For six years now Lana Del Rey has attracted and foiled critics with pop music that does not sound like any of her peers. The mild, smoky voice, the judicious use of rap production, the juxtaposition of classic American images and sounds with hyper-contemporary, crass language, from these elements Lana makes music that feels at once familiar and strange.
Lust for Life is her most ambitious album yet, and as Lana explains in her third Complex cover appearance, it emerged from a period of self-examination that, when it ended, left her "looking at everything else" the world has to offer. Hopeful and questioning, the album engages with the tumultuous and oftentimes terrifying politics of 2017 on songs like "God Bless America—And All the Beautiful Women in It" and "When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing." Elsewhere, this more expansive worldview means features from artists like Stevie Nicks, Playboi Carti, Sean Ono Lennon, and ASAP Rocky. "I was ready to have some of my friends jump on the record," she says,"[and] they were all naturally a little bit lighter than me."
Lightness is, in some ways, the operating principle for Lana Del Rey right now. At 32, her career is no longer "guesswork," the way it was when she first began. The questions of authenticity and agency that greeted her upon arrival are irrelevant. There's only Lana Del Rey.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You were living in New York when you put out Born to Die and I know that you went from being like normal New Yorker who rides the subway to Lana del Rey who's on Page Six and is the subject of long thinkpieces in the Times.
That was fucked up. It just changed it. I remember I was working somewhere else and I was on my way back from there and I was getting on the 6 train, and TMZ was behind me the whole time.
On the train?
Yeah, I had run into this camera-man. It was the first time I had seen a paparazzi, but he wasn’t taking pictures, he was just filming. I don’t even know if I had ever seen that before ‘cause it’s someone with a VHS following you around.
Was he trying to talk to you?
Yeah, and I was answering and I sounded crazy. I went down and got my ticket, swiped it, waited for the train. I looked behind me, the guy had got a ticket too, and he was waiting too. I was like, Wait, is this real life? Honestly from then on one of those guys I had seen that day was just always there. I thought to myself, I think I gotta move somewhere.
Your first three covers are all fairly serious, sort of oscillating between kind of almost sad and maybe a little bit aloof on the Honeymoon one. This is the first one where you’re smiling.
Well, the Honeymoon cover I thought was more just casual. I felt like I was in a more casual space. But this was definitely in an even more lighter space altogether. My sister, Chuck, shot it, but we shot it in the parking lot behind the scenes of my “Love” video. We didn’t know if we were going to get the cover but we definitely knew I was gonna smile. We took a couple frames, and we developed it that week, and I felt like that was the one.
For being a fairly dark time to live in the world, it’s kind of interesting that this is actually your most optimistic work, at least in its titling and its imagery. What’s the genesis of that?
Well there was a little bit of a shift in me naturally. I felt like I had kind of said a lot and done a lot through the records. I was ready to have some of my friends jump on the record [and] they were all naturally a little bit lighter than me, so that was kind of happening in my world. I felt like two years of recording really dark tunes would not be fun.
You do touch on problems of the world and politics in this work in a way that your previous albums did not. Was that a conscious decision?
On the last records I needed to look inward to figure out why things had gone so far down one path, and then I kind of came to the end of my self-examination and I naturally was looking at everything else. But, of course, all my experiences and romantic relationships and stuff are still peppered in to some of the songs on this record. Also, with Obama as the president, me and everybody I know, I think we felt very safe and protected, felt like we were being viewed the way we wanted to be viewed, in terms of the world. So there wasn’t as much to say except, like, look how far we’ve come and it’s getting better, getting even better. I feel like there was quite a shift.
With this record you have infused more politics than ever before. I think it’s not necessarily a political record, but it is a record of the day. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would imagine that you have a decent number of sort of middle American fans for whom Trump’s inauguration and administration is not problematic. How do you negotiate expressing your own honest feelings about these things, and do you think about whether or not it’s going to piss them off, or is this something that has inspired ire from people who at one point were in you core?
You don’t negotiate when it comes to your work or your art. You stand totally firm and take the consequences. In terms of losing fans I don’t care. Period. [Laughs.]
