When Lauren Aquilina first left the music industry, she thought she had closed that chapter of her life. Yet after three years of writing music for other artists, Aquilina is stepping back into the spotlight with her new EP, ‘Ghost World’.
Despite having a self-imposed rule of not working with her boyfriend, lockdown had other ideas for Lauren Aquilina. The resulting body of work, titled ‘Ghost World’, perfectly represents the young female experience – from intensely short-lived friendships to battling insecurities. With ‘Ghost World’, the singer-songwriter combines her 90s inspirations with her formative experiences in friendships and the lessons she’s learned about her mental health, creating stand out tracks such as “Fuckedupminddd”, “Best Friend” and “Swap Places”.
‘Ghost World’ is a landmark for the singer in many ways. Not only does it signal her much-anticipated return to music, but it represents how far she’s come in understanding herself and what works for her; something that takes many of us a lifetime to suss out.
From her tentative start releasing videos on YouTube to now, Aquilina’s 2020 release demonstrates her evolution as an artist and her tenacity for storytelling and poetry.
How did you get into music in the first place?
I’ve always been singing since I could talk. My mum was a single mum and I asked her if I could have piano lessons. She started working extra hours so she could get me piano lessons which is just the cutest thing that she’s ever done. I was writing songs all the way through being a kid and then I started uploading YouTube videos (remember when that was a thing!) when I was like 13/14 and it all kind of happened from there.
At the time, I remember being like ‘omg I’m already past it, Lorde is 15’, but now that I’m older and look back at it, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I really thought I had it all figured out, but I didn’t.
I’ve always been a huge lyrics person and I think when I was young, I didn’t quite know how to write a melody yet. I was obsessed with Girls Aloud and I would take their songs and rewrite the lyrics to them. I think in the past couple of years I’ve realised that my parents’ divorce was the biggest thing to have happened to me as a kid, so it made sense to write about heartbreak because I’d watched my mum go through it. Even though I hadn’t been through it myself, I knew that was a thing that someone really close to me had experienced.
You quit the music world in 2016 after releasing your debut album, writing on Twitter “This Lauren Aquilina album was not only going to be the first, but also the last”. Tell me about that time, what was going through your mind?
Very dramatic 21-year-old me, but that was really how I felt at the time. I was signed to a major label and had a really bumpy ride with the music industry in terms of the people that I met and worked with…that situation made everything so clouded. I remember going into all these writing sessions and not having any idea that I was supposed to be leading them, so I was like, ‘these people are professional songwriters, they know what they’re doing’, and as a result, my professional style became very diluted and I didn’t know what was me anymore. It was a really low point when I put out my album and obviously that was a day that I had dreamt about since I was 5 years old. I remember waking up in my flat alone on the day my album came out…the label had kind of figured that it wasn’t going to work so they stopped putting any money into it whatsoever. I wasn’t getting to do an album promo, I wasn’t going on tour, I felt so helpless and it was supposed to be one of the best days of my life. To be honest, the whole year of 2016, I was in the darkest place I’ve ever been in. When you’re depressed it really feels like – especially for the first time – it felt like I needed to get out of this – I have to do something else. The universe has obviously told me that music isn’t for me and this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing so I’m going to dramatically just cut all ties, and publicly post about it. It’s funny when I read that post because it was coming from such a genuine place but now I’m really happy that I’ve been able to get back into it and maybe that statement isn’t as true as I thought it was but it was very true in the moment.
How did those close to you support you?
I don’t think I was really talking about it to that many people. My mum has always been amazing and my boyfriend at the time definitely put up with a lot of shit from me that year and was good at helping me through it, but apart from those two people there wasn’t anyone that was aware of the extent of what I was going through and what I was feeling. I felt very isolated at that time and I also had been totally conditioned to believe that all other artists, especially female ones, were my competition and that everyone else was having a great time and no-one else was struggling. I also had a lot of guilt because I was signed to a major label and I knew how many people would kill to be in my position and I wasn’t enjoying it or making the most of it, so it was a very lonely year.
You’ve since discussed how one of the issues was that you were in a business surrounded by men. How did that affect you?
I did have a female manager for a while and she was great and that was a big help but if I’d had just a couple of women on my team and a better relationship with my peers, other women in music, that would have completely changed my life. Now that I know everybody feels like that, it’s so much easier to deal with. I was so young and so much of my life then was me being an 18-year-old girl hanging out with men in their 30s and 40s, it’s really weird because they just couldn’t relate to you in any way at all – it was a super weird time.
What was it like releasing music again, since that time?
Absolutely fucking terrifying.
Releasing music has always terrified me, I just hate that transfer of something that’s just yours…becoming everybody else’s, and then it’s in their hands. When I came back to music, I had the added thing of ‘well I made this big statement about retiring and disappearing and now I’m back and this has to be good’. I have to come at it a different way this time and I have to make sure that I don’t fall back into the dark place I was in before. I have to keep my mental health in check all the time, I have to ask myself if I’m okay all the time and do things at my own pace. That was really scary but also the best part about it is that it’s competely on my own terms. I’m completely in control and nobody has more power than me in the situation.
Your latest release, ‘Ghost World’, was born out of being trapped indoors when LA was in lockdown. How did that experience encourage you to create an album?
