Lindsay Ell Faces Down Her Fears in New Album: 'I Have Been the Most Vulnerable I've Ever Been'

On heart theory, the singer-songwriter tackles the impact of a lifetime of traumas to her heart, including her experience as a rape survivor

It's been a long journey for Lindsay Ell to reach her sophomore album — already being hailed as a "masterpiece" — but to get there, she first had her own hard and painful work to do on herself.

Through it, Ell came to several life-changing realizations, even though they should defy any logic: To be strong, she had to embrace her vulnerability. To be fearless, she had to embrace her fears. And to be whole, she had to embrace her brokenness.

She's poured all of this wisdom into heart theory, 12 tracks that ultimately are her testimony to "being able to look in the mirror and accept yourself for everything that you are," Ell, 31, tells PEOPLE, "and to know that everything has brought you to this moment, and it's made you into the messy little puzzle pieces that you are. And yet you really wouldn't want to change a thing because that's what molds you."

The 11th track, "make you," is the one that's generated recent headlines. Released last month, it's her "coming out" as a survivor of two rapes, at age 13 and age 21, that crippled her spirit for years. But the entire album, her first in three years and due out on Friday, is a contemplation of the impact that all sorts of heartbreaks have had on Ell's life.

She says she didn't set out to make a concept album, but "about halfway through writing it, I realized I'm writing these songs in the order of what I'm feeling right now and what I'm going through."

Lindsay Ell
Lindsay Ell's Heart Theory. Robby Klein

A self-described "huge nerd about personal-development books," she's organized the 12 songs, 11 of which she co-wrote, around classic stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and acceptance.

If all that sounds like it's one big downer of an album, remember that Ell knows something about defying logic. From the first mellow grooves of lead-off track "Hits Me" to the final joyful notes of album-ender "ReadY to love," Ell draws you in with the depth and authenticity of her lyrics, but she'll make you stay with her irresistibly buoyant music.

Maybe that's the sound of Ell winning the battle against her fears — chief among them, simply the fear of being vulnerable.

"I feel like I have been the most vulnerable I've ever been as a songwriter," she says.

Lindsay Ell
Lindsay Ell. Jeremy Cowart

The bulk of the album actually deals with Ell's history of failed romances, including her most public one with broadcast personality Bobby Bones, which ended in 2017. Ell says that split, her last romantic connection, was what initially pushed her into "this deep dive into myself." But she also wants to make clear this is not a Bobby Bones breakup album, and that the two remain good friends.

"This record is more about heartbreak in general because when you go through a breakup, it causes you to look back on all the past relationships and notice patterns," she says. "It's been more of an inner look of like, okay, Lindsay, what are you doing time and time again? And what is good? What is bad? How do you show up right? How do you not show up right?"

The emotional "make you" — a solemn departure from the album's overall sparkle — was a late addition to the mix. But its inclusion provides listeners with important insight into Ell's journey, as well as a long-missing piece to her story.

Lindsay Ell
Lindsay Ell. Jeremy Cowart

Ell had never spoken publicly about her sexual trauma until three years ago when she helped launch a music program at a Virginia nonprofit that supports young victims of sexual abuse. She says she walked into the session with no intention of opening up, but as the participants told their stories, she felt compelled to share hers.

"I'm like, if a 12-year-old is showing so much bravery," she recalls, "then it's time for me to step up to the plate."

As she expected, the experience was "scary," but it also was "so validating," she says. "When we meet ourselves in those places of fear and shame and blame and guilt, it gives us a validation and a freedom that feels so good. You feel like you can take a full breath again when you didn't know you could ever breathe that deeply before."

Lindsay Ell
Lindsay Ell. Jeremy Cowart

But it wasn't until six months ago, after Ell underwent a week of intense residential therapy, that she realized this part of her story belonged on the album, too.

"I went there thinking I was going to talk about all these other things," says Ell, who has been in regular therapy for eight years. "And I ended up talking about this and realizing how much anger and sadness I had within myself that I hadn't really let come out. It was after leaving that I was like, okay, now I am ready to talk about this and to really lay my heart here on the table."

Since releasing "make you" last month and going public with its backstory, she says she's received an outpouring of affirmation, empathy and story-sharing.

"The response has been incredible," Ell reports. "I've had thousands of fans reach out to me with DMs and telling their stories. And sometimes they're like, 'This is the first time I've ever told somebody.' I feel such an incredible responsibility to hold that story correctly and make sure that I'm sending them love and that I'm sending them resources."

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

Ell already is providing some of those resources with her just-launched Make You Movement Fund, which supports at-risk youth, domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors. She's designated the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) to receive proceeds from "make you."

Though sidelined by the pandemic, Ell did have the opportunity last week to perform "make you" for the first time before a roomful of socially distanced listeners at a Nashville songwriters round.

Afterward, she was overwhelmed by "people coming up to me and just baring their heart and soul. We got connected in a way that nothing else could connect us to that deep of a level so fast. That why I wrote this song. That's why I will sing the song on stage. I just want to inspire people, and really, it doesn't even have to be around the notion of sexual violence. We all go through difficult traumas in our lives. When we can meet those traumas in the place that we know what bends us and stains us and breaks us is also what makes us — to quote from the song! — I think we become more ourselves."

Lindsay Ell
Lindsay Ell. Jeremy Cowart

At this point, of course, Ell doesn't know when she'll get the opportunity to take "make you," and all of her new music, on tour. No doubt someone who's used to performing over 200 shows a year misses the road. But she says she's grateful for a quarantine that's given her the time to practice more balance in her life.

That includes embracing an openness to living out her lyrics in "ReadY to love": "I'm ready to love again / ready to trust again / ready to put my heart back out there."

"I don't think I really understood, until you can fully love yourself, that's when you can fully love somebody else," she says. "And I don't think I've ever really loved myself, and I've really worked on that the past year. And I am finally ready to open up my heart to new things."

When she does hit the road again, she knows she'll bring with her a new confidence in who she is as an artist.

"I've gotten to meet my fear — around what I'm saying, how I'm saying it, how I'm singing it — and say, all right, let's do this," she says.

"I have found my voice," she adds, with conviction. "It feels really good to be able to say that."

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