Demi Lovato's New Groove

After detailing her harrowing 2018 overdose in a recent documentary, the 28-year-old pop star returns with a newfound sense of stability and her first album of new material in four years: Dancing With the Devil... The Art of Starting Over. To make it, she had to rethink everything.
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
March 25, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT

Editor's note: "I think it might be worth putting a trigger warning in your article," Lovato told EW, especially for people who are sensitive to content about substance use or eating disorders, which her songs and this interview address directly. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. If you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237.

Like a lot of us living through this past year, time moves differently now for Demi Lovato

"I can't predict what my needs are going to be in 10 minutes," she says. "And I can't predict what they'll be 10 days from now." 

And she's okay with that. Even as she worked on a documentary and supersize album — her first full-length work since 2017 — she has managed to slow down, finally making time to bend to her will instead of always the other way around. "It's not about future tripping," she says calmly. "And it's not about dwelling on the past."

Despite a harrowing near miss with death — her 2018 overdose on fentanyl led to a heart attack, multiple strokes, and temporary blindness — followed by her latest stint in rehab, she has now officially survived the 27 Club, that apocryphal end point for too many celebs. As a 28-year-old woman who struggles with addiction, an eating disorder, and the compounded trauma of multiple sexual assaults — and who has been in the public eye for two-thirds of her life —she knew that to get herself to a place approaching stability and balance, there wasn't just one thing to fix. 

"I've had to reshape my thinking," she says. "I used to just say everything. Now I keep some things to myself." 

She has better boundaries now but fewer rules. She eats what feels right, wears oversize sweatshirts and Birkenstocks, and doesn't work out to exhaustion. She cut off her long hair, then cropped it again, even shorter. She has a healer she works with closely and meditates every day. She binge-watches The Walking Dead with friends over FaceTime. She swears she's done with the hard stuff but still smokes weed. She's not just willing but excited to talk about how queer she is. 

And for the first time in her life, she takes weekends off. 

"I work really hard during the week, and it's just important to me that I have a few days off," says Lovato, who's been working professionally since she was a preteen. "That was never an option for me growing up. It's empowering to be like, 'Hey, my values have changed. I'm putting my wellness in front of my work, and we can come back to this on another day.'" 

In early 2020, Lovato had just begun to come out of the darkness — in a big, Gloria Estefan-esque way. She crushed a doubleheader of live vocal performances: first the emotional "Anyone" at the Grammys, then a flawless, soaring national anthem at the Super Bowl a week later. 

"I was assuming that the world was going to be fine, and I was going to go on tour and release an album," she says, shaking her head in disbelief. "One year ago today, I had not met my ex-fiancé! The amount that has changed in 12 months is crazy." She stops herself: "I hate that word," she says, "but it is wild." 

When EW talks with Lovato in early March, she's curled up with a laptop at her Los Angeles home, barefaced and beaming on a Friday afternoon before one of her precious weekends off. She never asks to go off the record, but she does interject several times with concerns she's either rambling or has given a canned answer, a habit she says reminds her too much of how she used to be.

She laughs a lot. Sometimes her eyes well up with tears, and then she laughs again. She seems easy in her skin, radiant with self-awareness — and that alone is a stark reminder of how truly close she came to dying. Most young stars with such heavy hearts don't survive to tell their story, especially in music: Justin Townes Earle, Juice WRLD, and Mac Miller all died in the last few years from some combination of fentanyl, cocaine, and oxycodone in their bodies. The ones who live to see their battles through in full public view usually pay dearly for the privilege (see: Framing Britney Spears). 

As revealed through excruciating personal footage in the documentary Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil, after six years of very public sobriety, she started drinking again and reconnected with former drug dealers for a perilous escalation from coke and Xanax to crack and heroin. In the film, she shares a chilling glass-eyed selfie that she took after the first time she smoked crack.

