Halsey has her face buried in her iPhone, staring at it so intently that the outside world might as well not exist. She’s in the back seat of a black SUV slowly threading its way through Manhattan traffic. Just 15 minutes earlier, the 21-year-old singer -- her real name is Ashley Frangipane -- abruptly decided she had had enough of Kanye West’s Madison Square Garden fashion show-slash-listening party, where the MC debuted The Life of Pablo. Wearing blingy sunglasses, a torso-baring bandeau and baggy Yeezy-designed pants, her cropped hair pasted against her scalp in cool little swirls, Halsey emerged from the arena’s backstage entrance with her small entourage and headed for the car. She seemed simultaneously relieved and disappointed to discover that no photographers were waiting for her.
Now, in the SUV, Halsey is furiously multitasking -- fact-checking the lyrics she had just heard (“Did he say, ‘Every bad bitch in the Equinox, I want to know if you’re a freak or not?’ ”) and dipping into the roiling online conversation her fans maintain about her at all hours. She tweets the Kanye lyric to her 1.2 million Twitter -followers and points to her phone, where countless direct messages have accrued. Unlike most stars, she consistently and directly engages with fans -- the majority of the 3,000 people she follows on Twitter love her music, although they sometimes drive her crazy. “I talk to them like real f---ing human beings, because they are,” she says. “But then there’s also a sense of entitlement, where they feel like they have the right to chastise me like they would a friend. And sometimes you want to be like, ‘Who the f--- are you to say that?’ ”
Mostly Halsey is psyched to have a direct line to her young, predominantly female fan base. It wasn’t too long ago that she was one of them, obsessed with emo crews like Brand New and Panic at the Disco and boy bands like One Direction. Now, with her debut album Badlands (which bowed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in August 2015) and its breakout single “New Americana” (which celebrates legal weed, gay marriage and a girl who’s a “viral mess,” and has sold nearly 300,000 downloads, according to Nielsen Music), she has become gossip-worthy herself. More than that, she has become a leading encapsulation of millennial femininity -- self-possessed (if neurotic), a champion of progressive causes, a chronic social-media oversharer -- to the point that she’s worried some fans don’t believe she’s real. “There are conspiracy theorists who think I was crafted in a boardroom,” she says, her large brown eyes widening incredulously. “Because I’m so very relatable and so very topical and so very Tumblr.”
Which is partly why Halsey is relieved to be moving on from the voice-of-a-generation statement of “New Americana” to her new single, the love song “Colors.” (The video, which costars Teen Wolf heartthrob Tyler Posey, racked up 4 million YouTube spins in its first week.) She’s in New York to perform the track on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which will be her biggest TV performance since November 2015, when she appeared with Justin Bieber on Today for an awkward, sexually charged duet of his song “The Feeling.” (“It was a f---ing train wreck,” she says with a laugh. “You don’t know fear until it’s 7 a.m. and freezing cold on live television and you’re not sure if Justin Bieber is going to kiss you or not.”) Just a few days after The Tonight Show, she would kick off a European tour leading into a run of her biggest U.S. shows yet, including stops at the Coachella and Bonnaroo festivals. It all wraps with a sold-out date in August, headlining the storied arena she just departed. “A lot of people were saying, ‘Why the f--- would you put up Madison Square Garden?” says the singer, who’s a serious student of the music business and takes pride in running “a tight ship.” “But I said, ‘Let’s test this -- let’s see what we’re really worth in tickets.’”
“She’s a true artist -- you can tell the moment you meet her,” says Imagine Dragons singer Dan Reynolds, who got to know Halsey when she was opening for his band in 2015. “And she’s passionate about putting on a great show. There were nights when she would get offstage and be upset because she felt like she just didn’t give enough -- and those were nights when the crowd loved her.”
Halsey is a staunch feminist, an advocate for people with mental illness and a Bernie sis. (Her Twitter handle currently reads “Bernie Sanders Fan.”) She also is an out bisexual woman who rails against “heteronormativity.” She’s self-aware enough to know that young women with strong opinions often get slapped with labels like “attention-seeking.” Or, as Halsey puts it, “Everyone’s mortal enemy is the girl on the Internet who’s misunderstood.”
