Though Lauren Watkins was born and raised in Nashville, it took leaving Music City for her to come into her own. She honed her acumen as a writer, and poured her talents into her new, six-song project Introducing: The Heartbreak, out today on Songs & Daughters/Big Loud Records.
“I want people to feel like they know me better,” Watkins tells Billboard while seated at an eatery in Nashville’s Green Hills area. “I want to be a vessel for the songs to get heard. I thought the best way to do that was first introduce ‘the girl,’ and then introduce the things I’ve been through, which is the heartbreak.”
Introducing: The Heartbreak balances husky vocals, razor-sharp lyrics and sonic touches that range from tender to tough, positioning Watkins as far beyond a heart-on-her-sleeve singer-songwriter. “Stuck in My Ways” details the myriad habits she doesn’t plan to change post-heartbreak, while “The Table” conveys a relationship arc from flirtatious desire to heartbroken freedom.
Growing up, it was Watkins’s older sister Caroline who showed an early bent toward music. Their father worked in health insurance and their mother was a painter; meanwhile, the sisters began performing together at the restaurant Corner Pub in the Woods just outside of Nashville.
“We brought our little speaker and invited all of our family and friends, and played on their little outdoor patio,” Watkins recalls. Her sister was already writing songs, so Lauren chimed in on harmonies. “There were moments where I was like, ‘Oh, I kind of wish I was singing lead,’ but honestly, I was too scared to do it by myself. She was like my security blanket.”
While her sister signed a publishing deal right out of high school and enrolled at Nashville’s Belmont University, Watkins began carving her own persona and creative vision by taking a different path. Watkins followed in her parents’ footsteps by attending the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford, Mississippi.
“I knew I wanted to go to Ole Miss and I knew if I wanted to have a career in music, it would have to be something I did on my own,” Watkins says. “At the time, I thought if I left Nashville, that meant I had to choose between school and music.”
Watkins largely put her musical ambitions behind her, and didn’t perform for the bulk of her university years. But still, “There was this hole in my heart, this tugging,” she says.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, upending everyone’s plans. On-campus college classes quickly pivoted to remote courses, leaving Watkins with ample time to reflect on her goals, write songs — and eventually, make frequent trips back home to Nashville. When her sister traveled to Oxford to visit and perform a show, Watkins sang a few songs with her, a moment that fully reignited her passion for singing.
With still just over a year to go before college graduation, Watkins threw herself into writing songs, drawing inspiration from everyone from Kacey Musgraves to George Jones, and joined a local cover band in order to gain performance experience. Like most Gen Z artists, it was second nature for Watkins to share both some originals and some of her cover song performances on social media.
One of those videos caught the ear of songwriter Rodney Clawson, husband of singer-songwriter and Songs & Daughters label head Nicolle Galyon, setting off a chain reaction that led Watkins to her current publishing and label deals.
Watkins is a co-writer on all six songs on the Joey Moi-produced Introducing: The Heartbreak, alongside her sister Caroline, as well as Galyon, Rodney Clawson, The Warren Brothers, Will Bundy, Emily Landis and David Garcia. She recently wrapped her three-night Nashville residency, dubbed the Heartbreak Supper Club, and is on the road with Austin Snell and upcoming concerts opening for Conner Smith.
Watkins, November’s Rookie of the Month, spoke with Billboard about signing with Songs & Daughters/Big Loud, and shared the stories behind her new project.
What was the process like of preparing to sign a publishing deal and then a label deal?
After I met Nicolle, she let me do my own thing. She let me just write for a while and kind of hustle on my own. She watched me grow as a writer and then signed me to a publishing deal, maybe a year after we met. I still had a lot of developing to do as an artist. All I did for the past few years was write and write. She let me develop on my own before I signed with Songs & Daughters and Big Loud. You hear horror stories about labels where they want you to fit this certain mold, and I never felt that with them. It felt like this is where I needed to be signed.
“Fly on the Wall” features your Big Loud label mate Jake Worthington. How did he come to be part of this?
The first time I heard of Jake is when he opened for Ernest last year; they took me on the road for a weekend on that tour, so I got to open shows for Jake and Ernest. Jake’s music is so good and he’s just so real country—and he’s not putting it on; he’s really like that. I didn’t write the song as a duet, but the more I listened to it, it needed a male voice on there. It was perfect to highlight the contrast of the couple arguing in the song. The song is so old-school and I wanted it to come across that way.
“The Table” has a great “non-ending,” where the melody carries the lyric itself. How did you arrive at that moment?
Originally, we had “on the table” as the final lyric, and Joey [Moi] and I went back and forth about whether to take the line out. The songwriter in me was like, “Take it out — people know what it means and the music does it for you.” Then I talked to other people and some were like, “Leave it in there; people aren’t going to get it,” but I just didn’t listen to them. I’m so proud of this song. I wrote it with Nicolle and the Warren Brothers on a writing a year ago.
Carter Faith joins you on “Cowboys on Music Row.” When did you write that song?
She’s one of my good friends and as another female artist, she just understands all these niche things that only other artists really understand. We were on a writing retreat earlier this year in Pigeon Forge, and we were there with my sister Caroline, Lauren Hungate, Ashley Monroe, and Jessie Jo Dillon. We love Tales From the Tour Bus and some of the girls hadn’t seen it so were were showing them all the George Jones and Tammy Wynette episode, the Waylon Jennings episode and that sent us down a rabbit hole of documentaries on those guys. We were inspired because they were just singing about their real lives. It came together quickly, and by the time we were almost done with the chorus, Carter sang part of it and she just has this great sound to her voice that was perfect.
What has the response been like?
Sometimes it can ruffle feathers, that type of song. But we’ve just been saying, “If it ruffles your feathers, then maybe you should look inward,” right? There are real cowboys on Music Row. This song is a hyperbole. There are definitely some real cowboys — Jake Worthington is a great example — and they’re not getting offended. They’re going, “Yeah, tell it to the world. We know we’re here.”
Do you feel like it is easier to write on retreats, versus the day-to-day Nashville writes?
There is definitely something to be said for showing up everyday, writing Monday through Friday. That’s a huge part of it, but as an artist and writer, there’s also something to be said for getting away from Nashville and disconnecting. And there’s this respect that you go and do your thing and they know you’ll come back with something great if you’re just relaxed and focused on writing. And you forge such great friendships—we all got so close on that trip and we still go to dinner when we’re all in town. We hope to do the same retreat again and make it an annual thing. You just write better songs with people that know you and know what you want to say.
Does having a sister who is also involved in music further strengthen your sibling bond?
We write together so much, and at the same time, I have my artist thing and she has her songwriter thing that’s separate. We have success together but we also have success outside of each other. It’s a lifestyle that so few people understand, and so to have your sister be in it with you is great.
What do you hope listeners take away from your music?
This is me at my most natural place. I love country and I want to be my own form of modern and old-school, and I also want to make all my heroes proud with these songs.
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