In LeAnn Rimes' opinion, she didn't have much of a childhood. It wasn't carefree or peppered with play dates.
Growing up, she was surrounded by tunes that her parents played at home, which triggered an early interest and understanding of the power of music. Rimes recounted that she always wanted people to clap for her — if they didn't, she'd stop midway through her performance and walk away.
But, as an 8-year-old champion on Ed McMahon's "Star Search," she found herself under the spotlight very young. While this did away with any fear of entertaining large crowds and gave her an outlet for self-expression, it came with a price.
"I felt like an alien child because I don't think people saw me as anything other than a voice," Rimes said. "They held me to such high standards and placed me on this pedestal for so long that you almost become your voice. It's weird to have to sift through all of that as you grow up and figure out who you are."
And that's exactly what the country and pop singer has done with her latest album, "Spitfire." She plans to sing some numbers from the April release in Costa Mesa between Dec. 19 and 21.
The Los Angeles artist will debut at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts with her first performance with the Pacific Symphony. "Christmas with LeAnn Rimes" will also feature principal Pops Conductor Richard Kaufman, who will lead an orchestra armed with about 120 instruments.
Divided into two parts, the show will include traditional holiday songs with special guest Jay Johnson, who, as narrator, will tell the story of the night before Christmas. Rimes and her band will take the stage in the second half and play new and old hits to the accompaniment of the symphony.
"I believe the audience will be able to feel the true meaning of Christmas and its fun and excitement," Kaufman said.
A humanity 'I've never had'
By her own admission, Rimes enjoys playing such intimate concerts, which are more relaxed than arena shows. She is also a fan of the way her songs sound after tweaking arrangements for a full orchestra.
This stop in Orange County is part of a larger tour in December that will include Dallas and Salt Lake City. Although she used to be strict about following a predetermined set list, the two-time Grammy-winner plans to play around a bit based on the night and audience. She will go in with a rough idea, but is open to switching things around if someone calls out a request.
"It's definitely a fan experience to be able to come and hear songs that you want to hear," Rimes said. "But I think it's an even cooler experience for them to get to know me through songs that mean something to me."
This is a special and relaxed time of year in the Rimes household, although she and her husband, actor Eddie Cibrian, are only children, she said. Her family now includes two stepsons, Mason and Jake — from Cibrian's earlier marriage to "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Brandi Glanville — who are extremely enthusiastic about celebrating Christmas.
The 13 tracks on "Spitfire" began as conversations with Rimes' family, friends and Brown in her living room. Rimes delved deep as she wrote, holding the proverbial magnifying glass up to her struggles and responses. As authentic and honest lyrics poured out, she stumbled across feelings that she'd tucked away without even realizing it, and the self-exploration continued.
"There's a humanity, I think, to this album which I've never had before," remarked Rimes, who, for a long time, hid her awards in a closet for fear of appearing "boastful."
Experimenting in the studio
So what changed? Life, came her immediate reply.
Looking at the glass half full, Rimes said being in the public eye has afforded her the opportunity to pursue her passion and provide a life for herself and her loved ones. It's a blessing to have a career that so far spans 20 years, born from her love for performing.
When the glass is closer to empty, though, she noted that challenges are hard enough without throwing public judgment into the mix. It's easy to say, "I'll never do that" or "That's not who I am," she said — in fact, even she uttered those words to herself — but that's not always how life pans out.
"The story that everyone's written is so far beyond anything I could have ever done and felt when I was going through things," said Rimes, who credited her Southern roots for the desire to be barefoot and sprawled on the floor throughout the writing process.
"That's why there wasn't any fear in sharing it [on 'Spitfire'] because it was mild compared to what people wanted to say I did."
Creating the album also made for some fun. For instance, an hour and a half into working on "What Have I Done?", Rimes was fed up. She and her team were nowhere close to finalizing the track.
So, she lay down on her back on the studio floor — and kept singing without a definitive start or end point.
Unbeknownst to Rimes, her producer and co-writer Darrell Brown continued to record. And, suddenly, despite her lack of attention, it clicked.
"I'd had it," she recalled. "It was one of those freaky moments ... No one knew it was a perfect take until it was done."
Twenty years of stardom
Having hoped that her fans would approach her new material with an open mind, she found that her dialogue has drawn listeners in. "Borrowed," whose chorus says, "You're the best I'll ever have / And I don't want to give you back," deals with how Rimes and Cibrian got together, but people have approached her saying they'd related it to the death of someone they love.
It's the ultimate compliment, she said, to see listeners finding themselves within her songs. In retrospect, she's glad people got to see her as a woman, adult and wife, instead of only as a star.
Rimes, who is known for songs like "Blue," "How Do I Live" and "Can't Fight the Moonlight," is on the verge of completing a 20-year contract with Curb Records. The music industry is not the same as it was when she started out, so she is researching and shopping around before embarking on the next chapter of her career.
Vocal about her desire to one day be a parent, Rimes said she would nurture her children's talent, but would advise them to enjoy life with only age-appropriate responsibilities while that's possible.
"It'd be nice to provide a life for my child where they get to enjoy their first 18 years as kids," she said. "You have the rest of your life ahead of you to focus on big, adult things."
If You Go
What: "Christmas with LeAnn Rimes"
Where: Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 19 through 21
Cost: $35 to $185