By the time Demi Lovato finished touring in support of her fifth studio album, 2015's Confident, she was sick of singing straight-up pop. Career-wise, she was otherwise at an all-time high. The album, and its massive singles "Confident" and "Cool for the Summer," snagged Lovato her first Grammy nomination, for Best Pop Vocal Album. Still, something was missing. "When I went on tour and I sang all pop stuff," the 25-year-old says. "It just wasn't fun for me. It wasn't soulful; I wasn't getting into the songs. It was just kind of going through the motions. And when I came off tour, I was like, 'You know what, I want to write music that's going to be fun for me to sing every night.'"
Lovato is perched, drinking tea, on a couch in a nouveau-baroque salon in a Manhattan hotel. Three crystal chandeliers hang above us. Her hair is pulled into a sleek high ponytail. She wears a black-and-white plaid jumpsuit over a black crop top; an oversized black blazer—belonging to her bodyguard, who looks on from across the room—is draped over her shoulders. Her legs are uncrossed, and her bare feet are on the floor next to a pair of caution-tape yellow Jimmy Choo stilettos that she's kicked off. She folds her hands in front of her and leans forward. "So, as great as my last album turned out—I'm really proud of it and I love all the songs on it," she quickly adds, "It just wasn't, I feel like, who I am today and the artist I want to be."
In 2017, two of the other biggest pop stars in the world, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, returned with new albums, each making a case for The Artist They Want To Be—and why that artist is still relevant. With Witness, Perry made a somewhat perplexing play to rebrand herself as a politically conscious—or, woke—pop star; Swift's EDM- and hip-hop-tinged singles from her upcoming Reputation feel like an attempt to transform her into pop's golden-girl-gone-bad. In contrast, on Tell Me You Love Me (September 29, Safehouse/Island Records), Demi Lovato's aim has little to do with her image—instead, she's out to prove she's one of the fiercest vocalists of her generation.
The album's lead single and opening track, "Sorry Not Sorry," sets the tone. On the R&B-infused banger, Lovato graduates from confidence to straight-up bravado, beginning: "Now I'm out here looking like revenge / Feeling like a ten / The best I ever been / And yeah, I know / How bad it must hurt to see me like this / But it gets worse." With lines this direct, an artist needs to really deliver to pass them off as true. But when the chorus kicks in (especially the hook: "Baby, I'm sorry / I'm not sorry") Lovato unleashes a vibrato so powerful that you might just believe anything she says. (Her live performance of the song at the 2017 VMAs is perhaps even more electrifying.)
Lovato herself always thought "Sorry Not Sorry" was the clear choice for Tell Me You Love Me's lead single—that it best represented her current sound, her current self. But at first, her inner circle didn't agree. "People around me were saying 'Tell Me You Love Me' is a great first single because it's emotional—it's vulnerable," the singer says. "And I kept waiting for someone to say 'Sorry Not Sorry,' so I could be like"—she smirks—"Yeah."
What changed their tune? Lovato's insistence, yes, but coupled with an endorsement from a certain mega-mogul. "I played Jay-Z both songs," she says, "And he said 'Sorry Not Sorry' because it was lighthearted. He was like, 'A lot of people see you do the emotional thing all the time, but they don't see you have fun!' And I was like, 'That's such a good point.' And [his opinion] kind of persuaded other people, too."
There are several places on Tell Me You Love Me where Lovato sounds like she's having the time of her life—and these points have a through-line: Istanbul-born producer Warren "Oak" Felder, who's also worked with Kelly Clarkson, Kehlani, and Khalid. "[Felder] was somebody that I really connected with and that I really clicked with," Lovato says. "He really understood my sound." She's right. Just as Taylor Swift found her collaborative soul mate in Swedish super-producer Max Martin, it looks like Lovato found hers in Felder. The two teamed up on five songs—"Sorry Not Sorry," "Sexy Dirty Love," "Daddy Issues, " "Only Forever," and "Games"—and overall, they are the album's strongest.
Each is a piece of sexy, soulful pop; Lovato sounds fiery and untethered. On "Sexy Dirty Love," a danceable come-on that channels the history of disco and funk, she isn't shy about what she wants from a late-night text exchange. "Lord knows I am sinning, please forgive me for my lust," she croons in the first verse, "Sending pictures back and forth / Babe, I'm craving your touch." On "Daddy Issues"—one of the album's only nods to EDM, marked with videogame blips—Lovato warns a potential lover of her romantic foibles.
