“Woo! It’s like, ‘I told y’all!’”
Ariana Grande is milly rocking in her seat behind the massive mixing console at Los Angeles’ Record Plant studio, a wide grin revealing the single dimple in her left cheek. Her new single, “Thank U, Next,” will not officially become her first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 for another three days, but its explosive success is already making headlines. For Grande, the milestone is especially meaningful. It’s the exact kind of music she has wanted to make all along.
“It’s a Tommy Brown single!” she exclaims, hitting the arm of her chair for emphasis. Brown, a producer and songwriter, has been working with Grande since her 2013 debut, Yours Truly, and Grande is positively giddy at the prospect of their shared musical breakthrough. “I can’t believe it but, like, so can. It’s me and my besties tipsy off champagne — and me with a broken heart — just letting it out and having fun. I love this more than any other song I’ve ever put out.”
That kind of joy has been tough to come by in the past few months for Billboard’s Woman Of The Year, despite the fact that she has never had more career momentum. Grande’s fourth album, Sweetener, became her third No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in August, breaking streaming records while earning critical acclaim. So far it has produced two top 10 singles on the Hot 100, with a third, “Breathin,” now at No. 13. But while she was in the middle of promoting the project, her dear friend, collaborator and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died from an accidental overdose. Just over a month later, her whirlwind engagement to comedian Pete Davidson ended.
On this November afternoon, it’s still too soon for Grande to talk about what has happened in anything other than broad strokes. “I’m really lucky and really unlucky at the same time,” says the 25-year-old.
To sing about it, though, is another story. Not long after Miller’s death, Grande started spending all of her time with her closest friends and collaborators, including Brown, recording a new album (which she says will also be called Thank U, Next) at a studio across the street from her New York apartment. Though she has been in therapy since she was just a kid coping with her parents’ divorce — and is quick to espouse its benefits — right now the most healing comes when she’s standing behind a mic.
“When I felt myself saying, ‘’Cause her name is Ari,’ I knew it was a special line, but part of me was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s kind of corny,’” says Grande, referring to the “Thank U, Next” lyric, a declaration of self-love. She tucks her bare legs inside a light-blue hoodie that reads “Beau Souci” (French for “beautiful worry”) and wraps her arms around them. “But the other part of me was like, ‘That’s beautiful and I need to keep it in.’ I know that once I put something into a song, then it’s real.”
Fittingly, the control room is decked out like a refuge: a small bouquet of white flowers, a single candle, a light projecting water ripples onto the ceiling. Grande, sporting an extension-less version of her signature ponytail, sips from a Starbucks iced soy latte while animatedly chatting about the music she has been working on — the only thing she’s really interested in discussing, the only thing that matters to her right now. As it turns out, a series of tragedies has given the star two unexpected gifts: the freedom to channel her hurt into the most raw and untempered music of her career, and the audacity to buck the pop music establishment — which, as Grande will note more quickly than anyone, is particularly entrenched when it comes to women.
She had the talent: the four-octave range and effortless vocal agility that led Gloria Estefan, after hearing the 8-year-old Grande sing “My Heart Will Go On” at a cruise-ship karaoke night, to tell her she was gifted. She had the support system: her close-knit family, familiar to anyone who follows the singer on social media. And she had the work ethic, performing in public regularly before the age of 10 and on Broadway by age 15. “When I was 6 years old, I just kind of decided that’s what I’m going to do with my life, period,” says Grande, who grew up in Boca Raton, Fla. “I manifested it. I knew I would. There was never really a doubt in my mind.”
The singer proceeded to do all she could to reach superstardom, and logged time in the teeny-bopper trenches at Nickelodeon. In 2011, she signed with Republic Records; not long after, she met Mac Miller. He was 20 and she was 19, so naturally they first talked on Twitter. The pair became fast friends, and she invited him to do a verse on her first album’s lead single, 2013’s bouncy ’90s throwback “The Way.” Grande told Billboard at the time that Miller was giving her Pro Tools pointers as they recorded. She added, “If you want to motivate Mac Miller to do anything, just bake cookies.”
