Halsey Opens Up on Her Songwriting Process & Helping Fans

David Needleman
Halsey photographed on Aug. 6, 2017 at Catalyst Ranch in Chicago.

As her latest single, the rage-soaked "Nightmare," delivers Halsey her eighth top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, the artist talks with Billboard about her evolution as a songwriter and a human, not necessarily in that order, as well as her dedication to remaining honest with her fans, no matter the narrative.

Halsey will receive the Hal David Starlight Award at this year's Songwriters Hall of Fame gala (June 13 at the Marriott Marquis in NY), an award created in 2004 to honor promising young songwriters who've made an impact on the music industry with their original work.

How has your songwriting process evolved over the years?

My songwriting process has definitely changed over the years but there's some parts of it that still remain the same. I'm definitely someone who writes words and lyrics first before I start getting into the melody and building the meat of the song, but as I started to grow and work with really talented producers, sometimes they would sit in the room and we would create a track and there would be certain sounds or certain beats that reminded me of certain things, and that would set me off and inspire me to write. So if I'm blocked and I can't think of words or I don't have a poem just sitting there, then I'll usually mess around with some sounds for a while until something sparks a mood or sparks an image that makes me figure out the sentiment of a record.

We'd like to share your stories behind your songs, starting with "Without Me," a massive hit for you last year.

"Without Me" in particular was a really interesting song. I was in Brazil and I received a track from Louis Bell, who I'd been dying to work with but I wasn't really writing at the time, it was going to be a couple months before I started my third album… and it was unique because I had never written or released a standalone single before, so there was kind of this limitless attached to it. It wasn't related to a concept and it wasn't confined to anything, so I could make it anything I wanted. So I just chose this honest topic. When I first recorded it, I hated how I sounded on the song. Then I lived with it for a while and I could really feel the ingenuity in my voice and realized there was something very special there.

With "Without Me," you've achieved your first No. 1 as the lead artist on the song. Did you know it would resonate so strongly when you wrote it?

I definitely didn't know "Without Me" was going to be my first solo No. 1. I didn't really know what was going to happen with it at all. I kind of put it out on a whim and hoped my fans would take it as an answer to some of the things I was going through on a personal level that they were seeking answers to. I really made that song for me, and then when I saw him much it resonated with my fans, and it really went beyond my fans and people really connected with it... I think it's just a universal theme. Everyone knows what it feels like to be taken advantage of by someone who you just loved or were trying to help, whether it's a friend or a family member or a lover. There's a lot songs that are, "I'm a bad bitch, you don't know what you're missing out on." But I think there very few that speak from a point of vulnerability that says, "You were taking advantage of me, and I would've kept letting you because I loved you so much." Admitting that naiveté and that vulnerability, and maybe that's the reason why it worked so well is because it was very honest and very candid.

"Bad At Love" is another powerful relationship song.

"Bad at Love" I did with Ricky Reed and Justin Tranter in L.A. Ricky and I had been at for a couple days and he was like, "Can my friend Justin come by?" We started riffing on this ABBA kind of melody, the "I believe, I believe, I believe" part. And then I sat on my phone in the corner for a while and I could tell Justin and Ricky were like, "why isn't she doing anything? She seems like she's distracted." But I was just kind of in my notes, furiously writing. And after about 20 minutes I got up and was like, "OK, I got it." And then I went in the booth and I said all four verses in succession, just kind of spit them off the top of my head. I think a lot of the takes are those first takes on that song, so it was this stream of consciousness, almost freestyle in a way, which is why I think it feels really conversational when you hear it.

It was really special for me to make that record because it was my first radio hit where I used female pronouns, and I did so in a way where it was so natural, it was almost an afterthought. The song isn't about being LGBT, the song is about being a person who is looking for love and failing to find it and it just so happens there is an LGBT element to it, which made it feel unique.

[At interview time] you are one of eight women to notch a No. 1 song this decade, along with Rihanna, Ariana, Taylor and others. What are your thoughts on female artists and popular music in 2019?

