Lana Del Rey photographed on Aug. 8, 2019 at The Beckett Mansion in Los Angeles. Styling by Mel Ottenberg. Del Rey wears a JoosTricot sweater, Simone Rocha dress, Beladora earrings and a XIV Karats bracelet and ring.
Lana Del Rey photographed on Aug. 8, 2019 at The Beckett Mansion in Los Angeles. Styling by Mel Ottenberg. Del Rey wears a JoosTricot sweater, Simone Rocha dress, Beladora earrings and a XIV Karats bracelet and ring.
Melodie McDaniel

Lana Del Rey on Finding Her Voice and Following Her Muse: 'I Have Never Taken a Shortcut'

With her new album, 'Norman Fucking Rockwell,' the singer makes her most adventurous and candid music yet -- and leads Billboard’s list of the 38 most-anticipated things about music this fall.

You’ve got to climb the hill behind the Chateau Marmont to get to the office where I’m meeting Lana Del Rey, which feels appropriately on the nose on this early-August day: The hotel is Hollywood’s ultimate nexus of glamour and doom, the keeper of 90 years of celebrity secrets that touch everyone from Bette Davis to Britney Spears. It shows up in the homemade visuals for Del Rey’s breakout single “Video Games” and in the lyrics of songs like “Off to the Races.” She lived here while writing her Paradise EP in 2012. Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski lived here, too, in Room 54, before moving to Cielo Drive where -- exactly 50 years ago, as of midnight tonight -- the Manson Family arrived.

But these kinds of connections are standard in the Lana Del Rey multiverse, where nods to Bob Dylan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elton John and Henry Miller can coexist in a single chorus and not feel overdone. (No, seriously: Play her 2017 duet with Sean Ono Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Came.”) And if the Lana of five years ago radiated significant Sharon Tate circa Valley of the Dolls energy, the 34-year-old singer-songwriter has more of a Summer of Love thing going on now. The songs she has previewed from her fifth album, the exquisitely titled Norman Fucking Rockwell, are far more Newport Folk Festival than femme fatale -- meandering psych-rock jam sessions and slippery piano ballads that shout out Sylvia Plath. The narrative thread throughout all of this can lead listeners down an endless rabbit hole of references, but you can sum it up like so: The music Lana Del Rey makes could only be made by Lana Del Rey.

That means songs like the nearly 10-minute-long “Venice Bitch,” the most psychedelic tune in her catalog, or the title track, a ballad rich with one-liner gems like, “Your poetry’s bad, and you blame the news” -- songs that represent the best writing in her career yet have almost zero chance of radio play. Norman Fucking Rockwell, out Aug. 30, is a “mood record,” as Del Rey describes it while perched barefoot on a velvet couch in the new office of her longtime management company, an airy pad way up in the Hollywood Hills with platinum plaques scattered about that no one has gotten around to hanging up yet. There are no big bangers, just songs you can jam out to during beach walks and long drives. This is not exactly a surprise: Del Rey’s only top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 was a raving Cedric Gervais remix of her song “Summertime Sadness.” But in the streaming era, when success often means getting easily digestible singles on the right playlists, making an album that’s meant to be wallowed in for 70 minutes isn’t just inspired -- it’s defiant.

Yet it’s an approach that has worked for Del Rey: Her songs, even the long, weird ones, easily rack up tens of millions of streams, and overall they have amassed a solid 3.9 billion on-demand streams in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. Collectively, her catalog of albums has sold 3.2 million copies in the United States, and all of her full-length major-label studio albums have debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 1 or No. 2. The first of those, 2012’s Born to Die, is one of only three titles by a woman to spend over 300 weeks on the Billboard 200. (The other two: Adele’s 21 and Carole King’s Tapestry.) Born to Die also has spent 142 weeks on Billboard’s Vinyl Albums chart -- more than Prince’s Purple Rain, tied with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and just behind Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It’s an indication that, as broad as her fan base is, it also runs deep, with a ratio of hardcore devotees to casual ones that even stars with inescapable radio hits might envy.