Now, she looks back on the song as the first time she really captured her own musical style, what she had been searching for while growing up idolizing India.Arie. “When we made ‘The Way,’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m onto something here,’” says Grande. Her face dims slightly; just before this interview, she was working on a new song, which, when she plays it for me later, I realize is about Miller. “It felt like, ‘I should do this forever.’”
“The Way” reached No. 9 on the Hot 100, and like the rest of her debut, it holds up remarkably well. Babyface, one of the album’s producers, helped legitimize Grande’s long-held R&B aspirations. Nevertheless, when she released Yours Truly, Grande was still viewed as a preteen idol, thanks to her history on kiddie TV and diminutive size (she’s exactly 5 feet tall). So on her next two albums, she went even bigger, employing Max Martin and pursuing the kinds of pop hits that would make her undeniable to any listener.
“We started at home base — me,” Grande says of Yours Truly, “and then we went in this place where I kind of played the game for a little bit, and did the big, big, big pop records. Then we slowly started incorporating my soul back into it — and that’s where we’ve landed again with ‘Thank U, Next.’”
Grande has put in the work, done everything that was asked of her — all the tiny compromises that went along with playing the game — and kept her nose clean (with the exception of a little doughnut glaze, which she erased from the public’s memory with a cleverly self-deprecating sketch on one of the best Saturday Night Live hosting debuts in recent memory). She has hit songs and high Pitchfork ratings, to say nothing of her devoted fans, the Arianators. Grande’s late-night TV appearances — routine promotional stops for most stars — are events, thanks to her natural sense of comic timing and gift for impressions both sung and spoken (Google her doing Jennifer Coolidge). She followed all the rules, and arrived at what seemed like the top.
The singer has no regrets. “I got myself to a place where I would be able to do things like drop a surprise record and have it be the biggest single I’ve ever had,” she says now. But five years into her career, she hadn’t yet had a No. 1 Hot 100 song, and hadn’t found the ubiquity that she knew deep down she deserved.
Then, on May 22, 2017, a suicide bomber killed 23 people and injured 139 outside the arena in Manchester, England, where Grande had just finished performing as part of her Dangerous Woman Tour. Many of the victims were children.
Within weeks Grande was back, not just onstage but in Manchester, visiting survivors in the hospital and hosting the One Love Manchester benefit, which helped raise 23 million pounds (about $29 million) for the victims. She released her live rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the benefit, during which she broke down in tears — though she still finished the performance — and donated the proceeds to the Red Cross. “Our response to this violence must be to come closer together, to help each other, to love more, to sing louder and to live more kindly and generously than we did before,” she wrote at the time.
She did exactly that with the album that followed, this summer’s Sweetener, an optimistic paean to her own healing; there was no dwelling on tragedy, only gentleness and positivity. The first single was titled “No Tears Left to Cry,” and the album concluded with the tender “Get Well Soon,” a five-minute, 22-second tribute to the Manchester victims. Meanwhile, she had found new contentment outside the studio with SNL star Davidson, in a relationship that she happily flaunted despite the tabloid frenzy that enveloped them both.
In a tweet a month ago, Grande summed up her feelings on what has happened since: “Remember when i was like hey i have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA bitch u thought.”
This afternoon, Grande is often near tears, a fact she readily acknowledges. “I just hope you’re OK with me crying, because that’s not going to not happen,” she says, laughing even as she’s tearing up in the midst of talking about how she has coped with so much tragedy in such a short span of time. “I can’t even say ‘Good morning’ to anyone without crying.” The blessing, for both the singer and her fans, is the music. “I guess there’s not much I’m afraid of anymore,” she says, her normally silky voice tightening. “When life tries you with such serious shit so many times, your priorities change. I don’t give a shit. I just want to be happy and healthy — one day — and make music.”
