Billboard Cover: Lana Del Rey on Why Her Pop Stardom 'Could Easily Not Have Happened'

Joe Pugliese
Lana Del Rey photographed in Los Angeles on Oct. 2, 2015.

Lana Del Rey and I were first introduced at an Architectural Digest pimped manse off Pacific Coast Highway during a party thrown, weirdly enough, for Werner Herzog and his bud, the physicist Lawrence Krauss. (Del Rey, 30, has spoken before of her interest in science and philosophy.) On that night, she wore an unformfitting Polo shirt dress with a personal-old-fave vibe. In deglamorized “Stars Without Makeup” mode, she was unpretentious and softly gregarious, like a doe-eyed, underdressed newcomer to the Town. I was at the same table, and she caught me staring off at the horizon. Del Rey was sardonically attuned, nudging her boyfriend, the Italian photographer-director Francesco Carrozzinni, to have a look at the cliché: Old Brooding Man. Her warmth took me out of myself.

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Lana Del Rey’s fourth album, Honeymoon, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in September, but when I asked if she planned to go on the road to promote it, she shook her head. “I do everything backwards. It already happened -- I’m actually done with the world tour I started four years ago, when I needed to be out there. I really needed to be out there singing.”

That exodus was partly born of the need to heal following a 2012 appearance on Saturday Night Live that elicited a slaughter-of-the-lamb storm of derision over the then up-and-coming star’s seemingly zoned-out amateurism. She was tarred as a poseur -- part Edie Sedgwick, part Valley of the Dolls, a Never Will Be Ready for Primetime Player -- but it turned out that Del Rey was only at the end of Act One in an all-American A Star Is Born passion play of celebrity crucifixion and resurrection.

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Born Lizzy Grant in Lake Placid, N.Y., Del Rey moved to Manhattan at 18. “For seven years I wrote sexy songs about love,” she says. “That was the most joyous time of my life.” The screen that so many gossipy personas have been projected onto (rich preppy, suicidal anti-feminist, morbid dilettante) has instead transformed into a nearly religious dashboard icon of ghostly seduction. She’s a global phenomenon, part of the national conversation and cultural soundscape. Nielsen Music puts her total U.S. album sales at 2.5 million, and her videos have been viewed hundreds of millions of times. Del Rey is now a few years into her return from the desert, having arrived on a mystery train of Santa Ana winds, existential dread and “soft ice cream” (to quote her song “Salvatore”) that is uniquely her own.

I meet her for the interview at a John Lautner house she rents in Los Angeles. Lautner was a seminal Southern California architect, and Del Rey says her choice of lodging was deliberate. She production-designs her life. She greets me in the drive -- inquisitive, friendly and aware. For a moment, she looks like Elvis and Priscilla, all in one. The hair is old-school Clairol dark, the eyes siren green, the auburn ’do the most done thing about her.

“You’d love my dad,” she says. She was just on the phone with him; her parents are visiting. He’s a realtor, and Mom’s an English teacher whose passion is reading history books. Del Rey lives here with her younger sister, Caroline Grant, a photographer who goes by Chuck. (Del Rey tells me that her sister was so shocked by the force of the fans’ emotions during concerts that she doesn’t take pictures of them anymore.)

“My dad’s that guy with perfect Hawaiian shirts and matching shorts,” says Del Rey. “The other day he said, ‘We should see about getting you a vintage Rolls.’ I said, ‘Um, it’s a little attention-grabbing.’ And he said, ‘Uh, yeah.’ ”

What do you do with yourself now that you have nothing on your schedule?

I go for long walks, long drives. I’ll get in the car and drive the streets, feeling for places. I go to Big Sur. I love Big Sur, but it has gotten so touristy. I went to the General Store, and there were hordes. On a Monday! But I’m drawn there. Sometimes I go to write. I’ve been thinking it might be time to do a longer video, a 40-minute video. I was watching The Sandpiper, and I was working on something kind of based on that.

Have you thought of writing something for yourself? Shooting down the paparazzi helicopter in the video for “High by the Beach” was your idea, no?

Yeah, it was. I’d like to write a book one day. But you need a beginning, a middle and an end! I can deal with four minutes -- but I’m not so sure about a book.

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Your song “God Knows I Tried” fits somewhere between The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I’m thinking of Cohen because of that line “Even though it all went wrong.”

I love Leonard -- because he’s all about women. Women and God.

Does it all go wrong?

It’s hard for me sometimes to think about going on when I know we’re going to die. Something happened in the last three years, with my panic...

I had read that you were prone to that.

It got worse. But I’ve always been prone to it. I remember being -- I was, I think, 4 years old -- and I’d just seen a show on TV where the person was killed. And I turned to my parents and said, “Are we all going to die?” They said “Yes,” and I was totally distraught! I broke down in tears and said, “We have to move!”

How do you cope?

I saw a therapist -- three times. But I’m really most comfortable sitting in that chair in the studio, writing or singing.

The panic won’t last forever.

I don’t think so, but ... sometimes you just want to be able to enjoy the view. I think I’m really like my mother, in the sense that I make small lists. To calm myself down. I reward myself. You know, “If I finish this, then I’ll do that” -- I’ll go for a walk on the beach or swim in the ocean. I go for swims and am actually shocked I do that. Because one thing I’m terrified of is sharks.