Credit Del Rey’s strong aesthetic and singular throwback sound that, as it has moved away from its initial pop and hip-hop influences, has kept young fans interested and allowed them to grow up with her. “When we sign [an artist], it’s not necessarily what everyone was listening to, but they had real vision,” says Interscope chairman/CEO John Janick. “Lana’s at ground zero of that. There have been so many other people who’ve been inspired by Lana. She’s massive, she has sold millions of albums, but it always has been on her terms.”

This has been Del Rey’s deal from the jump. “Some people really are trying to get in the mix of the zeitgeist, and that is just not my MO -- never cared,” says Del Rey, cradling a coffee with sky blue-painted fingertips. “My little heart’s path has such a distinct road that it’s almost taking me along for the ride. Like, ‘I guess we’re following this muse, and it wants to be in the woods. OK, I guess we’re packing up the truck!’ It’s truly ethereal, and it’s a huge pain in the ass.”

Del Rey’s instincts are what led Interscope to sign her to an international joint-venture deal with U.K. label Polydor in 2011 and what compelled her managers Ed Millett and Ben Mawson to create their company, TaP Music, with Del Rey as their first client in 2009. “It was at that moment of peak piracy when no one in the music business was making money, so labels just weren’t taking risks,” recalls Millett. “You’d play one of her songs at an A&R meeting, and they’d be like, ‘You know what’s selling at the moment? Kesha.’ But we were lucky with Lana because she knew exactly who she was. Our job was about making sure everybody understood that.”

That battle for understanding has followed Del Rey for much of her career. “People just couldn’t believe she could be so impactful without some svengalis behind her. I still think there’s a tinge of misogyny behind all that,” says Millett, referencing the endless debates about Del Rey’s creative autonomy. “She realized very quickly, being at the center of that storm, you’re not going to win.” So she went deeper into her own weird world, and somewhere between her third and fourth records -- the haunted jazz of 2015’s Honeymoon and the new-age folk of 2017’s Lust for Life -- it felt like people finally got it. Or, at least, the people who were meant to get it got it. After all, Del Rey never had intended to make popular music, even if she now headlines festivals. It just kind of happened that way: a poet disguised as a pop star.

In many ways, Norman Fucking Rockwell feels like a fulfillment of the groundwork she has spent nearly a decade laying: She is now free to be Lana, no questions asked. “People want to embrace her lack of formula,” says Millett. “And now she can do whatever the hell she wants because people have accepted that, well, she’s brilliant.” Though she has sold out arenas in the past, the North American leg of her upcoming fall tour has her playing amphitheaters and outdoor venues that feel especially suited to the style of her music. And if her songs feel lighter, it’s because Del Rey does, too.

“I mean, God, I have never taken a shortcut -- and I think that’s going to stop now,” she says, feet kicked up on the coffee table. “It hasn’t really served me well to go by every instinct. It’s the longer, more arduous road. But it does get you to the point where, when everyone is just copying each other, you’re like, ‘I know myself well enough that I don’t want to go to that foam rave in a crop top.’ ”

Although that does sound kind of dope, now that she’s thinking about it. “Yeah, never mind,” she says, laughing. “Google ‘nearest foam rave.’ ”

 


 

In person, Del Rey’s vibe isn’t noir heroine or folk troubadour so much as friend from college who now lives in the suburbs. Her jean shorts, white T-shirt and gray cardigan could’ve easily been snatched off a mannequin at the nearest American Eagle Outfitters. A couple of times in our conversation, she lets out a “Gee whiz!” like a side character in a Popeye cartoon. Between the tour announcements and Gucci campaign shoots, her Instagram consists mostly of screenshot poetry and Easter brunch pics with her girlfriends. For the most distinctive popular songwriter of the past decade, she appears disarmingly basic.

