Lana Del Rey: The Billboard Cover Story
The viral (and now Interscope) star incorporates hip-hop producers and nabs an "SNL" slot before her album debut. Finally, her voice is bigger than her controversial persona.
Rarely is a breaking artist as polarizing as Lana Del Rey.
The 25-year-old songstress became one of 2011's most seemingly organic upstarts. Following the release of her breakout single "Video Games" and its vintage-shaded video, apparently filmed and edited on her Macbook, the Lake Placid, N.Y., native racked upwards of 13 million YouTube views and has sold 20,000 copies of her double A-side "Video Games" single since its October 2011 release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It debuted and spent three weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Singles Sales chart. Joining Ellie Goulding and Jessie J, Del Rey recently signed with Next Model Management.
But it's her all-important authenticity that's had the Internet atwitter. Multiple blogs have painted a target on Del Rey, whose previous musical incarnation as Lizzy Grant, her birth name, was almost entirely wiped from the Web. On the surface, her tactics could appear calculated: Del Rey's 2010 5 Points Records debut, Lizzy Grant aka Lana Del Ray, was on iTunes for only two months before vanishing from the store, while her website and social networking profiles were deleted and relaunched under her current guise.
Has a major label been silently orchestrating one of 2011's greatest indie viral success stories? With her Del Rey debut, "Born to Die" (Interscope), arriving Jan. 31, the pillow-lipped singer/songwriter is the new year's buzziest commodity, becoming the first artist since Natalie Imbruglia in 1998 to play "Saturday Night Live" (Jan. 14) before releasing her first major-label LP. She's confirmed for "Late Night With David Letterman" on Feb. 2 and scheduled to appear on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" later the same month. Still, character assassination attempts on the Internet are a daily threat, even if acclaim outweighs the conspiracy theories.
"The Internet's been well-established for 14 years," Del Rey says. "It's not like 1962 where you can't find out about me. My intention was never to transform into a different person. What other people think of me is none of my business. Sometimes, it hurts my feelings. But I have to just keep going. The good stuff is really good. Some of the other stuff is difficult, but I'll be able to tour now, probably sing for a while. That's nice for me."
According to Del Rey, she wrote more than 70 songs during her time in England, and soon filmed DIY videos for "Diet Mtn. Dew" and "Video Games." A verbal agreement with Stranger Records to commercially release the latter gave Del Rey's camp wiggle room to reacquire the song rights in case of a major-label signing. "[It was] a very free single deal. If we got a record deal for an album, they would let her take the single back and get the rights back," Mawson says. "I just realized the other day we didn't sign anything... It was a verbal agreement from chatting and then we confirmed by email."
Labels came full circle when the BBC's Radio 1 played "Video Games" last summer, thanks to Mawson's European connections, and her Internet buzz kick-started. The artist began fielding offers from imprints that previously denied her, deciding eventually on a joint deal with Interscope Records in the United States and Polydor Records in the United Kingdom without holding any grudges.
"Signing someone and spending a lot of money, it's a very dangerous thing to do. Largest failure-to-success rate in any industry," Del Rey says. "I never had any help, and I really needed help."
The timing of the deal and her video's viral release raised eyebrows in the blogosphere. News of her signing broke in late October, but the ink on the contracts had dried in July, fueling conspiracy theorists to assume that the machine had helped with the clearance of copyrighted material included in the videos and promoted her material. It's not unusual for labels to pull invisible strings for new artists, but rarely is the artist afforded both the creative and marketing freedom that Del Rey has had.
It's here where her labels, which provided her a budget for videos and album completion, as well as hired a publicity firm (Shore Fire Media) in August, deviate from standard practices. Polydor president Ferdy Unger Gamilton says, "Apart from the strength of the song and the video [for "Video Games"], this shows how the world operates now. Something like this can just gather its own momentum. So many have been reached by it without traditional media or marketing."
The viral factor of "Video Games" paralleled several breakout Internet sensations of 2011: Del Rey associate the Weeknd, and Frank Ocean. And for Del Rey, the gone-viral marketing method, which often hangs still on quality of music and artistic mystique, was key for convincing label executives wowed by her ability to navigate different Web cultures. She was embraced beyond genre lines, a Net star on sites like Stereogum and Pitchfork, and also popping up on sites like In Flex We Trust, MissInfo.tv and 2DopeBoyz.
