This story leads Billboard’s 2022 Grammy Preview issue, highlighting the artists, issues and trends that will define awards season.
Halsey is quick. Quick to joke about their New Jersey accent slipping out after a few drinks. Quick to flip into scholar mode, explaining that one of their new songs is named after Biblical Adam’s forgotten first wife, Lilith, who was jettisoned from Eden for daring to enjoy sex. Quick to share how, as a kid, she had to pay for school lunches with dollar bills so worn out they felt like “old T-shirts.” And amid all this, Halsey is quick to soothe infant son Ender Ridley Aydin when he makes his presence known from the next room, bouncing him up and down and cooing him back to sleep, whether decked out in spiky Mad Max leather or David Bowie glam effulgence for today’s photo shoot.
When it came to one lifelong goal, however, Halsey (whose pronouns are “she” and “they”) took their time. Although Halsey has drawn on Nine Inch Nails’ throbbing, disquieting industrial-electronic sonic palette since her 2015 debut, Badlands (and more recently on the blatant NIN pastiche “Nightmare,” a stand-alone single from 2019), she waited years before approaching active NIN band members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with a pitch to work together.
When a staffer at Capitol Records pointed out the two acts were labelmates and offered to make introductions, however, it provided the push Halsey needed. “I was thinking, ‘Ugh, I don’t want it to be some corporate, ‘Hello, would you please be interested in working with our young pop star?’ ” recalls Halsey, adopting a bland affect. “So I wrote them a letter and just kissed their asses as much as I possibly could… and crossed my fingers that they would even respond.”
It worked. Reznor and Ross are now the producers of Halsey’s fourth album, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, though as they sit together in a Los Angeles warehouse studio, it’s clear they’ve also become mentors who can offer creative input as well as a road map to what life as a successful musician and parent can look like. “They gave me a lot of advice that I needed when I was pregnant,” says Halsey. “It really comforted me to know that I can be a good parent and still do the thing that I love and do it with [as much] involvement and dedication as they do.”
Over the last 11 years, that work ethic has proved transformative for Reznor and Ross, who’ve built a parallel career as prolific composers for TV and film, and in the process made the unlikely leap from enigmatic alt-rock icons to awards darlings. Since their surprise best original score Academy Award win for The Social Network in 2011, the duo has won a Grammy (best score soundtrack for visual media) for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2013, nabbed a primetime Emmy in 2020 with harrowing music for HBO’s Watchmen and just this year netted another Oscar (alongside Jon Batiste) for scoring Pixar’s Soul. Amid all that, they entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of Nine Inch Nails. (With the band, Reznor has won an additional two Grammys for best metal performance, in 1993 and 1996.)
Making this album with Halsey is the latest step in their creative evolution, and one that both say has made them true fans of the 27-year-old singer-songwriter. “I f–king love this record,” says Ross. “The one thing that we didn’t change was any lyrics or melody. I can listen to the album and get lost on an emotional level.”
“We’re always looking for things that make us feel inspired and less cynical,” adds Reznor. “We came out the other end changed, in a good way, and revitalized. It has been invigorating and inspiring, and I can tell you we both needed it, just with what the world has been like the last couple of years.”
Halsey’s team at Capitol is hoping this album will make fans of the Recording Academy, too. Thus far, voters have seldom recognized Halsey, and only for their work on other artists’ releases — in 2017, Halsey’s feature on The Chainsmokers’ Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 smash, “Closer,” was up for best pop duo/group performance, and their contribution to Justin Bieber’s Purpose album meant they were up for album of the year — despite the fact that over the past six years, she has proved to be one of pop’s most reliable (and commercially viable) vanguards. Halsey has earned 7.5 million equivalent album units in the United States, according to MRC Data (for the Billboard 200 No. 1 Hopeless Fountain Kingdom and three No. 2 releases on the chart), and 21 Hot 100 entries, among them six top 10s and a solo No. 1, “Without Me.” In 2019, the Songwriters Hall of Fame honored Halsey with its Hal David Starlight Award, recognizing “gifted songwriters … making a significant impact” with their original work.
Last November, Halsey addressed the latest perceived snub (when the Grammy nominations did not include Manic or its singles) on Instagram, with words both measured and unfiltered. “The Grammys are an elusive process. It can often be about behind the scenes private performances, knowing the right people, campaigning through the grapevine, with the right handshake and ‘bribes’ that can be just ambiguous enough to pass as ‘not bribes,’ ” they wrote. “While I am THRILLED for my talented friends who were recognized this year, I am hoping for more transparency or reform. But I’m sure this post will blacklist me anyway.”