“Oh, I am! I’m actually only that,” agrees Del Rey, eyes gleaming. “I’ve got a more eccentric side when it comes to the muse of writing, but I feel very much that writing is not my thing: I’m writing’s thing. When the writing has got me, I’m on its schedule. But when it leaves me alone, I’m just at Starbucks, talking shit all day.” Starting in 2011, when her nearly drumless, practically hookless breakthrough single “Video Games” blew up, the suddenly polarizing singer found it hard to move through the real world unbothered. But something changed a few years back; she’s not sure if she chilled out or if everyone else did. In any case, she’s happiest among the people, whether that’s lingering in Silverlake coffee shops or dipping out to Newport to rollerblade. “I’ve got my ear to the ground,” she says with a conspiratorial wink. “Actually, that’s my main goal.”

Somehow this only makes Del Rey weirder and cooler: the high priestess of sad pop who now smiles on album covers and posts Instagram stories inviting you to check out her homegirl’s fitness event in Hermosa Beach. You could feel the shift on Lust for Life, which enlisted everyone from A$AP Rocky to Stevie Nicks and traded the interiority of her early songwriting for anthems about women’s rights and the state of the world. She even seemed down to play the pop game a bit, though by her own rules: She worked with superproducer Max Martin on the title track, even as it quoted ’60s girl groups and cast R&B juggernaut The Weeknd as the long-lost Beach Boy.

Among those entering Del Rey’s creative fold on Norman Fucking Rockwell is Jack Antonoff, the four-time Grammy Award-winning producer who has become a go-to collaborator on synth-pop heavy hitters for the likes of Lorde and Taylor Swift. Enlisting Big Pop’s most in-demand producer doesn’t seem like a very Lana Del Rey move, and she knows it.

“I wasn’t in the mood to write,” she admits. “He wanted me to meet him in some random diner, and I was like, ‘You already worked with everyone else; I don’t know where there’s room for me.’ ” But when Antonoff played her 10 minutes of weird, atmospheric riffs, Del Rey could immediately picture her new album: “A folk record with a little surf twist.” In the end, Antonoff wound up co-producing almost the whole project, alongside longtime collaborator Rick Nowels and Del Rey herself.

Most of Norman Fucking Rockwell follows similar whims -- or, as Del Rey puts it, “Divine timing.” Though artists like Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande have taken the creation of pop music to a more informal and impulsive place -- Eilish recorded her debut album with her producer brother Finneas O’Connell in his childhood bedroom, while Grande wrote most of Thank U, Next in a weeklong blitz -- Del Rey’s approach seems even more casual. “She doesn’t follow any kind of plan beyond what she feels is right, and it works every time,” says Millett.

That includes the cover of Sublime’s sleazy 1996 hit “Doin’ Time” -- essentially the “Summertime Sadness” of the Long Beach, Calif., ska band’s discography -- recorded out of pure fandom, yet somehow a perfect complement to the album’s beach bum vibe. “We were involved in executive-producing the [recent] Sublime documentary because their catalog is through Interscope, and Lana was talking about how big a fan she was,” says Janick. As it happened, her earliest producer was David Kahne, who had worked with Sublime in the ’90s. “So she ended up doing that cover, which turned out amazing. But then she felt like it fit the aesthetic of the album.”

The album title was just something she came up with when she randomly harmonized the name of the American illustrator while recording “Venice Bitch,” though she recognizes that she and Rockwell -- an idealist whose cozy depictions of Boy Scouts and Thanksgiving turkeys graced magazine covers for half the 20th century -- have both explored big questions about the American dream in their work. And then there’s the artwork she has been using for the record’s singles: bizarrely casual iPhone photos that feel a bit tossed-off because, well, they are.

“Every time my managers write me, ‘Album art?,’ I’m just like, send!” she cackles, pantomiming taking a selfie. “And they just send the middle-finger emoji back to me.”

