Art-Pop Singer Halsey on Being Bipolar, Bisexual and an 'Inconvenient Woman'
"I am so hung over," confesses Ashley Frangipane, brushing back a wisp of her signature blue hair. It's a hot August afternoon in Los Angeles, where the electro-pop provocateur best-known as Halsey lives. She's just a few days back from a two-month arena outing opening for Imagine Dragons, and had every reason to party. She's newly single. And her pals from 5 Seconds of Summer were in town the night before. She went to bed at 7:30 a.m., woke up two hours later and has been in meetings all day. "I think I'm still drunk."
Halsey, 20, musters a forkful of salad at Urth Caffe, a celeb fave and bastion of California organica. It's the last bite she'll get down during the next hour or so, but not because of the booze. The artist behind chilly electro-ballad "Ghost" (5.2 million YouTube views) and singalong "New Americana" (a generational anthem touching on gay marriage, viral fame and legal weed that is No. 22 on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart) says she "has a lot to reflect on" -- and at a clip that allows no time for snacking.
"I'm 20, but I feel 40," says Halsey, sporting pink shades and a baseball hat that reads, "I have to get rich...We're all gonna die." "Kids I grew up with are going off to college, having threesomes in bathrooms and 'vaping' beer, but I went through my sex, drugs, loss and existential confusion phase at 17."
Set for an Aug. 28 release on Astralwerks/Capitol Records, Halsey's full-length debut, Badlands -- which could land in the upper reaches of the Billboard 200 with more than 75,000 equivalent-album units its first week, industry forecasters suggest -- is a dystopian concept album inspired by hedonistic hubs like Las Vegas and, curiously, Star Wars planet Tatooine. ("It seems like a real place if you forget all the aliens," she says.)
"She's entirely driven by her vision," says Zane Lowe, DJ-programmer at Apple Music's Beats 1, where "New Americana" was the second-most-played song in July after The Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face." "You meet people who want to make art, and then you meet people who have to do it because if they don't, they'll go crazy."
On Badlands, Halsey's larger-than-life vision combines the synthy darkness of Lorde, the neon-pop chutzpah of Miley Cyrus and the flickering film noir of Lana Del Rey. But all that escapist fantasy is fed by gritty reality. On her forearm, one of Halsey's many tattoos reads, "These violent delights have violent ends." It's a line from Romeo and Juliet that reminds her to keep the vices in check. She has had friends overdose.
Halsey grew up all over New Jersey, raised by parents younger than she is now when they had her. "We moved wherever the jobs or cheap apartments were," she recalls. She has two brothers, and attended six schools by the time she was a teen. "I'm used to packing up and leaving, to condensing myself into a digestible version because people don't have much time to get to know me."
But Halsey doesn't fit neatly into a box. She's half-black/half-white, openly bisexual (two cuts of the steamy "Ghost" video alternately pair her with a man and a woman) and struggles with bipolar disorder, which she says made her an "unconventional child" who grew up to be an "inconvenient woman." In between, she lived a precocious, wildly bohemian lifestyle. She began reading Lolita and The Great Gatsby at age 7. At 14, she picked up an acoustic guitar and started doing YouTube covers. (That's how she befriended 5SOS, who were doing the same.) Later, there was a visit to a commune in Vermont and road trips to Montauk, N.Y., to break into strangers' beach houses. But most vital was her time living in the lofts off Halsey Street in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, where she found her stage name, also an anagram for Ashley.
"Picture a 2012 equivalent of the Chelsea Hotel," says Halsey of the scene. "There were white rappers, a guy who plays the harp, someone doing holistic healing for dogs, copious amounts of substances. I was doing drugs, then cleaning up, fading in and out of psychosis. It was very Almost Famous."
Life's different now. Ed Sheeran recently reached out to pay his respects. Her fall headlining tour sold out in a day, and she'll be opening for The Weeknd later this year. And Halsey's fans -- more than 1 million total on Twitter and Instagram, where her bio reads, "I write songs about sex and being sad" -- pick apart her lyrics for clues about her source material. Their favorite focal point is Matty Healy, of English rock band The 1975. Some surmise 2014's Room 93 EP is named after a hotel room the pair once shared. Ask her about the nature of their relationship, and the fast-talking star gets stymied.
"We're both attracted to characters, and we saw that in each other," Halsey says slowly. "I spent a lot of time watching him and he spent a lot of time loving being watched. But if you think he's the first red-wine-drinking, pretty-boy rocker in skinny jeans I've --" she pauses, searching "-- been associated with, you're out of your f---ing mind."
Her more recent relationship bore fruit, too: Her ex-boyfriend, with whom she still lives, is Badlands' executive producer, Norwegian beatsmith Lido. "When we met, I was nobody; things changed very quickly," she says of their split a few weeks ago. "A lot of people in my life freaked out. I didn't have the chance to say, 'I'm sorry, let me explain.' It was kind of like, 'If you can't keep up, f--- you. I have to keep going.' "
Halsey is hard to pin down, but if there's a constant, it's that trademark swath of electric blue above her face. As she sips her green tea, she responds to a compliment about her hair. "Thank you very much. I'm actually about to shave my head."
Listen to music from Halsey, and more artists from this issue, in the Spotify playlist below:
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of Billboard.