It's been almost a decade since Ashley Tisdale last released a solo album, but that doesn't mean that she's left anyone's minds. After starring in Disney Channel's High School Musical series, Tisdale voiced tattletale sister Candace on Phineas and Ferb; started a production company, Blondie Girl Productions; and worked on her beauty brand, Illuminate Cosmetics. Now, she's diving back into her career as a singer, with a new album, Symptoms, out this spring. It's a highly personal release, and as Tisdale tells Bustle over the phone, some of its songs, like the new single "Love Me & Let Me Go," came from a conversation she had with her own anxiety.
While in the studio recording awhile back, right after her anxiety had come to a boiling point, Tisdale decided to channel her pain into a song. "I had an experience when it got really, really bad with my anxiety... I was just really shut down from it all," she recalls now. "And that was really hard for me because I've just never felt shut down. I remember actually being in the moment, remembering lyrics I was writing in my head, of exactly how I was feeling."
The "Love Me & Let Me Go" lyrics — "Lights out, shut down, when I speak up, nothing wants to come out" — are, the singer says, "me speaking to my anxiety." The entire song, Tisdale adds, "was just me trying to... let myself be free of the chains and all of the feelings that come with anxiety."
Tisdale explains that despite struggling with anxiety in the past, she had never before felt that exact feeling she ended up channeling into the song. "I was so unaware that I even had anxiety when I was younger, and now it makes sense. I was like 'Oh my god, that's what I was dealing with," she explains. She's glad she found a way to process her emotions, and working through her mental health with songwriting — as well as other sources like the self-help book Attacking Anxiety and Depression by Lucinda Bassett — has been an invaluable form of self-care.
Yet despite the fact that Symptoms chronicles tough stages in Tisdale's life, it's meant to resonate with listeners going through many different experiences, as shown in "Love Me & Let Me Go," for instance. "Yes, the song has the undertones of me talking about my journey with anxiety and depression, but... it could be about a boyfriend, it doesn't have to be about that," Tisdale explains. "We wrote [the album] in a way where it's not like I'm dwelling on my feelings — it's like each song is a symptom of anxiety and depression, but then we flip them, and the songs might not be about that."
Although Tisdale had been thinking about making a new album since 2013, Symptoms only came once she was inspired to write about coping with her mental health issues. After talking to her co-writer, Rachel West, about all she'd gone through recently — the anxiety and depression, past commitment issues, her marriage in 2014 to musician Christopher French — she created the title track, "Symptoms," her very first day in the studio.
"Right when we wrote that and I recorded it, I started to feel like, 'Oh my gosh, I think I know what this is,'" recalls Tisdale. "I was really inspired by what we had written, and so that's kind of how [the album] became about my journey... there's a beginning, and there's the last song of the album that's like me coming out of everything I had been through. You really feel that journey on the album."
Symptoms indeed gives listeners a more intimate look into the artist's life than anything she's previously put out, and Tisdale proudly describes it as "the best and most authentic thing I've ever done, to be honest." It's also helped keep the creative juices flowing freely. "The best part is that I'm inspired — that's the most important thing," says the singer now. "Once you're inspired, you have so much to talk about. And so even after Symptoms, I still have a lot more to say. I'm excited to continue doing that."
Tisdale has plans to go back into the studio soon, and is ready to continue the intimate storytelling seen on Symptoms. "Now that I've opened this door, I don't think I can ever really shut it," she explains. "There's no going back to just not having it be as personal." She adds that the response she's gotten to the songs she's released thus far ("Voices In My Head," about overcoming loud insecurities, and "Love Me & Let Me Go") have been "overwhelming."
"So many people have just been so supportive, and also, it's opened up the communication for them to tell what they've gone through," says Tisdale. "I've had friends who I had no idea experienced the same thing I experienced. Obviously the music is amazing and I'm so proud of what I've done, but it just feels so great to be able to start that communication about all these things, and know that no one's perfect, and we all struggle with something."
The reaction to the new music is unlike anything Tisdale got for her past two albums, which, she says, were mostly written by other artists and were notably less personal. "It's just such a different experience, it's just on such a different personal level. It's really awesome," she says of the response to Symptoms. "It's definitely hard to be vulnerable in front of people, but it's worth it because I'm making someone feel less alone at home, and that makes me feel really great.
Discussing her mental health struggles in such a public way may not have been easy for Tisdale, but in being so honest, she's helping others and truly making a difference.