The singer Halsey’s life changed suddenly earlier this year. She had been playing acoustic shows as a matter of necessity, to pay her bills, and she ended up in the studio one day with a friend of a friend to record one song, “Ghost.” That track has been streamed more than 420,000 times on Soundcloud since it came out in August, and Halsey — full name Ashley Frangipane — tells Billboard she “woke up the next day and took meetings with five record labels,” subsequently signing to Astralwerks. “Ghost” will appear on the Room 93 EP, out October 28th, and Billboard is premiering the video for “Hurricane,” another track from the EP. Watch the video below:
Halsey has been playing music of some sort for most of her life. She started out on string instruments — violin, viola, cello — but when she hit 14, “that wasn’t cool anymore,” so she shifted gears. “I thought I was gonna be the next Alanis Morissette,” she says, “so I bought myself an acoustic guitar.” At 18, when she found herself in financial trouble and without a place to live, music suddenly became her lifeline — gigs provided money for rent. Halsey played “acoustic shows under different names,” taking the Megabus from New Jersey to various cities to perform.
Imagining Halsey’s acoustic shows might not prepare you for the music on Room 93, which is spacious and sweeping, incorporating a number of electronic elements. “People have a very different idea of what my project is like when they see the acoustic videos I’ve done at radio stations,” she notes. Songs like “Hurricane” are crisp and unhurried, with big, buzzing bass and a powerful, slightly menacing beat. She likes to keep listeners on their toes: there’s an instrument in “Hurricane” that sounds like a strangled squeak, while “Ghost” has “a high level of bass” that she suggests “isn’t really appropriate for its genre.”
Halsey collaborated with several producers to finesse her sound — producers who have also worked with singers like Banks, Ellie Goulding, Lana Del Ray and Sia. But the songs all build on Halsey’s strong foundation as a singer-songwriter. “My music all strips down to the same acoustic stuff I’ve been doing all my life,” she points out. “My melodies are very percussive… all my songs when they’re played acoustically could be Ed Sheeran songs.”
Room 93 is a visual EP — four of the five songs come with a video. The songs are inspired by Halsey’s time in hotel rooms. “A hotel room is almost like a prop place,” Halsey says. “I spent the past year of my life in and out of hotel rooms and I’ve formed relationships with people out of hotel rooms. It’s kind of an exhausting and fascinating and interesting phenomena.” She sees the anonymity and privacy offered by hotel rooms as liberating. But there’s also an intimacy that “can be overwhelming and it can eat you alive.” (She notes that she’s “had a romantic relationship with someone in the past year strictly out of hotel rooms. Zero other interaction.”)
Each of the videos accompanying Room 93 focuses on a group of people in a hotel room; “Hurricane” follows a crew of teens. “We were trying to do something authentic and raw that spoke to a sense of surrealism,” says Halsey. “The vidoes are very real: the kids have chipped nail polish and dirty faces and acne and their clothes are weird.” None of the kids are trained actors; Halsey recruited them at a skate park. “I just wanted to put a bunch of kids in a room and let them interact as they would,” she says.
The singer plans to take things even further in the future. Her album, due to come out next year, is “very heavily conceptual and visual in a way that the EP couldn’t afford to be because of how short it was.” But Halsey still describes her mission in simple terms: to write songs that “would connect in an arena full of 30,000 people, and would also connect in a bar.”