 


 

The week of our interview, just a few days after two consecutive mass shootings took place in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Del Rey recorded a song called “Looking for America.” She hadn’t planned to write it, but the shootings affected her on a “cellular level,” as she phrased it in an Instagram preview, which also included a sharp disclaimer: “Now I know I’m not a politician and I’m not trying to be so excuse me for having an opinion.” Over Antonoff’s acoustic guitar, she sings softly, “I’m still looking for my own version of America/One without the gun, where the flag can freely fly.”

The quiet protest song is a move you can hardly imagine her making five years ago. It wasn’t until Lust for Life, she acknowledges, that she felt brave enough to have an overt political opinion. “It is quite a critical world, where people are like, ‘Stick to singing!’ ” she says. “They don’t say that to everyone, but I heard that a lot.”

With that sense of permission has come a kind of peace and an acceptance that evaded Del Rey in her early career; she has never indulged her critics, but it’s nice to be understood. “Sometimes with women, there was so much criticism if you weren’t just one way that was easily metabolized and decipherable -- you were a crazy person,” she marvels, noting a shift in the perception of female pop stars that happened only recently (one catalyzed in large part by her own career arc). She recently recorded a song for the soundtrack to the upcoming Charlie’s Angels reboot with Grande and Miley Cyrus -- stars who also have faced criticism for the ways in which they don’t conform to the expectations of women in the spotlight.

Her newest songs are some of her most personal, particularly the album closer, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have -- but i have it” (a title only Del Rey could pull off). It also hovers anxiously on the margins of the #MeToo movement, though never in such broad strokes. “It was staggered with references from living in Hollywood and seeing so many things that didn’t look right to me, things that I never thought I’d have permission to talk about, because everyone knew and no one ever said anything,” she says in a tangle of sentences as knotty as the lyrics themselves. “The culture only changed in the last two years as to whether people would believe you. And I’ve been in this business now for 15 years!

“So I was writing a song to myself.” She exhales deeply, sinking back into the sofa. “Hope truly is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have, because I know so much.” Del Rey pauses. “But I have it.”

Del Rey has been thinking a lot about hope and faith lately. She has been going to church every Wednesday and Sunday with a group of her girlfriends; they get coffee beforehand, and it has become something to look forward to. She likes the idea of a network of people you can talk to about wanting something bigger -- just another extension of her fondness for pondering the mysteries of the universe. (Fittingly, she studied metaphysics and philosophy at Fordham University in New York.) “I genuinely think the thing that has transformed my life the most is knowing that there’s magic in the concept of two heads are better than one,” she says.

That has crept into her music, too. Del Rey says she hadn’t realized until recently how isolating her creative process had been for so long. These days, studio sessions feel more like cozy jam sessions, according to Laura Sisk, the Grammy-winning engineer who worked closely on the record with Del Rey and Antonoff. “Something I love about Norman is how much of the energy of the room we’re able to record,” says Sisk. “We often don’t use a vocal booth, so we’re sitting in a room together recording, usually right after the song was written and the feeling is still heavy in the room.”

Even the cover of Norman Fucking Rockwell, Del Rey says, was designed to cultivate a sense of community. For the first time in her discography, she’s not pictured by herself. She’s on a boat at sea, one arm wrapped around actor Duke Nicholson (a family friend and grandson of Jack), the other reaching out to pull the viewer aboard. As she explains the idea, Del Rey rifles through her sizable mental rolodex of quotations and offers this one from Humphrey Bogart by way of Ernest Hemingway: “ ‘The sea is the last free place on earth.’ ” A place, in other words, where you can finally just be you.

Del Rey says her album covers tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies -- whatever energy she puts out tends to shape the next chapter of her life. She’s eager to see how this one, with its open arms and sense of adventure, manifests itself. “We’re going somewhere,” she says with a mysterious grin. “I don’t know where we’re going. But wherever it is, my feet are going to be on the ground.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of Billboard.

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