It was one of those things that I didn’t really know I was making until it was almost done. For the past 3 years, I’ve been writing for other people and that’s a very different world to being an artist, it works in a different way. I was in Los Angeles when the lockdown happened, I was only supposed to be there for 3 months and it ended up being 9 months. I was living in this house with my boyfriend and 4 other girls and luckily we had this building in our garden that we turned into a studio so we filled it with instruments. My boyfriend is a producer, so he had already been working there and I had been writing songs with one of the other girls that I had been living with, Caroline Pennell. The three of us started writing and it turned out to be the most magic writing combination that I’ve ever been a part of – it was so easy; it came so naturally and we were all so comfortable with each other that we all felt like we could be ourselves in the room. We both brought out the artist in each other which was so nice and then in June, I was like ‘wait! I have all these songs, I think I’ve made an EP, I think I have a body of work.’
It happened really naturally and I don’t think it’s something that would have happened without the lockdown I think I would have just carried on running on the hamster wheel of writing sessions in LA and working with these different artists. So it was just a fun, natural experience, and now that I’ve done that I don’t want to work any other way.
“Swap Places” is one of the tracks on ‘Ghost World’ and it serves as an ode to anyone with insecurities and imposter syndrome as the lyrics convey your yearning to be anything other than who you are now. What was the writing process like with this track? Did you know you wanted to express this?
I had the title, “Swap Places”, written down in my phone because I thought it was a cool title and that’s actually one of the songs written before the lockdown. I was with these amazing writers, Michelle Buzz and Evan Voytas, I just had this title and Michelle related to it straight away and we knew it was going to be about insecurities, we were just trying to find the right way to say it. We landed on “can I swap places with someone who’s kinder to themselves?” and that felt perfect because it was like, I don’t want to swap places with someone who has a flatter stomach than me or has bigger boobs than me, I just want to swap places with somebody who’s comfortable in themselves, whatever that looks like, and that’s the point I want to get to. We [Michelle and Lauren] started to talk about our futures selves. I just want to swap places with a future version of myself who has their shit together a bit more because one of the best things about growing up is you just give less fucks and you become a little bit less anxious about things. That song is me saying that I hope by the time I’m 35, I won’t feel like this anymore and I won’t have to deal with these comparisons. We can dream!
One of the most sombre tracks on the album is “Best Friend”. It captures the intense yet fleeting dynamic of young female friendships that many of us remember going through. What did you want to convey with this track? What’s the story behind it?
That was actually the very first song that I wrote in lockdown. Before I flew out to LA, I had this best friend. We had lived together and we were so close. We went on little holidays together just the two of us, we were like sisters. We were really close but we also had this weird dynamic in our relationship where I was a maternal figure to her, I was protective of her and looking after her because there’s a part of me that wants to fix people. Before I went to LA, she ghosted me and it was really really painful for me. I think she did it because she probably felt like she was being abandoned because I was going to LA for that long and she wanted to leave before she was left. I was thinking about her every single day, even before the lockdown hit, and then when lockdown happened I had so much time to think. I was smoking and I had that chorus lyric come into my head, “Taught me to smoke cigarettes / Now you’re teaching me how hard it is to forget’. It all came at once which doesn’t usually happen to me with songwriting. It’s funny though because it’s such a personal song and I had been trained, through writing for other people, to not write like that, but as soon as the lockdown hit, it happened. It was a very quick thing and as soon as it [the song] was finished I knew it was a special thing and I wasn’t going to give it to anyone else.
Have you spoken to the friend?
I contacted her in October, we hadn’t spoken for 10 months and I knew the song was coming out and I get so anxious about releasing music. I didn’t want the extra anxiety of her not knowing about it or liking it. Surprisingly she came back in 10 minutes, so we ended up speaking on the phone and reconciled and I sent her the song and she had a positive reaction to it, she said it made her feel less of a ghost in my life which I thought was nice and now we speak almost every day. We still haven’t met up in person obviously, but we’re rebuilding our relationship and giving it as much time as possible.
The EP’s name, ‘Ghost World’, was inspired by her ghosting me. I knew I wanted to have ‘ghost’ in the title and I was like writing down loads of ideas and I landed on ‘Ghost World’. I watched the film and realised it was about two teenage girls who are best friends and they drift apart and I was like this has so many parallels with my life I have to call it ‘Ghost World’.
During the pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion about not putting pressure on ourselves to be the ‘top of our game’. Going off your experience, do you think this is a rhetoric that we should keep up?
Definitely. I think we’ve all learned valuable lessons from this. Not that it needed to happen but I think the amount that people were working and running themselves into the ground with these insane expectations we had… I think we all needed to stop and get back to ourselves and work out what matters and who we actually care about. It’s brought a lot of things to the surface. That’s something that I’m grateful for in this whole process because I will never go back to the amount I was working or the way I was working because it wasn’t doing it for me and it wasn’t beneficial to my mental health. I actually feel like I’ve got further in my career by doing less and it being more focused on work and doing what I’m passionate about rather than working 6 days a week doing two writing sessions a day – we don’t need this mindset of ‘go! go! go!’
How would you describe your sound in three words?
I would say: honest, 90s influenced, rom-com soundtrack, pop. That’s more than three words but in my head, that’s three!