It’s a narrative we’ve seen time and time again: A young actor who rose to stardom on Disney Channel forays into music, determined to shed their kid-friendly image and become a capital-A Artist of their own making. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t — for every Demi and Selena, there’s an Anneliese Van Der Pol or Bridget Mendler, both one-time sitcom darlings whose fame fizzled during the uphill trek toward the Top 40.
So for Laura Marano — whose four-year role on Disney’s Austin & Ally ended in January — the music-focused road she’s setting off on is a well-worn one. Luckily for her, she already has one big step up: Last year, she scored a record deal with Big Machine Records, the label that also reps a little artist by the name of Taylor Swift. Surely that means something, but Marano knows it won’t be easy, and she doesn’t pretend her fledgling music career will be facile or flawless.
“I’ve tried to prepare my fans and everyone around me that I’m definitely not perfect and I’m going to make mistakes along the way,” she told MTV News. “It’s just part of growing up — not just as a person, but as an artist.”
At age 20, Marano already has 15 years worth of acting credits to her name. Her mom is a former actress-turned-acting coach, and Marano and her older sister Vanessa (whom you might recognize as Bay from Switched at Birth or April from Gilmore Girls) got the show biz bug early on. Acting came first for Marano, but singing was always her plan. It lingered in the back of her head, fueling years’ worth of “amateur songwriting,” as she puts it, but she was incredibly insecure about her music. That is, until she booked the part of singer-songwriter Ally Dawson on Austin & Ally, forcing her out of her comfort zone and into a more music-centric spotlight.
“When I got Austin & Ally, it was kind of like a dream come true but it was also really scary because I had to sing and record and perform on the show,” Marano said. “It wasn’t a choice anymore, which was actually kind of nice because you have to put your ego and your insecurities to the side and just be like, ‘OK, this is my job, let me get to it. And from that, I got so much more confident. When we first started the show until now, it’s a world of difference, and I’m so ready now. I’m so, so ready.”
Austin & Ally’s four-season run ended in January, allowing Marano to make music her first priority. Her transition from Disney stardom to serious pop contender won’t happen overnight and it won’t lack commentary from skeptics who question her legitimacy. But she’s hellbent on not giving in to the temptation to radically change her image in an effort to “prove” herself.
“There’s two types of pressures you get,” she said about the “former Disney star” label. “The one pressure is to kind of be perfect and make no mistakes. And then the other pressure is the opposite: being super edgy and sexy. For me, I just have to be myself. I think especially with my first single, there’s nothing that is particularly quote-on-quote edgy in the lyrical concept, but I think it has more of a mature sound, sonically, than what people heard me sing on Austin & Ally.”
Marano has a young fanbase. She knows that, her team knows it, and she’s not looking to abandon them anytime soon. Rather than, say, pull a Zayn Malik and go directly from One Direction’s mostly prim hits to his sexually explicit solo offerings, she wants to acclimate her fans before bombarding them with maturity. Still, she admits she’s been “definitely overthinking” the best way to do that.
“I’m sure for other Disney stars or even anyone who’s making a transition as an artist and doing something their fans aren’t used to, it’s scary,” she said, adding that she makes peace with the pressure by being as authentic as she can. “Today’s generation especially, I think, is really smart and sees through you right away if you’re not being genuine. The fact of the matter is, everyone’s different, from Miley to Selena to Demi to Zendaya to me. We’re all totally different people. So as long as we stick to who we are, then I think the differences will come out.”
If it seems like Marano’s overtly cautious about her next career steps, it’s only because she’s dead-set on holding the reigns herself (thus making her entirely accountable). It’s part of the reason why she gravitated toward Big Machine, a label that she says agreed to let her have the creative control she craved and to “be the boss of [her] sound.” The Nashville-based label boasts a roster of predominantly country artists, but the way Marano tells it, Taylor Swift’s Grammy-winning album 1989 made them open up avenues to pop artists like Marano — which was especially thrilling for a Swift superfan like her.
“[Taylor] is so smart and so on top of her career,” Marano said. “You can tell that everything that happens is her choice, and I admire that so much. That’s the same way I would love to have my career. When 1989 came out that October, I was so obsessed with it. So can you imagine a few months later when the opportunity came up to sign on the label that she’s on? I couldn’t believe it!”
Marano’s “ultimate” influence, however, is Pink, whom she considers a somewhat underrated performer (“Have you seen her perform? She literally does flips as she’s hitting high notes!”). Above all else, Marano points to Pink’s talents as a lyricist as her major source of inspiration.
“Her writing is so personal, but she also does accept outside songs that she knows mean something to her story and are great songs,” Marano said. “I think that takes a lot — to be able to say, ‘OK, even though I’m a great writer, there’s a song out there that connects to me that I think would be great with my voice.’”
That’s a concept Marano admits she’s still grappling with. Years ago, she vowed to never sing another person’s song because she was convinced she’d never be able to connect to it. When it came time for her to start writing and recording her upcoming debut album, though, she agreed to hear songs written by other people, but only if she could be “really picky” with her choices. One that made the cut is her first single, “Boombox,” which arrives in March. She recorded the song last August after realizing it “fit” her sound, which she describes as such: “If Maroon 5 and 5 Seconds of Summer had a female love child, that’s this girl.”
“It’s pretty synthy. We were kind of going for the vibe of… do you know the Maroon 5 song ‘Love Somebody?’ Kind of in that vein, that vibe,” she explained. “Lyrically, it’s about finding that person who brings that special energy in your life that you weren’t used to — that makes you want to dance and feel good and just be happy and in the moment with this person.”
Ultimately, it’s exactly the kind of upbeat song you’d expect from Marano, who speaks with the enthusiasm of a camp counselor and whose optimism is contagious. It’s hard to imagine someone making the screen-to-stage transition easily, but she makes you believe she’ll pull it off.