Halsey Talks Pissing Off Her Label, Her New Album, and Her Decision to Open Up About Being Bipolar

She also answers some tough questions about '90s pop culture.

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Complex Original

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The last 10 months have been a whirlwind for singer Ashley Frangipane, better known as Halsey. The 20-year-old went from living out of a duffel bag and sleeping at her manager's parents' house to selling out national headline tours and opening in arenas for Imagine Dragons. With her Room 93 EP under her belt, her quickly growing fan base is waiting with bated breath for her new album, Badlands, coming Aug. 28 on Astralwerks. Featuring revisions of previously released songs including "New Americana" (a song so nice Zane Lowe played it twice during its Beats 1 world premiere) as well as recently released single "Hold Me Down," the album explores the desolate wasteland of Halsey's own personal badlands in music, in the industry, and in her mind. 

We met up with Halsey to talk about her quick ascension, her greatest inspirations for the new album, how personal she is willing to get, and why blue is the life source of all things Halsey. Not to mention we do some digging into her obsessions with '90s pop culture from Will Smith to Legends of the Hidden Temple. Read it all below.

Jessie Morris is a writer living in New York. Follow her @jessielmorris.

What were you like in high school?
I was a weirdo. I think I wanted to be liked, but I didn’t have the attention or bother to actually make an effort to be. I also think I had a different perception of what I needed to do to be liked. I thought, “Oh, I need to be interesting, and I need to be funny, and cool and different.” And everyone else was like, “No, you need to be boring and low key because that’s what makes you well-liked.” I mean I had tattoos in high school, I shaved the side of my head. All my friends were way older than me. I went through the phase that most kids go through at 20, 21 when I was like 16. All my friends were doing drugs. I was coming to Brooklyn all the time. All the kids I went to high school with were at Friday night football games and picking out prom dresses and going tanning, and I was like, “cool, I’m hungover at my AP exam.”

I’ve heard you describe your New Jersey town as a Friday Night Lights-type of town. How did that experience affect and impact your art?
I think growing up in a small town—I grew up in a lot of different places. I grew up in a city environment, a more suburban environment, a more rural environment. That’s the beauty of New Jersey is you get a lot of different types of living. So, I think it was cool for me because being in a place where there is only so many people, you can really zone in on them and get to know people as characters and get to know people as stories.

You said in a recent interview you write concept albums (Room 93, Badlands) because you are best at storytelling. When did you start telling stories?
Since I was a little kid definitely. It was a negative thing when I was little because I was the biggest liar! Up until I was 8. In high school I was too but only to my parents. I got away with such bullshit. I’d be like, “I’m sleeping at a friends house!” and take the car and drive four hours to Montauk and sit on the beach. I’d come home and my parents would be like, “Why is there 300 miles on the car?” And I’d be like, “We just drove around all night!”

Your Room 93 EP is extremely detailed and personal. What has it been like to come home to the people who inspired your album and were in your life before?
It’s been a weird journey. Every song I write is autobiographical and is about people, and that’s one of the things that gets complicated. You have to decide where’s your place as a songwriter. I hate limiting myself, and I hate censoring myself, but every now and then, I’ll write a line and be like, “Oh no, I can’t do that.” But, I pushed it a little far with that with Badlands. I really did. I really pushed it. Room 93 was a little more anonymous. I sent a song to someone last night and was like, “This song’s about you.” That’s never something I would’ve have done with Room 93. “Hurricane” is about my friend Zach. He was an older guy I was seeing. He lived in Brooklyn on Halsey Street.

Who tripped on LSD?
A lot of it! Like so much of it. And so, he loves it. It’s his ego trip. This idea of 16-year-old girls in their bedrooms dreaming about this cool, Brooklyn guy, like that’s him. Girls spinning vinyls all over the country, laying on their beds with their feet in the air, writing in their journals thinking about a boy like him. And you can either see it as, “You put me out there like that. That’s not fair,” or how he sees it as like, “Thank you. You immortalized me.” You know, that’s the goal. I grew up with friends who did drugs, and I grew up with friends who died, and it’s become my purpose I think to immortalize those people to the best of my ability.

When asked by Elle about the "idea of being an inconvenient woman," you opened up for the first time publicly about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder when you were a teenager. How was the reception from fans after that article came out? What did it feel like putting yourself out there?
It was kind of crazy to me because I didn’t really think of anything when I said it and then I walked out of the interview like, “Oh god, what did I just do?” I was really comfortable with that interviewer, and it was just the right time. Then the “Women in Music” article came out, and it was just a little blip, and I was like, “Oh, good. They’re not going to do anything with it.” And then they put out like a three-page exposé! It was so crazy because a 15-minute interview turned into an hour-and-a-half interview. I wasn’t expecting it to mean anything. I figured everyone would either read it and be like, “Oh, interesting,” but then kids started coming out of the woodwork saying, “This means so much to me.” I was completely taken aback.

