The singer tells TIME about getting personal on her new album, finding her voice and FaceTiming with super-producer Max Martin
Selena Gomez is making some big changes. When her new album Revival, led by the thumping A$AP Rocky collaboration “Good For You,” arrives on Oct. 9, it will be her first full-length release outside of the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, where she first recorded as a teenager. Her mother is no longer her manager as of last year. Gomez has also stepped in the role of executive producer for the album, taking on unprecedented levels of creative control and wracking up more songwriting credits than ever. There aren’t that many 23-year-olds singing about getting a second act the way Gomez does on Revival, but not many 23-year-olds have watched their personal lives and relationships becoming tabloid fodder the way Gomez has.
“It’s not necessarily me being like, ‘Hey, I figured life out and I’m amazing!’” Gomez says of the record’s title. “It’s more like, I had so much scrutiny and had so much of my life exposed. I never intended my life to be that. I just wanted to be heard.”
TIME: This album shows off sides of your voice we haven’t really heard before: the raspier side, the lower side, the quieter side. It suits you. Tell me about finding your voice on this album—not just figuratively, but literally.
Selena Gomez: I had to really discover what was going to work for me because there were times in my career where I sang things that just weren’t me and weren’t for me. You can hear it in my voice. You can hear it when it’s inauthentic. This whole record is extremely intimate. I did executive produce it. I wanted to know that every single song meant the world to me, whether I wrote it or not. For me, I had to discover what was going to separate me. I know that I’m not the world’s greatest singer, but I do know that I have a unique tone. And I’m an actress—I love being able to translate everything I’m feeling inside through my voice and through the songs.
You do have some straightforward dance tracks on this album, like “Kill ‘Em With Kindness,” but most of what I’ve heard has actually shied away from the big, stomping club-bangers happening in pop right now. Why did you go in a slower, more mid-tempo direction?
I am a pop artist, but that was something I was so aware of. The track is important, but I needed the lyrics to be more important, and that was something I told every producer. I was talking about it to Rock Mafia, who helped create “Revival” and “Kill ‘Em With Kindness.” The messages were really important. “Good For You” wasn’t even supposed to be the first single, but I didn’t want the obvious, huge song. I wanted to set the tone. That’s what the next phase of my life and career is going to be. I was like, “How about we just put ‘Good For You’ out first?” We didn’t know it was going to do that well. We thought it was going to be well received, but it’s been insane to see how supportive people have been with the new direction.
Your personal life attracts a lot of tabloid attention. Is it liberating to open up as you did on “The Heart Wants What It Wants” or do you ever think about censoring yourself, knowing the scrutiny it’ll invite?
No, and it was such a relief for me. It would be so unrealistic for me to be in pain and then release a song where I’m like, “Life is awesome and this is great!” “The Heart Wants What It Wants,” and even the music video, was therapeutic. I felt free. I felt like a huge weight was lifted off of me. That’s basically what pushed me to create Revival. It was a feeling where I was like, “This is what great music is. It’s sharing your story.” I can’t care anymore that people are going to twist my words or talk about it. Everybody said every single thing they could say about me. I can’t let that affect me from making the music I want to make, even if it is personal.
You have more writing credits on this album than on your past records combined. What was the most challenging topic to write about?
I felt like I needed to do that. It’s hard because sometimes I’m like, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to suck.” Or, “Maybe I should just not. Maybe I shouldn’t say it like this.” There was a lot of questioning myself because it is the first time I was heavily involved. The hardest thing is figuring out how to say it, figuring out how to talk about things without it being so over the top. “Sober” is one of my favorite songs, but it’s not even about one specific person. “Sober” came from me and Chloe [Angelides], one of the writers, when we were sitting in a hall and talking about social awkwardness. I would hang out with people and they would drink and they’re so fun, then the next day it would be weird. I actually left that night and Chloe ended up writing “Sober.” There were moments like that, little gems. It wasn’t too difficult, it was just, “How am I going to say it elegantly and in a way that’s right for me?”
“Hands to Myself” is my favorite track that I’ve heard. Tell me about how that came together.
I’m so stoked about that song. It was the last song that I recorded on the record. “Good For You” was written by Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels. That was one of the first songs I’d ever recorded, which is crazy now that I’m thinking about it. I became super obsessed with Justin and Julia. I felt like we created magic. I felt like Julia was me and I was Julia. Right when “Good For You” came out and the success was happening, we were celebrating like, “We should just go in the studio for four more days.” They called my label, and [the label was] like, “We’re about to go to mixing.” I’m like, “I know, I know! Let me get four more days.”
We did three songs, and two of them made the record: “Hands To Myself” and “Me & the Rhythm.” When “Hands To Myself” started, we were just like, “What are girls not doing? I want to know what girls aren’t doing.” I feel like I tackled the love, I tackled the emotion and the heart and how I view the world, but what’s going to be super fresh? We had a cup, and Julia was banging the cup on to the desk. Then she had this Prince-y hook and was like, “What if we make it Prince-like?” I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I’m obsessed. Let’s do that.” Within 24 hours, that’s where “Hands To Myself” came from. It’s probably the best song on the album. A beautiful accident.
And [Swedish mega-producer] Max Martin worked on that song too, right?