The Recording Academy has, in fact, reformed its procedures in the interim, disbanding its nominations-review committees in late April. Now, a wider swath of Grammy voters has the final word in all non-craft categories; it remains to be seen, when the nominations are announced Nov. 23, whether these changes will work in Halsey’s favor.
“It would be a disservice for the Academy and our business not to recognize an artist that has the ability, the wherewithal and the guts to constantly change who they are and to never be constrained by what one believes is commercial,” says Capitol COO Michelle Jubelirer, who is part of the team that signed Halsey to Astralwerks in 2014 and helped develop their career as the artist was upped to the Capitol roster. (Universal Music Group owns both labels.) “Halsey is completely unafraid. They made a statement album that shows they are a career artist.” The label is particularly hoping to see the album compete in the alternative category.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is certainly Halsey’s most ambitious project yet. A concept album about pregnancy, fear, mortality and acceptance that backs up its cinematic scope (a companion film written by and starring Halsey is streaming on HBO Max) with vivid lyrical nuance and sinuous industrial grooves, it’s already earning Halsey the best reviews of their career (including raves from longtime skeptics). With Reznor and Ross lending their unimpugnable rock cred, this may finally be the album that forces the Recording Academy to take notice.
“Halsey has gigantic hit records, they have the numbers, the following, the sales, but at the end of the day, when you distill what Halsey is, she’s a conceptual album artist and a songwriter,” says Capitol executive vp A&R Jeremy Vuernick, who has worked with Halsey since 2014. “It was a fairy-tale scenario. It was a team effort to make it happen, but it stems from Halsey as a songwriter — and [Reznor and Ross] saw genius in that.”
At the very least, the process has upended one of the pop star’s preconceived notions about the industry. When reminded that they sang, “Don’t meet your heroes/They’re all f–king weirdos” on 2020’s Manic, Halsey just laughs, then says: “Thank God this experience has proven me wrong.”
How much of the album was ready before Trent and Atticus got involved?
Halsey: I started working on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power about six months after the release of my third album, Manic. I had convinced myself when I finished that record that I wasn’t going to write any more music for a really long time. [But] as soon as I got home, at the start of the pandemic, I was right back in the studio.
Originally, I wanted to make an album that was darker, more conceptual— kind of a reattempt of doing my debut album. I made Badlands when I was 19 and I didn’t have much experience with songwriting or in life, so while it was a valiant effort, it didn’t quite have the depth that I thought that I could bring to a record if I reapproached the same kind of mindset. I had quite a few songs done, rough demos, and it was all coming together in this really narrative way right around the time I found out that I was pregnant. So I had this nightmarish, dark album, and I wanted to share it with the world in a way that was really compelling and visceral. Obviously, the first people I thought to call were Trent and Atticus.
You have wanted to work with them for some time. What finally gave you the courage to ask?
Halsey: I had been basically poorly plagiarizing their work forever. Every single time I started an album, I thought, “Well, maybe this will be the one.” But imposter syndrome is huge, and I didn’t think they had any idea who I was. It turns out they didn’t, but that’s OK. This time, I thought I had something special. For people who have been in the business as long as they have and been so successful, I thought maybe it was a fresh narrative: “Hey, this is a body horror album about pregnancy. Have you done that before?” People for a long time [said], “Well, the worst thing they could say is no,” and I was like, “Exactly — ‘no’ would crush me.”
Trent and Atticus, I assume this isn’t the first offer you have received along these lines. What made you say yes to Halsey?
Trent Reznor: We’d just finished a lot of score work in a period of a year and a half, and we’d been kind of talking about working on Nine Inch Nails and also were kind of freaked out by the pandemic and not feeling incredibly creative. And I think I was eager for anything to keep me from having to write songs myself. (Laughs.)
Halsey: Don’t tell them that! Everyone’s going to be mad at me — “We could’ve gotten a Nine Inch Nails album?!”
Reznor: We got a very eloquent letter [from Halsey]. It was intriguing, and I thought, “It’d be easy to just say no, but let’s hear some stuff.” We got a few songs [“Easier Than Lying,” “1121,” “Whispers” and “Honey”], and the original ask was, “Could you contribute to these to help tell the story that I want to tell?” And we thought internally, “Let’s just keep the vocals and try a new piece of music around the song and see what happens.” Right off the bat, the songs sprang to life. Suddenly, I’m leaning in and listening to the lyrics, and now I’m getting goose bumps.
We sent back [the songs], not thinking too much about where you are in your career or what impact it might have on its trajectory. Just like, “This felt good to us. It felt authentic to us, and it felt fun to do these.” And then we heard back: “I love it. Could you do the whole album?” “Sure.”
And it was recorded quickly — in just six weeks.
Reznor: My sleeping went down to about four hours a night. But we found Halsey to be a very respectful collaborator. And we left the process really blown away by how well-developed, how well-written the songs were, how clear the messaging was.