Speaking about those things, words tumble out of her mouth in fully formed paragraphs. Ask why she’s voting for Sanders, say, and this is the flood of information you’ll get:
"I’m 21 years old and it’s kind of uncomfortable for me to talk about, but I’m in the 1 percent as far as my income and tax bracket. But now that I’m here, there’s no amount of money you can wave in front of my face that will make me understand depriving people of human rights. While I know people in the industry who want to vote for someone who will protect them financially, I’m looking for a person who will make sure my 17-year-old brother doesn’t get killed someday because he’s half-black. If that means I lose 50 percent of my income every year, so be it."
It’s not just her brother who’s biracial, of course. (She actually has two brothers: the 17-year-old Sevian and Dante, 10.) Halsey is too, although as she notes, she passes as white. Part of the chorus of “New Americana” -- “Raised on Biggie and Nirvana/We are the new Americana” -- alludes to that. Her parents were just teenagers when they had her; her African-American dad, Chris, who manages a car dealership, was a major hip-hop head, while her Italian-American mom, Nicole, who does security for a hospital, dug alt-rock acts. Her family scraped to get by for most of her childhood, moving around New Jersey before settling in Union County, about 45 minutes outside New York. “My parents were really good at keeping up appearances,” she says. “They didn’t own their first home until last year.”
The night before her Tonight Show gig, Halsey settles into a seat at a hushed cocktail spot hidden behind an unmarked door in a downtown Japanese restaurant. Lately she has been drinking a lot of pinot noir, but she happily accepts a dark and stormy. “I’m 21,” she says, “so I’m still in that stage when if you hand me something alcoholic, I’ll drink it.” With a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes, she has a slight tomboy vibe that calls to mind Ellen Page. She is also small -- just 5-foot-4 -- making her seem like a pocket-sized version of the imposing, larger-than-life presence she embodies onstage and in photos. She places an order for some sashimi and a few raw-bar oysters. The latter trigger Proustian sense-memories of a formational year she spent in New York after high school. “I was following a boy,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh. “I was 17. He was 23, and he had a really serious heroin addiction.”
It had been a rough couple of years. She loathed her football-obsessed public high school, where her tattoos and half-shaved head left her feeling bullied and misunderstood. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and, during her senior year, spent a few weeks in a psychiatric hospital. “I had tried to kill myself,” she says. “I was an adolescent; I didn’t know what I was doing. Because I was 17, I was still in a children’s ward. Which was terrifying. I was in there with 9-year-olds who had tried to kill themselves.”
Despite her real-life troubles, she had a natural aptitude for making her online persona irresistible to other kids. She packed her Tumblr, se7enteenblack, with selfies, poems, diary entries, memes and countless photos of Harry Styles -- earning her 10,000 followers and an international network of Internet cool kids (including the Australian dudes who would go on to form 5 Seconds of Summer). Being cut off from that network was the hardest part of being hospitalized. “There was no TV, no music, no nothing,” she says. “The day I got out of the hospital I was in the car and I was listening to Imagine Dragons. It was a f---ing moment for me. I don’t think I realized how important music was to me before that.” She shakes her head, and adds, “Three years later, I was opening their U.S. arena tour.”
Halsey sometimes stayed with her boyfriend in New York, but she also bounced around a lot. One night she swung by a party at a hotel, hoping to score a room for the night. Outside she met a young dude named Anthony Li, who played in a Warped Tour band called Action Item. He had heard a tongue-in-cheek song called “SOS,” about Styles’ relationship with Taylor Swift, that Halsey had recorded during a brief stint in community college and was shocked to see go viral. “It just blew up for a minute,” she says. “I didn’t even realize I was writing songs -- I thought I was just being witty and sarcastic.” (It wasn’t even her only song about their relationship. There also was “The Haylor Song,” with lyrics like, “How could we allow Taylor to get him with her fake smiles.” She’s still a big One Direction fan, tweeting things like, “Don’t ever let anyone make you feel shitty for listening to boy bands.”)
