Music

How Ashley Tisdale Found Her Voice

Story by Michael Love Michael / Photography by Natalia Mantini

Ashley Tisdale has built her entire career on being relatable. After moving to Los Angeles from her native New Jersey, the young entertainer cut her teeth with supporting roles on hit shows like 7th Heaven and Smart Guy. Despite her growing profile, Tisdale still prioritized working regular jobs and attending public school until she got her breakout Disney character, first as Maddie Fitzpatrick, the environmentally conscious teenage service worker in The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.

Having something that felt like a normal life likely helped Tisdale adjust to the pressures of her meteoric rise to fame, which hit critical mass when she played queen bee Sharpay Evans in the wildly popular High School Musical franchise, starting in 2005. But even off screen, Tisdale was fiercely individual on the streets and red carpet, wearing boas, UGGs, and no shortage of tulle and beads. You could tell from the squinty-eyed celebutante pout she perfected that she could care less about the public's judgement.

Tisdale's acting triumphs opened the door for equally successful music entrees, from 2006's gold-selling bubblegum pop debut, Headstrong ("He Said She Said"), and her edgier pop-rock influenced follow-up, 2009's Guilty Pleasure ("It's Alright, It's OK"). During both major-label efforts, Tisdale's winning personality never dimmed, even when leaning into the tumultuous experiences of her teenage fanbase with life, liberty, and the pursuit of individuality.

This diverse industry cred all worked to establish Tisdale as one of the pre-eminent talents of her generation, coming from the same child star boot camp that bred contemporaries like Selena Gomez, Lindsay Lohan, Vanessa Hudgens, Drake Bell, Justin Bieber, Hilary Duff, and countless others. But of course, growing up in the limelight is not without its challenges, as we've seen time and again through the turbulent highs and lows navigated by all these stars.

And somehow through her own inner fortitude, Tisdale made what looked like a seamless transition to adulthood, taking on more risqué roles on shows like Sons of Anarchy and in Scary Movie 5. She has since gotten married to musician Christopher French, launched a makeup line, and executive-produced the ABC Family TV series Young & Hungry for its four-season run. Now 33, Tisdale is more in the driver's seat than ever.

After nine years, super fans were elated to discover that Tisdale was ready to release her third album Symptoms. It's out in 2019, and on it, she shows audiences a side they haven't seen during her decades-long career — that of Ashley Tisdale, a woman navigating the ups and downs of her internal world. And it's 100 percent her: alongside producer John Feldmann, Tisdale wrote the album's nine songs, forging a creative partnership that allowed her to reveal her most vulnerable self yet.

The lead single from Symptoms, "Voices in My Head," which you can stream below, carries an almost quiet grace. Over a simple, catchy guitar lick that morphs into a spare electro-infused beat, Tisdale acknowledges the voices that threaten to "fuck me up and change me" when she buries her feelings. She sings with serene acceptance about the voices as lies to you and me, making her experience universal. It's the calm therapy session we all need right now.

Where does this come from? Tisdale gets candid and espouses hard-earned wisdom with PAPER in an illuminating interview. Here, she talks about being true to herself, self-love, and why we should label ourselves less.

Hey! Oh my god. I'm so excited. How are you?

I am so good, how are you?

Well, my life is so great, I get to talk to Ashley Tisdale!

Oh my god, you are hilarious.

So you're working on your new album...

Yes, "Voices in My Head" [is out now] and then Symptoms will be out in January.

How are you feeling about it?

I know! I'm feeling really really good. You know, it's so different from any of the other experiences I've had in music. In the past, for me, when it came to — even in TV and movies — I've always been like, "Oh my gosh! I wonder how this is going to do?" And I honestly have no fear, I don't even really, honestly, care. I'm so proud of it, and proud of what I've done. It's the most authentic thing I have ever done in my career. It's very personal for me.

Wow, like even more than acting, everything else?

Oh, yeah. In acting, I'm playing different characters, so it's not really me as a person. I'm producing other peoples' visions; but this album is who I am, and I think it's very scary at the same time because you're being so vulnerable and that's really hard. I think this is the first time my fans and people are even going to know who I am as a person. The album really takes you through a journey of what I've gone through.