The other thing that made it fun is it wasn’t really a production job. It was a collaboration job. I wouldn’t normally feel entitled to go in and say, “OK, I’m going to play guitar and infuse myself into this that much.” But it felt like the right thing to do, and we’re proud of what we did. This is as much a record we feel ownership to and [have] an authentic belief in as any of the records we’ve done. I’m around all these kids in my life, [and for them], the world is not a cynical place yet. Everything is exciting, and there’s an honest sense of discovery. And you find as you get older that starts to go away. The music business for me, at times, it wears you down, some aspects of it. To find joy in experiences and opportunities and learn from it is great.
Halsey: Obviously, I haven’t been in the business quite as long, but being in the pop realm, they can really cut you down fast. They take you as this bright-eyed young person who is writing all their own music in an apartment somewhere, and then it’s like, “Well, will you take this pitch? Will you do this? Will you work with this person?” There’s all this conceding that’s going on. You’re being put in this position where you’re expected to compromise for commercial viability or whatever else. I’ve done a pretty good job at sticking to my guns and not letting that happen, but sometimes things slip through the cracks. Maybe just because I’m too tired to say no sometimes.
I say sometimes that I never meant to be a pop star, it happened by accident, and that’s partially true. You know, the rest of it is incredibly calculated and meticulous. But part of that is true, and it was a really validating and invigorating opportunity to get back to the style of writing and collaborating that made me fall in love with music to begin with. And you guys are going to kill me for this, but [I was] texting links of Dropboxes to my friends and being like, “Isn’t this dope?” When you’re 19, you’re not sending it to a record-label person being like, “Is this good?” You’re sending it to your friend being like, “Isn’t this cool?” And this put me back in that place.
Atticus Ross: Sometimes in life, everything is just right. I’m not saying that happens all the time or often, but this was one of those things.
Halsey, was there ever a moment where they sent you something you didn’t like? How do you tell two of your idols, “I don’t dig this”?
Halsey: A lot of my preferences come from listening to their work, so I’m bound to like a lot of the choices they make because their work has informed my taste up until this point. Sometimes the guys would send me a record and they’d be like, “Is this too crazy?” And I’d be like, “Make it crazier.”
Reznor: We haven’t paid that much attention to popular music in the last few years. I couldn’t name most songs by people in the top 100. It’s not out of being elitist or “It’s not cool,” it just doesn’t feel like it’s for me, and music is a thing that I need to help me figure out who I am. And to come along and work with Halsey, I think initially, we were intimidated. “Is it a pop star, and does that mean there are big businesses affiliated with it and it has to feel a certain way?” We don’t want to f–k that up, and we’re not out to troll. We were envisioning, to go to [the] worst-case scenario, “At some point, someone’s going to talk sense into Halsey that this could be career-sabotaging because it’s not going to be a TikTok track.”
But we were really impressed with [Halsey’s] artistic fearlessness. What matters is good music and having something to say that feels authentic and communicates with people. And on a real level, it’s not filtered through an algorithm or a group-think element weighing in.
Halsey, you have always had immediate lyrics, but they are especially incisive on this album. What helps you continue to develop that part of your craft?
Halsey: The more I hate myself, the better the lyrics get. That’s half a joke. I think [it helps] having a story to tell and not just sitting in a room and being like, “Let’s write a song today. What’s it going to be about? Breakups?” For me with this record, I was going through one of the most transformative things that a human being can possibly experience: emotionally, physically, socially, spiritually, whatever. I was pregnant. And I was really happy, but I was also super scared and super anxious and paranoid. As much as my days were filled with joy and dreams of a little naked baby on a cotton cloud, they were also full of terror that something was going to go wrong and that my body didn’t feel like mine anymore.
So I really had to exorcise that demon. Not the baby — the baby wasn’t a demon — but get the demon of paranoia out of me and put it on paper. I also feel like I owed it to myself to create a record of how I was feeling at the moment instead of looking back and retroactively convincing myself everything was fine and burying those emotions and creating this revisionist history of what it was like to be pregnant for the first time. The songwriting became more important — there was a greater sense of respect I owed to my experience. And I think that goes a lot further than a coming-of-age album or a breakup album.
Reznor: Halsey’s songs seem to come from a place of pain or catharsis. It has an authenticity to it that you can pick up on. We felt our job in this record was simply to put a nice frame around it so that it helps achieve that message. It wasn’t creating the message, it wasn’t even altering the message: It was just hanging it on the right wall with the right light on it so that you would pay attention to it.
Halsey: It never gets old hearing that.
You have said this is the album you have always wanted to make. Are you hoping for Grammy recognition?
