How Lana Del Rey Became ‘Completely Unburdened’ For Her Most Personal Material Yet
"This music is about thought processing," says Billboard's 2023 Women In Music Visionary. "I'm definitely living from the neck up."
Lana Del Rey practices “automatic singing.” Using the improvisational songwriting technique, she lets her voice carry over accompaniments, not commandeering where her words or melodies take her, accepting all ideas she has in the moment and editing them later. Lately, her voice has led her home, back to memories of her childhood in Lake Placid, N.Y., and to ruminations on relationships with her family and the divergent paths they’ve taken.
That subject underpins her upcoming ninth album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd (out March 24). Del Rey, 37, says she hesitantly began to unpack this subject matter with her previous album, Blue Banisters — but now, she’s ready to dig deeper. “At first I was so uncomfortable,” she says of the more personal material. “Then, by the grace of God, I just felt completely unburdened.”
As a singer-songwriter, this year’s Visionary honoree has embodied that word for over a decade. Her 2012 major-label debut, Born To Die, made her a star and defined music’s Tumblr era, as a young Del Rey toyed with both the romantic and the darker sides of the American dream. Her “world building,” as she calls it now, for her early work created a collage of beautiful and disparate images, pairing hip-hop aesthetics with references to the Kennedy family, Elvis Presley with John Wayne, and old Hollywood glamour with biker gang grit.
Since then, Del Rey has pushed musical boundaries — seamlessly peppering an album with features from Stevie Nicks to Playboi Carti (2017’s Lust for Life), reworking a Sublime cover into a contemporary Billboard Hot 100 hit (2019’s “Doin’ Time”), for instance — while achieving both critical acclaim and commercial success. She has earned six Grammy nominations and holds the record for most No. 1s on Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart. And somehow, each week, it seems a new song from her vast catalog gains traction on TikTok. (“West Coast” and “How To Disappear” are two recent breakouts.) Younger artists often cite her as an inspiration — including Billie Eilish, whom Del Rey now calls “my girl. It makes me feel comforted that music is going in such a good direction.”
Since 2019, you’ve released four albums. Is it fair to say you have more creative energy than ever?
I think it might look like that! It’s funny because I keep telling people, “I haven’t worked in three years,” but really I just haven’t done shows in three years. As soon as I start getting ready for a show, that’s when it feels like work.
How has your process changed since Born To Die came out?
Eleven years ago I wanted it to be so good. Now, I just sing exactly what I’m thinking. I’m thinking a little less big and bombastic. Maybe at some point I can have fun creating a world again, but right now, I would say there’s no world building. This music is about thought processing. It’s very, very wordy. I’m definitely living from the neck up.
Can you remember what it felt like creatively when you were just starting out?
I think back to the beginning, being in New York. I would just go to a little deli by Grand Central and all you had to do to sit at the table for hours was buy a black coffee. I remember thinking, “I’m doing it. I’m living it.” It was all very thrilling. I was so psyched back then.
You recently featured on Taylor Swift’s “Snow on the Beach.” What was collaborating with her like?
Well, first of all, I had no idea I was the only feature [on that song]. Had I known, I would have sung the entire second verse like she wanted. My job as a feature on a big artist’s album is to make sure I help add to the production of the song, so I was more focused on the production. She was very adamant that she wanted me to be on the album, and I really liked that song. I thought it was nice to be able to bridge that world, since Jack [Antonoff] and I work together and so do Jack and Taylor.
Who do you consider to be a visionary?
Joan Baez. I sang with her recently. She gave me a challenge: She said, “Go down a little road and look for a left turn and find my house [in Northern California]. If you find it and can play ‘Diamonds and Rust’s’ high harmony, I’ll come to Berkeley with you and sing.” So my sister and I rented a car and searched for the house. I was very nervous. I don’t play guitar that well, but I learned the first three chords and sat across from her, [and when] we stopped playing, she was like, “Great, I’ll see you at Berkeley.”
And another visionary to me is Cat Power. I had heard that she would run offstage when she wasn’t feeling it or just turn her back to the [audience] and keep playing. That’s when I knew I could probably do this.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 25, 2023, issue of Billboard.