Dickie: Michael Kors/Albright Fashion Library; Pants: Calvin Klein/Albright Fashion Library

It's been nine years since your last album. You've had a full life since then! I know you have a lot to say. Can you give me an overview of some of the bigger themes you're tackling on this record?

Since it's been so long since I have done music, I always said I was not going to do music just to put something out there. It'd have to mean something. I definitely have gone through things over the last couple of years, and even have become more aware of things that I go through. It was all really weird how this happened, but John Feldmann, who is a really good friend of mine who produces the 5 Seconds of Summer records and blink-182 and all the way back to Hilary Duff, back in the day... he came to me and was like, "We just created Big Noise and we want to sign you." And I was like, "Oh that's so crazy. Let me feel it out in the studio." I've been in and out of the studio for about four years now, but I really wasn't excited about anything I was doing. Really the album is an upbeat record, like pop/electronic, but it's got the undertones of issues like depression and anxiety. I've dealt with anxiety for a really long time. I think I became super aware of my anxiety about two years ago.

"There's no such thing as failure, and there should be no fear because the natural cycle of life is full of ups and downs."

What helped you work through the anxiety you were experiencing?

I read this self help book — Attacking Anxiety and Depression by Lucinda Bassett — and it was basically about attacking depression, anxiety and chronic stress. That's when I realized that I actually had depression. I did this self-help book, and through this journey, and this book, it was actually what got me back in the studio, to be honest. I started it before I talked to John, and one of the chapters was about letting go of fear... of failure. I think that in my mind, for some reason, I just didn't want to come out with music because I was just scared of ever doing it again. That started to release when I realized there's no such thing as failure, and there should be no fear because the natural cycle of life is full of ups and downs. When I finally let go of that is when I decided to come out with another record.

It does seem like now more artists are really able to truly march to the beat of their own drum and create what they want to create. Do you feel like that's been true for you, just in this go round creating music?

Definitely. In the past, obviously I was signed with Warner Bros Records, and it was a great experience, but it was also just an experience of a bigger machine... you're answering to certain people and having songs on your record because certain people wrote it, which you might not have been really wanting on your record, but it definitely has been such a different experience. I think maybe because this label is really new that they've just really let me be so hands on, but also there was no pressure, too. Like I said, I think pressure really, artistically, does not do well for me. Knowing I didn't have any pressure, and I was able to go into the studio every day, and I co-wrote every single song on the album. I direct messaged the director for the music video [to "Voices In My Head"], because I loved his work so much. Everything has been me.

It's best to have ownership over your work.

Totally! It's just been really creatively awesome to do. I think I came out of what I was going through, I came out of what I've been through, and my journey, and I was like, "Wow." I turned to my husband, and I was like, "Not only did I get through something on my own, I also just created something through that experience." I was just so proud of it.

Sweater: Nili Lotan; Coat: Tibi; Ring: Wolf Circus; Earring: Anita Berisha

Bodysuit: Celine/Albright Fashion Library; Pants: Nili Lotan; Bracelets: Dinosaur Designs

To have something that grounds you, and allows you to explore issues like depression and anxiety is important, especially as someone who grew up in the public eye. I do feel like you're part of an era of stars where some made it, and some didn't, no shade.

You're so funny.

I'm serious! In terms of overall health and well being. Are you able to talk a little bit about that? What that journey's been like for you, having an anchor of some kind, creatively that's helped you.

I always thought that John Feldmann's studio was just a real safe place for me, especially going through what I was going through. I had a lot of stress at that moment because I had taken over my makeup company and I was doing a lot. To be able to go to a place and where there was no cell service because you're in Calabasas and you're in a studio... I was able to shut off from the world, and I was able to create. I think that really became a place where I enjoyed myself and laughed and had fun and created new friendships. The reason why I'm doing this is basically, "Yes. It got me through what I was going through." But I think it's very easy, over the past couple of years... we've become very comfortable saying that we all have anxiety.

"I co-wrote every single song on the album [...] Everything has been me."

I think anxiety sometimes gets painted with the same generalized brushstrokes, so to speak.

