The handy fact about Hailee Steinfeld, the thing everyone seems to know, is that she earned an Oscar nomination when she was just 14 for her poised performance in True Grit, the Coen Brothers' brilliantly bleak 2010 western. In the intervening four years since, there's been no "too much, too young" celebrity meltdown, only the solidifying of a very promising film career. She held her own alongside Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep in last year'sThe Homesman, charmed us in this summer's Pitch Perfect 2—without having to belt out a Pat Benatar ballad while canoeing across a lake (Rebel Wilson did that bit, obviously)—and now she's starring opposite Brit Marling in edgy feminist western The Keeping Room. Basically, as an actor who's shot 10 plus feature lengths since her break out role, Hailee Steinfeld is in demand; in her chosen profession Steinfeld is doing great .
So it was something of a surprise when in August, with zero fanfare, the LA-born actor dropped debut single "Love Myself." Sure she belted some bars in Pitch Perfect 2 and cameoed in Taylor Swift's dueling girl gang video for "Bad Blood," but who knew Steinfeld had her sights set on pop stardom? And who'd have guessed her debut track would be so fantastic? Co-written by Steinfeld with the help of rising Swedish production duo Mattman & Robin (who've worked with Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Tove Lo), "Love Myself" is a sleek, effortlessly catchy electro-pop track with some cleverly suggestive lyrics. "Pictures in my mind on replay / I'm gonna touch the pain away," Steinfeld sings on the first verse, before launching into a rousing chorus of "Gonna love myself, no, I don't need anybody else!" It's a mastur-banger, if you will. (Sorry, had to!) Time to slot "Love Myself" in amongst the few killer tunes about the joys of self pleasure: "I Touch Myself" by the Divinyls, Green Day's "Longview," Weezer's "Across the Sea," Britney's "Touch of My Hand," and Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop" (sample lyric: "They say I better stop or I'll go bliiind…"), to name a few.
When Noisey meets the nascent pop star in a fancy London hotel suite, she comes across friendly, self-assured, and less cosseted you might expect—there's no hovering entourage, nobody tells us asking about those frisky lyrics is verboten, and we're left to chat freely in one room while her publicist waits in the next. So we sat down and had a frank chat about music, masturbation, and more with Ms. Steinfeld.
Noisey: We weren't really expecting it when you dropped "Love Myself" in August. How long have you wanted to make music for?
Hailee Steinfeld: Well, music has always been something I've wanted to do. I made a movie last year, Pitch Perfect 2, that kind of gave me the perfect opportunity to experience what it was like to record music and then perform it… and I loved it! After I made the movie, but before it came out, I went to an event in New York City and met a man called Charlie Walk from Republic Records, and we started talking and had a couple meetings and then he signed me to the label. And shortly after, all this happened!
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
A lot of classic rock was played in the house: AC/DC, The Eagles, Zeppelin, The Police. That was my dad's jam. My mom was a classic rock fan, but she also had an R&B side—she'd listen to a lot of Boyz II Men and Luther Vandross. So I kind of feel like there's a variety of different music that's inspiring my sound.
When you signed your record deal, did you know what sound you wanted?
I thought I knew what I wanted, but obviously I'd never done anything like this before. I guess part of me knew what I wanted, but the other part had to put my trust into my label and the songwriters and producers they were surrounding me with. I definitely knew what I Iiked, and in knowing what I liked and trusting the people around me, we were able to find my sound pretty quickly.
How would you describe the Hailee Steinfeld sound?
I guess I'd like to call it, like, a more sophisticated pop. Right now what we're working on is constantly evolving, so it's hard to put one stamp on it, because some tracks are obviously so different from others, but I think it's best right now to say a sophisticated pop.
How many tracks have you recorded so far?
Um… close to 14? It's interesting because so many artists and songwriters are telling me that the first songs they write are never the ones that end up on the album, because by the time you finish it six months later, you've changed so much as an artist and as a person. What you recorded at the start doesn't necessarily resonate with you any more. But yeah, it's all coming together.
Why did you choose "Love Myself" to be the first single?
