Dark places: summertime sadness with Lana Del Ray
Initially, things seemed to be going well between US superstar Lana Del Ray and Brian Hiatt, as they discussed her music - which her record company doesn't particularly like - her wayward youth, and her experience of being the wedding band for Kim and Kanye. But then, it all turned a bit sour. Here is the interview she did not want you to read
Published 01/09/2014 | 02:30
She goes to a dark place, in the end, and won't come out of it. "I'm not sure if they should run this story," Lana Del Rey will say, sprawled out on a soft brown couch in tiny denim cut-offs and a white V-neck tee, blowing pensive little gum bubbles. She has, by this point, spent a good seven hours talking with me. At times, it even seemed like it was going well.
"I feel like maybe we should wait until there's something good to talk about," she continues, in an airy tone that turns pleading. "You know? I just wish you could write about something else."
Maybe it shouldn't have been a shock, landing here. Del Rey's brand of pop stardom is self-thwarting, ambivalent, precarious: at her clouded core, beneath the considerable glamour, she is more Cat Power or Kurt Cobain than Rihanna or Katy Perry, complete with a mysterious, Kurt-like stomach ailment that plagues her on tour. And then there's the tattoo on the side of her right hand, just below the pinkie, inked in neat black cursive: Trust No One. (On the same spot on the other hand: Paradise.)
Still, a day earlier, it all feels different. On a cloudless, offensively hot, mid-June afternoon in New York, the release day for Del Rey's second major-label album, Ultraviolence, she answers the green wooden door of the Greenwich Village town-house where she's staying. "I'm Lana, nice to see you," she says, offering a soft handshake and a big, white, hopeful smile, one that instantly suggests everything you think you know about her is wrong; that you've read too much into the consecutive placement of songs called Sad Girl and Pretty When You Cry on the new album; that you've taken certain recent interview quotes (mainly, "I wish I was dead already," which earned her a Twitter scolding from Frances Bean Cobain) too seriously; that it's a mistake to assume her aloof stage manner has anything to do with her actual personality.
Her laugh, fizzy and girlish, is coming easily. She's all but giddy over having her album out, uncompromising, spooky, guitar-laden, hitless thing that it is: "It's what I wanted". Today's V-neck tee is powder blue, nearly matching the self-applied pastel polish on her longish nails, over pale, strategically shredded jeans, cuffed just below the calves, that are familiar from another magazine's photo shoot. She's wearing false eyelashes, but not much noticeable make-up. Del Rey is four days away from her 29th birthday (for reasons she can't explain, she's usually reported to be a year younger), but looks, at the moment, like a American college student home for the summer.
She seems so carefree - bubbly, even - that within 10 minutes, it seems safe to break the ice: "So, on a scale of one to 10, how much do you wish you were dead right now?"
Her big, brownish-green eyes widen even further. Then she lets out a delicate snort of amusement. "Ten being dead?" she says. "You're funny! Today is a good day." Today she chooses life? "Yeah, today I choose life." So, like a one? "Ten. Ten!" she says, in a daffy sing-song, not unlike Diane Keaton murmuring, 'la di da' in Annie Hall. "Seven. 12!" She throws back her head and laughs, possibly beginning to enjoy herself. But when it comes to Lana Del Rey, who can tell anything for sure? She's a baffling bundle of contradictory signifiers, a mystery that 10,000 tortured think-pieces have failed to solve. David Nichtern, who signed her to his small indie label when she was still in college, saw her as "the outer aspect of Marilyn Monroe with the inner aspect of Leonard Cohen". She may look a bit like Nico, but she's her own Lou Reed. She's nervous and self-conscious onstage, but fearless in her lyrics ('My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola'; 'I was an angel looking to get fucked hard').
Her consistently viral videos are id-infested pageants of creepy-nostalgic Americana, good-girl/bad-girl dichotomies and the occasional make-out sesh with an old dude. Just try to figure out what's going on in her 2012 clip for National Anthem, where she plays both Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, dares to riff on the Zapruder footage of JFK's assassination, and casts rapper A$AP Rocky as JFK. She's an American pop superstar with hardly any actual radio hits in the US, just a remix of her song Summertime Sadness that she never even heard before its release. And, perhaps more than any other pop star of this century, she's been misunderstood, even hated. She was the subject of a savage indie-nerd backlash - a pre-lash, really - before most people had ever heard of her. (Among other complaints, music bloggers felt somehow duped when her online hit Video Games led to a near-instant major-label deal.)