The last two albums, Honeymoon and Ultraviolence, it seemed like you concentrated on making stuff for yourself, and perhaps for your core audience. With this record, it at appears that there is a more expansive ambition.
I would consider it as a not turning away from the possible bigger-ness of it, compared to the other two. Before, I felt maybe I wanted to be more protective of my own space and stuff with the last two records.
Was that a reaction to the success of records like the remix to “Summertime Sadness”?
I think it was a reaction to more people knowing who I was right away. So I was like, Let me just check myself and get myself into a place where I’m sure I like what I’m doing, and I know I like the production. With the “Summertime Sadness" remix, I had told you before, I didn’t hear that song until it was on the radio and I came back from a show in Russia, and I heard it on the radio. I mean, obviously in general I like to have my hands all over the production.
Was that a weird feeling to like—
It was a weird…
Is it weird also that it’s probably—
That it’s a huge song?
...your biggest hit?
Really? You’re gonna say that?
I mean, radio numbers at least.
No, you’re probably right.
Probably not your most important song, but…
I think “Video Games” is right up there. I was more sensitive about it then because when you’re new you’ve got so much to prove. You don’t have that many chances. That’s real. I’d consider it at the time just being careful. You know, in terms of collabs or sponsorships or whatever.
Is it freeing now to feel that you can do whatever feels good in the moment?
Yeah. It is actually.
Do you feel like that played into the larger ambition of Lust for Life?
Rocky’s on the record, and when he’s in town and I’m here, I’m just down at the studio anyway. Or the same with Abel, you know? I’ll just go down and listen to what he’s working on. I realized, Why do I not have my friends on my record? It was pretty natural but I guess with Abel, everything he does now is so big, so at another time maybe that would’ve felt like a little bit scarier or something, but now it just feels right.
What do you mean?
Well, he’s super out there and he’s got a lot of radio stuff so I don’t know if I would’ve known what to do with a big radio song. I’m not saying I have one on this record…
But if you are to have one, you feel confident that it would be exciting?
That I would be happy, yeah.
David Byrne from the Talking Heads wrote an amazing book about the history of music, and he goes into the significance of radio in how songs are formatted, and the idea that it’s like three minutes with three hooks and a bridge—there’s nothing in nature that says that that’s how music should be composed. It’s strictly about how radio programmers want to get three songs per commercial break, so that has sort of trained the artists to work within those confines.
For sure. And they’re not terrible confines to work within. It’s kind of fun to make a short song with a cute chorus. But I think if you’re writing it yourself it’s important to have half the record at least where you’ve got a little bit of your life in there, or a little bit of an opinion. I think if you’re really good you can do both. I was thinking of Bob Dylan.
What is the measure of success for you?
The one thing that stayed the same is, for me the measure of success with the record is just that it gets finished. [Laughs.] For real.
Did Sean Lennon make the record?
He made it.
I saw that you took these pictures with a horse, but it was not a horse that was coming out of a pond on his estate, so I didn’t know if that was like a subliminal shot.
It’s not, no. Horses have just been a random theme somehow. He ended up producing the track we made, “Tomorrow Never Came,” and that’s the only track on the record that I wrote over the last two years that I didn’t feel like it was mine. I felt like I had written it for someone else, which I… I’ve never really felt like that. Then I was looking at the lyrics and I had a lyric about John Lennon and Yoko, so I called Sean and asked him if he would do a duet with me. He said that he was his dad’s biggest fan, so it would be really natural.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that almost all the people that you work with are men. Is that something you ever think about, or that bothers you?
Well, it’s weird because the people in my close production life are men. I guess I’m thinking of like Rick [Nowels] and my two engineers, Dean Reed and Kieran Menzies, who have changed my whole musical life and my sound and my records. But in my personal life, there’s just so many women. Well there’s not many female producers, for sure. There’s some great female songwriters though. That’ll probably change.
When you think about yourself as a songwriter, how do you think you’ve changed from Born to Die days to what you’re writing now?
Maybe just the ability to integrate my own experiences with what I’m observing. To be able to reflect back, like a good mix of inner world, outer world.
