Nancy Kruh
December 01, 2017 03:45 PM

How could Danielle Bradbery possibly be afraid of anything? After all, she won The Voice with nerves of steel when she was just 16 years old.

But so what that she nailed perhaps TV’s most pressure-packed singing competition when most kids are sweating geometry finals? Bradbery, now 21, confesses there really is something else that has “terrified” her: writing her own songs.

In the past four years, though, she has found a way to conquer those fears – and the fruits of her effort can now be found on her long-awaited second album that debuts Friday.

Seven of the 10 cuts are Bradbery co-writes, but every track on the album exudes a brand-new sound and grown-up content that dims the view of that “blonde country girl off of The Voice,” as she describes her former self. Even before you listen to the album, you can sense the change from its title: I Don’t Believe We’ve Met.

Danielle Bradbery's I Don't Believe We've Met
Cameron Powell

Yes, the steel, fiddles and twang from her debut album are gone, the Texas native acknowledges, but in the process she has found her artistic identity. “I do have a different sound,” she tells PEOPLE, “and it does try to veer off into a little bit of R&B and pop. But that’s just what I love, and I wanted to sprinkle a little bit on this new album, and I know it’s pushing boundaries a little bit, but I’ve just had to tell myself: Do what you love and what you would want to sing and perform.”

Still, putting herself in a room with seasoned songwriters, she admits, took quite a bit of coaxing from her management and her label, Big Machine. Even as she became convinced it was an important step in her artistic journey, she says, she also had to battle “a really, really terrible shyness.”

“I just didn’t know how to speak up,” she recalls. “I mean, getting in a room with people I didn’t know terrified me. And then having to write a song! … So the first couple of writes were a lot to get used to, for sure.”

Bradbery obviously has always had an intensely private side – one that kept her from even singing in public until her mom signed her up to audition for The Voice. But her new lyrics offer a revealing look into a personal life that teems with emotions: joy, longing, hope, disappointment, crushing heartbreak and stubborn resolve.

This latter emotion is the focal point of “Worth It,” one of Bradbery’s favorites on the new album. She entered the writing session, she recalls, struggling with the trials of a relationship (“that guy is still in my life,” she reveals), but the feeling soon morphed into the urge to write an anthem about needing “to speak up for myself.”

“So we tweaked it a little bit to sound like a relationship, but it can really be about anything,” Bradbery says. Since she has been performing it, she adds, fathers of daughters have thanked her for the song’s empowering message. “That’s exactly what I want,” she says. “I want my music to reach out like that.”

Danielle Bradbery

Another Bradbery co-write, “What Are We Doing?” takes on the difficult unknowns of a relationship, but if its breezy beat contradicts the tensions in the lyrics, it may be because one of country’s happiest guys, Thomas Rhett, was also in the writing room.

“That was really awesome,” she recalls, adding that Thomas Rhett was the one who “had the amazing idea” for the song. “We just had fun with it, and he was so easygoing. His mind is constantly going, and it’s just like … wow, this is really awesome to see and experience. So it was really fun, for sure.”

Though Bradbery didn’t have a role in writing “Human Diary,” it’s another track that allows her to expose raw emotions. Songwriters Emily Weisband and Josh Kerr had the artist in tears when they shared a demo of it just before a recording session for another song.

“It was a situation where I was hearing the words and hearing the story, and I’m, like, that’s something that I am so afraid of happening right now with my relationship,” she recalls. “And so I felt it immediately and I go, ‘Okay, we’re not recording the other song today, if that’s okay with you all. I want to record this song today because I won’t record it like this any other day. I’m in the perfect emotional state right now.'”

Bradbery is now in the midst of album-release parties that span the coasts, so she is squarely focused on the present and future. But that doesn’t mean she’s running from her past. Grateful for what The Voice has given her, she says, she is now simply “moving on.”

Danielle Bradbery
Cameron Powell

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And despite getting her professional start at such a young age, she doesn’t doubt her choices – or the changes she’s made.

Yes, there have been moments in recent years, she says, when she has been “terrified” or when she has questioned herself, but that’s when she’s told herself “to sit down for a second and just regroup.”

“I just need to take a deep breath,” Bradbery says, “and be, like, okay, this is what you love to do, so stop questioning.”

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