Forget what you've heard and listen to the music. Lana Del Rey is a sweet girl with a radiant voice and maybe a demon or two. Her debut album is called Born to Die, but Lana’s just trying to live. Haters, fall back.
This feature appears in Complex's February/March 2012 issue.
Hers was a dramatic setup.
White balloons flashing corroded cartoon clips and ghostly images of President John F. Kennedy—all set to the creepy strains of Bernard Herrmann’s Pyscho theme. The fans kept coming through the door, filling New York’s Bowery Ballroom to capacity. The band stood at attention, poised for action as Lana Del Rey strolled on stage to squeals and whistles. Dressed in a summery white dress, gold belt, and low white Chuck Taylors, the tall red-haired singer looked more like she was ready to grab an ice-cream sandwich from Mr. Softee than perform her first proper concert in NYC.
The microphone worked, but the band’s sound failed. So she stood and waited.
“Where’s the music?” an impatient fan blurted out.
“It’s coming, bitch,” Lana snapped in a playfully bratty way. “Fucking technical difficulties up here.”
Moments later she launched into “Without You,” a wrenching, never-before-heard album cut from Born to Die, her highly anticipated major-label debut, due to be released on Interscope Records January 31. Rising to the occasion, she sounded ever more radiant as she ran through the spellbinding web hits “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans.”
As strong as her videos may be, with Lana it’s mostly the voice. Her haunting tones and evocative lyrics strike some powerful chords, but she doesn’t do much on stage besides sing. “My real fans know I’m not a showstopper on stage,” she’ll explain later. “I don’t have fucking circus lights. I just don’t care. My fans are there because they want to hear the record live. Everyone else is just there to see what happens.”
That “everyone else” would be Lana's infamous Internet audience—the folks who watch her clips over and over and then fill comment sections with snarky remarks about her lips, her hair, and all the personal business she puts into her music.
You keep telling me you love me and you don't even know me.
The press jumped on the bandwagon, dogging Lana even as they rode the wave of her rapid rise to stardom. Most reviews of her Bowery Ballroom show mistook her sarcastic banter for shrill scolding. Between songs Lana seemed emotionally naked, somewhere between self-effacing and insecure. Her nerves never showed during a song, but when the music stopped it was another story. Critics focused on that uneasiness.
“Shut up, shut up,” she said when the crowd’s applause seemed to last too long, as if unwilling to let the cheers wash over her.
“Lana, I love you,” screamed a fan, pronouncing her name wrong. “It’s Lon-ah,” she corrected, sounding like a girl telling a guy to slow down on the first date. “You keep telling me you love me and you don’t even know me.”
After the show, while she was greeting Interscope execs and staff, Lana was asked whether her “Aw shucks” persona was tongue in cheek. Did she really feel like the performance wasn’t worthy of all the love she got? “If I was dope I wouldn’t have said, ‘Shut up,’” she answered flatly. Of all the critics the singer has to please, none is tougher than she is on herself.
Lana’s knockout combination of looks and talent must be a tough pill for haters to swallow. Why else would so many anonymous ’Net gangsters have bashed the 25-year-old singer’s powerful albeit minimal output?
It’s been just six months since Del Rey (née Lizzy Grant) let off the shot heard ’round the World Wide Web. The homemade video for her beautiful if slightly eerie single “Video Games” is a dusty collage of clips that she nabbed from YouTube—washed-out home movies, blooming rosebuds, plus a few woozy glimpses of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire vixen Paz de la Huerta—spliced with footage of Lana crooning in a lonely hallway or cruising on a moped. The whole thing made for a bittersweet mood piece with astonishing emotional impact.
I was dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil, so I understood what it's like to be at war with yourself.
Even more surprising is how quickly it made her a hot commodity. As of press time, “Video Games” had been viewed over 13 million times on YouTube. Its follow-up, “Blue Jeans,” has racked up another 4 million views. Her debut single topped the iTunes chart in 10 different countries. But as with most Internet phenomena, the backlash was swift.
