Songs came out at Christmastime in 1997. But since Look Up Child’s release, Daigle’s success has reached far beyond Christian music. The album’s first single, “You Say,” a sweeping ballad about finding strength in God (or somebody, anyway -- interpret the “You” as you like), has spent 13 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, and pop radio stations are playing it across the country. And all this started before Daigle’s newest fan, Selena Gomez, shared the album with her 144 million Instagram followers.

Kate Sweeney
Lauren Daigle photographed on Oct. 4, 2018 at Mershon Auditorium in Columbus, Ohio.

“It’s crazy, ’cause I feel like [the crossover] is naturally happening,” says Daigle in her raspy Louisiana twang. (She grew up in Lafayette, and moved to Nashville in her early twenties.) “Someone told me the other day that the Nashville pop radio stations have started playing ‘You Say.’ There was a pop station in Michigan, the Dallas station, San Francisco … I don’t even have a pop radio team!”

Daigle exudes hippie-chick warmth, but her ambitions clearly extend beyond college auditoriums -- and if there’s any time when a Christian music singer could vault to pop stardom, it’s the year of our Lord 2018. A-list artists across genres -- from Gomez, Justin Bieber and Nick Jonas to Carrie Underwood and Chance the Rapper -- openly acknowledge their faith on social media, and some of them, along with celebs like Chris Pratt and the Kardashians, are often spotted attending services at Hillsong, the millennial-friendly evangelical megachurch in New York and Los Angeles. Daigle herself is of the Hillsong world: She toured with the congregation’s popular house band, Hillsong United, last year, and she has performed at Hillsong conferences.

It’s been decades since Amy Grant made the leap from Christian singer to pop sweetheart, but now, with so much celebrity focus on evangelical Christianity, it’s only natural that the worship world would produce a mainstream-ready female star like Daigle. “I’m watching it evolve before my eyes, so part of me feels like, ‘Door’s open -- it’s your opportunity to either walk through it or not,’” she says. Her team, she tells me, has a saying: “ ‘Extend the tent pegs. Don’t keep one audience at all times.’” Lauren Daigle is ready to set up a pretty big tent.

Growing up in Lafayette, Daigle would play a game with her dad, older brother and younger sister. “It was called the dollar game,” recalls Daigle as she digs into some chicken tacos post-show in Columbus, Ohio. “We’d have to guess who was singing on the radio, and if we guessed it, we’d get a dollar. If it was really hard, we’d get five.” She laughs. “[My dad] didn’t know it at the time, but he was training my ear to listen and be in tune with everything.”

Live music has been part of Daigle’s life as far back as she can remember, “all zydeco-based,” she says. “Music that was, like, washboards and accordions. Hearing these people just wail in bars and different venues ... so much gravel in people’s throats.” But when it came to teaching herself to sing, she listened to Whitney Houston and Céline Dion, and dreamed of a stardom that did not involve worship songs.

“I remember I would bargain with God: ‘Don’t ever make me sing Christian music,’” says Daigle, giggling. “Like, ‘I am not about it. I’m not going to sing Christian music. It’s lame, it’s cheesy.’” Then, when she was 15, she contracted cytomegalovirus, an autoimmune illness that left her essentially house-bound for two years. During that time, she says, God talked to her: “I would see all these visions of stages or awards or tour buses. I feel like God uses your imagination to speak to you.”

And so, in college at Louisiana State University, she joined a soul covers band. “One of my favorites was to cover Etta James’ ‘I’d Rather Go Blind,’” she says. “I remember receiving the check for the first time, thinking, ‘Man, if I could do this for the rest of my life, I’d be so happy.’” Around the same time, Daigle did what any aspiring young singer in the mid-2000s would: She auditioned (three times) for American Idol.

She made it into the competition in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and though most of her appearances have been lost to time, a YouTube deep dive still turns up one: a Motown medley, featuring Daigle wearing a sparkly minidress and singing Supremes hits with two other girls. Based on the comments, her current fans are happy she has moved on. “Lauren would have been just another pretty face singing secular music but instead now she is a great example to those of her generation showing her love for the Lord and devotion to Him,” a representative one reads. “I would guess He is well pleased.”

You Should Know: Lauren Daigle | Billboard

While Daigle doesn’t describe her move to the worship world in such stark terms, she agrees that her Idol losses were for the best. “My mom said, ‘Are you going to listen to the no of man or the yes of God?’” she remembers. “And there’s something about that statement that shook me.” Soon after, she met a representative from Christian label Centricity Music, got signed and dropped everything at LSU to go to Nashville.