Halsey: I think… (Pauses.) I don’t care. The record is outstanding, and I’m really proud of what we’ve done. The most important thing to me is that it continues to have a life and continues to grow and burns and burrows slowly with the audience instead of coming in fast and burning out just as fast, like most records seem to do these days. Longevity can’t be manufactured. It’s got to be something real that people invest themselves in. My cellphone is full of pictures of people who are getting tattoos of the lyrics and the art — that stuff is incredible.
I have one leg pretty deep into this industry at this point. I’m not a veteran, but I’m certainly not just starting out either. When I concern myself with awards, it stops me from making the best art that I possibly can. But should the album be recognized for what it is — which is a singular piece of art and a once-in-a-generation collaboration between very different artists and very similar people? I think that would be nice.
Do you think awards or good reviews are important in the industry right now? Do they open doors?
Halsey: I think there’s something really satisfying about knowing that even people who want to hate your album can’t because it’s so good. That feels nice, but it’s a temporary high. It feels good for as long as you’re reading the paragraph, and then it doesn’t mean anything the next day. In my personal opinion, Trent and Atticus are far more experienced and have far more agency to criticize my work than any other critic. They’ve both seen it all and have done it all, and if they really like the art, then that’s enough for me. That and hoping the fans would take a chance on something that doesn’t sound like my usual music.
Reznor: With the advent of social media, there’s an unlimited faucet of people telling you everything you do sucks. And there are other people that you write off the same who are telling you everything you do is great. And then there are critics who may have a license to say it, and they may not. Who have a point of view that might be filtered through their own brand they’re trying to manage and their lifestyle they’re trying to push out. And then at the other end of it, you have the specter of awards and how valid they can be. There have been some we’ve gotten over the years that have felt like they came from the people we want them to come from. It felt kind of legit. And there have been others that feel like it’s ticking a box: “Let’s throw one to these guys.” You don’t know where it came from. And that kind of feels like bulls–t.
Ross: We’ve never sat down and started making music and thought, “God, I hope we win an award for this.” With The Social Network, the word “Oscar” never came up at any point. It was mind-blowing when it happened, but all the more so because that wasn’t why we were doing it. Like Trent said, it is nice to be recognized, but it’s not the reason. And I think specifically with this album, I can guarantee there was no corner cut, there was no stone left unturned. This was absolutely the best we could possibly do at that moment in our lives as three people. If that happens to go on and win an award, great. If it doesn’t, it’s not going to make me lose any sleep. But I think Halsey deserves it.
Reznor: It takes a lot of courage as an artist to put yourself out there. You’re not just making product — [Halsey is] not making product — it’s art and it’s her. And it does what it does. It’s going to resonate with some people, it’s not going to resonate with others. Some people will like it for the right reasons, some people won’t. With awards, I’ve come to [think that] it’s nice to be recognized for your efforts. It’s not anything more than that. It doesn’t mean that much at the end of the day. I’d rather win it than not win it if I’m up for it, but it doesn’t define who you are.
Halsey, your career has evolved so quickly over the last six years. In terms of career or artistic priorities, what do the next two years look like for you?
Halsey: I’ll probably do nothing, honestly. I’m glad we got to make this album when we did because being a mother to my son makes being a musician seem pretty boring. Something really amazing happened when I did have my son, which is the absolute, glorious eradication and death of my ego. Nothing matters when I go home to him. He thinks I’m perfect and great and everything. That’s going to be a whole other beast to tackle, parental guilt, but for the time being, I’m in bliss about it. The beauty of that is that it means I’m going to create when I want to. Hopefully, that means that whatever I make is going to be something that I’m just burning to get out there. Because the only expectation I have for myself is to be a really good mom, and the rest will fall into place around that.
Has making this album changed how you’ll approach music going forward?
Halsey: Making this record has changed the trajectory of my career forever. Manic was a commercial success and had huge pop singles. I was doing radio interviews every single day, and I almost died flying back-and-forth across the world, trying to promote this thing. I think that if I had tried to make another album like that, I would have just completely dried myself out to the point of no return where rejuvenation would have taken a very, very long hiatus. Having to support music in that way is not sustainable. But when you make something like what we’ve made, it has a life of its own, and the audience keeps it alive and keeps it going. And seeing it work has given me a type of confidence that I think will change what my fifth album sounds like. [And] my sixth, my seventh, my eighth.
Reznor: And you can do anything. I think people will expect you to now do the unexpected. That’s its own burden, but that’s a good one to have.
Halsey: Reinventing the wheel over and over again. If anyone has done it, it’s you guys. I feel like everything that you guys have touched has a palpable, visceral cool. Maybe “cool” is not the right word…
Reznor: No, that’s the right word. (Laughs.)