Ashley Gearing got an early start in country music: As a 12-year-old, the singer signed a deal with Lyric Street Records and released "Can You Hear Me When I Talk to You?" When the song landed in the Top 40 (No. 36) on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in 2003, Gearing broke Brenda Lee's long-standing record as the youngest solo artist to earn a place on the country charts. Thirteen years later, however, she says all of that "feel[s] like it's a different lifetime."

"It was a pretty crazy experience. I think I just kind of blinked, and all of a sudden, I was in Nashville making an album and signed to Lyric Street Records. It was crazy!" Gearing tells The Boot. "... I have a sister who is eight years younger than me, and there was a point I was looking at her when she was 12 and thought, ‘I had a professional music career when I was her age.’"

Gearing earned comparisons to artists such as LeAnn Rimes and Billy Gilman, both of whom dominated the airwaves at young ages as well -- but she opted for a more private lifestyle.

"I came to a point where I started to feel like my childhood and my youth were not necessarily getting as much attention as me waking up and getting on a 5AM flight, flying here and there and doing this and that. I think my parents and I both agreed that I wanted to stay in school, so I’m not going to travel as much ...," Gearing admits. "... That’s something I’m really thankful for now, that I was able to focus on going to a normal school and a normal high school, and I continued on to college."

Gearing, in fact, wanted nothing to do with the perks of fame: She eschewed any form of recognition in favor of a normal childhood.

"I didn’t want to tell anyone what I did. I don’t know why I was so secretive about it," she recalls. "... I would go to school and then hop on a plane and go to Nashville and sing on the Opry; it was just crazy. But I didn’t want to tell people, because I guess I was afraid I’d be singled out for it."

Now that she has graduated from college, though, Gearing is ready to put everything she's got into her music career. In 2015, she released a self-titled EP -- "I call it my 'big girl record,'" Gearing says -- which includes the single "Love Can Go to Hell."

"I think I’m still trying to figure out what the next step is, where I want to go with it," she maintains. "It’s so hard in the music industry right now that I don’t want to define my success with a chart position or whatnot. I really want it to be fulfilling for me to go out."

Gearing also hopes to add more tour dates to her calendar and release a full-length album later this year.

"I haven’t had the luxury of time, because I’ve been in school all the time," she explains. "... The average day for me is going in and being creative and songwriting and interacting with Music Row. Now I’m ready for the country people to hear it."

The Massachusetts native acknowledges that she sometimes wonders what would have happened if she had pushed herself harder when she was younger.

"You are your worst critic, and I guess my worst time is when I have down time, and I’m thinking about all of the things that I should have done," Gearing confesses. "... But you can’t go back ... There’s no magic formula in this business. You do what you do, and everything could change in 24 hours. That’s also what I learned. It’s crazy."

Ultimately, the "what if?" fuels Gearing to work harder than ever before -- and to not look back.

"There’s been a lot of ups and downs in my career. In my head, I’m thinking setbacks. But I look at the bigger picture, and I look at this peace that I somehow have through it all, and just knowing that I’m going to be led to what I need to do, and I just need to be true to myself," she says. "I need to keep making the music that I want to make and be a good person and have friends and enjoy life. That’s what’s important to me. And whatever happens successfully through the industry or whatnot is a bonus."

The Ashley Gearing EP is available for download on iTunes.

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