There's certainly that other side of Lovato on Tell Me You Love Me: the one who can carry an introspective, downtempo track with both emotionality and ease. And, this time around, she did have a wealth of new material: In 2016, the singer split from her boyfriend of nearly six years, actor Wilmer Valderrama.
"I feel like I'm a totally different person [this album cycle]," she says. "I went through a couple breakups, and I now live on my own. I'm 25 and single. When I came out with Confident, I had been in a long-term relationship, and I wasn't as independent as I am today. And I wasn't as honest, I don't think … I was afraid to write songs about other people, because I didn't want anyone to get offended." She pauses. "When you're in a relationship, you don't want to write a song about somebody that you're not in a relationship with—you don't want to hurt that person's feelings."
Though Lovato shies away from specifics, she says two songs on Tell Me You Love Me—"Ruin the Friendship" and "Only Forever"—are about the same person who is not Valderrama. Each is a deliberation on making the jump from friends to more. (Her conclusion in both is yes, she wants to.) Looking at the lyrics, signs point to her longtime friend (and Safehouse Records co-founder) Nick Jonas. "Ruin the Friendship" opens with the sweetly flirtatious jab, "Put down your cigar and pick me up." Jonas is known to love cigars; there is even a Tumblr dedicated to pictures of him smoking them. Then again, we're just guessing here—and as Freud maybe said one time, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
"I was frustrated with a certain situation," Lovato says. "And I was like, 'You know what, I'm just going to write about it.' And so I did, and sent [the songs] to that person, and that was"—she pauses, choosing her words carefully—"Interesting. Any time you send a song about the person, to the person—it's ballsy. It's like, 'Hey! Here's my feelings for you!' … They knew [about my feelings], but neither of us had acknowledged [them] before. And then it turned out that person had written a song about me, and we exchanged songs." As for the reaction she got when she sent hers? "That person was like, 'That's an incredible song.' And I was like, "Yeah, well. It's like, 'Hel-lo!'" She lets the word hang in the air. "They had their reasons. But, yeah."
Lovato also takes a moment on Tell Me You Love Me to reflect on her changing relationship with herself. About the slow, sweeping single "You Don't Do It for Me Anymore," she says—deadpan and without breaking eye contact—that the song is a look back at her struggles with addiction. "I sang [it] with a lot of emotion because it reminded me of my relationship with my old self that I don't relate to anymore." She then rephrases, as if highlighting the line for my benefit, "My old ways just don't do it for me anymore."
Lovato has spent much of her career addressing her most difficult moments in interviews. At age 18, the singer—who first rose to prominence starring in the Disney film Camp Rock (with the Jonas brothers)—entered treatment after years of battling bulimia, self-harm, and drug and alcohol addiction. She was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. From there, she could have chosen one of two paths: be open about her struggles—or not. She chose the former. Now sober for more than five years, she's become an advocate for several causes from mental health awareness to equal rights for the LGBTQ community.
And so a certain authenticity and openness has become part of her brand—which, in our filtered age, seems impossible for nearly anyone, never mind a celebrity like Lovato, who has had, she tells me, a bodyguard since she was 15 years old. But these days, the singer seems tired of fielding questions about her personal life. This month, when she was photographed holding hands with a woman at Disneyland, a media firestorm cropped up around her sexuality. In response, she tweeted: "If you're that curious about my sexuality, watch my documentary. But I don't owe anybody anything."
What Lovato believes she does owe her fans is her voice. And in this way, on Tell Me You Love Me, she certainly delivers. But really, Lovato has always communicated best through what—and how—she sings. On the piano ballad "Skyscraper" (from her 2011 album Unbroken), a gripping dive into her lowest moments, she famously recorded two versions—one before entering treatment and one after—and opted to release the former because she felt it reflected her emotional state at the time. Demi Lovato in 2017 is no different—it's just that now, she's 25, on top of her vocal game, and ready to make a run at total pop domination.
After we finish talking, Lovato's makeup artist gives her a touch-up before we snap a series of photos. Brightly, she asks me to tell her if she has tealeaves in her teeth. (She doesn't.) She then slips into her Jimmy Choos, stands—despite being only five-foot-three sans heels, she has a commanding presence—then sits on a bench that looks almost like a throne, stares right at the camera, narrows her eyes slightly, and smiles.
Avery Stone is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.