Toxic relationships were very much the fuel of a lot of the writing on those first albums, as you have moved to a sort of happier, more solid place, perhaps making better life decisions—
How do you think about your romantic life, and how do you think about it within the context of your songwriting?
I feel like in this record there’s—with the songs that are “love songs,” or about relationships, I feel like I come off almost more annoyed about the way things are going rather than like, “Oh, poor me.” There’s like a moving that I get from my own stuff, because sometimes my own stuff is a little bit revealing to me, you know, about myself.
With a lot of artists who write very personal stuff, when they get to this point in their career it sometimes gets more difficult to unearth and reveal those things because of success and fame and the work.
That’s so true.
Do you feel like it’s a greater challenge now?
Yeah, but I’ve never been somebody who turned away from really hard work. I’m always looking to put the footwork in. Like with the mixing, if it takes eight months I will mix for eight months. If the master doesn’t come back right I’ll find someone else to do it. With the personal stuff I mean, if I feel like I’m just not getting it right I’ll just keep on trying different things until I feel like I’m hitting my stride in that department. I don’t know, finding your own path is not for the faint of heart. It’s the harder path. It’s easier to just keep doing the same shit over and over again and then be surprised when it’s still the same results. Somehow that’s easier than just doing something different.
A lot of what got written about you in the beginning, and in a somewhat real way, you had developed a character. I imagine a large part you, and then perhaps something that’s imagined. As you’ve gotten further and further into your career do you feel like the lines between those things have changed or blurred?
I mean, that’s what most of the thinkpieces are about. You know, there’s a lot of stuff I could’ve not said in the songs and I said it anyway. It didn’t always serve me to talk about some of the men I was with and what that was like, and then not comment on it further. So that’s some of my experiences and where I lived and what it was like. It would’ve been easier to just not say that and then deflect all of the questions about it afterwards.
So do you think that was sort of overstated?
I didn’t edit myself when I could have, because a lot of it’s just the way it was. I mean, because I’ve changed a lot and a lot of those songs, it’s not that I don’t relate but… A lot of it too is I was just kinda nervous. I came off sort of nervously, and there was just a lot of dualities, a lot of juxtapositions going on that maybe just felt like something was a little off. Maybe the thing that was off was that I needed a little more time or something, and also my path was just so windy just to get to having a first record. I feel like I had to figure it out all by myself. Every move was just guesswork.
It’s kind of funny because you were in your mid-twenties when you sort of came out and I do think if you look at artists that dropped their first albums between like 25 and 27, whether it’s an Eminem or Jay Z, it’s like, if you looked at their work at 22—
Yeah, exactly. It’s different.
It would’ve been very raw and unfocused. There was no Slim Shady for Eminem at 22, but at 26 he had the full 360 package.
Jay Z talks about that too, like how he really, really lived by the time he was 26. There was a real perspective he was coming from. So, yeah, it’s a real age where...
You can put together a project that's more fully formed.
Right. And my perspective was fully formed, it just wasn’t a great outlook. It’s not so much a persona question with me, it’s just more like what was going on with that girl, you know? Like, where was she coming from?
There’s been an inordinate amount of conversation around the idea of cultural appropriation, and Katy Perry kind of stepped right in it with her performance on SNL. You have moved fairly organically from the singer/songwriter world into hip-hop, and back out and back in without much commotion. Why do you think that is?
I never feel like I’m not where I’m supposed to be, you know? No matter who I’m with, I’m always still doing my own thing. I can’t remember the last time I was in a club or somewhere and felt like, Man, I’m not supposed to be here. I’ve been kind of doing it for so long I feel like everybody I’m friends with, everyone I know just knows I’m all about the music.
Do you have any consideration for the critics and all of the sort of dissection for your art at this point?
Yeah, sometimes. I have a song called “Get Free” which closes my record, and it started by, it told my whole story, I guess, and my thoughts on where I want to go next; and then I realized, I actually don’t want to tell my whole story, I don’t want to talk about it.
How do you negotiate what you keep for yourself and what you are ready to share?
Sometimes I just can’t resist to just tell it like it really is for myself and the way that I feel.
Photography: Timothy Saccenti/Styling: Brett Alan Nelson/Hair: Anna Cofone /Makeup: Pamela Cochrane