This is the third documentary she's released since 2012; a particular low point of the last installment, in 2017, was when she admitted she'd been high during the first, which followed her early struggles with sobriety after a stint in rehab at 18. ("I don't think she was aware of the root of some of her struggles," says Michael D. Ratner, who directed the new film. "She's now really done the work.") Despite having a crew that followed her for much of 2018, she successfully hid how bad it had gotten — right up until her personal assistant found her lying naked and unconscious in her bedroom, her body turned blue. 

After years of speaking openly about her demons — becoming an unwitting poster child for how a young pop star could, by her mid-20s, survive multiple severe traumas and live to tell the tale — Lovato's long silence in the wake of her tabloid-topping overdose has been in and of itself a departure. For as alarming as the headlines at the time were, it turned out that even that isn't the whole story, she says. "There are so many things that I don't talk about in the documentary that my therapist knows."

Demi Lovato
Demi Lovato
| Credit: Lauren Dukoff for EW

The film preemptively asks and answers a battery of painful questions: 

Has she relapsed since the OD? Yes, once, with a crack-and-heroin combo from the same dealer, minus the nearly lethal fentanyl twist. She recounts with startling bluntness her attempt to reclaim a sense of sexual agency, having concluded that the blackout sex she'd had with that dealer the night she OD'd could not have been consensual. ("No, I'm gonna f--- you," Lovato says of her motivation to attempt to overwrite that experience.) But, she says, "Realizing the high I wanted would kill me was what I needed to get me clean for good."

Does she have other #MeToo stories? Yes. Lovato doesn't name the perpetrator but reveals that her first sexual experience was being raped as a teen. "I didn't have the romantic first time with anybody," she says, "and that sucked." Although she reported the assault, the person was allowed to continue working, and the details she does include are sure to open a Pandora's box of internet sleuthing to determine who might have been involved. 

Is she fully sober? In the doc, Lovato reveals that her present approach to sobriety includes some alcohol and weed. (She also says she's getting regular injections of the anti-opioid drug naltrexone, or Vivitrol, which has been found to help reduce relapse by blocking the body's response to heroin.) We hear from her friends and family, who share their concerns about this approach, and from her rehab case manager, who delicately explains her fans should not take this as an endorsement of any particular recovery approach. Even the reigning king of celebrity 12-step success stories, Sir Elton John, weighs in: "Moderation doesn't work." 

With all due respect to John's long tenure (30-plus years clean and sober), Lovato says, "It's working for me, and it has worked over the past two years. My whole point is just that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution." Today, the singer sums up her approach to sobriety this way: "Look, you obviously don't touch anything that can kill you. If it comes from the ground, it's safe for me. You know?" She leans forward, giggling a bit as she speaks directly into the computer's camera. "The key word is green." 

Her new album, out April 2, can also be played as a companion piece to the doc, and covers similar emotional territory, both metaphorically and sometimes literally. "I've been working on it since Valentine's Day of 2018, and I can't tell you how many times this album has changed course," she says. It swelled over recent months to include 19 tracks and eventually took on its own hybrid double title, Dancing With the Devil... The Art of Starting Over

Lovato wrote a number of the songs over the course of a COVID-safe songwriting camp last October. Justin Tranter was among the writers and producers who gathered for the creative staycation, dividing into different teams and working spaces and blasting through the translation of Lovato's raw emotions into lyrics and melodies. Over group dinners, Tranter says, "she's just sharing stories and we'd be like, 'Oh, that's a song, that's a song, that's a song.'" In the mornings, before each team split off, they would huddle to decide who was working on what. "And Demi would keep checking on us, to make sure we aren't f---ing it up." 

Among the songs with parallel beats in the film are "Melon Cake" — about how Lovato would get watermelon "cakes" instead of the real thing on her birthday — and "I.C.U.," a stripped-down ballad about waking up in the hospital temporarily blind and not being able to recognize her sister at her bedside. "California Sober," shorthand for people in recovery from other substances who still find relief in marijuana, particularly for treatment of anxiety, is a nod to her key word, green

"I never want to box myself into anything anymore," she says. "That's what, I think, led to all this — me putting pressure on myself and feeling pressured by others to be something of a role model." Lovato knows she'll likely face criticism from some fans about her embrace of moderation over abstinence. "They don't have to love it. They don't have to like it," she says. "As long as they have a conversation about it and they learn something, then I feel like I've done my part."  

