Laine Hardy chuckles when asked if he's the same artist he was two years ago when his debut album set roots. It's impossible to answer, but pertinent because that's when this journey started.

Hardy recorded songs including "Let There Be Country" and "Ground I Grew Up On" back then. He also first heard "California Won't," a pensive goodbye song, masterfully written by the late Busbee with Jon Nite and the late Andrew Dorff.

"I didn’t know much about it, so I felt undeserving of it in a way," he shares, thinking back to those frenzied months after winning Season 17 of American Idol. In some ways, Hardy's recording of the song is a time capsule, but in others, it's representative of who he's always been and still is.

The truth is, Hardy hasn't changed, but he also has. He's grown, but very little (though certainly not nothing) on Here's to Anyone — out Friday (Sept. 17) — will stun the viewers who've stayed with him through two American Idol auditions, a 2019 win and the many stories, recordings and livestream concerts he's offered since.

Buena Vista Records

Languid Louisiana rock vibes inspired by the classic rock albums Hardy grew up on dot the arrangements he and producer Michael Knox settled on; despite the age and experience gap, the two men are like minds.

“From the moment I met him, he’s been the most down-to-earth guy ever," Hardy shares from a Nashville office. "Our ideas don’t collide. They just sort of flow together."

All the anxiety that Hardy says he feels as he takes a live stage subsided in studio. It was easy, he shares, if slow.

Since Idol's early days, there's been a shift in how winners approach their careers: Kelly Clarkson pumped out a single, album and even a movie after taking Season 1. When Scotty McCreery won Season 10 in 2011, he waited all of four months to drop his debut album. Today, however, with a less-fervent commercial crowd awaiting a winner's next move, artists are apt to wait, especially if — like Hardy — they're new to making music for the mainstream.

So Hardy, now 21, paused but never fully stopped, even when the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a halt. Some may have resented such an interruption, thinking it best to strike while the iron is hot. After some consideration, however, the kid from Livingston, La., embraced having a minute to work on himself.

“This is good. Maybe this is a good thing," he says, remembering his approach. "I can step back from it for a second and better myself at things that I don’t really see on the go."

"Tiny Town" and "The Other LA" are two more songs that music-hungry fans heard long before now. Hardy released "Memorize You" this summer, and the rest of the 11 tracks came sprinkled in between. There was never a temptation to revisit those early recordings, though, even as new ideas and techniques came his way.

“I experimented a lot with this album, and I was very open-minded to things," Hardy says. "I really wanted to try all kind of different experiments with these songs."

That mindset is most obvious on "One of Those," one of two tracks Hardy co-wrote for Here's to Anyone. A pop sheen sets an ambiance for him to describe a romantic night — even with a steel guitar anchoring the arrangement, one can't help but think of '80s pop — and after the second chorus, a small choir harmonizes, "Oh-oh-oh" before the bridge.

If there's a put-your-hand-in-your-lover's-back-pocket song in Hardy's setlist as he begins his Monster Energy Outbreak Tour, it's this one. Like the artist himself, "One of Those" is a throwback that's adjusted to remain relevant in 2021.

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