"I don't think she's any sort of heavy-handed marketer. I think she basically has it down from start to finish. That's what's the allure is, in terms of what I saw and what other people are seeing. You have an artist and it's all just so honest," Interscope executive VP of A&R Larry Jackson says. "There's no video treatment we've come up with. We haven't produced the records. It's 100% solely her. That's the most honest part. And that's all that matters. The honesty is the marketing."
Translating her music to the live stage after a two-year hiatus, Del Rey tested new material at Brooklyn's Glasslands in September, taking the stage for a secret show under the alias Queen of Coney Island. Not meant for review, the gig drew criticism from attending writers, tipped off by rogue tweets, who criticized her shaky delivery and live band of session musicians.
"I was noticeably scared," says Del Rey, who popped her gum into the microphone throughout the performance. "I don't get onstage trying to be spectacular. I act like it's sort of still about the singing for me, because that's all I have so far, are the songs."
Del Rey didn't allow the litany of mostly harsh comments on YouTube clips from the show deter her. She upgraded her official New York debut to Bowery Ballroom, where she performed to a sold-out crowd, and then played to packed houses in London and Los Angeles. The reviews have turned laudatory. ("The comment-board fights and blog posts don't detract from the fact that she can actually sing," the Village Voice wrote of her Bowery gig.)
On her tracks, Del Rey, who initially described herself as the "gangster Nancy Sinatra," disaffectedly intones about both eternal and finite romance over cinematic arrangements garnished with hip-hop drums. Though indie artists like Bon Iver and St. Vincent shape-shift to respectively appear on cuts by rappers like Kanye West and Kid Cudi, Del Rey casually massages hip-hop into her stand-alone compositions, working directly with such producers as Jeff Bhasker (West, Jay-Z) and Emile Haynie (Cudi). Bypassing the almighty guest feature has supplied her enveloping tracks with a unique twist on indie-pop.
"I brought Emile in because the beats were still raw and hard to get... sort of the danger I wanted to incorporate," says Del Rey, who slings hip-hop slang ("You so fresh to death") on her cowgirl anthem "Blue Jeans." Friendships with the Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye bolster her hip-hop credibility, but it's her effortless infusions that punctuate her tunes. "She wanted to integrate hip-hop into it because she loves [it] and added some beats to make it a bit more radio-friendly and palatable for a broader audience," Mawson says.
Just last month, the Internet fanfare reached new heights following the unauthorized leak of the intensely slick video for "Born to Die," making her a top trending topic on Twitter and earning praise from West, who broke his social network silence to post the clip to his account. For Del Rey, the relief wasn't the assurance of reaching a global audience, but rather having a budget for her art. "The good thing is that the record is beautiful. And I get to do so many things that I love. I get to work with [director Yoann] Lemoine and finally, I don't have to make my videos by myself anymore. Thank God. It's embarrassing," she says. "I'm just going to get help in all the right ways."
For an artist whose homemade approach shifted her career out of obscurity, her labels aren't concerned with losing her indie prowess. "It's not about old-school label tactics and all of that crap. It's really about helping an artist who has a clear-cut vision for herself, really bringing the muscle to make this work on a worldwide level," Jackson says. Unger Gamilton adds: "The real brilliant artists move the mainstream toward them, not the other way around. She's doing something that no one else is doing, and it's just going to draw people in. It's already drawing people in."
In anticipation of "Born to Die," the voluptuous-voiced songstress has been teasing the Web with sneak peeks of the project, releasing a graphic, found-footage video for "Off to the Races" and a YouTube clip of her song "Yayo." Her single, "Born to Die" was recently iTunes' Free Single of the Week. Del Rey also plans on "extensively touring" the international circuit through the new year. But she's almost entirely unplugged from the online realm, save for sporadic tweets and Facebook updates.
"I'd rather it was just as simple as being just the songs and no one else talking about it at all, because it makes things more bittersweet instead of just clear and easy," she says. "It just seems to have taken a funny turn. I'm not really sure if it'll come back around. I don't know. But the record is really good. I have that."
Steven J. Horowitz ( @speriod) is a New York-based journalist who serves as news editor at HipHopDX and associate editor at YRB magazine.