Do you think having a child would chill you out? Do you want to have kids?

I’ve thought about it. Really thought about it lately because I’ve just turned 30. I’d love having daughters. But I don’t think it’d be a good idea to have kids with someone who wasn’t ... on the same page.

Someone who...

Who isn’t exactly -- like me! (Laughs.) Though maybe it’s best to have kids with someone who’s ... normal.

When was the last time you got trashed by a love affair?

The last one -- before the boyfriend I’m with now -- was pretty bad. It wasn’t good to be in it, but it wasn’t good to be out of it, either. He was like a twin. Not a facsimile twin, but a real twin.

So maybe finding the same person doesn’t work. Are relationships hard for you?

For someone like me -- and it’s not a codependent thing -- I just like having someone there. I’ve been alone, and that’s fine. But I like to come home and have someone there. You know, to say, “Oh, he’s here. And this other thing (Mimes a table.) is there. And this (Mimes setting down an object on the table.) is there. (Laughs.) I’m very methodical. I have to be. I’m like that in the studio too. Mixing and mastering can take four more months after we’re done -- three to mix and one to master. I like having a plan. Though I do leave spaces for ad-libbing in the studio when I write.

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Do you mind if I write all this? Because I don’t want to piss off Francesco.

Oh, he’s going to read this! But he’ll have things to say anyway. He’s very ... aggressive. (Smiles.) And besides, I didn’t say he wasn’t just like me.

There’s something weirdly shamanistic about your work. You channel Los Angeles in ways I haven’t seen from anyone, at least not in a long while. Places now extinct, streets and feelings that you have no right to be able to evoke because of your age. And it’s so unlikely that you’re the one to be the oracle that way. But it’s for real.

I know. I know that. I love that word, “shamanistic.” I read energy; I always have. One of the books I love -- aside from [Kenneth Anger’s] Hollywood Babylon -- is The Autobiography of a Yogi. And Wayne Dyer ... I was so upset when he died! [Dyer, part Buddhist, part New Thought motivational speaker, was best-known for his book Your Erroneous Zones. He died in August.] He gave me so much over the last 15 years. I went to see a clairvoyant. She asked me to write down four things on a card before I came in, things I might be thinking about, and she nailed all four. I asked about the man I was seeing -- that one, before the one now. She said, “I don’t really like to go there, but ... I just don’t see him present.” I went, “Ugh.” She’s seeing the future and doesn’t see him present. Oh, no!

Are you aware of your effect on men?

I’ve only recently become aware of the heterosexual males who are into my music. I remember when I was 16, I had a boyfriend. I think he was... 25? I thought that was the best thing. He had an F-150 pickup and let me drive it one time. I was so high up! I panicked and was worried I might kill someone -- run over a nun or something. I started to shake. I was screaming and crying. I saw him looking over, and he was smiling. He said, “I love that you’re out of control.” He saw how vulnerable I was, how afraid, and he loved that. The balance shifted from there. I had the upper hand -- until then.

Do you want to be in the movies?

Well... I’m open to it all. James Franco asked me to be in three films that were going to be directed by a Spanish director, and I was hesitant. I think he heard my hesitance and got scared. Someone wanted me to be Sharon Tate. I thought, “That’s so right.” At that time, there were three Manson movies being talked about, but none were ever made. So maybe that was the answer.

Have you ever been the “voice of reason” for a friend in crisis?

I have -- I can be. It’s easier to do that sometimes ... for someone who’s half-checked out.

Meaning you.

Yes. (Pauses.) You know, I was living in Hancock Park once and thought about a movie idea. I was renting this house whose high walls had been grandfathered in, so of course I kept making them taller and taller. And I had an idea about writing something about a woman living there, a singer losing her mind. She has this Nest-like security system installed, cameras everywhere. The only people she saw were people who work on the grounds: construction people and gardeners. One day she hears the gardener humming this song she wrote. She panics and thinks, “Oh, my God. Was I humming that out loud or just to myself? And if it was aloud, wasn’t it at 4 in the morning? Did that mean he was outside my window?” Then a storm comes, one of those L.A. storms, and the power goes out except to the cameras, which are on a different source. And the pool has been empty for months because of the drought. And she goes outside in the middle of the night because she hears something -- and trips over the gardener’s hoe and falls into the empty pool and dies facedown like William Holden at the end of Sunset Boulevard.

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For me, one of the most interesting things about you and your story -- and of course your work -- is that you broke through. That it has turned out well.

I think about it, and I’m so grateful. I am aware that it could easily not have happened. That I could have become ... an American nightmare. I see her -- Lana -- I listen to her and watch her, and I’m ... protective.

Let’s end with Big Sur. Do you think your interest is by way of your kinship with the Beats? Your enthrallment with Kerouac?

Big Sur challenges me to surrender. What draws me is ... the curves. I’m really drawn to the curves. 

Bruce Wagner, a novelist and screenwriter, lives in Los Angeles. His new book, I Met Someone, will be published by Blue Rider Press in March.