By Seija Rankin
January 29, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST

Ashley Tisdale has found her voice. The actress-singer-producer-beauty-mogul has been through it — and by it, we mean pretty much everything. Professionally: she kicked off her career in Hollywood as a Disney superstar and came out the other side almost entirely unscathed — one of the only members of her Disney class to survive without a scandal to speak of — pivoting to production work and a beauty brand. Personally: She went through a period (a journey, in her words) of anxiety and depression that probably isn’t unfamiliar to many in the industry.

But now Tisdale is returning to her roots. No, this isn’t the exclusive announcement of an official High School Musical reunion (please don’t click away!). She’s releasing an album, her first music to hit radio waves since 2009 (the year of HSM 3) — the second single from Symptoms, “Love Me and Let Me Go,” just dropped. But diehard nostalgia-heads take note, it isn’t going to be anything like “Fabulous.”

“I knew that in order for me to do an album [again] it had to be something important,” Tisdale told EW during a visit to the Los Angeles studio. “Especially because I knew that I had recorded in the past and wasn’t in love with anything that I had done.”

In the old version of her music career (Ashley Tisdale 1.0), she admits the focus was often on the sound of the songs far more than the lyrics. It’s a realization that has presumably hit many of her peers — compare anything by current-day Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, or Selena Gomez to their tracks during the Disney years and you won’t find much subject matter of substance. But now that Tisdale has the autonomy that comes with years of a career driven by her own self — instead of a huge team beholden to a huge machine — she knows exactly what she wants.

“I was very overproduced in the last two albums that I’ve done,” she says. “And this, I would say, is much more stripped-down.”

Ashley Tisdale'Love Me & Let Me Go' single coverCR: Big Noise Records
Credit: Big Noise Records

Tisdale also had to make a decision about the albums’ theme — she had been in the recording studio on and off for four years, but once the record label Big Noise came to her to pitch an album, she wrote the lyrics for Symptoms and knew that she wanted the record to be about her struggles. She was making her way through a self-help workbook at the time and put a lot of what she was going through into the songs. Some of it was literal (her anxiety caused pressure in her face, which became the concept of under pressure), some of it was figurative.

“With ‘Love Me and Let Me Go,’ I remember just feeling really shut off,” she explains. “So I wrote those lyrics down in my notes app on my phone.”

The subject matter is a bit of a hard transition for fans of Tisdale’s, who may be more used to her lively social media feeds or binge-watching The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. It would be easy to assume that the actress had to belabor the decision to be so honest, but she says she left almost nothing on the cutting-room floor — and that she believes she kept everything as relatable as possible.

“I didn’t want to dwell on the feelings of anxiety and depression,” she says. “So there wasn’t anything [in the album] that was too scary [to reveal]. I mean, the scariest part is talking about it right now.”

When someone like Ashley Tisdale releases a record, the natural question is “What’s next?” Her fan base is so tied to her singing-and-dancing career that it’s easy to wonder whether she’ll make this permanent (as permanent as anything in the industry is). She insisted to EW that she’s still a Jill-of-all-trades: Working on the production company she owns with her sister, running her beauty brand (Illuminate Cosmetics), and promoting the forthcoming album. In an industry as fickle as Hollywood, it’s always smart to diversify your career — it’s impossible to know when the roles will stop coming, and it’s what lead her into the beauty realm in the first place.

“There’s this thing in me that I just cannot sit here and wait for an audition or wait for my next job,” she tells EW. “There are some people that can do that and that’s great, but for me, at the end of the day, I just wasted energy.”

Now, Tisdale is eager to keep moving forward in her career. As fondly as she considers her time in the High School Musical franchise — costar Vanessa Hudgens is still one of her best friends and a duet with Lucas Grabeel delivered one of her highest-viewed YouTube videos — she still marvels at its seemingly unending lifespan.

“I still see stuff about High School Musical trending and I’m like, ‘Why?’” she laughs. “It’s been so long.”

She also has a very particular aversion to watching any of her past movies or TV shows. She points out that she has no problem listening to the songs from Symptoms (“I don’t know if it’s learning not to be so hard on myself, but I’m so proud of it”), but that her past acting always brings up things she could have done better.

“One of my old movies — I think it was Aliens in the Attic — came on recently and I was just like, ‘Oh God!’” she laughs. “Oh, and Scary Movie 5 came on once. Change the channel!”

For the record, when pressed, she says she would totally re-watch High School Musical 2 — but we wouldn’t recommend reading into that statement too much. For now, she’s all in on music without Sharpay.