Ashley Nicolette Frangipane, a pop wunderkind from New Jersey and my date for the afternoon, has gone from writing songs in her bedroom to selling out arena tours within the space of 12 months. Making music as "Halsey," an anagram of her name and also a street in Brooklyn where she spent a lot of time growing up, she began her career posting covers on YouTube and now writes songs about "sex and being sad," a.k.a. my two favorite pastimes.
Her official website is still hosted on Tumblr, where she put in years of groundwork building a massive online fanbase with people who felt a kindred connection with her long before she got picked up by Astralwerks (an imprint of Universal Music). I don't want to proclaim "voice of a generation" too prematurely, but a breakup poem she posted a few years ago has been liked and reblogged over 820,000 times (resulting in online plagiarism charges against herself when she repurposed it for song lyrics), her songs are full of millennial statements like: “High on legal marijuana / Raised on Biggie and Nirvana," and her label trusts her so much they're totally chill about the fact that her debut album BADLANDS is a concept record based on hedonism in Las Vegas.
Everything she's released so far and the social media-based DIY way in which she's made a name for herself can coax easy references to artists like Lana Del Rey or Lorde, but it turns out most of Halsey's influences come from another scene altogether: 00s emo. Listing Bright Eyes, Brand New, and Taking Back Sunday as inspiration, Halsey is a unique hybrid of cultures and represents a new, bolder kind of voice in pop music.
We arranged to meet at a nineteenth-century wine bar for some candlelit downtime, but she was almost an hour late for our date after being mobbed by fans who found out where her hotel was, and again outside the BBC Radio studios. Ordinarily if someone was that late to meet me I'd already be in an Uber, swiping through Tinder for a replacement, but how often does a badass, emo-loving, soon-to-be-icon agree to shoot the shit and pretend to know about posh wines with you?
Noisey: Hi Halsey, thank you for meeting me in this stinky Dickensian wine cellar. I’m going to confess right now that I don’t know shit about wine, but let’s order some anyway.
Halsey: I feel complicated when I order wine because I’m like "It has to be pinot noir." I’m 20 in the US so the more I know about what I’m ordering the more likely they are to serve me. I’m like “Yeah, so, I would love the German pinot noir… could you bring it to me so I can smell it?”
I’ve had to develop a similar tactic here lately because even though I’m like eight years legal, I’ve lost like every form of ID that I have, and I look about 15. So, you live in LA now right? Tell me about LA.
I live in Studio City in The Valley, where all the young kids are moving now. It’s all organic juices, holistic healing and: “Hey, this is my baby, his name is Kale.” I haven’t really explored much of London yet. Last time I was working on an album, so I was a fucking useless human being. I couldn’t even hold a conversation with people. I was also belligerently drunk the whole time.
That’s funny because the first time I went to America I was only 19 so I had the most sober PG time of my life. Anyway, tell me about some of your tattoos.
Okay, this one is William Shakespeare, because I’m a cliché bitch, and it says “these violent delights have violent ends.” A lot of my friends growing up lived really excessively. They took a lot of drugs and some of them overdosed. I knew that getting into this industry there would be a lot of money, drugs, and drinking, so it’s kind of a reminder that your vices will end poorly for you. Keep your fucking head on straight, you know?
The one above is an upside down horseshoe. You’re not supposed to tattoo a horseshoe upside down, because it means all the luck is flying out.
Was the tattoo artist chill with that or did he freak out like hell no if I do this my shop will explode?
[Laughs] He was stoked on it. It’s funny though since I’ve got it I’ve developed really bad luck. In the grand scheme of the universe, I have tremendous luck, but from a superficial standpoint I have the worst luck. I’ll buy coffee and spill it on myself, I’ll lose my baggage on a flight, that kind of bad luck.
This one is an Om symbol an old boyfriend and I got together. It’s to promote harmony and balance, and I think I kind of need that. I’m a person of duality, for sure. I’m biracial—my dad’s black, my mum’s white—I’m bisexual, I’m diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I’m a Libra, which means I’m the scales. So I got this as an attempt to gain some sort of harmony.
I really want to buy into astrology but I don’t know if I’m “there” yet. Maybe nothing cosmic enough has happened to me. Are you really into it?
I wasn’t, but then stuff started happening to me in such a directly relative way that I was like, alright, maybe I’ll do a bit more research. I think anyone who’s a musician has such a unique life that you have to believe in some sort of universal force. Maybe that’s an insecurity thing; maybe I don’t really believe I’m working as hard or that I’m as good as people think, so it must be luck, you know? That’s why I got that horseshoe tattoo, to remind myself: it’s not luck, you are working really hard.
My mum is so into horoscopes and stuff. I’ll be like, “Mum, I feel sad” and she’ll start whipping out her rune stones.
Having an unconventional parent is the sickest thing. My dad is like this black guy from Boston who played basketball and my mum is a this teeny tiny little grunge girl from New Jersey. She had me in college, and when I was a baby she would dress me in baby Doc Martens, floral dresses, and acid wash jeans.
Well I grew up wearing denim bucket hats, so you had a narrow escape.
My parents were really encouraging with my independence, my sexuality, and just letting me come into myself. I think a lot of people’s inhibitions comes from not wanting to let their parents down. It comes from having to be respectful or conventional, and I never had to be, so sometimes people will think I’m being offensive or vulgar or overly sexual and I’m like “You’re offended by that? Wow, ok.”
Do you get that in interviews a lot? Like, “Oh my god Halsey is so outrageous!”