Demi Lovato
Credit: Lauren Dukoff for EW

Lovato's had a long and successful run at the pop charts with six studio albums since 2008, all of them certified gold or platinum, each packed with radio-friendly heartbreak ballads and triumphant rockers. The most sonically cohesive among them is probably Confident, from 2015. The Art of Starting Over feels more deliberate, musically, than anything she's done before. Scooter Braun, now Lovato's manager, says they fended off the record label's questions about which songs would be singles. "I don't care about the singles," he says. "I care about the story." 

That's not to say the album doesn't sound commercial, because it does. There's a golden warmth to the music, a little Stevie Nicks and Alanis Morrissette at their most jagged and carefree. Even the darker songs have a lightness you might not expect for such heavy emotional territory. After Lovato sent Tranter her favorite Jason Isbell song ("Cover Me Up"), the songwriter encouraged her to consider making more music outside her usual oeuvre. "I think because her voice leans one way so naturally, she hadn't experimented in these other genres yet," Tranter says. "As a person, she always shares her vulnerability with the world. But to have that now really come into the music is pretty awesome."

Lovato says this is the first project that has let her see her child of an album grow into a teenager. Asked what kind of teen she's now responsible for, Lovato says, in the lingua franca of the genre, "She's all the feels." 

Two songs mine her experience with addiction in such a raw and explicit way, they make Lovato a little nervous about fans' reactions. As we talk, she wrings her hands, worrying at her fear as though she can feel it between her fingers. In "Dancing With the Devil," she sings about using a glass pipe and tinfoil while getting high. "That could trigger somebody in their addiction," she says. "Sometimes being descriptive can be triggering, but that's the sad, sad truth of how dark it can get. That's important to give people, too." 

"The Way You Don't Look at Me," a standout track with a swirling melodic hook, opens with Lovato singing, "I've lost 10 pounds in two weeks, 'cause I told me I shouldn't eat." In the second verse, she adds, "I'm so scared if I undress that you won't love me after," and describes losing the focus of someone's attention as a pain that "hurts harder than my time in heaven." 

Of her willingness to go there in her art, she tells EW, "If I'm painting a picture as an artist, telling my truth is so important to me. I don't censor my substance use in 'Dancing With the Devil.' I don't hold back from that, so I don't want to hold back from any other place in my authenticity, you know?" While I desperately hope that it doesn't trigger anybody, I also know how important it is for people that are going through those things to have an outlet to be able to listen to. I want to make sure that people know that I'm not glamorizing anything. That's the sad reality of how lonely it can be when you're in that position."

Still, this album isn't just a teenager who wants to curl up in the dark and cry. She's meant to be played loudly in the car, preferably driving down the Pacific Coast Highway. "She is — I'm cautious to use the word happy, because no one's ever happy 24/7, but I'm content," says Lovato. "I do have a lot of joy in my life today that has really come from spending so much time with myself. Yeah." Lovato exhales, shakes her head and smiles again. "And — she's also really queer. Really, really queer."

Demi Lovato
Credit: Lauren Dukoff for EW

For Lovato, the 2020 quick pivot from verge of a comeback to pandemic quarantine was at first just an untimely interruption to her long-awaited return. Then came an unexpected romantic plot twist in the form of Max Ehrich, an actor who went from new love to live-in boyfriend to fiancé to ex, all in a little more than six months. 

She doesn't refer to him by name in the doc or this interview, but she's not avoiding the obvious. Appearing on the People's Choice Awards in November, Lovato joked, "I did what everyone else did — I went into lockdown mode and got engaged." Ehrich accused her of slamming him "for clout," a comeback that seemed like a painful misunderstanding of the basic dynamics involved in dating a woman with 100 million Instagram followers. A savagely upbeat banger on the album, "15 Minutes," neatly turns Ehrich's post-breakup zinger back onto him: "Good riddance — you got your 15 minutes."

