The creative process teaches many things. On the surface level, it teaches the technical aspects of the craft. You learn how to make a particular effect with a brush stroke while painting or how to mix a song during production. It can teach more intangible lessons, like the patience of seeing a project through to the end and the attention to detail that makes the final result shine. More than anything, creating art teaches you about yourself. An event that inspired a novel might have a new perspective for you when you start writing about it. Emotions can flourish when you search for inspiration, unearthing feelings, thoughts, and truths about yourself you weren’t aware of before. When you dive that deep, that’s when real growth and special art is formed. Lauren Aquilina has learned this over the years. The British singer-songwriter is embracing it now, and that journey has resulted in tracks like “Tobacco In My Sheets,” which resonate with herself and her listeners. It hasn’t always been an easy task, but Aquilina is on a rewarding emotional and artistic path.
That path has led Aquilina to the Central Time Zone (time differences are some of the hardest part of touring for her, she says with a laugh) and Nashville when I talk to her in early April. She’s been touring with fellow songwriter Sasha Sloan, an experience that’s been highly rewarding for her. “It’s been really fun, I’m sad it’s ending,” she says of the tour.
The tour is just one of the monumental events Aquilina has gone through in recent weeks. “Tobacco In My Sheets” has only been out since March 29, but already has sent huge reverberations through her life and those of listeners. A powerfully direct track, “Tobacco In My Sheets” is the story of her first heartbreak. More specifically, it’s about her turning to alcohol, tobacco, and drugs to try and cope with the pain. Framed as a letter to her mother, Aquilina holds back none of the pain and emotional turmoil she felt. As one can imagine, releasing it caused some nerves. “It was probably the most personal [song] I’ve ever released, actually, so it was really scary to put it out because it’s so honest,” she says. And while the response has been positive, she does say with a slight chuckle that there were “some tears” in the days leading up to release.
The path to finishing “Tobacco In My Sheets” was not straightforward, either. Given the nature of the track, it might come as a surprise that it originally started as something of a joke. As Aquilina wryly tells it, “I woke up one morning and my bed was literally full of tobacco and weed, and I was like ‘Wow, this is a really dark moment for me.'” She says she started singing “there’s tobacco in my sheets, my mother won’t be proud” to herself, which formed the very first line of the song. And then nothing happened. For weeks it remained as one line. “I didn’t really know what to do with it or if it was any good or whether I should even finish it,” she remembers. About a month later she figured out the chorus and the idea of a letter, but progress stalled yet again. Months later during a session with frequent collaborator Jonny Hockings it came up, and Hockings and her ended up turning it into what listeners heard upon release. She has no regrets over how long it took, saying “I wanted every lyric to be right and I think I achieved that in the end, so I’m just proud of it.”
Touring alongside the release of “Tobacco In My Sheets” has also been a journey for Aquilina. She says that the first few times she played it live were “pretty difficult” for her. She has to play the track night in and night out, and points out that fully accessing all of the emotion behind it would not be great for her mental health. She describes it as putting up a wall in her mind so she can tap into some of the emotion for the performance, but not have the full weight of the track come down on her. The actual act of performing helps, too. She explains “I try to just focus on the notes and the chords, because I’m playing piano at the same time [and] that helps because I can focus on what I’m playing on piano and not focus too much on the actual meaning of the lyrics.” While it can be hard to summon the fortitude to perform “Tobacco In My Sheets,” every night, the reactions make it worth it for Aquilina. “This tour is small enough that I can look out into the audience and see people’s eyes and see their faces and how they react to that song and see people actually connecting with it in the moment, so it’s been really cool,” she states. She also says she’s had conversation with Sloan about how perfect of a match they are on tour, as both artists write personal, affecting tracks and audiences are prepared for that subject matter from both acts.
That subject matter can still bring up a sense of hurt, as anyone who has gone through their first major breakup can attest to. “I had no idea it was going to be that painful or it was possible to feel that much pain. But my ex definitely proved to me that that was possible,” Aquilina recalls. We agree nothing can prepare you for that experience, and she obviously hopes to never go through something so painful ever again. With distance from the experience, she has gained some perspective on the whole thing. She says “going through something like that can shape you as a person and it made me stop and reevaluate everything.” Aquilina says that she had been so enamored with the relationship she had forgotten the joys of being social, doing things solely for herself, and generally living more freely. She says the period after the breakup was good for her emotional growth, and adds with a hearty laugh that it has proven good for her songwriting as well.
This is not the only time when Aquilina has placed herself and her health first. While many will be familiar with her recent singles (2019’s “If Looks Could Kill” and 2018’s “Psycho” alongside “Tobacco In My Sheets”), those singles almost didn’t happen. After the 2016 release of her debut album Isn’t It Strange?, she went on an extended hiatus. “I was having a really shit time with my mental health around the time of that album release and some stuff had happened in both my professional and personal lives which just really got to me and I was actually thinking about quitting music altogether,” she reveals. The transition in and out of the orbit of one of music’s biggest titans was also tough. Aquilina opened for Taylor Swift on the Hyde Park, London date of the 1989 World Tour. She maintains that it was a wonderful time, but acknowledges it was tough. Aquilina had been building her fanbase steadily up to that point, but there are few people, let alone musicians, who command a spotlight that blazes as brightly as Taylor Swift. The added exposure led to more anxiety for Aquilina, who worried that people would perceive her hiatus as “throwing away” an opportunity very few people get. At the end of the day, she firmly believes she did the right thing. “I didn’t know if I was just giving it all up and throwing something away that I shouldn’t have, but now I can see in hindsight it was the perfect decision for me and I just had to do what I needed to do at the time and I would encourage everybody else to do the same even if it’s just a really scary thing,” she says.
The hiatus served as a much-needed break for her to heal and discover herself. She explains that because she started music so young (she will turn 24 in just a couple months), she didn’t have the experience of growing up and living for herself like other teenagers do. The hiatus became a chance for her to do all of those things, and she couldn’t be happier she did it. She says “I got to do all that a few years later when I was 22. And so much of that has gone into my songwriting now and I was able to get myself into a place with my mental health where I knew if I ever came back to being an artist I would have to be ready for it.” She does say that now she’s in a place where she can handle it better, and continues to work on it. “Health should be over everything, both physically and mentally, and that’s something that I didn’t realize before, but now with this fresh perspective I’m able to keep checking in on myself and make sure that I’m not pushing myself too hard or doing anything that I don’t want to do and it feels really good” she explains of her mental outlook now.
Moving forward, Aquilina wants to continue being this honest in her music. “I’ve set the bar really high for myself with the three songs that have already come out and I just only want to release music that I feel as connected to as those three songs,” she tells me of her future releases. She also says she likes both the poppier feel of “If Looks Could Kill” & “Psycho” and the raw, down-tempo stylings of “Tobacco In My Sheets” and hopes to work in both of those realms moving forward. What matters the most to her is that each song is completely honest and personal. She laughs and says she knows the pressure is on herself because of this high bar, but she’s more than up to the challenge of clearing it.
If you need prove you can learn something making music, look no further than Lauren Aquilina. Across numerous singles, songwriting sessions, and a needed hiatus, Aquilina has embraced her own journey, put her mental health first, and is creating some of the most inspired music of the year. She has found the strength and the perspective to face anything that comes her way, and her emotional truths speak to fans the world over. No matter what happens next, Lauren Aquilina will approach it with honesty and an open heart & mind.