The theory appears to be: Chop down Lana’s glowing amber hair, which streams well past her shoulders. Wipe off her makeup. Oh, and deflate her heavily ogled (and much discussed) lips—pouty even when they’re not puckered. All that remains is an average-looking girl who can’t sing. Right?
Wrong. Dig if you will the picture of Del Rey nestled in producer Emile Haynie’s candlelit Manhattan recording studio on a chilly December evening. She wears a simple tan coat, Velcro-fastened Yankees cap over ponytailed hair, worn pearl flats, and a matching knit sweater. The makeup’s off, too—and she’s still a cutie.
More important is what’s coming from the giant studio monitors as Lana and Haynie—the Kid Cudi collaborator who co-produced the beat for Kanye West’s “Runaway” and is executive producing Born to Die—give an exclusive preview of the new album. Lana belts along with the aching vocals emanating from the speakers, her tone sounding every bit as rich and pure as the record. Homegirl can sing her ass off.
It's not exactly a surprise, though. After she mesmerized that live audience just a week earlier, it was already clear what her voice could do. The show was an unqualified success, save for a few journalists who must have been watching an entirely different performance—not that she read any of their reviews.
“I’m pretty much switched off from it,” Lana says between puffs of a cigarette. “What other people have been saying doesn’t have anything to do with me because I never gave any long interviews to anyone. Ever. Everything is basically fiction.”
An air of mystery has surrounded Del Rey from jump, leaving folks free to fill in the blanks with wild speculation. Tonight is the first time any reporter has gotten a chance to hang with her long enough to cut through the fog and get a decent understanding of who the hell she is. “If you don’t know me,” she adds offhandedly, “you don’t know anything.”
She was born Elizabeth Grant, a small-town girl from Lake Placid, New York. The oldest of three, she sang in church as a child, in the choir during high school, and dropped out of Fordham University as a teen to pursue a career in music. Veteran producer David Kahne (Paul McCartney, The Strokes) was the first industry guy to believe in her. Unfortunately, the independent project they released through iTunes in early 2010 is no longer available for purchase. “I always knew there was something there. It just wasn’t commercial. Regardless, I knew I was going to do my thing.”
The false start wasn’t a crushing blow since music has never been Lana’s reason for living. “It wasn’t sing or die,” she says. “I was also passionate about my community. I felt like I could have gone in several different directions.”
One of those possible directions might have led to a career in social work. While living in NYC, Lana says she worked with people who are “fucked up in the head" helping them get their lives together, get jobs, and "transition into being normal, functional members of society.”
Her interest in people's mental health was no coincidence. “I think it was because the way my head was when I was younger,” she explains. “I was dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil. So I understood what it's like to be at war with yourself.”
Since her 2010 album failure, Lana has switched up her style a bit. The former bleach blonde has gone red. That combined with the name change has led some to question her authenticity. “This whole thing about her name is absolutely insane,” says her manager, Ben Mawson. “David Bowie, Elton John, Bob Dylan, and Lady Gaga are not using their real names. Why is she being picked on? She came up with the name herself. She had three Myspace pages. One was Lizzy Grant, one was Lana Del Ray, another was Lana Del Rey with an ‘E.’ I was like, ‘You can’t have three—decide!’” After three months she settled on Lana Del Rey. “It makes me laugh,” Mawson adds. “I’ve represented 60 to 70 artists and I’ve never gotten more of the real deal than I’ve gotten from her. She’s absolutely a self creation. I guess it’s sort of a weird compliment because she appears to be so perfect. People can’t believe it’s true.”
I'm interested in the gorgeous side of life, but also familiar with the dark side too.
Lana herself didn’t waste any time refuting the naysayers. She was too busy fielding label bids. Interscope Chairman Jimmy Iovine got her, but Lana is nobody’s prefab pop star. She’s the one driving her career.
