Against the Grain

Lana Del Rey knows what you think about her. And she’s learned to live with it.



This feature appears
in the August/September
2014 issue of COMPLEX.

Satin gowns, fast cars, pills, and parties are the lifeblood of American glamour. Red carpets, unbridled opulence, and the kind of elegance that looks amazing in high-contrast black-and-white photographs are its marrow. Icons like Sinatra, the Kennedys, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe appeared to be beacons of the good life, but behind the velvet rope was a darker, less-than-pristine reality: one rife with gossip, addiction, betrayal, and violence. In 2014, no artist embraces both that world’s intoxicating glow and frayed seams more acutely than Lana Del Rey.

On her 2012 breakthrough, Born to Die, Del Rey cast herself as a tragic pop star from a bygone era. Her music videos were epics: on Born to Die’s title track, she begins perched regally on a throne flanked by Bengal tigers, and ends with model Bradley Soileau carrying her bloody body from the fiery wreckage of a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1; in “National Anthem,” she plays Jackie O to A$AP Rocky’s JFK. Where many of her contemporaries reveled in little-known subcultures and outsider artists, Del Rey went for icons. “Marilyn’s my mother/Elvis is my daddy/Jesus is my bestest friend,” she wrote in the introduction to her Anthony Mandler-directed short film Tropico, released last year. Del Rey’s 20th Century nostalgia (cloaked in beats provided by Emile Haynie, Kid Cudi’s original producer, and Kanye West-collaborator Jeff Bhasker, among others) proved immensely successful. Only four albums released in 2012 outsold Born to Die, which went platinum in the U.S. and charted in 11 countries. Del Rey sold more than 12 million singles globally, received two Grammy nods (Best Pop Vocal Album, for her EP Paradise; Best Song Written for Visual Media, for “Young and Beautiful”), and sold out a North American tour.

Her arrival also attracted visceral criticism. The New York Times review of Born to Die savaged her aesthetic and artistic “pose.” Pitchfork likened her debut to a “faked orgasm.” The media seemed fixated on anything but the album’s actual music: the supposedly incongruous early recording career under her real name, the life cycle of the internet hype machine that birthed her, or the aggressively ridiculed Saturday Night Live performance that made her a household name.

In 2012, Del Rey moved from Brooklyn to L.A., and one year later began work on the full-length follow-up to Born to Die. Released in June and produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Ultraviolence eschews the home-run pop melodies of Born to Die for stripped-down piano intros and reverb-heavy guitar solos that give her soulful, low-register vocals space to shine. Lyrically, though, Del Rey’s stance remains uncompromising, with titles like “Money, Power, Glory” and “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” explicitly referencing her image, and taking aim at her myriad detractors. And some of her old critics have changed their tune. In its review, the New York Times called the criticisms levelled against Born to Die “inaccurate,” and lauded Del Rey’s “retro sophistication” and “guileless candor;” Pitchfork called her “a pop music original,” adding “there are not nearly enough of those around.” Despite modest radio play for the lead single “West Coast,” the album debuted No. 1 on Billboard, selling 182,000 copies in its first week (more than twice as many as Born to Die), a testament to her growing fanbase.

Sitting on the roof of Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel for our interview, the 27-year-old “pop star” is dressed more like a suburban teenager, in light wash low-rise jeans and a tight, white, short-sleeved polo with lavender horizontal stripes. She has perfect posture and crosses her legs neatly. There’s a grace to the way she chain-smokes Parliaments and says “fuck” when she chips one of her pointed purple acrylic nails. If it’s all a show, well, it’s a good one. The cracks in the veneer of glamour humanize her and are one of the reasons she’s been able to mix self-serious writing about true love and death with provocative, pseudo-comical lines like the infamous “My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola.”

For the next 60 minutes, Del Rey muses about sexual gamesmanship in the music industry, Marilyn, Elvis, and Jesus, and the jagged reaction to her emergence on the pop scene. And words. Del Rey is a writer—not just the subject, but also the director of her own drama. The only mark of her wealth is a gaudy diamond-encrusted choker with a cross pendant hanging just above her sternum. Its sparkle evokes the cartoonish shine of costume jewelry, though it’s every bit as real as she has turned out to be.

