Last year, Lauren Jauregui had to rediscover her love of music.
As a member of the US girl group Fifth Harmony, she’d sold millions of records and scored global hits with the slinky R&B of Worth It and Work From Home.
But the band were burned out, forced into a punishing work schedule and recording songs they didn’t believe in.
“It’s overwhelming to have your whole, entire life planned for something you don’t feel passionate about,” Jauregui told the LA Times in 2017.
“You’re not seeing your family, your friends. You’re not doing anything for yourself. It was depressing, draining and sad.”
Camila Cabello was the first to quit, allegedly on bad terms. The rest of the band struggled through one last album before announcing an “indefinite hiatus” last March.
All five members have since released solo material, with Jauregui’s fierce-yet-vulnerable Expectations among the best of the bunch; showcasing the 22-year-old’s husky voice against a simple guitar riff.
But she only managed to record it after a confusing and painful period in the musical wilderness.
“The industry clouds your soul,” Jauregui tells the BBC. “They make you feel like you have to be a certain way to be accepted, and I got lost in that.
“I had been pushed a psyche [mindset] of what successful music sounded like – so I had this backwards concept of what I thought was good for me, commercially.”
The situation became so bad that the musician stopped writing, and even listening to, music.
“Then, as soon as the group dissolved and we started to go our separate ways, it cleared a lot of blockages from my heart,” she says.
“I started getting back into music that I actually liked.”
She delved into the albums that inspired her as a teenager – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, Songs In A Minor by Alicia Keys – and began to figure out her own sound.
“Last year was super-challenging in the sense of ripping away all the things that weren’t me any more and allowing myself to come through that.
“I was like, ‘Do you know what? I have to pull back. I like more organic sounding things, I like live instruments, I like writing lyrics that come straight from the heart.'”
One of the first songs she wrote in that frame of mind was Expectations, which quickly established itself as the perfect debut single.
“I went on tour with Halsey – and that was one of the songs I had in my setlist. When I sang it for the first time in Sao Paolo, it was completely unreleased [but] by the end of the song they were singing the words back to me.
“English isn’t their first language in Brazil, so I was floored by the response. That’s why I chose it.”
Jauregui started 2019 by following Expectations up with More Than That – a sassy, assertive takedown of a wannabe lover.
“You gon’ have to come stronger than this liquor/ Wanna take me home, better be more convincing / It’ll take more than that to get to me,” she sings over a slick trap beat.
Hammering home her messages of feminine power and self-worth, Jauregui recreates Botticelli’s iconic 15th Century painting The Birth of Venus in the artwork.
The video, meanwhile, sees her playing Aphrodite, who comes to earth and visits a strip club (stick with us here) in a celebration of womanhood.
“It’s about taking that kind of rap video imagery and empowering the women who do this work,” she explains.
“They’re stripping, but each woman’s spirit is captured in a way that’s revering her strength and her sensuality.”
Having dreamt up the video concept and cast the models, Jauregui found herself in awe of their athleticism.
“It was amazing. The number of hours they were doing these tricks and twirling and carving the pole. You’d think they’d be all oiled up – but they have to be completely dry, with chalk on their hands, so they can do their work.
“I was grateful we could capture that and really highlight them. They’re the centrepiece of the video for me.”
And did she pick up any tips?
“Any tips?!” she laughs heartily. “Well, yeah, just by watching them. The way they used their bodies is so mesmerising.”
Fighting ‘hate rhetoric’
Jauregui, who was born in Miami to Cuban parents, came out as bisexual in a powerful column for Billboard magazine in 2016, which she wrote as an angry response to Donald Trump’s election victory.
“If I could tell every Trump supporter two things, it would be to travel and read a history book,” she wrote. “Realise that your white skin is the result of immigration from Europe, that the only true ‘Americans’ are Native Americans. None of us belong here but all of us deserve the right to feel safe and live our lives in peace.”
Two years into Trump’s presidency, she’s still exasperated (“every day something ignorant comes out of his mouth”) but determined to turn her anger into something more positive.
“We’re all becoming aware of how atrocious the hate rhetorics are, and how destructive they are to humanity but instead of just trashing what’s going on – which I did for a while – I’ve shifted my focus into a more productive energy, of how can I convince people to get together and uplift each other.”
Outside of her music, she’s leveraged her 10 million social media followers to campaign for gun reform and LGBT rights; and partnered with Amnesty International’s Write For Rights campaign, encouraging people to contact government officials in support of female human rights activists who find themselves in danger.
Was she warned against making political statements when she was in Fifth Harmony?
“Of course people advised me against it,” she says.
“When you’re working in any industry that has to do with making people like you, they’re going to advise you against saying things that would turn anyone off.
“But I just happen to have a very powerful voice. I articulate myself well when I write and when I speak, so if God gave me that power, I have to use it.”
Her beliefs have permeated her music – most notably on Strangers, a tumultuous LGBT duet from Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom album – but Jauregui says her debut album will be more personal than political.
“That’s just who I am. I’m a deeply emotional thinker, so a lot of my music is reflective of coming of age and finding yourself and clearing out the clutter in your heart.
“But I think that’s ok. I want to be someone who is about love and acceptance, no matter where you come from, no matter how you look, no matter what your story is.
“I want you to feel loved and heard and seen, through my music and through my energy.”