In 2003, Lucy Hale was a top-five winner on “American Juniors,” a one-off reality show on Fox that searched for the next big pop singers in the tween set. She packed her bags, moved to Los Angeles in hopes of landing a record deal, but got acting gigs instead. Hale is now best known as Aria Montgomery on ABC Family’s hit show “Pretty Little Liars,” but on June 3, her first album finally arrives. “Road Between” is in an 11-song collection of pop country that finds her singing tunes penned by former Whiskeytown member Mike Daly, Ashley Gorley (Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley) and Kacey Musgraves. It’s a promising debut with clean, powerful vocals that move beyond the high school drama that engulfs her day job on “Liars.”
Billboard spoke with Hale about the road to “Road Between,” her dark side, life after “Pretty Little Liars” and more.
Billboard: Country music is a crowded space these days. What stands out about you as a musician?
Hale: I grew up singing country music, so when I decided to make an album, it was the only option for me. It’s the only thing I wanted to do — it’s where I feel most at home. [“Road Between”] is a great introduction to who I am. A lot of people don’t know Lucy the person. They just know me from characters I played. I think after listening to the album, they’ll have a clearer idea of the kind of girl I am. It’s really real. It’s hard for women to … it’s almost taboo to explain how you’re really feeling. We’re not supposed to be sad, we’re supposed to act like we have it all together. This album shows my flaws, it shows me being angry, being heartbroken. I think that’s cool for girls to hear that it’s okay to express how you’re feeling.
Classic country themes are explored on the album: heartbreak, lying, some ill-advised hook-ups, loss. You obviously relate to those ideas in some way.
Obviously when musicians make an album, they want to relate to the songs. I didn’t want to put a song on the album that I didn’t personally relate to. When we were submitting songs, there were a lot of great tunes, but I hadn’t experienced it, so it didn’t feel right. Luckily, at the end of the day, this is my story put to music.
The reason I love country music is the stories and how nostalgic a song can feel. “From the Back Seat” is a perfect example. When you hear that song, you see the music video played out — it’s so visual. There’s a few details that are off. My parents were divorced when I was really young, but when I heard this song, it was kind of like my mom’s upbringing. She was a cheerleader, she fell in love with her high school sweetheart, her parents went on road trips. It’s pretty much my mom’s story.
You’ve been working hard for the last 10 years. Do you ever feel like you’ve missed out on those everyday things?
I kind of grew up quick. I’ve been supporting myself since I was 16, living on my own since I was 17. I’ve always felt really different, even as a kid. I knew I wanted to be a performer. So no, I really don’t. I won’t have a high school reunion … there are certain things. I miss home a lot. But loving what I do outweighs all of that.
Some of the songs are steeped in sadness. Does Lucy Hale have a dark side?
I really do. I’m a pretty happy person in general and I’ve been told I’m bubbly and outgoing. But I think those are the type of people who have the darkest side to them. I think people are really surprised that I can go to those places and relate to those moments. There’s a song called “Nervous Girls” on the record — that’s a perfect example of saying “it’s okay to not be okay.” I grew up in L.A. as an actress and you’re supposed to have it all together and you’re not allowed to have a bad day, but I think with the songwriting process, it was cool to delve into those places I wasn’t used to going. The darker, more dramatic side of me.
Is it hard for you to emote that in your vocals?
It was kind of a challenge at first. It’s a scary thing to be vulnerable and put yourself out there like that. But every time I perform, every time I write a song, I’m one step ahead. I’d be lying to say it wasn’t hard to tap into that. I’m used to having to always be on, to always be smiling.
You worked with Whiskeytown’s Mike Daly on a lot of this record. How did the relationship develop?
I met Mike a couple years prior because I dated a guy who was working with him. We had all these crazy connections. I love Whiskeytown. I was actually supposed to record a never-released Whiskeytown song for the album, but maybe we’ll save that for the next album. He knows me and knows my voice like the back of his hand.
Does working on “Pretty Little Liars” help your singing in anyway?
I started out in music and never in a million years thought I’d be acting and on a TV show. I’m very fortunate for the way it panned out. If anything, it’s helped me develop a strong work ethic and a thick skin. I don’t think I could’ve made this album without having that grounded-ness, and be willing to take criticism. You’re going to get reviews left and right on opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s helped me find myself and find my voice and handle everything that’s about to happen.
Looking back, do you think you were ready to make a record when you were 16?
I moved to L.A. for music. I thought I’d move out there, get a record deal, be touring by the time I was 17, and clearly that’s not what happened. I’m so grateful for the time. I wouldn’t have had any life experiences to draw from. I would’ve been micro-managed and felt like a robot. There are the rare occasions like Lorde and Taylor Swift — they had a sense of self and I really didn’t have a sense of self that young. Just now at 24, I’m sure of who Lucy is.
How much longer does “Pretty Little Liars” have in it? What do you see yourself doing after it ends?
It’s the question all of us are asking (laughs). I think it still’s got a little momentum in it. Who knows? I’m just riding the wave, seeing where it goes. I think it has a couple more seasons, probably. The plan right now, is on my hiatus, I’ll be touring. Music is my main focus right now. I think when the show ends, I’ll focus on my music for a while. I don’t think I’ll abandon acting because I really do enjoy it.