Some of us have anxiety, and yes, it varies from person to person. When it comes to something like depression, and someone were to be like, "Hey, who here has depression?" Not a lot of hands go up. It's because there's a stigma about that word. I am a naturalist and I did have depression, but I never took anything for it, I just kind of got my way through it, but I think we have to stop putting these words on us. We have to let go of it and not give it so much power. It's okay to just be okay, and to know that it's okay that you might have depression or you might go through depressive periods. I want people to be feel like they're not alone. "Oh, Ashley goes through this too. I don't feel so alone at home." I didn't want to dwell on it [with the music]. If you listen to the album, a lot of it is taking you through symptoms of anxiety and depression. There's actually a single called "Symptoms," and then there's a song called "Insomnia." We kind of flip it. It's not really about that specific thing, so it's very relatable. You're going to turn it on, and you're going to have fun, and you're not going to dwell in what you might be going through. It hopefully will make you feel less alone.

How many songs are on the album?

There are nine songs on the album. When I was creating it, that's all I could do for the record. Creatively and artistically that's what it calls for. I couldn't do more.

Shifting gears a bit: People who are Ashley Tisdale stans believe that you pretty much invented punk pop and angst. Because of Guilty Pleasure, and how that album was sort of an angsty, rock-inspired record. Assuming that were true, how do you feel about that, having invented pop-punk angst?

I did see something about that and I was just like, "That is really interesting." [Laughs] Because those kids must have been really young to think that I invented it! I feel like Avril Lavigne did for my generation. I think that my second record was definitely more pop rock than the first, but I guess it would just have to be about who was the viewer and how old they were? Even with High School Musical, sometimes people will come up to us and be like, "You were our first musical we ever saw!" And that's like, insane. You're like, "Wait what?" That's crazy. I feel like it depends on the age.

Coat: Christopher Kane/Albright Fashion Library; Earring: Julie Thevenot

There is also a video of you playing guitar at the Mall of America, I think. Maybe a Led Zeppelin song?

Oh! That is hilarious. I think I only played the first couple of notes of what I had learned on a guitar, ever. Which is still the only thing I know how to play on a guitar. I took lessons and then I was just like, "I'm not so good at this!"

You're like, "I know my strength. Maybe that's not it!"

Yeah. I know my weaknesses, and this was one of them. [Laughs]

It has also been said that you invented gay glamour.

Really? Wow, that's so funny.

"I want people to be feel like they're not alone."

You would wear like, boas and UGGs on the red carpet.

Oh my god, I know. I can say that, for me, some of those images are so funny. Looking back sometimes, I'm just like, What was I thinking? But at the same time, I realize that I was so confident. I could give shit who thought bad things about me. I could literally care less. I think that that is such a beautiful thing in those images. What people don't realize is I honestly did not care. As you obviously grow up in this business, and then you become more in the spotlight, people are obviously criticizing you and you're changing things. I just look back, and I'm like, "You know what? That is awesome." I could not care and I just did my thing. And that's just amazing!

"Age 12. I'm out here. Who cares?"

I was like, "Yes. I'm going to wear UGGs on the red carpet, and yes, I'm going to wear every single item in my closet as an accessory!" [Laughs]

I thought it was iconic, personally.

I think it is iconic, for sure! I saw people dressing up in some of my outfits for Halloween this year and I was beside myself. I was dying laughing. It was so amazing.

Kids have that ability to not care so much until the world makes them insecure.

I think it's just not taking yourself too seriously. Which I think, obviously as we get older, we start to do. When you see that stuff you just have to laugh and have fun with it because that's so fucking awesome. I remember one of the first shots that someone had sent me from the red carpet back then of me. I was just like, "Oh my god. I have got to show Chris this, [my husband]." I was so embarrassed. He actually really helped me realize that what I was doing then was awesome. I was like, "You know what? You're right!" I was so awesome! It's really about loving yourself and loving the decisions you made whether they're crazy. When you have that self-love, you're not so critical on yourself.

Photography: Natalia Mantini
Production: Blair Cannon, Hannah Lifshutz
Photographer Assistant: Guario Rodriguez
Stylist: Rachel Pincus
Stylist Assistant: Shabdiece Esfahani
Hair: Nathaniel Dezan
Makeup: Andrea Tiller


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