Her shaky, slightly dead-eyed Saturday Night Live debut was treated like a national emergency in the US, inspiring weeks of debate. She had her change of name from Lizzy Grant presented as evidence of deception rather than showbiz-as-usual. She had to deny surgically enhancing her lips' poutiness (up close, for what it's worth, they look pretty much like lips).
Released in the wake of the SNL performance, her 2012 debut on Interscope Records, Born to Die, got sceptical reviews. The songs, and her mannered, multi-layered vocals, seemed to be drowning in lush, trip-hoppy production. But with the help of strong, cinematic new tracks on the bonus EP Paradise, it all turned around. The album sold more than one million copies in the US (and more than seven million worldwide); her Great Gatsby soundtrack single, Young and Beautiful went platinum. Kanye West, who takes matters of taste seriously, enlisted her to play at his wedding to Kim Kardashian. "It was beautiful, just being there," Del Rey says. "They seemed very happy." Earlier, over lunch, West had told her "he really liked where I was coming from, visually and sonically".
Del Rey isn't inclined to celebrate any of this stuff, however. "It doesn't feel like success," she says. "Because with everything that could have felt like something really sweet, there's always been something out of the periphery of my world, beyond my control, to kind of disrupt whatever was happening. I've never felt like, 'Oh, this is great'."
The town house Del Rey is staying in belongs to someone she calls "a friend", 31-year-old Francesco Carrozzini, a dashing Italian photographer who's shot her for various European magazines. He obviously does well for himself - "better than us," Del Rey jokes, as she shows me around. His four-storey house is a seriously amazing bit of Manhattan real estate, a movie-star-worthy bachelor pad, its dark-wood walls covered with art photos and his shots of celebrities like Keith Richards. The house is on the same block where Bob Dylan moved with his family in 1969; Anna Wintour lives nearby, as does Baz Luhrmann.
On the second-floor, on a coffee table, near a Serge Gainsbourg box set, there's a book called The Boudoir Bible. "No shame," Del Rey says with a grin. She's sitting on the brown couch, smoking Carrozzini's American Spirit cigarettes in her languid way, below a huge black-and-white photo of a bunch of slim, naked people, piled on top of one another. The midday sun is blazing through an open window, and her brown hair and fair skin are glowing in its haze - an Instagram filter or cinematographer couldn't do better. "I quit sometimes," she says, of the cigarettes. "And then stop quitting." She smokes onstage, too - it's pure craving, not an image thing. "I find, sometimes, halfway through the set, I definitely need to have a cigarette."
Within a few days, she'll be photographed nuzzling with Carrozzini in Europe. But for now, she says, she's single. Starting in December or so, Del Rey began a protracted break-up with Barrie-James O'Neill, her boyfriend of three years. He's a songwriter, which allowed her to live out some Dylan/Joan Baez fantasies (she's partial to Baez's paean to that romance, Diamonds and Rust, even quoting it on Ultraviolence). "It's all been hard," Del Rey says. "Yeah, my life is just feeling really heavy on my shoulders, and his own neuroses just getting the best of him, I think, just made it untenable. Which is sad, because it was truly circumstantial, the reasons for us not being together."
Ultraviolence feels, at times, like a break-up album, though Del Rey says all of the songs were actually about previous relationships. Either way, it answers a lot of questions about her, even as it raises some new ones. If she were the corporate puppet or calculated fraud some of her detractors imagined her to be, this is not an album she would ever make. The main producer was Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who's gifted at summoning vintage-y atmosphere and Morricone-ish grandeur, but is in little danger of being confused with Dr Luke or Max Martin. They recorded much of it live, with his Nashville crew of rock musicians playing while Del Rey sang into a $100 hand-held microphone, her vocals newly raw, jazzy and powerful. There are a bunch of guitar solos. But not one track seems even vaguely suited for pop radio.
Even before Auerbach got involved, Del Rey knew that she wanted something very different this time around.
