"I feel optimistic about the journey that I'm on and taking it a day at a time," Bassett tells EW of the turbulent past year.

Joshua Bassett has had an intense year. And we're not even talking about the pandemic.

The young actor and musician has been at the center of the internet rumor mill multiple times — first for an alleged love triangle with his High School Musical: The Musical: The Series costar Olivia Rodrigo, and most recently speculation about his sexuality after he praised Harry Styles for being hot. He was name dropped in an SNL sketch about Rodrigo's song "Drivers License." He released his own new music. And his Disney+ series shot and released a holiday special at the height of COVID and is about to debut season 2.

But instead of dwelling on what he can't control, Bassett says he's been focusing on the positives of the past year. "I've been continuing to make music constantly," he tells EW. "A lot of time was spent filming season 2, but I spent the most amount of time this year really working on myself and my mental health."

Bassett credits all the time he's spent on bettering himself with how he's managed to stay sane through it all. "I've been reading a lot and trying to work on myself and just grow," he says, citing The Art of the Idea, This Thing Called You, and The Untethered Soul as "game changers" in his reading list. "This year has kind of forced everybody to do that. It's been challenging but definitely a good kind of challenging and I feel optimistic about the journey that I'm on and taking it a day at a time."

As for his music, Bassett released a self-titled EP in March but is already excited about its follow-up because of how different it's going to be from what he's already released. "I'm changing it up from what people have heard me put out before," he says. "I love to try new things and take risks. Why limit myself to one genre? I'm going to keep trying new things and keep evolving."

Bassett laughs as he confesses there might even be some country songs on the new album. "They don't have to be country but country-esque things where I'm like, 'Oh, these are a little bit more folky, country stuff. Huh!'" he says. "And I'm getting into a little bit more electronic stuff, a little bit more funk, disco. All kinds of things. It's been exciting."

Joshua Bassett and Olivia Rodrigo in 'High School Musical: The Musical: The Series'
| Credit: Nick Sokoloff/Disney+

Looking ahead to this season of HSMTMTS, Bassett was thrilled to see his onscreen alter ego Ricky Bowen experience the same kind of growth he had in real life over the past year. "Ricky is so similar to me in so many ways, so it's always fun to live vicariously through Ricky and his storyline," he says. "Ricky is learning and forced to grow up this season. He could get away with running away with all of his problems in season 1, but he can't really escape a lot of that in season 2."

Ricky goes through a lot of changes this season, with his mom moving across to the country to moving from a house into a small apartment with his dad, and then his discovery that his new girlfriend Nini (Rodrigo) is leaving to attend a prestigious drama school. "There's so much that's changing in his life that he's forced to deal with, and he is just trying to stay balanced," Bassett says. "But obviously, these challenges become growth for him."

And Bassett was as shocked as fans when he found out that Ricky and Nini would be separated (at least physically) so quickly into season 2. "It's like right when they get back together all of a sudden they have to do the long-distance thing," he says with a laugh. "You'll see how both of them have to prioritize their school and each other, and I think it's a super relatable thing for people in high school or even when people who try to stay together while they go off to college, it can be pretty challenging. He's learning what priorities are and how to balance his life when it's a little bit unconventional."

But before things get complicated between Ricky and Nini, fans will get to see some adorable romantic moments between the two of them — like when Ricky serenades Nini in the season 2 premiere. And EW has your exclusive first look at that scene featuring the original song that Bassett wrote for season 2 called "The Perfect Gift."

"Ricky basically has had a tough year and he's trying to think of a gift for Nini," Bassett says. "He doesn't have a lot of money so he thinks of the best gift and ultimately she is the best gift, so he goes with the second best thing he can do and that is write her a song. He gives that to Nini as a Christmas gift."

Check out the exclusive first look at Bassett's original song "The Perfect Gift" below:

HSMTMTS season 2 premieres Friday, May 14 on Disney+.

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High School Musical: The Musical: The Series
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