“If you consider the definition of authenticity,” Lana says, “it’s saying something and actually doing it. I write my own songs. I made my own videos. I pick my producers. Nothing goes out without my permission. It’s all authentic.” Web-savvy skeptics can check for themselves. Lana’s older songs aren’t too hard to find. And there hasn’t been much of a transformation from her early work to now—just progression toward a more orchestral feel.
“Why would it be a different thing?” she asks, sounding genuinely confused. “I never changed my sound. I never stopped writing about what was actually going on in my life. There’s nothing to hide.”
But she does keep quiet about some portions of her life. All her singles to date revolve around affairs of the heart—specifically, drowning in and even dying for love. Lana’s music would make a perfect soundtrack for the scene where the girl is dumped by her man and, pistol to skull, decides life isn’t worth living anymore.
The video for her latest single, “Born to Die,” was shot in Paris by Yoann “Woodkid” Lemoine, who directed Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and Taylor Swift’s “Back to December.” It starts with castle gates swinging open to reveal Lana seated on a throne—with tigers reclining to her left and right. (Kanye West tweeted the stunning image soon after the video dropped.) Lana’s expression is somewhere between pissed and heartbroken. What follows is a compulsive affair that leads to fiery explosions and, yeah, bloody death.
Lemoine and Lana became friends after he saw the first version of “Video Games” in the spring. “She naturally has a lot of drama coming out of her,” the French-born director says. “When you work with her, you get trapped in a twister of comments and reactions from people who are so intense about her.”
But if you think her fans have an intense relationship with Lana, imagine her old boyfriend. She confirms that the inspiration behind many of her songs comes from a wonderful long-term relationship that turned ugly. “We were both living life on the straight and narrow when we met,” Lana says. “And two years into it, I didn’t know it, but he was off doing other things that he got in trouble for.” Whether those “other things” included infidelity, a Scarface-like drug operation, or some white-collar Madoff stuff, she won’t reveal out of respect for her ex.
Was he perhaps the kind of guy she might have been helping if she became a mental-health social worker? “Exactly,” Lana affirms with a nod. “You get to a point where you run out of everything. You’ve gone through everyone. You have no money, you’ve done everything you could do. The last thing you can do is start over.”
Suddenly Lana apologizes for being a downer. “Sorry, this is really fucking depressing,” she says to Haynie.
“It’s actually interesting,” he replies. “I just heard ‘Blue Jeans’ kind of manifest itself. I never knew that.”
They may still be getting to know each other, but the pair make beautiful music together. As their works-in-progress blare, they frequently lean together to exchange ideas. Haynie says he knew they’d be a good fit when they first met months ago.
“What excited me was playing different ideas and seeing what would make her face light up,” he says. “I thought, ‘She likes the shit I like.’ She likes the hard, yet beautiful stuff. That’s when I thought we could do something special.”
“Emile knew that there was a heavier, more street side that needed to be brought out,” she says. “He knows that I'm interested in the gorgeous side of life, but also familiar with the dark side, too.” Lana also happens to be a big rap fan who’s been in touch with A$AP Rocky about a possible collaboration. But her love of hip-hop reaches back beyond last fall. “Eminem is sick and unbeatable,” Lana says when asked to name her favorite rappers. “50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Biggie Smalls—the way he talked stuff out was inspiring to me. It made me feel like music could be autobiographical and more of an art form than just rhyming over sugary chords.” There is an unmistakable hip-hop swagger to Born to Die. It knocks like a rap album, and careful listeners will notice that Lana delivers some lines as if she’s spitting rhymes. “You’re so fresh to death,” she sings at one point, “and sick as ca-cancer.”
As the music plays, the lyrics set her mind adrift. “I know what it means to meet someone who's fucking fresh to death,” she says, as if daydreaming about him now. But Born to Die isn’t just a long trip through the swampy parts of the heart. There’s joy in there, too—like on “Off to the Races” when she coos “You are my one true love.” Swathed in strings, her voice runs sweet as wildflower honey.