"This record was, 'I'm going to do it my way,'" says her friend Lee Foster, who runs Electric Lady Studios in New York, and co-produced some of the album there. Foster told her that Bruce Springsteen had followed up Born in the USA with the stark Nebraska (Foster had the order reversed, but close enough). "We talked about taking that stance, like Springsteen shifting gears and saying, 'I'm gonna do exactly what you don't expect me to do'."
Auerbach ran into Del Rey at Electric Lady, where he was mixing Ray LaMontagne's new LP. "Honestly, we both benefited from really not knowing anything about each other," he says. After she played him some of the demos she was working on, he became a fan, lobbying to produce her. But he was taken aback by the major-label hassles he experienced - Del Rey is signed to two of them, Interscope and the UK's Polydor. "There was a lot of bullshit I'm not used to," Auerbach says. "The label says, 'We're not going to give you the budget to extend this session unless we hear something'. And we send them the rough mix and they fucking hate it and they hate the way it's mixed. And it's like, 'Thanks, asshole'.
"The story I got told," he continues, "is that they played it for her label person and they said, 'We're not putting out this record that you and Dan made unless you meet with the Adele producer'. And she said, 'Fine, whatever'. And she was late to the meeting, so while they were waiting, the label guy played what we recorded for the Adele producer and he said, 'This is amazing - I wouldn't do anything to change this'. And here's the kicker: Then all of a sudden, the label guy said, 'Well, yeah, I think it's great, too'."
"I had heard about some back and forth regarding the music," says Interscope chief John Janick. "But Lana knows her vision and her audience, and it's up to us to follow her lead." Del Rey acknowledges a six-week period this past spring when things were in limbo: "I mean, I think there were people they wanted me to work with," she says. "I don't know who they were. When I said I was ready, they were like, 'Are you sure?'" She laughs. "'Because I feel like you could go further'."
"On this album, in my opinion, you didn't want her to try to do something," says Janick's predecessor at Interscope, Jimmy Iovine. "I felt she hit a bullseye. Everybody's saying to me, 'We need a single', calling me from Europe. I said, 'You don't need anything'. It's a very coherent body of work, and I thought any other conversation was a distraction. Lana, more than most, reminds me of artists that I produced" - he's thinking of Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks in particular - "which are slightly different than the majority of artists that are on Interscope. Because you can't find those artists every day. She's one of the rare things that come along in life, which is a lyricist. You know how rare they are today, outside rap?"
Del Rey's co-manager, Ben Mawson, warned her that she'd have to answer for some of the new album's lyrics, particularly the title track, which quotes the old girl-group line, 'He hit me and it felt like a kiss', then adds, 'He hurt me but it felt like true love', just in case she hadn't made her point. She's vague on whether this theme might be autobiographical. "I guess I would say, like, I'm definitely drawn to people with a strong physicality," she says with a shrug, "with more of a dominant personality."
She's not worried about any message those lines might send. "It's not meant to be popular," she says, sitting in the backyard of the town house, which opens on to a shared garden, where Dylan had angered his neighbours decades ago by trying to put up a fence. She's sipping hot coffee through a straw, a long-standing habit she acknowledges is both "weird" and "nerdy". "It's not pop music," she says. "The only thing I have to do is whatever I want, and I want to write whatever I want. I just hope people don't ask me about it. So I don't feel a responsibility at all. I mean, I just don't. I feel responsible in other ways, community-wise - to be a good citizen, abide by the law."
But precisely how does she want the public to hear those lines? "I just don't want them to hear it at all," she says, pouting a little. "I'm very selfish. I make everything for me, kind of. I mean, every little thing, down to the guitar and the drums. It's just for me. I want to hear it, I want to drive to it, I want to swim in the ocean to it. I want to think about it, and then I want to write something new after it. You know? It's just . . . I don't want them to hear it and think about it. It's none of their business!"
But, um, isn't she selling people this music? "I'm not selling the record," she says. "I'm signed to a label who's selling the record. I don't need to make any money. I really could care less. But I do care about making music. I would do it either way. So that's why it has to be on my terms."