There was really no question as to whether it should be anything other than the first single. It has such a bold message and it resonates with me so much because I feel as though I've really learned in the last couple of years how important it is to have that kind of self-confidence and self-love and self-empowerment. I've always been incredibly moved and inspired by music, so I was excited by the idea of being part of a song that can make people feel something.
What's the reaction been like?
Overwhelmingly positive, knock on wood. It's been really amazing seeing boys and girls, men and women, people of all ages, sort of share how it's affected them. A couple of girls have come up to me and said, "Thank you for this song which teaches me how to love myself." That I'm able to pass on this message while I'm still learning it for myself is just the most insane thing.
With lyrics like "Pictures in my mind on replay / I'm gonna touch the pain away," you must have known some people would interpret the song as, well, a pro-masturbation banger.
Yeah, of course!
How did you prepare yourself for that awkward question?
Um… I didn't! Honestly, I think most songs are subject to the listeners' interpretation, and that's absolutely the case with this song. I think for me the song just has a really strong self-empowerment message, and whether you take that as something physical or not, it basically means the same thing. It's about being able to provide for yourself and knowing how much power there is in that.
The top you wear in the video says "self service," so you're clearly having fun with it.
Oh, for sure. I was obviously a little overwhelmed with this being my first ever music video, but when me and the director sat down to talk about concepts, it came down to, like, I just want to have fun with this. It turned into me and a couple of friends and some other people I'd met that day basically just being ourselves and goofing around on a street corner in downtown Los Angeles. We knew that people were going to stop and look and judge or whatever, but knowing that we were having a good time was what got us through it. That was basically the whole idea behind the video.
How have you found this whole process different to an acting job?
Well, with a film, it takes up a certain amount of time in your life— maybe four months from when you get the job to when it wraps. But after that four months, I've done my job and the project is out of my hands. It can be edited in a way that makes everyone love it or everyone hate it; it could come out a year later or two years later. Because it's so unpredictable, I've never really felt like I'm in control the way I am with my music. I've been very vocal with this whole process and I've never felt like I wasn't in control. And obviously with a film, I'm telling someone else's story, whereas with music I'm able to tell my own. This is me and my voice and my personality, not a character.
That must make it more intimidating—because it's actually you that people will have an opinion on.
For sure. It's kind of terrifying, but at the same time it's very freeing. Because I'm so in love with everything I'm doing, I'm nothing but just excited and anxious and eager to put it out there
Has being friends with Taylor Swift helped with the way you approach things? It must be cool having someone like her, who's navigated the music industry so successfully, to call on for advice.
Right. But one thing about Taylor is that without me ever having to ask her for advice, or her having to, like, sit me down, I've learned so much from just watching her as an artist and as a human being. And obviously I've picked up on stuff in conversations too, so it's more her sharing her experiences and her knowledge than her giving me advice.
Do you think this creative process will have an affect on your acting?
I definitely think that the two things benefit each other. Music has always been a huge part of my preparation for a role. I haven't made a movie since I started making music, but I'm about to now, so I'm interested to see exactly how the process I've been through with my music will affect things. I do think the extra experience I've gained will feed into it, though.
Do you ever get a day off?
Ha! It's funny because when I'm on the go, I'm like, "Oh. My. God. When am I gonna get a break?" But though I guess I am very busy, I do have a good amount of downtime. I try and always make time just to rest and take care of myself. It's very easy to forget what sleep is, you know?
Finally, have your fans given themselves a tribe name yet?
Um, there's been a couple, but nothing has quite stuck yet. Steinfans was one. And they started call me Haiz, so there've been a couple of plays on that. But a lot of my fans, people from all over the world, put together this 12-minute video that's kind of in three parts: the first is them discussing what they love about me, the second is what they love about themselves, and the third is what they love about the song. It's amazing seeing all these people who didn't even know I existed before talk about why they like what I'm doing with this song. I'm very lucky to get this kind of reaction with my first song; it's just insane.
Nick Levine is a Rihanna plane survivor. Follow him on Twitter.