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On First Tour, Alana Springsteen Gives Thanks to Her Hero: 'I Wouldn't Be the Artist I Am Without Taylor' (Exclusive)

The proud 'Swiftie' followed in the superstar's first footsteps but now boldly blazes her own path: 'The only thing worth chasing is the most authentic version of yourself'

Alana Springsteen
Alana Springsteen

Alana Springsteen lights up talking about a recent skydiving experience, her first. “It was a thrill,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’d never felt more alive.”

So then it was more thrilling than performing in front of thousands of people?

Springsteen gives it a split-second thought and laughs. “Actually, less!” she says.

That reaction explains a lot about how the 23-year-old artist has reached this point so quickly — a just-launched headlining tour, a full-length debut album (featuring collabs with Chris Stapleton and Mitchell Tenpenny), a Billboard chart appearance, touring with Luke Bryan, a featured spot on the CMA Fest stadium lineup, almost a half-million TikTok followers.

<p>Lily Nelson</p> Alana Springsteen performs

Lily Nelson

Alana Springsteen performs

Ever since she jumped headlong into her professional career, at the ripe old age of 14, she has been in no need of a parachute. Everything about her says she was made for this wild, breathless — and, yes, high-risk — life of an artist.

Springsteen may not have been born in the spotlight, but she got there as soon as she could. Her dad loves to tell the story, she says, about how the two of them headed down the church aisle, when she was no more than 5 or 6, to perform a Sunday-service duet. Mid-step, she turned to him and said, “Dad, you go sit down. I’m gonna sing it by myself today.”

“So, I just wanted all the attention already,” Springsteen says, chuckling at herself.

But she didn’t truly lock into a driving ambition until she attended her first concert at age 9. The artist was Taylor Swift.

“That night changed me, watching her connect with every single one of those people in the audience, me included,” recalls Springsteen, who grew up in the Virginia Beach, Virginia, area. “It was just the most beautiful experience I’d ever had, and the connection that music can bring is what made me want to get into this. She was singing about my life from day one.”

What seemed undeniably obvious to Springsteen was that, if Taylor Swift could do this, so could she. No doubt, in that moment, she was joining thousands — if not millions — of little girls who also were aspiring to write, record and perform songs just like the global superstar has been doing since her teens. Except, unlike those other little girls, Springsteen actually went out and followed in Swift’s first footsteps to a remarkable degree.

Related: Alana Springsteen Celebrates Her 22nd Birthday — and Makes Her Grand Ole Opry Debut! See the Photos

Swift made her initial trip to Nashville’s Music Row when she was 11; Springsteen did the same when she was 10. Swift, at age 14, persuaded her family to move from their Pennsylvania home to Nashville so she could begin her career; Springsteen’s parents (who work in real estate) relocated the family from Virginia to help her follow her dream when she was 14, as well. Both Swift and Springsteen signed their first publishing deals at age 14. Springsteen also has co-written several songs with Swift’s early influential collaborator, Liz Rose.

So how much of this is coincidence and how much of it is inspired by Swift?

“Oh, I think both at the same time, if that’s possible,” says Springsteen, who unabashedly calls herself a Swiftie. “I definitely wouldn’t be the songwriter, the artist that I am without Taylor.”

<p>Lily Nelson</p> Alana Springsteen

Lily Nelson

Alana Springsteen

She pays homage to her hero with “taylor did,” a track (13, of course) on her debut album, Twenty Something. The lyrics exquisitely express the hold that Swift’s songs have on Springsteen’s generation: “They’re like home, they’re almost a part of me / Hit right when it was hard to be a girl trying to make the world make sense / When no one knew what I was going through growing up / Taylor did.”

Like Swift’s lyrics, Springsteen’s are intensely personal. And like Swift, Springsteen is driven by a passion to inspire. But Springsteen demands that the comparisons stop there. Perhaps more than anything, she understands the Swiftian paradox: If she is to follow her hero’s model, she has to make her own path, find her own way, write her own life.

“The only thing worth chasing,” she says, “is the most authentic version of yourself.”

That authenticity extends to her attention-getting last name. Yes, it’s really hers. And no, she’s no relation. For a fleeting moment, she says, she considered changing it, if only to avoid the questions (which, she confesses, she’s now growing weary of).

“I feel like if I had used any other name, it would’ve completely contradicted what I’m trying to do with my music,” says Springsteen, who also has a problematic first name (it’s “ah-LAH-na,” not a rhyme with “banana”). “My music is all about that honesty — nothing between me and the fans.”

Springsteen takes that commitment literally during live performances. At her tour kickoff in Nashville, she lingered over fans’ hand clasps at the stage’s edge, repeatedly waded into the crowd for hugs and selfies, and stayed for chats and more hugs with admirers until the club closed.

That larger-than-life confidence and rapport is surely what’s given Springsteen the right to title her album Twenty Something even though she’s not even a quarter of the way through her third decade. But then, she’s in a career that demands she grow up fast. Like any artist on a major label, she has to be commanding both onstage and off as she manages an ever-growing support staff.

“It’s a lot,” Springsteen allows. “It’s insane. But I’m grateful to say that my team feels like my backbone. I trust them so much that I can focus on just telling my truth and doing what I always feel like I was meant to do and hoped I would get to do, which is write, co-produce, focus on being there for the fans — really, really being there.”

