Lauren Sanderson Talks 'Raw' EP 'Don't Panic' & Transitioning from Motivational Speaking to Singing
Before all else, up-and-coming artist Lauren Sanderson is a performer with a message. Starting off her career as a motivational speaker and YouTube personality, the 22-year-old made it her life’s work to let her fans know that being happy and being true to yourself are not mutually exclusive. But eventually, Sanderson decided there might be a better way to get her message across.
“It just wasn't expressive enough,” Sanderson tells Billboard. “I just feel like the speaking was a good thing to teach me that I have that side to me, and I can motivate and inspire people. But making music out of it has made it more 'me.' The message was there and very in your face, like ‘I don't give a shit about what you think, I just want to be myself.’”
Sanderson released her first official EP, Center of Expression, back in 2016 as a self-made, completely independent project. Not only was she writing and producing her own music, but she was booking her own tours, shipping her own merch and doing her own PR. That is, until she signed her first major record deal with Epic Records earlier this year.
Now, Sanderson is ready to reintroduce herself with DONT PANIC!, a personal, emotive EP that asks the listener to allow themselves to feel the things they’re afraid of when they need to. “I did not want this to be just some happy or inspirational or motivational EP,” she says. “I wanted this EP to feel like real, raw emotions.”
Sanderson spoke to Billboard about making her first major label project, coming out of the closet as a high schooler in Fort Wayne, Indiana, why she’s uncomfortable with genres and more.
I know that you've talked about being approached by other labels before Epic. What was it about Epic and their offer that kind of stood out to you and made you want to sign the deal?
Well, I feel like I was always open minded with every label. And I feel like every time I left the other ones, there was a part of me that felt like they didn't get the entire vision and just how much creativity and control over my art that I really need. So when I got to Epic, it was cool because they totally understood me. Like, "We don't want you to be a pop princess, we don't want you to paint your nails and wear heels and suddenly change everything to this massive pop image that a lot of people have, to be feminine and girly. We just want you to keep doing exactly what you're doing, and we just want to blow it up and help you reach as many people as you possibly can with what you're already doing." That, to me, was amazing. And also, it's ultimately a partnership, so I really do have full creative freedom and the ability to make whatever I want and do whatever I want, still. I told them that was the only was I was gonna sign was if there would be literally nothing holding me back.
Right, because I know you've had this incredibly independent, DIY career where you were literally booking your own tours and selling and shipping your own merch. What was it like transitioning from that kind of experience to working with a major label like Epic?
It was totally wild. I've lived in L.A. for almost a year now, and I moved from Indiana. Obviously, growing up in Indiana, like, you had no choice but to be DIY. If you wanted to make it out of Indiana, you were gonna have to do it yourself. So I kind of just sucked it up at the very beginning. And then right when I moved to L.A., I mean, I had been packaging my own merch and writing these things to my fans, sending emails, booking my tour, all of that. So when I got here, and there was a person to fill every role that I was filling every single day with, I was like, "What the fuck do I do now?" I was like, "What do you mean I just go to the studio every day and make art and tell you my vision? How is that a real thing?" At first, I had so much trouble letting go of the little things, the little details — obviously, every artist goes through that process of being really picky about the small details, but I just had to realize at the end of the day that it's all about the big picture. As long as my message and my music is getting out there, then who fucking cares? Let the rest go.
So how did you fill your time without all of those roles?
I was, when I first moved here, spending my time either in the studio or ... I tried exploring a lot when I moved here. Because I moved here by myself out of nowhere, and I knew literally no one. So I was trying really hard to figure out where my group is, where am I going to be hanging out, what parts of L.A. do I like to see. I spent a lot of time of Venice Beach. I was just trying to figure out my inspiration, and it was such an emotional change for me, moving here, and a cultural change. Like, literally everything is different. So I was trying to figure out "How am I gonna write a new ... concept for songs and the EP when I am going through so much?" It was almost hard to write a song about it because I couldn't reflect on it yet. I was trying to live, but also to hurry up because I am so DIY and I wanna move fast. I think the universe purposefully made me kind of step back and live my life a little bit, and forget about writing music for just a second, and forget about packaging and emailing, and just really go live and find myself in L.A. before I could make art about that.
Something that I love about DONT PANIC! is you don't seem afraid to be talking about darker aspects of life that you haven't covered before. Coming from a motivational speaking background, why was it important for you to express something that was more than just positivity and inspiration?
Aww man! I don't know if you've ever done this before, but for me, sometimes I'm just driving around and I pretend I'm in an interview [laughs]. I have never been asked that question before, but I like, pretended that I had been asked it yesterday. Because I feel like I have been known, for a really long time, as this positivity, happy, rainbows, like ... fight through the sadness, blah blah blah. And I feel like I'm so much more about being real with yourself now. Be real with your emotions, be real about things you don't like feeling. It's not to say "don't be happy," because of course I'm all about that. But it's about being happy doing what you actually love. Like, being what is real to you — being happy by doing the shit that genuinely makes you happy, and not being happy because you push aside your problems. Just really live your truth, and I wanted to express all of these emotions in this EP, because I feel like this is a real introduction to Lauren Sanderson in the industry. This was the only way I wanted to be introduced, because you can listen to every song and get a different side of me emotionally, and like rapping, singing, whatever else. I did not want this to be just some happy or inspirational or motivational EP. I wanted this EP to feel like real, raw emotions. Yeah, I think I just wanted people to listen to it in the car and just go off, you know?