I think I’m slowly learning what my actions mean because I did the new “Ghost” video. I wasn’t trying to make a political statement. I was trying to piss off my label. We were in a meeting for the video and someone talked about casting a guy. And my response was, “Why would you just assume that?” I kind of snapped. I’m that girl. I’m the devil’s advocate all the time. So then just because they said that, I was like, “Let’s do this instead.” And I think that was kind of similar with the Elle article for me. I did something just because it felt right to me and didn’t realize the impact it was going to have. But since the article came out, I’ve had a little bit of backlash. Some of the kids on the Internet are really fucking mean. There’s kids who like X artists so they feel like they have to hate me. They’ll say I’m lying or just trying to be interesting. And I wasn’t trying to be. I was just being honest.

Some of the kids on the Internet are really f**King mean. There’s kids who like X artists so they feel like they have to hate me.

I want to talk about your new album Badlands because I have heard it.
Oh you did hear it!

Oh, I’ve been listening to it on repeat. You worked with some incredible producers—from Tim Anderson (Banks), Captain Cuts (Tove Lo), and Jim Elliot (Ellie Goulding) to Lido (Ariana Grande) and 4e (the NBHD). How have they impacted the resulting sound? Like on “Drive” when you have the signal sign for example. Are they the ones who brought those elements into the music?
Yes and no. The idea of Badlands was creating a space with sound, which is a really difficult thing to do. I was in a session with Tim Anderson, and he was just playing around with these low, vibe-y sounds, and then I wrote “Drive” in probably about 10 minutes. So I read the song out loud to him, and he looks at me and mutes the rest of the track and turned up the bass, and it was the sound of a car engine. And I was like, “This is fate! Let’s do this thing!” And so we got into it, and I asked about putting the sound of a door opening or seat belt sound in there. We end up starting the song with this signal sound of “ding, ding, ding.” And then I took the song to Lido who executive produced the whole record, and he turned that “ding” into an actual beat that followed through the song. That ended up creating this genius moment in the center where the door slam and beat all match up and it puts you outside of that car. I’ve just been working with incredibly talented people who just get it.

“Colors” is another one of my favorite songs off the album. Obviously blue is a very important color to you. It’s your aesthetic, it’s your vinyl. What does it mean to you?
It’s just my creative color. It’s like so many things at once. It’s electric, and it’s bright, but it’s also calm. It’s also ethereal. Blue is just an otherworldly color to me. Blue is the sky. Blue is the sea. Blue for me represents the unexplored territory. 

I’ve heard you love the 90s, so I have some pop culture 90s questions for you. Backstreet Boys or N’SYNC?

Nickelodeon or Disney?

TGIF or Snick?

Rugrats or Doug?

Legends of the Hidden Temple or Global Guts?
Legends of the Hidden Temple.

Boy Meets World or Sabrina the Teenage Witch?
Boy Meets World! Don’t even have to read me Sabrina.

Beverly Hills 90210 or Dawson’s Creek?
Dawson’s Creek.

Fuck, chuck, marry: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Hey Arnold, My So-Called Life?
This is so awful! Here’s where I’m conflicted. I don’t want to say fuck Hey Arnold because that sentence should never come out of my mouth. But with Fresh Prince, Will Smith reminds me of my dad, so that’s immediately just weird. This one might be too hard for me. I’m going to be honest. Fuck I can’t do. I’m sorry!

What was the last concert you went to that you weren’t performing at?
Catfish and the Bottlemen. Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. They put on one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen.

One new artist everyone should know?

What has been the most surreal moment since entering the music industry?
My entire life! So many of the ones I want to say, I’m not allowed to talk about yet, which sucks because I want to tell you! Probably the one-year anniversary of me signing my record deal. I was playing an arena in Canada. I just walked out on stage and thought literally a year ago, I owed my manager thousands of dollars because I couldn’t afford a Starbucks coffee. I was living out of a duffel bag. I didn’t have a laptop. I didn’t have anything. I had a Victoria’s Secret grey duffel bag and I would drag it around New York and New Jersey. He would pay for my train tickets when I would go to and from the city, and we’d take label meetings, and I’d sleep at his parents’ house. And one year later and I have an apartment in L.A. and I’m on stage in an arena.

And then you got to pay him back!
The memo on the check was “I Love You.” In purple pen. So that was pretty surreal.

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