Yes, he did. How it happened was we were in the studio working with a few producers that have worked with Max [Mattman & Robin, on Taylor Swift’s 1989]. That’s how we created the skeleton of the track in the studio. When we had the hook, they were like, “Do you mind if we send this to Max Martin?” I had never worked with Max before and was like, “I don’t know, maybe!” I just didn’t know what it was going to be. He ended up FaceTiming immediately and was like, “This is the greatest thing I’ve heard all year. I have to be a part of it.” I’m like, “Yeah! Do what you’ve got to do! What do you suggest?” He came up with the very end where it goes se-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-elf and added that little hook. He also changed some of the pre-chorus. I think it is super fresh and different for him, too.
Working with Max Martin is kind of a rite of passage for most pop stars. Why were you hesitant about working with him?
I’ve never really known him! The whole record, I’ve became family with all of my producers and Justin and Julia. It had nothing to do with me being like, “Oh my goodness, I’m too good for Max.” It was like, “I don’t know, I don’t want him to change it!” He ended up making it, obviously, a smash. I don’t even think I was questioning his ability, I was more nervous to see what it was going to be like. Once we talked, he sent all these voice memos and now we have a relationship. It’s going to grow from there.
Did you know Justin from when he was in Semi Precious Weapons?
I did not know he was in the band. Then when we went to Mexico together [to write], he was showing me all the music videos and I was like, “Oh. My. God. You are fabulous!” He’s incredible. He exudes that confidence, that energy that I really think I needed.
What song on the record do you think will surprise people the most?
I think “Hands To Myself” is going to be great. I hope that “Kill ‘Em With Kindness” has a great effect because I love the meaning of that song so much. I want them to be surprised about it all. Everyone was surprised about “Good For You,” and now we’re moving forward. Even if they’re not fans of mine, I just like being able to surprise people, fire people up and get them excited.
Charli XCX co-wrote your new single “Same Old Love.” Did you get to log any studio time with her?
No, I actually didn’t. She did some of it, I want to say, with [Norwegian producers] Stargate. When Stargate came and we started some of our songs—”Sober” and a few other things—Charli’s manager was in the studio the whole time. I sent her the nicest message. She’s super cool and funky, but we weren’t physically in person together.
What was on your bucket list for this album that you couldn’t do before?
I wanted it to feel very personal. I love albums, I really do. I know they don’t sell or whatever, but Christina Aguilera’s Stripped got me through so much of my life and told such a story. That whole album was her Revival. Now, I’m in the place of my life where I released an album at 16—nobody’s going to relate [to that]. They’re going to be like, “Great, what are you singing about?” Because of how much my life was exposed, I almost had to utilize that for this record. People can’t say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You haven’t been through this.” It’s like, you’ve all grown up with me at this point!
This record is me feeling like I can breathe. I just don’t care anymore. Working with Disney, I had a certain amount of my respect for my image. And I do still—everything I want to do has such a quality to it. I just don’t care about the noise anymore. It drives me crazy. It made me depressed, it made me not want to get out of my house and it made me not want to talk to people and trust people. That’s not how I want to live my life. I had to do a lot of work on myself to say, “If I lost all this tomorrow, I’d be fine. I could open up a coffee shop and do a play every other month.” I need my life to not be dictated by these people that I don’t even know. That, believe it or not, was at the top of my list. It’s how I needed to tell my story in order for my music to outshine all the bullsh-t.
“This is my most personal album yet” is a pretty standard line for pop stars, but it sounds like you really mean it and can actually back it up—just look at your album cover.
That’s honestly true! I get it. I feel like, “Man, I shouldn’t say it that way.” I’m sure a lot of people do say that. I’ve probably said that before because up until this point, I did try my hardest to pour myself into everything that I was doing. I just don’t even think I knew how. The moment somebody buys the album—the first track is “Revival” and the second is “Kill ‘Em With Kindness”—it already tells you where I am in my life, how I view things, what I believe in.
Ultimately people—I’m referring to the media, and then I’ll be done talking about them because it frustrates me—just want me to be this evil person that I’m not. It’s the whole “build you up and knock you down” thing. I’m not any of those things. I work hard, and anyone that you ever talk to that’s worked with me knows I’m professional, kind and that I care about people. I’ve been frustrated and pissed off before, but my mom has always taught me, every single time, turn my cheek the other way. It is always the best feeling waking up the next day going, “They gave me their worst, I gave them my best, and that’s all I can do.”
You’re also an advisor for Gwen Stefani’s team on this season of The Voice. How much did you freak out when you got that job?
Are you kidding me? First off, Gwen is like a porcelain doll. She is beautiful. Being able to sit next to her, I was in awe, to be honest. She actually picked me to be the advisor with her and of course I said yes. Plus, I really love what The Voice stands for. They actually told me I’m never allowed to call the people who are on the show “contestants.” We have to call them artists because they are artists in their own rights. I love that because no matter what, even though it is technically somebody winning, it’s about uplifting them and not changing them. I learned a lot from Gwen, just from the way she was talking and the way she was expressing the emotion behind the song that she picked. I never would have dissected it or looked at it that way. To me, that was the greatest thing. I felt like I was learning. I felt like I was an artist on the show.
You worked with some of the same producers she’s been working with. Have you heard any of her new album?
Yeah, she played me two songs because she’s working with Justin right now, and we kind of bonded over that. I’m like, “I’m obsessed with him,” and she’s like, “I’m obsessed with him.” She looks like she’s in the best place, too, because the way she was even playing the music, that’s how I would be playing the music. I’m so excited for people to hear it. I was really stoked for her because she wanted to do something that wasn’t necessarily all the way left field, she just wanted something really fresh, really different and hooky and cool. I’m like, “Well, you’re cool as hell regardless.”