You had this entire career, as you said, as this inspirational speaker and YouTuber. How did you use what you learned from those experiences to inform your music?
I think speaking was the universe's way of introducing me to the idea of being on stage and inspiring people. Like, that's what really started my love for inspiring. But I think when I started speaking, it just wasn't expressive enough. So when I started making songs, it felt cool to be able to become what you think about, which is something that my supporters really know me for. To make a whole song about that was ... like, I just feel like the speaking was a good thing to teach me that I have that side to me, and I can motivate and inspire people. But making music out of it has made it more me. The message was there and very in your face, like "I don't give a shit about what you think, I just want to be myself."
Since your speaking days, you've talked about coming out in high school and how your parents were constantly supportive of you. What was going to school as an out teenager like, and how did that affect where you are today?
Looking back, I feel like I don't remember that much of high school. But I definitely remember feeling like I was the only gay person. And I never really use the term gay, to be honest, because I feel like I'm just human. I like people. I just like souls. But at the time ... it's hard to explain, because I feel like I didn't make a big deal of it. Like, I told my family, but I never made some long, sappy post about it or anything. When I realized it in myself, and I knew that the most important people in my life were okay with it, and they loved me through it, and I could fully accept it, then I kind of just went about my business and went about my life. But I definitely remember being scared of what people would think in high school, because I think there are more openly LGBT people in Indiana now then there were even when I was in high school like four or five years ago. At the time, I think I was the only person that was out about it. It's cool now, even when I go back home — I just did a show there a couple of weeks ago, and it was just crazy how many people were there with girlfriends. I feel like that would have never happened before, when I was growing up there. So it was cool, I feel like my city is growing, and I can see Indiana becoming more about equality. Now, they even have a Pride festival and everything. So that is amazing to see, for sure.
How does it feel to look back on something like that, and then look at your performance this summer at L.A. Pride?
Oh my god! That was wild, that was my first festival. That was seriously crazy! Yeah, that day was so amazing. I don't know, that day really lit a fire in me. That day was actually the kick off to my whole tour, even though it was a couple weeks before my first date, that was my first performance in a long time. Pride instilled in me to just have so much fun. Be carefree, say what you need to say, and live it out. It was so dope, the whole rest of the tour, that's what I did. I just went in, and I was like, "Just have fun." And that was that. Job done. That was an amazing day.
I've noticed in researching you that a lot of publications have a very difficult time trying to put a genre on you. When you're making music, do you ever set out to bend genre, or does that just naturally happen in your process?
Yo honestly, until I moved to L.A. and started doing interviews, I had never even thought about what genre I am. I don't even know! When people ask me now, as of about three days ago, I just started fucking saying pop [laughs]. I'm like, "Fuck it, pop, whatever." Because before that, I said "alternative hip-hop," which is just not right, it makes no sense. Maybe like, "edgy pop" or something, I don't know.
But I feel like genres in this new age of music are slowly disappearing, and I'm kind of here for it.
I do, too! I think it's pretty cool. I don't know, there's just so many mixtures now. Before it was like, "These are the instruments you play for these genres: with country, you'll have a guitar; with contemporary, you're gonna have a piano; with rock, you're gonna have electric guitar." And now that there is all of these ways to create all of these different sounds, it's like, "Whoa, where do we put that?" So I don't really think we need that. I think the best question to figure out who somebody is as an artist is to, like, ask them who inspires them. That's where I feel like people understand me more, when I say I'm really inspired by Rihanna, Mac Miller, Tyler the Creator, Lana Del Rey, etc. They can kind of be like, "Oh, ok, I get it." Rather than "alternative hip-hop," because that doesn't tell you anything.
As someone with a very active, massive fan base, how does it feel to see your fans grow from a four person meet and greet at a Taco Bell to hundreds of thousands of followers and sold out shows?
[laughs] Oh my lord, you're so real for knowing that. It is absolutely insane, bro. I feel like when this EP drops, I really feel like this thing could really blow up. I think that it's going to be cool — this is why I'm so grateful that I was born in Indiana, because I feel like at the core of me, like ... this is really just about, like, exchanging good energy. My whole career, to me, is about exchanging good energy, being badass, breaking the rules, all of that. As long as my music is in there, that's great and all, but it's just cool that people really are just supporting ... like, I feel like my supporters, if I just stopped making music and was like "Guys, I wanna branch off into this now," then they would be here for it. As long as I stay the same me and deliver the same message, then they are on board for whatever I want to do, and that is what is the coolest thing to me. I feel like as it keeps growing, my supporters are just here for me staying true to me in whatever direction I feel is best. They're gonna be here for it, and they are the realest ever. Especially at my level, I can't even begin to imagine where this thing is going to go after this project.