Where she’s currently sitting — behind the mixing console — is just about the only place Grande feels like she has control. And she is, in her own words, a control freak. Though she won’t say that she has perfect pitch (“People tell me I do, but I’m not going to sit here and be like, ‘Yes, I do’”), when talking about her music, Grande betrays a craftsman’s obsession with arrangements and vocal harmonies. “I’ll hear something that’s on one track out of, like, a thousand in a session and be emailing the engineer about it,” she says. Martin and Pharrell Williams both let her “steer,” which is one of the reasons she has worked with them repeatedly. But not every man she has shared a studio with has been as willing to cede the reins.
“I’ve politely walked out of sessions before,” says Grande. “It has happened. I’m a small girl. People tend to underestimate that. And then I sit down and comp my own vocals and can produce my own session, and they’re like” — here she adopts an excellent impersonation of a dopey man — “‘Oh, I didn’t know you could do that.’ I’m like, ‘Believe it or not, there are plenty of tiny women that can do this.’” This is the Grande who digs for deep cuts, covering songs by eclectic bassist Thundercat and exchanging Instagram DMs with legendary jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval (the pair did a track together alongside Williams).
This is also the Grande who has been vocal about fighting sexism. Her recent single “God Is a Woman” might be the most obvious example, but even in 2015, in a Notes app manifesto that quoted Gloria Steinem, she was critiquing the media’s habit of defining famous women by their relationship status.
“I would just love to see a chart with as many women on top as men,” she says. “It’s just so male-dominated. It’s so easy for them. There are so many unbelievable female artists out there that try so much harder.”
Despite the industry barriers Grande is breaking down — she’s the only artist ever to have the lead single from each of her first four albums debut in the top 10 of the Hot 100, and the first woman in three years to have a single debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100 — she sometimes feels like she’s still pushing against an audience that wants her to fit into specific stereotypes. “They’re unable to accept the fact that women are a million things, and not just two,” she says. “You can be adorable and brilliant. You can be friendly and silly, and yet strong and indestructible. You can be professional and present and also sexual and fun.
“My dream has always been to be — obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does. I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t. We have to do the teaser before the single, then do the single, and wait to do the preorder, and radio has to impact before the video, and we have to do the discount on this day, and all this shit. It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do. Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?’ So I do and I did and I am, and I will continue to.” Grande pauses briefly, growing serious.
“And if it doesn’t work out the way ‘Thank U, Next’ did, that’s fine too! It is so exciting to see something be received well. That’s a beautiful thing. But it’s even more beautiful to be honest and just do something.” She sniffs, her eyes dampening. “To drop a record on a Saturday night because you feel like it, and because your heart’s going to explode if you don’t — to take back your narrative.”
Grande starts to cry in earnest, carefully wiping away tears so as not to smudge her winged eyeliner. “I don’t want to do what people tell me to do, I don’t want to conform to the pop star agenda. I want to do it on my own terms from now on. If I want to tour two albums at once, I’m going to tour two albums at once. If I want to drop a third album while I’m on tour [in 2019], I’ll do that too! Please. [“Thank U, Next” production duo] Social House is my opening act — you don’t think we’re going to have a studio on the bus? That we’re not going to be making records on the road? Of course we are. I want to be able to do what is authentic and honest and natural. It’s the only way that I’ve been able to survive.” She puts her face in her hands, resting her fingertips — adorned with perfectly manicured white oval nails — on her forehead.
Talking explicitly about the men in Grande’s life is a non-starter. She still loves all her songs, even “Pete Davidson.” (She also sent the Davidson in question “Thank U, Next” before releasing it: “I wasn’t going to blindside anybody,” she says.) The wound left by Miller’s death is, unsurprisingly, still raw. She expects Thanksgiving will be particularly hard, since she had spent the past few holidays in Pittsburgh with Miller’s family. At this point, these are the kinds of details that Grande already knows will be A1 on every gossip site. Her rise to fame has been punctuated by a series of public romances, which she writes off as a side effect of her workaholism. “This is how I meet people — I can’t just, like, meet someone at a bar,” she says. “I live fast and full-out, and I make mistakes, and I learn from them and I’m grateful no matter what happens.”