Del Rey has never been in therapy. "There's nothing anyone could ever tell me that I don't already know," she says. "I know everything about myself. I know why I do what I do. All of my compulsions and interests and inspirations. I'm very in sync with that. It's the other stuff that I don't have any control over, just what's going to happen on a daily basis. My interactions."
So what drives her? "Now? Nothing," she says. "I don't have any drive anymore. But I enjoy making records. Before, I felt drive, but now it just feels like an interest. With the first record having received so much analysis, there's no more room for ambition. It breaks that part down, just because you sort of know what to expect, and that nothing is going to work out the way you think anyway."
She doesn't want to conquer the world? "No. What I'd love to do is - Francesco has a bike downstairs," she says. "I would love to take a motorcycle to Coney Island and have an amazing talk with you and jump in the water." Somehow, this plan never comes up again.
Even as a small child, Elizabeth Woolridge Grant was, by her own recollection, "obstinate, contrary". She was born in Manhattan to parents who both worked Mad Men-style jobs at the advertising giant Grey, but when she was one year old, they gave up those careers and moved to sleepy, upstate Lake Placid. Her dad would go on to start his own furniture company, get into real estate and then become a successful early investor in web domain names. But Lizzy just wished they had stayed in the city. "It was really, really quiet," says Del Rey, who has compared the town to Twin Peaks. "I was always waiting to get back to New York City. School was hard. The traditional educational system was not really working for me."
At 14 or so, Lizzy started drinking and hanging out with older kids. The scenario, she recognises with a laugh, was not unlike the harrowing movie Thirteen. "In small towns, you sort of grow up fast because there isn't that much to do," she says. "So you're out with everybody else who's already graduated, and that's totally normal. But it just didn't sit well with everyone in my family."
'I'm a sad girl/I'm a bad girl,' she sings on her new album - but the sad part didn't come until later. She "felt passionate" about drinking, sharing bottles of peach and cherry schnapps with her friends. "I felt like I had kind of arrived into my own life," she says, her voice turning dreamy. "I felt free. Even though I loved leaving town, by the time I was about 15, I knew I was probably going to stay there and have a life there. I mean, I had a vision for myself, definitely, at that point. I didn't see myself becoming a singer or anything. I just wanted to grow up and get married and have fun. Have my own life, my own place." Her parents, meanwhile, wanted her to become a nurse.
Losing patience with her partying, they sent her away to Connecticut's Kent School. The move failed to curtail her drinking, and she was miserable. Her father's apparent success aside, she says she was on financial aid. "I was very quiet," she says, "just figuring things out. I didn't relate well with what was going on culturally." She wasn't into mean girls. "The ways people treated other people, I thought was kind of cruel. The high-school mentality I didn't really understand. I wasn't really, like, snarky or bitchy." In an early song called Boarding School, she mentions being part of a "pro-ana nation" referring to anorexia, and sings, 'Had to do drugs to stop the food cravings'. But she insists that's fiction. "The mentality of the pro-ana community was just something that was interesting to me."
A young English instructor introduced her to Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman and Vladimir Nabokov (she has tattoos of the latter two names on her forearm), plus Tupac, the Notorious BIG, and old movies like The Big Sleep. Lines in Boarding School and another unreleased track, Prom Song, led fans to question the precise nature of this relationship, but Del Rey says it was nothing inappropriate. "He was just my friend."
She started to think that she might want to be a singer, but could hardly bring herself to say it out loud, especially to her family. "I just thought it was kind of a presumptuous thing to say, coming from a more traditional background. You wouldn't say it unless you really meant it."
The summer after her senior year, back in Lake Placid, she woke up sick and hungover one morning, and suddenly realised something important was missing. "I lost my car," she says. "I couldn't find it. And . . . I don't know, I just lost it. And I was just really sick. It was just one of the many reasons why my life was unmanageable. I didn't want to keep fucking up. And at that point, if I was going to keep going, I wanted to have something that I really wanted to do."
She says she hasn't had a drink or gotten high since that year, but won't clarify whether she considers herself an alcoholic, or if she ever went to rehab. "It's just you never really know what's going to happen," she says. "Things change every day."