No surprise that Springsteen has made “present” her “word for this year.” Having support has also allowed her the freedom to live a real twenty-something life, which — as her lyrics can attest — has offered its own learning curve.

The 18-track album, all co-written by Springsteen, is divided thematically into three life phases: “messing it up,” “figuring it out” and “getting it right.”

Related: Alana Springsteen Wants to 'Get It Right' on Part One of Debut Album 'Twenty Something: Messing It Up'

The six “messing it up” songs — including lead single “you don’t deserve a country song” — are a litany of heartbreak truth-telling, describing Springsteen’s first romantic forays between the ages of 18 and 20.

“I just love love,” she says. “I love feelings. I’m even the kind of person who would go so far as to say that sadness is beautiful — like going through just raw, deep emotions.”

Her first boyfriends, she admits, gave her lots to feel, perhaps too much. “I was in some pretty terrible relationships, just falling for the wrong people,” she admits. “I have a tendency to fall for people really quickly. I’m an all-or-nothing person, so when I feel something, I’m all in.”

She entered her “figuring it out” phase once she realized “I didn’t know myself well enough to know that I didn’t need validation from anyone else. I lost myself in it.”

<p>David Bradley</p> Alana Springsteen performs in Nashville

David Bradley

Alana Springsteen performs in Nashville

A counselor helped her toward important self-discoveries, she says, but songwriting collaborations offered another kind of therapy that proved just as potent. “I’m grateful for the people that made me feel safe enough to get that vulnerable and to share that part of myself,” she says. “I walk in and I’m writing about things that are heavy on my heart, and so writing these songs really is how I get it out.”

Writing her track “chameleon,” a searing self-confession, helped her, she says, to sort out “that tendency I have to shapeshift to please people.”

“Releasing that song was hard,” she says. “It really hurts to sing sometimes, too, because it’s not something that you’re proud of. But oh my God, I’ve had fans scream back the lyrics to this song so loud, and it’s so healing.”

Another track, “when we were friends,” tackles a common heartbreak that rarely show up in lyrics — the end of a friendship. “I experienced a new kind of breakup over the past couple years,” says Springsteen. “As you get to know yourself and as you change, sometimes that makes you grow apart from people that used to mean a lot to you. It's easy to feel some guilt with that.”

Related: Alana Springsteen on Creating 'History of Breaking Up (Part 2)' : 'I Just Started Pouring My Heart Out'

More revelations arrived when she wrote “hypocrite,” a lyrical wrestling match with life’s contradictions. “You realize there’s not just one way to see things, and none of us are just one thing,” she says. “Your twenties — and just life, in general — are really messy.”

The final track, “amen,” offers a stirring benediction to that realization. She sings in the chorus: “And I’m sorry to my mama/ but I’ma live the way I wanna / so I know this life was mine in the end.”

Says Springsteen: “I’m giving myself permission to be fully me, to make mistakes, to mess things up, to not have it all figured out, and to live on my own terms. I wrote this song as a promise to myself to always have the courage to live the life that I was meant to.”

Yet she quickly clarifies that the lyrics aren’t intended to be dismissive of her parents’ influence. She considers her mom among her “best friends,” and she’s also tight with her dad and three younger brothers. “There’s nothing more important to me than making my mom and dad proud and just staying true to my roots,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I don’t have to answer to them. I have to answer to me and God.”

Last year, Springsteen finally took the adult step of moving out of her family home (still just 15 minutes away) and experiencing a new-found independence … and stress. “I remember the first night I was just sitting alone, and I popped a bottle of champagne, and I was like, what do I do now?” she says with a wry chuckle. “Now I’ve gotta pay bills. Where do I put all this stuff? How do I move my bed into the bedroom?”

<p>Lily Nelson</p> Alana Springsteen and her mother Shannon

Lily Nelson

Alana Springsteen and her mother Shannon

Obviously, the “figuring it out” stage is still ongoing, but Springsteen radiates determination — to live it out, to write it down and to perform it.

At the moment, she’s doing it unattached. She says she’s thankful that the current pace of her career is limiting her dating. “The timing of it has been so perfect because I needed to just get to know myself,” she says. “I needed to not jump into another relationship, and just for the first time, truly get to know who Alana is when she’s not in a relationship. Just who am I?”

In relationships — and in life — one thing she’s learned is that “I’m not a chaser. The things that are meant for you will find you when you’re being the most honest version of yourself. One of my mantras through this season of life is ‘We don’t chase. We attract.’” (She slipped that nugget into another album track, “look i like.”)

Related: Watch Alana Springsteen's Music Video for 'Trying Not To' with Roman Alexander: Song Is 'Something Special'

Taking stock of her career-in-progress, Springsteen says she feels certain that “I’m exactly where I’m meant to be,” and yet she also confesses to a restlessness.

“I’ve got that in me to just keep going,” she says, “always pressing on because I have this vision in my head. I've always wanted to just get my music out to as many people as possible and just have that connection, build this community. When I’m out on tour and playing shows, I’m thinking about the 9- and 10-year-olds who are in that audience. That was me. That was me watching Taylor. The idea that a song or a show or a moment can inspire someone to chase their dreams — and to believe that anything is possible — that’s why I do what I do.”

Springsteen's 15-date Twenty Something tour runs through Dec. 10; she also travels to Australia in November for two appearances at the Ridin' Hearts Festival.

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