As Demi Lovato returns to the scene with Tell Me You Love Me — her sixth studio album, and her first full-length release since her 2016 split from her boyfriend of six years, actor Wilmer Valderrama — it’s understandable how fans might assume that the LP’s sassy lead single, “Sorry Not Sorry,” is about her big breakup. But while sitting with Yahoo Music at a private Spotify showcase for her diehard L.A. fans, Lovato reveals that lyrics like “payback is a bad bitch” and “now I’m out here looking like revenge, feelin’ like a 10” actually take aim at the school bullies who made her life hell when she was just 12 years old.
“That song easily could have been what everyone thinks it is, an ex-boyfriend or something like that — which it can be, for other people. But for me I was thinking about the bullies that bullied me in school, saying I have an awesome life today and I’m not sorry about it,” Lovato says with a grin.
More seriously, Lovato recalls, “There was actually a suicide petition that got passed around the school saying that they wanted me to kill myself. That was just one of the instances that was one of the reasons why I left public school and I started homeschooling. It was just mean girls — mean, mean, mean girls. They would say things to me online. They would post anonymously on my social media, and I knew exactly who they were because I checked their IP address. They would say the meanest things. It was all verbal harassment, nobody physically abused me — but I feel like the scars are still there. It was really awesome for me to be able to write ‘Sorry Not Sorry’ and get that out in that song and say, ‘You know what? I’m living a really great life today, and I’m not feeling bad about it.’”
Lovato also dug deep on the album’s title track, which she recorded around the time of both the Valderrama split and the death of her beloved grandmother. “I remember just being in the studio almost crying singing it,” Lovato recalls. “I dealt with a lot of deaths in the family earlier that year; [my grandmother] was the one that I was the closest to. I also was going through a breakup. With that song, I remember feeling like I just wanted to hear someone tell me that they love me. And we’ve all been there. We’ve all felt like we just want someone to say, ‘I love you.’ Feelings of … just emotions that you feel when you’re lonely.”
However, for the most part, Tell Me You Love Me — which Lovato says was inspired by Stripped-era Christina Aguilera and is “more mature, more soulful than any other album that I’ve put out, more authentic to who I am” — is an upbeat affair. (“It’s not a breakup album,” she clarifies.) She just celebrated her 25th birthday in August, and is clearly enjoying the 20-something single life: She’s even on the members-only dating app Raya now. “It’s so cool. I love that app!” she says, giggling.
“I wrote [on this album] about being a single 25-year-old woman. There’s a lot of emotions that I deal with. I get lonely. We all get lonely sometimes — but I feel empowered as a woman living on her own,” Lovato asserts. “I feel confident. And the dating game is fun, so there’s lots of songs about that too.”
Lovato finds dating “exciting,” saying, “You get to go on dates with people and go to dinner and see if you click with them — and if you don’t, then you don’t have to see them again!” Given her past outspokenness about her mental health struggles — a difficult relationship with her abusive late father, bipolar disorder, depression, bulimia, self-harm, addiction to drugs and alcohol — many of her prospective Raya suitors know about her troubled history, but she doesn’t mind.
“It’s not hard to for me date,” the six-years-sober Lovato says. “I feel like a lot of people still don’t know my story, so if they want to know, they can ask me about it. Sometimes if they do know, then I don’t have to talk about it, which is nice. I’m an open book, and if they already know my story and they still want to date me, that’s awesome.”
While many mainstream pop artists, like Katy Perry, Sia, Lady Gaga, Kesha, Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds, Kid Cudi, and Mary Lambert, have been similarly outspoken about their mental health struggles, Lovato was one of the first music stars to speak out on the topic — something she acknowledges and is proud of. “But I’m really happy that I’m not one of the last,” she adds. “I’m happy that this message will continue to spread and raise the awareness of mental health.”
As for why a stigma against mental illness still exists today, she theorizes, “It’s harder to see mental illness. The symptoms aren’t as tangible as, let’s say, a bleeding cut — but you’re bleeding inside. That’s what people don’t see, so it’s hard for some people to understand. I think when you look at it from a place of understanding the fact that you can’t see it and that someone’s struggle is very important, I think you’re able to understand a little bit better.
“I think it’s starting to change,” she says. “I want to continue to spread the awareness so that people will take away the stigma when talking about mental health. I get messages all the time, on Instagram and Twitter and fan letters, that say that I’ve helped them. They’ve struggled with mental illness as well, and they’ve been able to get the treatment they’ve needed because of me or I’ve inspired them to get help. It’s been very impactful. Sometimes people say that I’ve saved their lives, and that’s almost unfathomable. You can’t comprehend something as meaningful as that, but it means so much to me.”
Clearly few topics are off-limits for Lovato, so she also boldly continues to explore her sexuality on Tell Me You Love Me. However, unlike some former child stars who feel the need to release a “sexy” statement album to prove they’re all grown up, Lovato says she never experienced or internalized that pressure. “I just was at a different place in my life than what other people were in [when I was younger],” she explains. “I didn’t feel the need to take off my clothes, necessarily, although I have — I’ve definitely posed nude for Vanity Fair, and I wear skimpy clothes onstage. I’m 25 now, and it’s my body. I do what I want with it. When I was younger, I wanted my voice to speak for itself, and I feel like it did and it’s continuing to do that.”
Indeed it is. It may have taken a while, but the general public has finally gotten hip to the fact that — unlike some of Lovato’s Auto-Tune-dependent pop-princess peers — this lady can really sang. “I feel like I’m finally getting that recognition,” Lovato admits. “I think it started with the Grammys two years ago. Some of the songs I’ve released [since then] have been more soulful, so you get to hear my voice better. I think that my music reflects that. Before, I was making more pop songs that didn’t showcase my vocals as much. Now I’m able to make the music that I feel like is going to showcase my voice.”
And as for those junior-high bullies who are now witnessing, from afar, Lovato living her absolute best life? The singer says with a shrug, “I don’t hold grudges. Life’s too short. You never know where you’re going to be tomorrow, or where that person’s going to be tomorrow. So never hold a grudge.”
Tell Me You Love Me is out Sept. 29.