Go ahead and try to put Lauren Sanderson in a box — we dare you.
The 24-year-old Los Angeles-based, Indiana-raised musician defies all labels. Released at the top of 2020, Sanderson's debut record, Midwest Kids Can Make It Big, is an enigma that reflects this; an album at once tenderly nostalgic for days gone by and fearlessly future-facing. The widely relatable, yet deeply and intimately specific album paints sonic strokes using a broad palette, rejecting any singular genre as it combines R&B, alt-pop, rap, electro and rock.
A DIY singer-songwriter who kicked down the music industry's steel door (she got her start sharing song covers on YouTube and SoundCloud before signing with Epic Records and touring with FINNEAS), Sanderson knows what it feels like to be an outsider. Midwest Kids… shares those stories—of feeling lost, of feeling vulnerable, of escaping to hotel rooms and gas stations and highways late at night.
For Sanderson, however, the story wasn't quite finished when the record released back in January. And so, on August 21, she released a deluxe version featuring seven new tracks. Created during the COVID-19 quarantine, Midwest Kids… Deluxe treads the complex tangle of feelings brought forth by self-isolation and anxiety, as well as the unique challenges of 2020. (Standout track "I Need Help" captures the all-too-relatable desperation and lonesome disconnect so many have grappled with this year.)
But Sanderson's message is also one of hope: The deluxe version's heart-baring lead single "Frustrated," which was written about Sanderson's girlfriend, actress and singer Bryana Salaz, proves there is much beauty to be found even in the darkest depths. More importantly, it signals that we are all worthy and deserving of love.
Below, Lauren Sanderson opens up to PopCrush about Midwest Kids Can Make It Big (Deluxe), the romantic story behind "Frustrated" and why growing up in the Midwest was so bittersweet.
Falling in love is beautiful but can come with a lot of anxiety and insecurity, something you explore on your new single, "Frustrated." How long did it take for you to realize you deserve to be loved in a way that fulfills you and makes you feel good? And when did you have that ah-ha! moment?
I’ve always believed deep down [that] I deserved to be loved. We all deserve that, but it took me a long time to grow up and face my own internal emotional and mental issues and trauma, to be ready to receive and also reciprocate love in a healthy way. I've always loved the thrill of love but my "ah-ha" moment was realizing if you actually want something real and long-lasting, [you have to] stop chasing that unpredictable roller coaster and start manifesting someone/somewhere you will feel safe. That’s the real dream—and I finally found it.
You said on Twitter that the song is the first track you wrote about your current girlfriend. How did she react when she first heard it? How did it feel letting her hear it for the first time?
Oh man, I was nervous as hell to show her, honestly. My cheeks were all red and sh–. I texted her as soon as I started thinking of the lyrics, just like, "I think I’m about to write a fire song about you right now,” but I wouldn’t let her hear it ‘til we were in person. I picked her up after the studio and we drove around listening to it. We had an emotional little moment, not gonna lie. It was cute.
How did growing up in the Midwest impact the core themes of your album?
Growing up in a small city with a lot of close-minded, judgmental people inspired me to break every f—ing box they thought they could keep me in, and inspire others to do the same. I realized very young that societal rules are bullsh– and people should just be themselves. So, that’s the core in pretty much every song I make. I feel like if I would've grown up in a big city, I wouldn't be as driven to inspire people to be themselves. It’s a lot easier in LA to dye your hair green and get tattoos than it is in Indiana.
What makes growing up in the Midwest so special?
There’s something about being in that Midwest bubble that feels very real. People say thank you more, they pay attention to details more. Respect and manners and all that sh– is really important there. Every time I go back home I want to ride my bike through the woods in a sports bra and Nike shorts, then I get back to LA and feel like I have to be "on" again.
On the other side of the coin: What sort of challenges would you say Midwestern artists face compared to coastal or “big city” musicians?
Having "out there" dreams and being your unique bold self can feel really looked down upon there. I remember when I got a septum piercing in high school, my teacher told me she couldn't look at me anymore. When I came out as gay and cut all my hair off, a lot of people on social media made fun of me, hard.
Like I said, people can be really small-minded there and they don't want you to be different. Their idea of creativity and artistry is that it should be a hobby and you should do something more "practical" with your career. As long as you can stay focused as f— on your dreams and self belief—like tunnel vision—you will drown that noise out and overcome it. It’s hard but it’s possible.
You spent quite a few years doing everything from the ground up—from managing yourself to booking your own tours. Now that you have a team giving you support, do you feel like a weight was lifted?
As much as I let my team handle the business aspects, I’m still very DIY and in the trenches of it all. I still make all my merch designs, tour graphics, video teasers and music cover art. I'm obsessed with it and I don't think I'll ever let go entirely. On the flip side, there’s so many things that my manager, Grace, handles behind the scenes that gives me a lot more freedom to stay in my element. It's dope being in the middle of it.
How was your experience touring with FINNEAS? Did you two share any songwriting insights or tour tips with each other?
Touring with FINNEAS was f—in’ awesome. We didn't really talk that much cause we were both in our own worlds but he was really nice. I actually saw him the other day. He was at a food truck and I was walking my dog so we got to say hi. It was a nice quarantine moment.
You unfortunately (though understandably) had to delay your own debut headlining tour due to COVID. How did you cope with that disappointment?
Sometimes you just have to realize the universe has your back even when things don't go the way you want it. I like to constantly ask myself, "What lesson is this teaching me?" and I think the lesson with the tour getting canceled was a reminder to slow down and don't take anything for granted, ‘cause it can be taken from you in the blink of an eye. I’m really grateful for the time I’ve spent in quarantine. I feel like I’m really getting to know myself on a deeper level and finding the beauty in stillness.
You just released a deluxe version of your debut album. Were there certain experiences over the past few months, since your album release, that you felt continued the story of the record, that you needed to get off your chest?
The new songs are the perfect finishing touch to the Midwest Kids… era, though this era will live forever. There's a song called "17" that I want to be someone's song they can go to when they have anxiety and they need strength to get through it. "I Need Help" is a very honest song, and is a self-reflective song that definitely came out of quarantine feelings. We've all been spending a lot of time alone and I think this song will hit a lot of people. And the others are just bops on bops. I feel proud as hell of the whole album and am so grateful that this time in my life will forever be imprinted in my music.
Your Twitter bio reads "motivate yourself or be miserable." Considering how many people are finding it difficult to find motivation amid the dumpster fire that is 2020, what is the best advice you could give someone who might be feeling unmotivated?
Be patient with yourself, but also realize what you're capable of and stop getting in your own way. It’s cliché, but we have one life. Don't get old and realize how much you could've done and ultimately, should've done. Listen to podcasts—Tony Robbins and Gary Vaynerchuk are fire. Set goals. Believe in yourself and your dreams. Find your "why,” write more, go outside, walk, run, do jumping jacks. Find ways to feel lighter in this heavy time. We're all in the same boat right now, so please know you're not alone. We got this.