Eight years after her last release, former tween star Hilary Duff tells Conor Behan what she’s been up to on her break from the limelight – drinking wine, swiping on Tinder – oh , and collaborating with Ed Sheeran.
“I’m a pretty busy lady right now!” Hilary Duff chirps when we catch up with her over the phone. She’s not wrong, with a new album, a hit TV show in the U.S. she’s back on the promo push after some time off from the spotlight.
Duff was a household name for many tweens in the early 00s, between her Disney days on Lizzie McGuire (a show we’ve been politely asked not to discuss during today’s chat) to releasing multiple hit albums.
But unlike many a teen talent growing into their 20s, Duff (now 28) didn’t stay in the public eye, electing to take a break in 2008. It’s an interesting move and one that seemed to only add to anticipation around her pop comeback that culminated in a new album this year, Breathe In, Breathe Out.
It’s been 8 years (!) since Duff released music so I had to ask her, what has changed since her last release.
“Oh, so much. I don’t want to use the word congested, I don’t think that’s the right word but there’s so many more artists now.” She says, adding, “There’s so many different outlets and ways for people to make it or get a following. I think that part is really amazing.”
But the new way people listen to music has some downsides Hilary reckons: “It seems to me people are much more fickle than they used to be. They’ll care about a song but not necessarily an artist. There’s so many artists where I hear the song on the radio or I just hear it randomly and I’m like “Oh I like that I’ll get their song” but back in the day I feel like If you were a fan you buy a record and you would know that person and learn about them and be their fan. I feel like it’s a lot different. It’s like “ok you either have a hit or you don’t” and it’s very quick.”
It’s a thoughtful response and one of many from Duff as we chat. I had expected breezy, one-line answers but she’s happy to expand on the realities of coming back to pop after some time away. She’s embraced social media, something she says is “very informative”. In fact it’s her fans on social media that Duff seems to enjoy connecting with most.
“What really makes the difference for me is what my fans have to say, y’know my actual fans, that follow me on Twitter and I get to connect with everyday. They’re the ones I really wanna make proud”. She notes that after the top five debut for album Stateside she “really couldn’t have expected anything better”.
She says that working on the album “was a long process” and admits that initial material was a “little more ‘folky, earthy sounding'” and her break to film a new TV series and a trip to Sweden earlier this year “really helped bring in that super-pop sound”. The result is a mix of stylized dance-driven pop and acoustic-flecked tunes. Helping her achieve that were a gaggle of talented songwriters and even some fellow popstars. Duff logged studio time with Tove Lo, of mega hit Habits, and pop superstar Ed Sheeran.
“It was great, I’m such a big fan of both of theirs” she says, talking about how her time with Tove Lo lead to the single Sparks. It seems the Swedish pop star left an impression on Hilary.
“Tove is like this, I don’t know, hippy-dippy tough chick y’know. She was unapologetic and I love that. It was really cool to work with her. I’m just a big fan of her writing and her as an artist. I got to spend some time with her in Sweden and it was just a blast. It was really fun”
Sheeran meanwhile gave Duff the track Tattoo which she ended up recording with him in the studio.
“He’s extremely talented and I was nervous to work with him,” she confides. “I’m just a big fan and I didn’t write the song, he wrote the song. He was there when I recorded it and I think you always want to make sure that you’re making the person who wrote the song proud.”
Duff feels that fellow performers can understand each other a little better in the studio, but is honest about how nervous she was getting back into a studio with anyone. “The whole process was nerve-wracking to start, because I hadn’t written in so long and hadn’t just exposed that part of me for a while. So just finding the confidence to come in with an idea. You kind of have to dare to suck.”
Duff didn’t just get attention for her studio time, however. When it came out that she was giving dating app Tinder a go earlier this year it raised some eyebrows and even featured in the first version of the video for Sparks (Although Duff tells me it was always the plan to release a second, dance-orientated version of the video too).
Her Tinder journey making into a video had a simple goal for Duff and her audience by showing what what her day-to-day life. She tells me that when she’s not working she’s just does what anyone would. “Hang at the house, drink wine with my girlfriends,” she says, “and obviously we’re not on Tinder all the time but that was a thing that had actually happened.”
“I didn’t use Tinder for that long” she concedes. “I think my profile is still up but I’m not swiping. It’s really too hard for me. It was a fun thing that I think none of my friends thought I would ever do and I don’t think the world would think I would ever do.”
And although she’s not using it now it definitely was an enjoyable experience for her. “It was a fun social experiment I would say. To be honest there was such normal people on there, there were some weirdos of course but I met really cute normal guys.”
The air of normality and warmth from Duff is clear on the phone and when I ask her about what has kept her grounded despite success at a very early age, she thinks her career break may have helped.
“Honestly, I think taking a break from making records and touring and all that stuff. It was a conscious decision. I didn’t know that I was going to wait 8 years but I know after I was done with my last tour I wasn’t going to work for a while. I was only like 20 or something. And everyone was fucking shocked y’know? I was very successful and everyone was making money, I was doing my thing. It was just a lot. I was realising that as much as I felt grateful for everything I wasn’t so happy because I was a young adult but I didn’t know anything about myself anymore. I hadn’t gotten to grow on my own. I was just like working working working and so protected. Taking that break really let me learn myself and what’s important to me. And kind of kept my head on straight I guess.”
She admits she had her fun and acted silly – “but privately”.
“Then I started to have a family and I just think it’s innately a little bit of who I am and also making conscious decisions about who I surround myself with.”
Despite her time off and her current busy return it seems that getting back to work is on Duff’s agenda now.
“Oh god yeah, I totally want to make a new record.” She enthuses when asked about her goals, clearly itching to get back to making music.
“I have some of the ideas for what I wanna do next and who I’d love to work with and all that stuff. Obviously I’d like to make a record but I think I’ll be touring a little bit with this one in the new year and I start shooting the second season of the show in New York in September”.
While working on that TV series, a well-received comedy called Younger, produced by Sex and the City’s Darren Star, Duff may even try squeeze in an Irish visit. She remembers she “had a great show” when she was in Ireland last and would like to possibly start her tour in Europe.
We wrap up but not before Duff’s French bulldog interrupts her, making her stop mid-chat to berate her pooch, laughing about how “he chews everything”. It’s an off-guard moment but also not a surprise.
I’ve been impressed by how Duff is both honest, down-to-earth and ultimately unguarded when we chat. That mix of likeability and enthusiasm to be back in pop will mean Duff will keep being that “busy lady” for as long as she wants.
‘Breathe In. Breathe Out.’ is out now.
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