"I really had myself fooled, because it was the safe and expected thing," she says. "Obviously I cared deeply about the person, but there was something inside of me that was like, 'I have to prove to the world that I'm okay.' Now that I'm not engaged or married and I'm okay, I'm like, 'Wow. Isn't that so much more empowering?' It's not this false sense of security."

She flops her face down into her hands for a minute before popping back up to add, "Also, the size of that ring, it made it really real. The second it was off, I was like, 'You know what? I'm good. I don't need that.' I just don't need an object on my finger to make me feel like I've got my s--- together. It looks like stability, but it doesn't mean that it is. And I don't actually grow through stability. I find that I like living not in chaos or crisis, but in fluidity. It's not [being] stuck and stagnant in an ideal or a tradition that was placed upon us by the patriarchy."

Demi Lovato
Credit: Lauren Dukoff for EW

Lovato hasn't always been forthcoming in talking about her sexuality, which in the past earned her some ire from other LGBTQ artists and the media, especially after shooting the video for 2014's "Really Don't Care" on a float during Los Angeles' Pride parade. Even when her bouncy bi-curious "Cool for the Summer" was released in 2015, "I never said anything," Lovato admits. "Gender norms and sexuality norms aside, I kind of felt a prisoner to my entire career and childhood growing up in the South as a Christian." 

She vaguely affirmed that she wasn't exclusively into men, though publicly she was seen only with boyfriends. In her 2017 doc, Simply Complicated, she mentions searching for men and women on the dating app Raya, but the topic of her sexuality has often felt more like an uncomfortable standoff with the community rather than a powerful, proud declaration. 

Post-Ehrich, she's finally eager to make that declaration loud and clear. On a Facebook Watch special for National Coming Out Day last October, she told Queer Eye's Tan France that she first came out to her older sister about liking girls when she was 17, then eventually told her parents she was dating women, too. (She also credits the Selma Blair-Sarah Michelle Gellar kiss in Cruel Intentions as an early eye-opener.)

"I think time is everything," she says. "The queerness in me was, like, ready to explode when I filmed the music video at Pride. I was so ready to be an activist. And then people would ask me, 'Why are you so passionate about this?' And I would clam up, like…" She shakes her head again. "When I watch that video, to this day, there's a part of me that kind of cringes. I wanted so badly to be the person that I am today. I just wanted to find out who I was."

In the wake of her relationship with Ehrich, she also came to understand that she was "just too queer" to settle down with a man right now. "Regardless if drama is happening or not, I am too gay to marry a man right now," she says. "I don't know if that will change in 10 years and I don't know if that'll never change, but I love accepting myself." As Lovato says with unapologetic bluntness, "I've always known I was hella queer, but I have fully embraced it."

While she waits with the rest of us for the world to open back up, and to the possibility of touring, she's also quite content to keep her energy focused on her own well-being. "When you start doing the work on yourself, you start noticing your intuition becoming louder and then more accurate. I'm just owning listening to my intuition, my needs, my wants in the moment, and moving forward. The more you try to be what others want you to be, the farther you get from your true self. It's only when you start allowing yourself the freedom to be yourself [that] all constraints are gone." She laughs, again, bright and boundless. 

It's officially the weekend. Time to meditate with her healer, hang out with the friend who's living with her, and relax. "I always thought there was a book or something that would tell me who I was. Really, it's just like, 'No, bitch, just do what makes you happy!' You're like, 'It can't be that simple.' It actually is. If it feels right in your gut and you're not harming anybody, then do what makes you happy."

—Additional reporting by Sydney Bucksbaum.

Motion and still photography by Lauren Dukoff for EW. Styling: Siena Montesano/The Wall Group; Hair: Cesar DeLeon Ramirez/crowdMGMT; Make-up: Jill Powell/crowdMGMT; Manicure: Natalie Minerva. Black-and-white bustier and multicolor patchwork dress: Dolce & Gabbana.

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