After a couple years of a really male-dominated chart, I think it's really exciting to see female artists having the success they're having. Pop music used to be a female's world. I'm a product of the '90s, I was born in 1994 so I grew up with Britney, Christina, P!nk, Destiny's Child, TLC, even like beyond that to stretch to Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette. There was such a female presence on the radio for me growing up. And as hip-hop, which is a really male-dominated sound, started to take over pop music and EDM, which is a really male-dominated market, started to take over pop as well, we saw a dissipation of women having hits, having records that mattered. That truly seems to be changing, though, because I think female issues are more prevalent than ever and women are really needing a voice and role models more than they ever have before. So I'm really excited to see my peers and my colleagues and my idols stepping up and speaking to and for women.

You recently noted on your Insta, "'Badlands' is where I found myself; and HFK [Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, released in 2017] is where I found myself again. When I stray too far from home I return to you every single time." What are you referring to when you say 'stray too far from home'? And how does it feel to return?

When I say "stray too far from home" I think I mean become too different from the identity I happened to define for myself when I was 19. I wrote my debut album when I was 19 and I was really bold in telling the world, "Hey this is me and I know exactly who I am." And I didn't realize all the changes I was going to go through. I'm proud of myself looking back on that girl being so defiant and so headstrong and so unapologetic, but I also didn't know I was going to go through so many evolutions and so many changes as my career started to change, as my business started to change, my family started to change, my personal love live, health, everything started to change and there were things I could never have foreseen coming that impacted my reception of my identity and when I say "stray too far from home," I mean become someone different for a while. I'm pretty proud of who I am, and I'm pretty positive about showing that person off all the time, even as she's changing and as she growing -- and it's nothing I want to apologize for.

But I know every artist has a moment when they're standing on a stage and wearing maybe a costume that doesn't really feel like them or they're tired or they're looking out into the crowd -- maybe it's a on a video shoot, maybe it's in a live show -- where the lights glaze over and you think to yourself, "How did this happen?" for a second. A lot of it is because we get so busy it becomes easy to slowly release control and delegate certain things to other people, but sometimes we overestimate how much we can delegate and there comes a moment where you have a wake-up call and you take control back and it's liberating. I think part of the journey for me is explaining to my fans, I'm under the same influences they are and I'm doing my best to keep my head above water. No matter what, my M.O. from the beginning of my career is I will always be honest, and I continue to adhere to that and it's what helps me sleep at night.

You speak out often for inclusivity and against bullying, serving in your words as a "positive resource" for your fans. It's both an opportunity and a burden to be a public figure. Can you address both sides of the coin?

It's definitely an amazing opportunity to be a positive resource for my fans. And there are times when you take on a lot. You know, someone is spilling their guts to you at a meet and greet and you're so happy you're there to listen to them but you're also feeling their sadness, your empathy takes over and you feel their sadness and pain so heavy on your heart, and you have to get on stage in 45 minutes and do your show. Most of the time those stories motivate you to continue to be a storyteller but sometimes if you're a little overly empathetic like I can be, it can be a lot.

So for me it's been about self care. It's been about talking care of myself. Making sure I speak to a therapist, making sure I take time for myself, making sure I never put my health and my needs to the side for too long, and making sure I continue to take care of them so I can continue to be strong and can continue to be a resource for them. And sometimes being a positive resource means being able to admit when you're down and sad, because it's that comparison that helps your fans not beat themselves up so much when they are in moments of weakness because they know you have them too. There's an unrealistic expectation sometimes for artists to be strong all the time, but I feel fortunate to live in a world where it seems more and more artists are speaking out, whether they're going through mental health issues or reproductive health issues or autoimmune diseases, some of their struggles in business and in creativity and religion and life and health. Being able to share that with people reminds them that they are not alone, and even the people they look up to are going through it too, and ultimately that's what being a positive resource means to me.


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