She had gotten into SUNY Geneseo, a college in New York's state-university system, but decided not to go. She took the year off, heading to her aunt and uncle's house on Long Island. She worked as a waitress, just as she'd done over various summers. "I loved it," she says, though her mom told one of her label execs that she had been a truly awful waitress.
Her uncle taught her some guitar chords, and she started playing open mics in the city. Somewhere around that time, she read Anthony Scaduto's pioneering Bob Dylan biography, which she saw as a "road map" toward becoming an artist.
The next fall, she enrolled at Fordham University in the Bronx, where she majored in philosophy, but otherwise hardly participated in student life. She lived with boyfriends, crashed on couches. "I was writing, writing, for years," she says. "Trying to figure out what I really wanted to say and why I was consumed with this passion for writing, where it came from. It kept me up all night. So I was waiting to see why. That was a really whole separate world."
She'd ride the subway late at night, composing lyrics in her head. "There were these nights that I enjoyed so much, just staying up and writing songs." She cites a sparse, Cat Power-ish tune called Disco ("I am my only god now," she sings, cheerily) and Trash Magic (sample lyric: "Boy, you want to come to the motel, honey/Boy, ya wanna hold me down, tell me that you love me?"). "I felt I was really capturing my life in song form, and it was such a pleasure. And that being my whole life, you know? And really being happy, because I was doing exactly what I loved."
In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a songwriting competition in 2006 led her to 5 Points Records, a tiny label run by Nichtern, who had, years earlier, written the Maria Muldaur hit, Midnight at the Oasis. "I knew immediately that she was gonna be a big star," says Nichtern. "And she herself knew, and not just by chutzpah or bravado. On some level she knew this was what her karma was."
Nichtern hooked her up with producer David Kahne, the guy behind Sublime and Sugar Ray hits, who recalls leading her to looped beats for the first time. Kahne was a well-connected industry veteran and she was an unknown kid, but he found her somewhat daunting. "She was mysterious," Kahne says. "I was confused a lot of the time whether what I was doing was right or wrong, whether she liked it or didn't. It felt, a lot of times, like everything could change all of a sudden." Like, for instance, Lizzy's name.
Lana Del Rey is, she says, the same person - the same artist, even - as Lizzy Grant. "There's not, like, a schism between people," she says. "It's actually just a different name, and that's sort of where it begins and ends. I just thought it was strange, being born into this geographic lockdown location, and a name that you didn't choose, and going to school for fucking 23 years. It was just unfathomable to me. So I think in choosing that name, it was just more becoming who I was, you know? It wasn't music-related. It was just part of my life." The other possible name was Cherry Galore, she says, probably joking: "You'd be sitting here calling me 'Cherry'."
By the time Lizzy became Lana for good, 5 Points had already released an EP from the Kahne sessions under the name Lizzy Grant - and iTunes had selected Lizzy as one of the best new artists of 2008. "As we're putting the album together, she says something like, 'I really want to change my name'," recalls Nichtern, who had been taking Lizzy and her album around the industry. "If we're making the movie, you'd see a spit take. We'd just gotten that far with Lizzy Grant." But Del Rey had found new management, dyed her hair from blonde to brown and was ready to move on. They ended up all but scrubbing the LP's existence from the internet, which made it look like they were trying to hide Del Rey's past, contributing to conspiracy-mongering later on.
"We didn't want the old album to be available just as we were trying to launch a new thing," says Mawson, her co-manager. "And if that created suspicion in the eyes of weirdos on the internet, then fine."
Del Rey went off to London for months of writing sessions, one of which yielded an elegiac ode to a boyfriend who liked to play World of Warcraft, though she knew simply calling it Video Games was a lot more poetic ("Sometimes a girl's just gotta generalize"). She had started making videos using iMovie, mixing self-shot webcam segments and YouTube clips - "Just putting things together, building a little world". She perfected the approach with Video Games, creating a career-launching viral video. Even as she faced legal action for appropriating footage, people accused her of not actually making the Video Games clip herself - The New Yorker, of all places, called it "allegedly home-made". "I definitely wouldn't say I did if I didn't," she says with a sigh, showing me the software on her MacBook, which has a badly cracked screen. "That would be weird."