To its detractors, Christian music is a profanity-free imitation of pop and rock  -- and at first, Daigle wasn’t sure she could write it. “I got to Nashville, and we started writing all those lame, cheesy songs, and I was like, ‘I cannot deal,’” she recalls. “I went to my label, and I was like, ‘I love you guys, I love this, but … I am craving jazz.’”

And so Centricity introduced Daigle to Paul Mabury, a producer who also happened to be a jazz drummer. With him, she recorded her first album, 2015’s How Can It Be, which debuted at No. 1 on the Top Christian Albums chart and made her a star on the worship circuit. She toured for three years with various Christian acts, but paid special attention when she went on the road with Hillsong United.

“Their production is unreal,” she says. “I just remember sitting every single day like, ‘What am I going to learn from these people?’ They’ve done it for so many more years than me. Honestly, for almost the entire tour, I would go out and sit front of house and just listen and learn.” Seeing how people responded to the band and the church as a whole, she realized that “they’re legit. It’s crazy to me that their church is in New York [now] -- just seeing how many people have come into that environment.”

Kate Sweeney
Lauren Daigle photographed on Oct. 4, 2018 at Mershon Auditorium in Columbus, Ohio.

Gomez, of course, is one of those people. In fact, she was driving around with Hillsong singer Aodhán King when she decided to post about Look Up Child in an Instagram story. At that point, Daigle and Gomez had been texting for a few weeks (their managers exchanged their numbers, says Daigle). And then Gomez “texted me one day, like, ‘Hey, do you care if I post this video on Instagram?’” Daigle didn’t respond right away, so Gomez went ahead. “By the time I got to my phone, my phone had blown up,” says Daigle. “She’s amazing.”

People are responding to her, reasons Daigle, because spiritual music is a balm in uncertain times. “In the first meeting I ever had with WME, one of the girls said, ‘We might not all be Christians, but the hope is what we crave,’” she recalls, grinning. “And I was like, ‘Oh, man. Hope and joy holding hands on a record. That’s what I want to make.’” Daigle puts her own faith in plain-spoken terms -- “I’m just a lover of Jesus, it’s that simple” -- and while she readily admits she admires Hillsong, it’s not the congregation she identifies with most.

“My home church is right here,” she says, gesturing toward the stage. “It’s right here, every night.”

When I arrived on the OSU campus for Daigle’s show, the line of fans stretched outside the building: sorority girls with Michael Kors bags, preteens with omnipresent smartphones, middle-aged couples in cardigans and sensible footwear. It looked like a standard Midwestern audience for a burgeoning pop star -- only gradually did I notice the faith-based slogans (“FORGIVEN”) on T-shirts scattered throughout the sold-out crowd of 2,500. When Daigle took the stage, she wore overalls, a multicolored robe and no shoes. “I’m on a college campus, so I figured I could go barefoot,” she joked.

Just before the show, Daigle had gathered her band and her two opening acts, Infinity’s Song and AHI, in the catering room, and when I walked in, one of her tour managers immediately pulled me into a prayer circle. I looked to Daigle, but she ceded the floor to Abraham Boyd of Infinity’s Song.

Daigle doesn’t preach, onstage or off. In between songs at the show, she told goofy stories -- like one about her misadventures in physical therapy -- but never mentioned Jesus. Her songs usually don’t reference the Lord by name either; take Gomez’s favorite, “This Girl.” It’s ostensibly about affirming one’s dedication to God, but its lyrics -- “I searched the world to find my heart is yours/This girl ain’t goin’ anywhere” -- could just as easily be about a romantic partner.

“The first record was this [Christian] audience,” says Daigle. “What do I do to extend the tent pegs to include people that would never set foot in a church or people that don’t even like all things Christianity?” In the near future, “I can see different types of venues,” she says. “I love these theaters. But things are already starting to move in the arena” direction. She’d love to work with Anderson .Paak or Childish Gambino. And as Daigle points out, more pop artists are dipping into her genre, too. “Like, Avril Lavigne just came out with a worship song,” she says. “It’s crazy how much [crossover] is happening.”

As she gets ready to board her tour bus and head to her next stop in Chicago, she pauses a moment. “I mean, Elvis Presley, he had a gospel record,” she says. “Aretha Franklin had a gospel record. There’s all these people from back in the day that did this thing as well, where they had both. And I feel like history always repeats itself.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20 issue of Billboard.