When you’re writing, what comes first? Song titles, melodies, music? Well it took me a long time to write the album as it’s listed. I was writing a lot since the last record came out, but for some reason, 70% of what I was writing didn’t feel right for me. So if I’m lucky enough to have an experience that really impacts me, it comes with a verse and a melody. From there I ad lib it. But they come together, the melody and the words come together. But it happens rarely for me.

What do you mean? Actually having that happen, where it just sort of comes. I remember with “Carmen,” I was out really late and walking to the tempo of my own rhythm, and then I just started singing, “Carmen, Carmen doesn’t have a problem lying to herself cause her liquor’s top shelf.” And it was an easy cadence. The whole thing just came, and I think I was in a really good place then, so it was like was really easy to channel.

What defines being in a good place? Feeling really happy and just circumstantially like nothing’s going wrong, which becomes more difficult but that’s only my experience. I think a lot of people think the whole thing is really great. Making Brooklyn my home base for the last two and a half weeks has really helped me out, like I’ve actually started thinking conceptually that I have this addition, an addition to this record that could come really easily. That hasn't happened in a long time. Not since I wrote that Paradise addition to Born to Die, which I really loved.

Did you miss Brooklyn? I missed Brooklyn. I missed the people.

How are the people here different? They’re not different. I’m a little different. The vibe is the same. I met some guys from here last week I had never met before, and they were just really easygoing. All artist types—writing during the day and hanging out at bars at night. I miss that, I like that. I haven't really found that in California yet. I relocated there because my record got a little bit bigger, but I didn’t really find a music scene that I was a part of. There was something happening—there was kind of a reemerging Laurel Canyon sound. Jonathan Wilson, Father John Misty, and I really liked those guys. I felt like maybe I had something in common with them and I slipped right into that atmosphere really well.

Let’s talk Ultraviolence. The crop of the photo on the album cover is similar to the crop of your first two album covers. I liked that, I wanted the continuity. I didn’t have that for the album cover at the time and I wanted it to be a continuation of the story. I did like the idea of it being in black and white so that there was, literally and figuratively more to be revealed. Even color-wise.

You wanted a continuation in aesthetic for this album cover, is that something that was important to you musically for Ultraviolence as well? Yeah. Not being misleading in terms of your personal aesthetic, like your psyche coming through design-wise and musically—I like continuity.

You have this way of exacting your creative vision through so many different parts of your art—music videos, lyrics, tone and the melody, style of dress. Are those things that you plan ahead when you think about an album? Is it a concept that grows from one idea? I don’t know. I was in college at Fordham when I was 18. I was living between Brooklyn and New Jersey and I was working with this guy who was more famous than anyone I had met at the time, this producer David Kahne. I had that record—you know they shelved it for two years—and I had all this time to think about what was really important to me and what I actually wanted to do if I had the opportunity to do what I wanted. I knew that I wanted to make life easy for myself in the way that I would always be living in a world I constructed and whatever felt true to me, regardless of however that appeared to other people. That definitely extended to song titles, whether I shot in black and white, hair color, things like that. It’s not really something that I planned ahead. I had a sense that I wanted the world I lived in to be really personalized to what I liked.

When I hear the words “ultra” and “violence,” I think about WorldStarHipHop. What does the phrase mean to you? That’s funny. I feel connected to two emotions—aggression and softness. I like that luxe sound of the word “ultra” and the mean sound of the word “violence” together. I like that two worlds can live in one.

What’s the relationship between violence and love? I like a physical love. I like a hands-on love. [Pauses.] How can I say this without getting into too much trouble? I like a tangible, passionate love. For me, if it isn’t physical, I’m not interested. Everything I do feels so organized: touring, playing a show night after night with a couple months in between to make a record, and being in charge of all of it—mixing, mastering. Sometimes I meet people with a lot of fire and energy. Mentally, maybe we’re not that similar. Telepathically, we’re not on that same wavelength. If there’s a physicality and a chemistry, that ends up winning for me every time because it’s the opposite of what I have every day.

Who’s the last person you met who made you feel like that? Dan Auerbach, for better or for worse.

Do you think a “guilty pleasure” is a real thing? Yes, but I don’t have many of them musically. I have tons of them in life.