“When I found somebody who I fell in love with, it made me feel different than I felt the rest of the day,” she reveals. “It was electrifying. That’s what inspired the ‘Off to the Races’ melodies. That’s one of the times when you’re feeling electrified by someone else and they make you happy to be alive.”
“Lolita” is another cut that finds Lana under love’s spell, despite her friends’ worries about the relationship. “I don’t care what they say about me,” she sings defiantly. “You make me happy.” If all goes as planned, a snatch of dialogue from the 1976 film Taxi Driver will start the track off (the Martin Scorsese classic was playing on the studio’s massive flat-screen while they recorded it). Specifically, Lana wants to include the part where Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle urges Iris, the 12-year-old prostitute played by Jodie Foster, to stop selling herself on the street.
Being human is difficult. Some people make it more difficult than others. I was one of those people.
Lana may have pulled from some murky places in her psyche, but she’s not about to let anyone play psychologist. She does, however, suggest that she needed some counseling as a teen.
“I went through different experiences when I was younger,” she says. “I know how to go from being a non-functioning member of society to a functioning one.” These days she seems totally normal, but eight years ago—not so much. “I was crazy,” she says. “I won’t go into it. It’s not helpful to know.” Lana’s laughing now, but they’re nervous chuckles. “I was just reckless,” she adds. “But that was a long time ago. Being human is difficult. Some people make it more difficult than others. I was one of those people.”
Now Lana’s in a better place, one that Ben Mawson helped guide her to. Her English-born lawyer and manager first met Lana two years ago while visiting New York for CMJ week, and watched her perform as a favor to Princess Superstar, another artist he handles. Mawson encouraged Lana to fly to London and helped get her UK record deal with Polydor. He goes hard for Lana because he truly believes in her potential.
“She’s the middle ground between Adele and Lady Gaga,” Mawson proclaims, but both those artists sell loads of records and pack out venues across the globe, which doesn’t exactly fall in line with Lana’s plans. “That’s his ambition,” says Lana, who would be OK with a gold album—but swears she could care less about platinum status. As for extensive touring, don’t count on it.
“My touring agents already know,” she says with a laugh. “I’m tired like that.”
So what does Lana want? Her goal is pretty simple: “I have a personal ambition to live my life honestly and honor the true love that I’ve had and also the people I’ve had around me. I want to stay hopeful, even though I get scared about why we’re even alive at all.”
But she’s got plenty of reasons to stick around. Her music’s taken her from singing in bars in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to getting love from everybody from Anna Wintour to The Weeknd. And like it or not, her schedule is about to get nutty. In the morning she’s hopping on a flight to China to perform at an event for Christian Dior. She doesn’t plan on packing much. Lana will be dressed by the luxury brand and then turn right around and head back to the States when it’s over.
This is Lana Del Rey’s life right now. The world is at her feet, whether they’re in Chucks or stilettos. She is stunning, may or may not have a few screws loose, loves dropping F-bombs, and, above all, is talented as fuck.
As the evening wraps up and the last tracks are played, it’s tough to tell what note Born to Die will close on. The album is a sexy, bass-thumping ride with glamorous retro nods to curvy, cat-eyed ’60s stars like Nancy Sinatra. Like the artist herself, this record is a trip.
“It’s a happy ending,” Lana assures. “It was a happy ending a long time ago. It was a happy ending when I found peace with myself. This is the good life. What a gift.”
Haters will just have to deal with it.
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: ((STYLING) Allison Miller and Johnny Blueeyes. (PROP STYLING) George Fernandez/J&M Special Effects. (HAIR) Anna Cofone. (MAKEUP) Pamela Cochrane. FIRST & SECOND IMAGE: Vintage robe and jewelry Lana's own. THIRD & SEVENTH IMAGE: Dress by Betsey Johnson / Jewelry Lana's own. FOURTH, SIXTH & EIGHTH IMAGE: Dress by ERES / Jewelry Lana's own. FIFTH & COVER IMAGE: Trench by Betsey Johnson / Vintage corset stylist's own / Jewelry Lana's own.