It's a clairvoyant, appropriately enough, who gives the first hint that something will go wrong on the second day. "I was trying to think of shit we could do," Del Rey says, greeting me again at the town-house door. "The only thing I could think of is we could see a psychic together." In any case, she needs cigarettes, so we head out into the heat. She's wearing cheap, gold-framed sunglasses with peach-coloured lenses. "They're so ugly," she says, striding along Bleecker Street. "Rose-colored glasses. Just what the doctor ordered."
Del Rey was raised Catholic, but she has a mystical bent. "I'm definitely a seeker," she says. While she was waiting for the Kahne album to come out, she got involved with an "East Village guru" who "had an ability to see into the past and read into the future." But she left his orbit after detecting something "sinister" about him.
We end up paying a visit to a storefront psychic next to a bodega, in a creepy, red-walled room. The mystic turns out to be an unexpectedly fresh-faced woman in a matching red sundress, who enforces strict rules about "energy." Del Rey asks her to do our readings together, but the psychic demurs: "Can I talk to the young lady alone?" The outing is becoming comically pointless. Del Rey is laughing as we return to the house, though maybe slightly irritated. "Fuck," she says. "I should've thought that one out. I don't think she had the gift. It's always sort of a menacing vibe unless you go to somebody who's, like, world-renowned." The psychic told her that this is her year for love and happiness - Del Rey jokes that there's still six months left. She's amused to hear that the psychic told me that I'm spiritually sensitive. "She could probably tell that you thought she was being a fucking bitch."
We go back to talking, with Del Rey blowing cigarette smoke out the window, into the light. We finally touch on Saturday Night Live, still a dangerous subject. The performance, she maintains, "wasn't dynamic, but it was true to form". But the reaction was agonising. She felt music-business friends pulling away from her. "Everyone I knew suddenly wasn't so sure about me," she says. "They were like, 'Maybe I don't want to be associated with her - not a great reputation'." Iovine says they simply "got caught speeding" with the early performance, and that he spent time in the studio afterward, coaching Del Rey on using in-ear monitors.
I ask her about Ride, a song where she sings about feeling "fucking crazy" - not an isolated sentiment in her catalogue. "Well, I feel fucking crazy," she says. "But I don't think I am. People make me feel crazy." We talk a little about the "I wish I were dead" thing, which she blames on leading questions. "I find that most people I meet figure I kind of want to kill myself anyway," she says. "So it comes up every time."
Then, really without warning, her mood shifts. It's a powerful thing, palpable in the room, like a sudden mass of threatening clouds. Her eyes seem to turn a shade darker: Trust no one. I ask, perversely, about Fucked my Way up to the Top, one of Ultraviolence's best songs, which attacks an unnamed imitator who didn't have to go through the gauntlet Del Rey did. It may be about Lorde, who criticised Del Rey's lyrics but has a not-dissimilar vocal style.
She just released the song, but she doesn't want to talk about it. "Now you are annoying me," she says, half-trying to sound like she's kidding. She lights a cigarette, looking miserable.
We begin an agonizing, endless meta-conversation about our interview and her relationship with the press. "I find the nature of the questions difficult," she says. "Cause it's not like I'm a rock band and you're asking how everything got made and what it's like touring in arenas and what are the girls like. It's about my father. It's about my mental health. It's fucking personal. And these questions all have negative inferences: It's just like, SNL; 'Do you actually want to kill yourself?' Maybe I'm sensitive. Do you think?"
That's when she says she doesn't want to do the story anymore. She also says, "What you write won't matter" - meaning that nothing will change her detractors' minds about her. It goes on and on. "You hit all my more sensitive weaknesses, all my Achilles heels. You're asking all the right questions. I just really don't want to answer them."
Every attempt to talk her off this rhetorical ledge seems to make it worse. Del Rey stands up, in a distinct time-to-go gesture.
"I definitely presented myself well, and that's all I've ever done," she says, walking me downstairs. "And that's never really got me anywhere. I'm just uncomfortable, and it has nothing to do with you."
Stepping out, I try to convince her that her crisis of confidence over the interview is no big deal. It is, again, the wrong thing to say.
"It's not a crisis of confidence, it's not," she says, standing in the doorway. "I am confident." Her eyes are ablaze with hurt and pride. "I am." She says goodbye, and shuts the door.