Do tell. Well, smoking is one of them. Sugar, coffee. I must have 13 cups a day. It’s a shame about the health consequences because a lot of great things happen over coffee and a cigarette. A lot of great songs were written.

Why did you choose to cover Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman” on Ultraviolence? [Sings, “The other woman has time to manicure her nails, the other woman is perfect where her rival fails.”] I relate to being the person who people come to for “such a change from the old routine,” but not being the main thing. I had a long-term relationship for seven years with someone who was the head of a label and I felt like I was that change of routine. I was always waiting to become the person who his kids came home to, and it never happened. Obviously I had to seek other relationships, and I felt like that became a pattern. I was younger—24, 25 at the time. I had known what I wanted to do for a long time. I had been serious about music since high school, and I stopped drinking when I was 18. By 24, I was a pretty serious person. I thought I was a writer, and I was a singer. I thought I knew what I wanted my path to be. The people I was drawn to were already established, but they were probably looking for someone more on their level, age-wise. But I love the idea of wrapping up the record with a reference.

Many artists use obscure references to try to prove individuality and originality. Why do you go for icons like Marilyn, Elvis, and Jesus? When I had put out only “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games,” I caught a lot of grief from journalists asking me why I was being so literal and obvious. I referenced things like Marilyn without trying to be accessible. I have a personal relationship with my perception of who Marilyn was. She was the kind of female who was really warm and giving. I like that type of girl who’s friendly and easy. I was always looking for girls like that as friends. I felt like I knew her in that way. And Jesus—I mean, being raised Catholic, it was just a way of life. Spirituality and religion were strong. I was in Catholic school until I was 13. Like a lot of other people, I think foundationally I was hymn inspired—musical hymns, not Him, Jesus. [Laughs.]

How did you meet Dan? I met Dan at The Riviera strip club in Queens. He was with Tom Elmhirst, who’s an amazing mixer, and I was with Emile Haynie. Emile asked if I wanted to go hang out with them and I had a lot of fun for the first time in a long time. Dan had been mixing Ray Lamontagne’s record with Tom down at Electric Lady studios. And he left by the time I was there—Lee Foster gave me Electric Lady all by myself for three weeks.

Wow. It was incredible. By the end of the three weeks I thought I was done. Then I met Dan and he said, “Why don’t we just go to Nashville and see what happens?” I went because it sounded like a good time. I didn’t want the party to end. I flew there with Lee and we rented a farm for six weeks. We drove to Dan’s studio on 8th Street every day and I loved it. He was what I was looking for, because he was a facilitator. He said “yes” a lot. If I was like, “I only want to sing this through once,” that was normal to him. It was natural that someone would like what they got on the first try. He was cool like that. [Lights a Parliament with her plastic purple lighter.]

You’ve been smoking cigarettes on stage a lot. Dude, I have to. I can’t get through it.

Is it an addiction? Yeah. I’m a chain-smoker.

How long have you been smoking? Since I was 17. It’s crazy. That’s why I try to play mostly outdoor festivals. [Laughs.] Because 45 minutes into the set, when you’ve still got 45 more minutes to go, you need to smoke.

That’s a long time to be standing in front of people. It’s a long time. If people come and see you at a show for 80 minutes they literally know everything about you. With 5,000 people coming, they film you so the people in the back can see you on the screens. There isn’t a moment when you can turn around and gather yourself. Everything you feel, everything you’re emoting, is just there. I have toured so much more than I thought I would; I thought I would be more of a studio singer. But I toured Europe for two years.

There was a time after Paradise came out when you said you weren’t sure that you were going to make any more music. What changed? A year after Born to Die was released, a lot of people asked me what the new record would sound like and when it was going to come out. I said, “I don’t know if there will be another record.” I didn’t have songs that I felt were good or personal enough. Dan Auerbach changed things for me, and I have no idea why. He was just interested in me. That made me feel like maybe what I was doing was interesting. He gave me some confidence back. He listened to songs that were folk songs at the time, and he thought that maybe, with some revision, they could be more dynamic. I started to see a bigger picture. For me, if I don’t have a concept it’s not worth writing a whole album. I don’t like it if there’s no story.