Grande has no plans to take a break, despite the fact that she has been working more or less constantly since the beginning of her career. When we meet, in early November, she’s in the midst of finishing Thank U, Next; prepping the video for the single; and preparing for her Sweetener World Tour, which starts in March 2019. “I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the artist I can be, and I just want to keep growing and practicing and getting better,” she says. “I never want to get lazy.”
The new album is Grande’s therapy and her catharsis. She invites her friends and collaborators — Brown, Social House, Victoria Monét, Tayla Parx and Doug Middlebrook — back into the control room to listen to it. Brown pops a bottle of pink Veuve Clicquot. “I don’t think I’ve ever consumed more alcohol than I have in the past month,” jokes Grande, cheered by their presence. “I am champagne. You know how people say we’re 60 percent water? I’m 60 percent pink Veuve Clicquot.”
Thank U, Next was mostly written in a week, with the people she’s toasting in the control room, and recorded in two weeks. Now comes the polishing phase and the addition of some tracks with Martin and his team. It was the product of a lot of “feminine energy and champagne and music and laughter and crying. This [album’s] not particularly uplifting,” she says. “A lot of it sounds really upbeat, but it’s actually a super sad chapter.”
The music is defiant — deep, bass-driven bangers with trap beats alternating with airy, sad ballads — and aesthetically more adventurous than anything she has ever released. Some of the lyrics are so unambiguously personal and gutting that even if the singer were up for talking about them, most questions would be redundant. But one of the more upbeat tunes, “7 Rings,” has a backstory Grande is happy to discuss.
“It was a… challenging fall day in New York,” she begins, cracking up. “Me and my friends went to Tiffany’s together, just because we needed some retail therapy. You know how when you’re waiting at Tiffany’s they give you lots of champagne? They got us very tipsy, so we bought seven engagement rings, and when I got back to the studio I gave everybody a friendship ring.” She flashes a diamond ring on her right hand; Monét and Parx are wearing them as well. “That’s why we have these, and that’s where the song idea came from.”
She goes to her phone and presses “play,” and a party-ready twist on “My Favorite Things” booms out of the speakers. Grande whispers some asides to her friends, who are bopping along to the song. Then she starts to dance around the room in her bare feet, alone and smiling.
WOMEN MAKE IT WORK
Behind the scenes of Grande’s success.
Senior vp marketing, Republic Records
My role: I’ve worked with Ariana since we launched “The Way” in 2013, overseeing marketing campaigns and working closely with her, management and Republic on every aspect of music strategy and rollout.
On Ariana: You might not know how involved she really is with everything we do. She really leads the charge in a way most artists don’t, and it’s one of the reasons she is so successful. Also worth mentioning: She often has us laughing out loud.
Senior director of international marketing, Republic Records
My role: The international team works with Scooter Braun Projects and Universal Music labels globally to create marketing campaigns and promotional strategy outside the United States, including Ariana’s TV, radio and awards show performances.
On Ariana: During an off-day in Australia, she rented a sightseeing bus for us. She took the mic and became our Broadway-musical-style tour guide and delivered sidesplitting commentary.
GM, SB Projects
My role: I oversee all music ventures.
On Ariana: She did a series of Sweetener shows [in July], during which I got to see her interact with her fans on an intimate level. She remembered faces and names of fans that had been to other events, took requests and truly made them all feel special.
Head of brand partnerships, SB Projects
My role: With the support of the Scooter Braun Projects team, I work to cultivate, secure and manage Ariana’s various brand partnerships.
On Ariana: The second night of The Sweetener Sessions with AMEX in Chicago, she had finished performing the hourlong planned setlist, but continued the show a cappella for another 45 minutes, just to keep the love in the room flowing with her fans.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of Billboard.