Li suggested that Halsey try her hand at more serious recording at a friend’s studio in New Jersey. “He was like, ‘You can write some songs for synch,’ ” she recalls. “I just wanted to make a quick couple of hundred dollars writing yogurt commercials.” She took the train out to New Jersey and in an hour knocked out the spare, icy single “Ghost.” Li encouraged her to come up with a name and without a lot of consideration she picked Halsey, both an anagram of Ashley and the name of her boyfriend’s Brooklyn subway stop. They put the song up on iTunes, and something magical happened -- stoked by her Internet fan base, the tune shot up the alternative chart overnight. By the following morning, A&R reps from "Republic, Atlantic, Island, RCA -- the whole major-label circuit based out of New York" -- wanted to talk development deals. Li quit his band and became her manager. (Co-manager Jason Aron joined the team soon after.)
During the next few months, “Ghost” -- with its post-Lorde feel -- grew, first on blogs and the Hype Machine and eventually through SiriusXM. Top label executives came calling, including Astralwerks’ Glenn Mendlinger, with whom she signed for a relatively modest $100,000 because she liked the label’s people best -- even though they had never broken a pop act. “I was like, ‘I need you to give me a bigger budget for styling. I’m a female, I need a makeup artist!’ ” she says. “He didn’t understand because he has only ever dealt with, like, French DJs.”
She recorded an EP, Room 93, and hit the road. Halsey credits hard touring, the most old--fashioned audience-building technique in the book, as being as important as the Internet was in breaking her nationwide. Her first non-showcase gig ever was at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre, opening for The Kooks. Since then, she has set out on a string of nearly universally sold-out solo shows, mixing in intermittent opening stints with top acts like The Weeknd and Imagine Dragons. “Most artists, their 60th show was in front of no one,” she points out. “My first show was in front of 1,200 people. I’ve never had a chance to f--- up. I need to be good every night.”
One of the most important people in Halsey’s life is a tall, 23-year-old Norwegian beat-maker named Lido (Peder Losnegard), who is the executive producer of Badlands. They met in the studio -- each, unbeknownst to the other, broke off the relationships they were in that night. They began seeing each other soon after. Still, their relationship seems tailor-made for the “it’s complicated” era -- even though it has been on and off (it’s currently off), they’ve lived together virtually nonstop since they met, including in the new house in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Sherman Oaks that Halsey recently purchased. “They’re two incredibly talented people who found something that works in terms of how they can create together,” says Jeremy Vuernick, Halsey’s A&R rep and one of her best friends. “That’s one of the most difficult kinds of relationships to find.”
Outside of Halsey’s core crew, her increasing fame has started to leave her feeling a little isolated. “I hate feeling like a prisoner,” she says. “I show up somewhere and I can’t explore the city because there’s like 6,000 to 10,000 people on the lookout for me.” She worries she’s not a good enough friend or family member to people she knew before her new life, about which she has enough ambivalence that it has infected her lingo. “In my camp we have a different F-word and C-word,” she says. “ ‘Fame’ and ‘celebrity.’ I hate them.” (Still, she’s comfortable enough in her new world to have a “camp,” which isn’t a thing that non-F- or C-people have.)
It all leaves her with a deeper understanding of one artist in particular, who perhaps feels even more deeply misunderstood than she does. “I love Kanye West,” she says. “I think he’s a visionary. He’s one of those people for whom I separate his personality from his artistry. But I also sympathize with him in a weird way, because being a musician is tough. If you were asked to talk about yourself for six hours a day you would probably go crazy, too! Which is why I give Kanye the benefit of the doubt. Being him must be exhausting.”
No matter how stressed Halsey gets, there is one huge consolation: the sheer joy she gets from performing. This is fully on display during her Tonight Show performance, where she’s backed by her touring band and augmented with a five-piece string section. “I could be having the worst day of my life, hate my body, think I’m fat, think I suck, and as soon as I hear the first few notes of my intro, that all goes away,” she says. “Everything that I hate about myself goes away when I walk onstage. That’s why I cling to it so much -- it keeps me from killing myself.”
Now, though, Halsey has to leave the unmarked bar and get back to rehearsal. Lido and her crew are waiting. Outside, she quickly chain-smokes a couple of Marlboro Lights, pulls out her phone, climbs into another black SUV and drives off into the night.