There are a few different ways to take your song “Fucked My Way Up to the Top.” Is it about people not wanting to give you credit for your success? Or is it about fucking people to get to the top? It’s commentary, like, “I know what you think of me,” and I’m alluding to that. You know, I have slept with a lot of guys in the industry, but none of them helped me get my record deals. Which is annoying.

What’s the worst relationship advice you’ve received? That love doesn’t come easily and that relationships are supposed to be a struggle. Everything else is so hard; hopefully love is the one thing that is actually fun.

That reminds me of an Eartha Kitt interview clip you once posted. Asked about love and compromise, she says, “What is there to compromise? I fall in love with myself and I want someone to share it with me.” She was so right-on with that. It’s nice to have a fiery relationship that enhances everything you do, that doesn’t feel like part of it is not what you want.

What is the most valuable thing that you’ve destroyed in life? In terms of money?

It doesn’t have to be, but that works. I don’t know. I don’t think money has had an influence on things I’ve sabotaged. But there are things.

What’s something you’ve destroyed that’s actually valuable to you? Probably the relationship I’ve been in for the last three years. Definitely demolished that through tons of depression and insecurity. Now it’s just an untenable relationship, impossible because of my emotional instability.

Sometimes people do their best writing when fucked up. And I am a little fucked up. This whole experience has fucked me up.

Fucked you up how? I don’t know. It’s been hard. I was in a good place when I wrote my first record because I wrote it for fun, but then, I felt like everything that went with the record was heavy. I was also trying to deal with stuff with my family. The world was heavy for a couple years. That’s why I liked Dan: He was casual. It didn’t have to be so serious.

Speaking of non-serious, what restaurant has the best red sauce in the world? That’s a good question. I go to the same place in Los Angeles all the time, Ago on Melrose. I order the same thing every time, penne alla vodka.

What were you listening to when you were writing? I love jazz. I love Chet Baker’s documentary Let’s Get Lost, which influenced my video for “West Coast,” which Bruce Weber shot. I love Nina Simone and Billie Holiday like everybody else. I have a ’70s playlist that I listen to daily. A lot of Bob Seger, who I love. He’s probably the main person I listen to, and also the Eagles and Chris Isaak, Dennis Wilson and Brian Wilson. I like Echo and the Bunnymen, “Killing Moon”—just like single tracks.

Do you have a guilty pleasure song on that playlist? No, they’re all pretty good.

You experienced a level of scrutiny that was very personal. How has that affected you? The good thing about catching so much grief from critics is that you literally do not fucking care. It put me in a mind frame where I expect things not to go right, because they generally don’t. But it’s not a pessimistic place. The music is always good, in my opinion. That’s what I expect now from my career, that the music is going to be great and the reaction’s going to be fucked up.

Why do you think they reacted so vehemently to what you were making? If they thought it was supposed to be categorized as pop music, that was the first mistake. It wasn’t made to be popular. It was more of a psychological music endeavor. I wasn’t out to make fun, verse-chorus-verse-chorus songs. I was unraveling my history through music. People were confused as to why I would stand on stage and just sing and not perform. To me, performing is just channeling and emoting through inflection, cadence, phrasing. That’s pretty different from what’s popular, so I think maybe they thought it shouldn’t be popular. What do you think?

It felt like you were being critiqued not as an artist or even a pop musician, but as a celebutante. You presented such a comprehensive, seemingly calculated project—the videos, the styling, the references, etc.—that people felt compelled to pick it apart. It’s funny, because my process was natural. I remember making “Video Games,” and I did my makeup as I did it every day. I put my hair up like I did. I was wearing a dress and filming myself. I didn’t think that the juxtaposition with this found footage that I had taken from people’s honeymoons on Super 8 would get the reaction it did. The reaction to everything six years prior to that, from the day when YouTube was actually born, was a non-reaction. People just didn’t care.

Do you feel vindicated? I feel a sense of relief, but I don’t feel vindicated.

How come? I don’t feel like things have gone well. It’s not the way I would have chosen them to go. So it’s not like I feel everything’s turned around and it’s great.

You’ve got quite a few gold records, and a handful of platinum ones. Yeah, but I still didn’t find that community of people I was looking for, like the way Bob Dylan found his friends, or the respect of being a writer. Because that gold and platinum stuff, it doesn’t mean as much if you’re walking down the street and you can hear people saying things about you. That doesn’t even out.