Cher Lloyd feels old.
Never mind that the British songstress and The X Factor alumna is only 20 years old and just now releasing her sophomore album, Sorry I’m Late (out May 27 on Epic) — the “Want U Back” singer has a slightly unusual problem: her die-hard fans, the Brats, have given her a nickname she just can’t shake.
“The strangest thing is — I don’t understand this and never will — they keep calling me ‘mum,’” she tells TIME. “I have 14-year-old girls calling me mum!”
Ever since Simon Cowell somewhat affectionately called her a brat on the 2010 season of his U.K. singing competition, The X Factor (where she eventually placed fourth), Lloyd’s younger fans have reclaimed the name as a badge of pride — even though Lloyd admits she’s starting to outgrow it. “If they feel they’d like to continue naming themselves that as a group, as a core fanbase, that’s absolutely great," she says. "But I’ve moved on slightly.”
Moved on, indeed. Since Lloyd released her 2011 debut album, Stick & Stones, a lot has changed. She’s no longer a teenager. She married hairdresser boyfriend Craig Monk last fall. She’s tried to shed her girly, pre-fab pop star reputation. And she’s had plenty of time to figure out exactly what kind of music she wants to make, culminating in the deeply personal sound of Sorry I’m Late. The title of the record isn’t just a reference to the album’s many delays — it’s also an introduction of sorts.
“It’s me saying, ‘I’m sorry it took me so a long time to figure out what I wanted to do,’” Lloyd says. “And it has, it’s taken me ages — who I want to be working with, what songs I want to write, my image as well. Every young girl can relate to this. It takes a long time to get comfortable with yourself.”
Last fall, Lloyd told Larry King that she had left Simon Cowell’s record label, Syco Music, and no longer spoke to him following disputes over the direction of her career. Lloyd says that’s not exactly what happened: she’s still signed to Syco in the U.K., but was working closer with Epic, which put out her album in the U.S. and elsewhere internationally. “I was very young when I was on Syco and didn’t understand how to approach situations,” she says. “I’ve got to say, they did their absolute best. If anyone was to blame, and I hate to use that word, for me not being happy, it’s myself."
This time, Lloyd set out to make what would become Sorry I'm Late on her own terms. Instead of deferring to label employees about ideal producers and tracklist decisions, she stuck to her guns. Lloyd says she’d walk out of studios after 10 minutes if she wasn’t feeling what she heard. When she came across a beat for standout track “Dirty Love,” she ignored skeptics who thought the song’s U.K. bass sound was “too hard” for listeners who knew her mostly as a pop star. “I said, ‘This is how it’s going to be, like it or lump it,’” Lloyd says. “I want my fans to know that what I’m giving them has not been forced. I’m not being swapped out and changed by men in suits.”
If she got tough in the boardroom, it hardly shows on the record. Lloyd says the main priority for Sorry I'm Late was exploring her more vulnerable side, which meant toning down the playful rapping she notably experimented with while covering songs like Jay Z's "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" on The X Factor. “I don’t think it’s ever felt 100 percent right for me, so therefore I’m just not going to do it,” she says.
It also meant performing more ballad-like material, which she only dabbled in on Stick & Stones. Second single “Sirens,” whose video debuted today, is a good taste of what's to come — and Lloyd had to dig deep for the music video, as evidenced by the behind-the-scenes footage seen above. But she says fans will be most surprised by “Goodnight,” an acoustic track she wrote about her father that nearly brought him to tears the first time she played it for him.
“I’ve always been very private, and I never wanted to let anyone know anything about me, because being on a TV show, you feel very exposed,” Lloyd says. “Now that I’ve moved away from that, I’ve finally let this big barrier down. I’m okay with fans knowing certain things about me. It feels good.”