Julianne Hough, heretofore best known as a Dancing With the Stars stalwart, has embarked on a country music career. Released on May 20, her self-titled CD will debut at No. 1 this week on Billboard‘s country albums chart. This summer, she’ll add to her country credentials by opening shows on Brad Paisley’s tour that also features Jewel and Chuck Wicks.
During a recent visit to CMT’s Nashville offices to tape a session of Unplugged at Studio 330, the Utah native took time for an interview. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
CMT: What first attracted you to country music?
Hough: I grew up listening to country music. I had a family band when I was about 3 years old all the way up until I was about 8, and we sang country music. The fans, the music, the artists — they are all so real. It’s so attractive to me. I just always loved it and always wanted to sing country music. I lived in London [attending a performing arts school] for five years, and I think I was probably one of very few people still listening to country music over there. I’d have my mom send me CDs.
What was your experience of attending the performing arts school as a child?
I went there to pursue the dancing. I had been winning all of these competitions, but I also had to go to school, so I went to a performing arts school there. I was acting and singing and dancing all styles of dance and all styles of music to opera and musicals. You name it, we did it. So we really had a great training system going on there for a 10-year-old. What was so great about that school was that everyone was trying to do the same thing and really accepting of each other’s talents and rooting each other on. It was great. I had such a blast there. … I love to act and sing and dance, and so I was, like, what do I love the most? It ended up being I love the singing the most.
What led to your move from London to Los Angeles?
When I was living in London, I was there for five years, and I decided I need to move back because my true passion is to sing. So I moved back. I was only 15, so I had to go back to my parents’ house and graduate high school. I decided, well, I can go to Nashville straight away and be like every other talented artist in the pack and try to make it, or I can go to L.A. and use my dancing skills and connections that I’ve had over the years and meet people that way. It worked out that I could go on tour with the Dancing With the Stars live tour. I was just a background company dancer. Nobody knew who I was. A couple of weeks into it, one of the highlighted dancers got injured, and I took her spot. My music manager that I have today saw me on the tour and he was, like, “Who is that girl? She is kind of standing out to me. I wonder if she sings.” So he came back with Irving Azoff. … So I went and sang for him in a back room of one of the venues, and he was like, “OK. Let’s do this.” About three weeks later, [producers for] the television show, Dancing With the Stars, saw me on the tour as well and asked me to be on the show. So, I’ve got the music. I have some kind of connection where I can get started. So I did the show [Dancing] and did not expect to do as well as I did, and it all kind of played out from there. We were still continuing on with the music and here I am.
I know you have more or less studied Reba McEntire’s performances. What did you learn?
Watching Reba perform or sing a song — or even just listening to her records — you can feel the emotion come through the song and the character. You, as a fan, are able to relate and connect to her so well. That is the beauty of music. And, really, getting a fan base is the fact that they can relate, they can connect, and that is so Reba. Just to be in the presence of her is just amazing. … When I was doing this album, I wanted to use that a little bit. I wanted to make it real and organic and have the imperfections and the character come through.
Have you talked to Reba about how to do all this?
I’ve never met Reba before! I saw her at the CMT Music Awards. She walked past, and I was like a star-struck little girl. I just watched her as she walked past. I would love to meet her, and any advice she could give me would be amazing.
Do you think you’re able to apply the acting techniques you’ve learned to songs that were written by other people?
Absolutely. I know a lot of songs where people haven’t personally written it or experienced that. You can still look at actors and people that are playing a role that definitely is not who they are, but they can make you feel like that is who they are. So it’s the same with singing and the songs that you sing. To get the point across, you have to be able to act and have chemistry with the words and bringing your character across.
What will you be five years from now and 10 years from now?
Oh, my goodness! Well, I always set goals for myself. I think when I was 8 years old, I even set the goal that I would be a singer by the time I was 19 — which is crazy. But I have a lot of ambitions and dreams. As for the next five years, I want to be able to go on tour and accomplish another album and, maybe in the next 10 years, be able to branch out and open up a performing arts school and be able to dabble my feet in a little bit of acting. That’s a passion of mine, as well. I kind of take one day at a time. Sometimes if I think about too many things, I get ahead of myself. I always believe in myself, no matter what. I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned over the years — and I know I’m only 19, but I have had a lot of experiences — is that you can’t really do anything and give your whole heart and soul to it unless you love yourself and really be able to just feel confident in your own skin. No matter what you do, you’re doing it for yourself, and of course for the fans and everything, but obviously if you don’t love what you’re doing, it won’t be real. So that’s kind of the biggest thing I’ve learned. I’ll just continue with the music and go on tour and write and do duets and just experience this whole exciting moment going on right now.