People will say things to me sometimes, like, “You post some very revealing pictures online, how does your dad feel about that?” And I’m like a) gross, and b) my dad’s not going to sexualize me, he’s my dad… He’s just like, “Oh there’s my daughter, there’s her body, whatever.” That’s a good parent.
I like the fact that a lot of your lyrics seem to be about being a “complicated” woman, and just really owning that.
There’s this phrase that I’ve kind of coined, this idea of being an “inconvenient woman," and that’s something I’ve been my whole life. People either find out that I struggle with a mental illness and they don’t wanna fuck with me, or they fetishize it, and it becomes like, “Oh, you’re a crazy girl, that must mean that you’re really fun and really good in bed.” And then it’s 3 AM and I’m having an anxiety attack and they can’t deal with it.
Right, it’s the Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted fetish.
Exactly. I think writers write about what they’re scared of. So I write a lot about isolation and being scared of being alone, because I think I am. I think a lot of it comes from needing to be reassured, I need someone to validate my concerns. There’s a song on the record called “Control” and I think a lot of it is about is taking a mental illness and turning it into something positive. I think it’s an artist’s job is to immortalize things. You put things into art so they last forever, so for me it was about taking my demons that would otherwise kill me and saying, “Fuck you, I’m gonna live forever because of you.”
Your video for “Ghost” is super cinematic. It made me think of Lost in Translation if Bill Murray was also a young woman…
The video portrays me in this same-sex relationship that’s about more than sex. It’s about love, loss, friendship, and tenderness. Lesbians in music videos are often portrayed in a hypersexualized manner, like they can only exist for the pleasure of men, for the pleasure of pornography, and otherwise it’s not acceptable. Here’s what I struggled with though: Am I gonna do video which shows all the normal scenes of a lesbian relationship and then almost discredit the beauty of it, or am I gonna do a video that’s super cinematic that could be taken the wrong way? I kind of merged them into one, then came the outburst: “Halsey’s new sexually explicit video! Halsey’s racy new video! Halsey’s new political statement!” It’s none of that.
What would you say it is?
I was sitting in a meeting with my video team and someone said to me, “Cool, so we’re going to do a video for ‘Ghost’ so we’ll film it on this day and we’ll cast a male love interest…” I was like, “Why the fuck would you assume I would want male love interest?” That was a small victory. It was meant to prove one person wrong and instead proved like a million wrong! Any website making a big deal out of me doing a video that doesn’t follow a hetero-normative plotline implies that it’s not normal, that it’s something to have a big deal made of it.
There’s actually two videos for “Ghost." The first one had loads of cinema references too: Gummo, Kids, Romeo + Juliet… Basically all my favorite films. I’m trying not to swoon too hard right now but it’s difficult.
Yeah! The whole of Badlands is inspired by cinema. It’s all references to Tarantino, Harmony Korine… There are literally songs on the album called “Drive” and “Strangelove," because what I did on that album was try to create a landscape and paint something visual with sound, which I learned is a fucking hard thing to do. I wrote a concept record about a fictional universe… if it didn’t sound out of this world then I didn’t do my job.
Okay, I want to know more about this fictional universe.
I got inspired to write BADLANDS flying over Las Vegas. I looked out at the desert with this booming city in the middle of it and thought, “What the fuck?!” There are all these things you’re not supposed to do: excessive sex, be sexually deviant, do drugs… But if you do it in Las Vegas, it’s totally cool. That’s fucked up! Badlands, for me, is a booming metropolis filled with toxic behaviours, gluttony, commercialism, sex, neon lights, and super heavy police authority. I started getting obsessed with this concept and halfway through writing it I realised that it’s a metaphor for mental state, you know? I’m regressing to a childlike state. I’m going home and thinking about the album, thinking about the Badlands and what the people are doing there, escaping to this imaginary world I invented so I don’t have to deal with my actual life. After I’d acknowledged that, I wrote “Drive," which is the first happy song I’ve ever written in my entire life. It’s called “Drive” because it represents my departure from the Badlands, and from sadness.
How did your label react when you told them you were writing a concept album based on hedonism?
Initially they were like, “You’re WHAT? You’re the artist right now who has the most potential to appeal to the teenage Tumblr generation, you have to make a pop record.” I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about record labels but mine is sick. They saw what I was doing and they saw that it was working, so…
The thing is I used to be my demographic, I still am my demographic, so I’m writing for myself.
So here’s the thing about these dates: I wanted to talk to ask you about your favorite music, but I’ve already Googled you pretty extensively and I know the answer is Bright Eyes, so I feel disingenuous asking about it.
[Laughs] It’s like you stalked my Facebook and yours is private. So you already know that I have a dog and an ugly ex-boyfriend and I don’t know anything about you.
Seriously though, Bright Eyes…
I mean firstly, how tight is it that we live in a generation where I get to be a pop star and say, “I love Bright Eyes!” Like, people ask me about my influences and I get to say, “Brand New.” I did an interview a couple a weeks ago and they asked me about my stage presence and I said I’m really influenced by Taking Back Sunday, and the dude was like, “What? But you’re a female pop… WHAT?” Literally though I use a mic with a 50-foot cord and swing it around. One of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen is watching them live and watching Adam use that microphone as a prop and I thought yep, I’m gonna do that.
Look, I don’t want to make you jealous or anything but the first “date” I went on for Noisey was with Adam Lazzara…
Okay, so here’s what’s gonna happen. In two years time we’re going to revisit this feature, and it’s going to be all three of us! I like it.
Okay, I’m going to have to leave now so I can be emotionally prepared in time.
BADLANDS will be released on August 28 via Astralwerks.
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