As she works on her sophomore album, the "Criminal" singer feels she's "entering into this new chapter of my life" and she's ready to embrace her vulnerability

By Nancy Kruh
February 26, 2019 10:00 AM
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Lindsay Ell is wrestling with the word “nice.” In Nashville music circles, it’s a word that’s often used to describe her.

“I’m Canadian, for heaven’s sake,” the Calgary, Alberta, native tells PEOPLE. “We’re always friendly.”

But Ell also feels the double edge of the word that’s meant as a compliment. When people think of her, she says, she wouldn’t mind if other adjectives also come to mind. Words like “strong” and “fearless.”

Lindsay Ell 1
Lindsay Ell
| Credit: Nancy Kruh

Ell has certainly been doing her part to earn those descriptors as one of the hardest working women in country music. Last year she performed 235 times (that would be an average of once every 36 hours), including spots on Keith Urban’s and Sugarland’s tours; notched her first top 20 hit with “Criminal”; released The Continuum Project, an outside-the-box remake of John Mayer’s Continuum album; and torched the CMA Awards stage with her guitar virtuosity.

Doors are continuing to open for an artist who appears to be on the cusp of a major career advance. Her newly released duet with Brantley Gilbert, “What Happens in a Small Town,” has made a quick splash on the charts. She was the only woman in the 2019 class of the prestigious “New Faces,” a group of five artists selected by country radio broadcasters to perform at their recent convention. She’s just been nominated for new female artist of the year, to be awarded at April’s ACM Awards. And she’s in the midst of readying a followup to 2017 debut album The Project that she hopes says more about her being fearless than, well … nice.

52nd Annual CMA Awards, Arrivals, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018
Credit: AFF-USA/Shutterstock

Of course, she admits, leaving that impression is also “completely scary and terrifying.”

A contradiction? Not for Ell, who has discovered in her soon-to-be 30 years that fearlessness isn’t the absence of fear. It’s just not letting fear stop her.

“As I’m turning 30 [on March 20] and entering into this new chapter of my life,” she says, “I feel more myself than I ever have. I’m more confident than I ever have been. I know who I am. And going into the studio to record my second album, I think it’s a really cool time for me to be turning 30 because I have a lot to say, and I’m not as scared to say it as I was even two years ago.”

Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell

Songwriting now, she says, is all about pushing herself to be vulnerable, and that means reflecting lyrically on difficult subjects, including her 2017 breakup with radio personality Bobby Bones.

“When you go through things like a public relationship, it just gets tricky,” she says. “How honest do you want to be? What can you really say? When you look at Taylor Swift, she doesn’t care, and I love that. I love that she just writes what she writes from the heart. And I find that so empowering as a female songwriter and as an artist — to be able to just be like, ‘This is me.’”

Who she is right now, Ell admits, is pretty much all business. When asked what she does for fun, the famously fit artist answers, “Does working out count?” Uh, no.

Ell says she’d like to find “a little bit of balance” this year, and right now that means “working a lot on my friendships.” She’s among a tight-knit circle that includes Maren Morris, Cassadee Pope, Lauren Alaina and RaeLynn. Though all are scrapping in a male-dominated genre, they’ve kept competitiveness out of their country sisterhood.

“It’s fun to be able to have a group of good friends where we want each other to win,” Ell says. “We’re high-fiving each other to the top as we’re both achieving goals and experiencing heartbreaks. It’s really neat to be able to have friends who go through the same things you go through … If we were all doing different careers, I would still be friends with them, which is a cool thing to be able to say. They’re truly, genuinely great human beings.”

Any more of a personal life, aside from friendships, is “nonexistent,” Ell concedes.

“I don’t know how you meet somebody in this town, especially when you’re gone all the time,” she says. “Then it’s also finding somebody who’s cool with me being gone for the next two weeks … ‘Love you, bye!’ But I’m also a firm believer that the right things happen in the right time, and eventually something will happen in that department.”

Any future beau who requires a character reference need look no further than Bones. Since their breakup, Ell has remained friends with the notoriously commitment-averse DJ.

“We were friends before we started dating,” she says, “and thankfully, our friendship was still there afterward. We were like, we’re not going to throw this out the window just because everything happened. And so we’re still great friends, and I want him to win and he wants me to win.”

Bobby Bones And The Raging Idiots 4th Annual Million Dollar Show
Lindsay Ell
| Credit: Jason Kempin/Getty

What can you say? Lindsay Ell is nice.