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The Big Read – Lana Del Rey: “I give myself permission to have a lot of colours”

When she blew up in 2012, Lana Del Rey was an untouchable, unknowable character whose preoccupations with heartbreak, America and old stuff cast her as a tragic Hollywood icon in the mould of, say, Marilyn Monroe. But slowly, she’s opened up and let people in, and now, with brand new sixth album ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ raising eyebrows and blowing minds, she talks to Rhian Daly about America's failings, forest fires, Donald Trump – and reasons to be cheerful.

Waiting to meet Lana Del Rey is like waiting to spot a unicorn. Before she arrives at her management’s office – a gorgeous Hollywood house on the cusp of Laurel Canyon that feels exactly like the kind of place she might inhabit, with rich green vines lining its cream exteriors and Grecian pillars – it feels like waiting for a mythical figure to materialise. It wouldn’t be a shock to glance outside and see her lounging by the azure swimming pool, just like one of the starlets she sings of. And as our scheduled interview time creeps back later and later, the anticipation grows ever stronger.

People have an image of Del Rey that’s almost a caricature; someone blue and untouchable, a depressed icon who belongs in another time. But in reality things couldn’t be more different. Maybe it’s a California thing, but Lana has a disarmingly relaxed manner. She looks like she’s come straight from the beach, her golden brown hair crinkled into the kind of haphazard, voluminous waves you only get from dunking your head into the ocean.

She’s late not because she’s a superior being with no need for the concept of time, but because she’s spent hours driving from northern San Diego where she lives “some of the time”, to this house on the hill behind the Chateau Marmont, in the black pick-up truck that’s parked in the driveway. As she settles on a dusky green couch, she clutches a chunky square vape covered in pink holographic plastic in one hand and a coffee in the other.

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Happiness (or lack thereof) has been a constant theme in Lana’s story, partially because sadness features so often in her songs. It’s also because the world’s obsession with figuring out her mental state always rears its head when she puts out something new. “Always. Always,” she agrees with a little eye-roll. “But I can’t be totally naïve and say, ‘Why? Why do they [do that]?’”

And true to form, a week after we meet, fans are scouring new album ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ – named after the American illustrator and author who, like Lana, chronicled American culture in his work – for clues about her emotional wellbeing.

lana del ray
Photo Credit: Chuck Grant

On the cover for her fifth album, 2017’s ‘Lust For Life’, Lana sported a beaming smile and flowers in her hair. The world seemed stunned that she could possibly be happy now. In contrast, the sleeve for ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ is a little more urgent. Del Rey is on a boat with one arm around Jack Nicholson’s grandson Duke, the other outstretched to the camera. In the distance, you can see dozens of fires lighting up California and covering it in thick smoke. It’s as if she’s trying to pull you on board and steer you to safety with them.

Being labelled a ‘sad girl’ isn’t something that really bothers Lana though. “Honestly, now I think it’s funny,” she says, gazing out of the French doors. “I’m not just one thing. I’m not cheerful all the time. But being able to express my sadness sometimes makes me actually more cheerful than some people I know, because I gave myself permission to have a lot of colours.”

lana del ray
Photo Credit: Chuck Grant

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You could read the public response to her unsmiling face in the videos for the likes of ‘Video Games’ as a telling insight into people’s expectations of women. The commentary on her perceived mood is the pop star equivalent of men thinking it’s okay to tell women they don’t know to smile. Del Rey says it isn’t as cut and dry as that. “That’s some of it, but women were also quite tough on me,” she says. “Again, I think that tells more about themselves – [women are] tough on themselves.”

Del Rey isn’t the only modern artist to be painted as this perpetually glum figure because of the melancholy that lives in their music. If she was considered the prom queen of sadness, James Blake would likely have been named king. Last year, he dismissed the “sad boy” label appointed to him, calling the phrase “unhealthy and problematic” and damaging to the discourse around male mental health. Del Rey feels similar about the tag being thrust upon her. “I really never felt like much of what people said about me resonated with how I felt at my core,” she says. “I thought it was cool that I was just in my process and, at some point, I’d probably get to some kind of plateau where the sound would round out and it would grow into another thing. It was a little nerve-wracking having people want me to be one way forever but, I mean, it’s a life. There’s a life in there and that’s ever-evolving and definitely for the better.”

lana del ray
Photo Credit: Chuck Grant

These days, Del Rey spends a lot of time on the road, orbiting around LA as she escapes to either the north or the south, but always returning back to the city. Being behind the wheel so much played a big part in shaping ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’, released last week, and its lyrics are dotted with geographical locations like pins being pushed into a map. Each marks out tales lived at each spot – Laurel Canyon, Venice, Santa Ana, Topanga, Malibu, Long Beach, Newport, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood and Vine, the PCH, and the 405 freeway. On Instagram recently, she showed off a necklace she’d made in Beverly Hills, a gold bar stamped with “wild at heart” on the back and the coordinates of LA on the front. This born-and-raised New Yorker has done what New Yorkers often swear they’ll never do – given her heart over to the Golden State.

“It’s just my favourite place,” Del Rey says, exhaling a cloud of vape smoke. “There’s lots of space to figure everything out. San Fran is pretty different – Jesus, things are so calm for me in San Francisco now. It’s such an interesting, quiet way of being.”

One song on ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ might make you think west coast life isn’t the cure-all people make it out to be though. On ‘Fuck It, I Love You’, she sighs, “I moved to California but it’s just a state of mind/Turns out everywhere you go, you take yourself/That’s not a lie,” as if expectations of a mental glow-up post-relocation were not met. Instead, she describes it as her “most dishonest song”, sung as if it’s about herself when it’s actually about a friend.

“If I’d been super honest in that song, I would have just been like, ‘California is more than just a state of mind. It’s all fucking amazing,’” she says, although she does concede it took some work to feel that way. “If you’re moving to a major city, it’s going to take a few years. Double down on your efforts to make friends because they ain’t coming to you. You’ve got to sniff them out like a little bloodhound. It’s tough, but I do actually love it here.”

Her face suggests she’s felt that struggle herself but she says she’s good with her “little handful of girlfriends”. They travel around the state together and serve as a sounding board for Del Rey when she’s working on music. “[On this album], I would play them stuff and seeing how much they liked it made me feel really confident that it was good,” she says.

Some of the other friends Del Rey has made out in LA include The Last Shadow Puppets. She’s been seen in videos at karaoke bars with Miles Kane and Alex Turner, her and Kane belting out Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’ as the Arctic Monkeys frontman dances between them. Some of the peripheral members in that band (Zach Dawes, Loren Humphrey, and Tyler Parkford) feature on ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’’s ‘California’. “We had a little rock band on the side,” she explains. “It kind of didn’t go anywhere but we had a good time.”

lana del ray
Photo Credit: Chuck Grant

Then she casually slips into conversation that the group, which also included Kane, made a whole album together. “It’s never…” she begins when asked when we can hear it. “We were very messy! But it’s cool ‘California’ made it on there – I feel like it’s a little piece of our friendship band.”

Her own record features the witchy groove of ‘Doin’ Time’, a tribute to iconic Long Beach ska punks Sublime, whose frontman Bradley Nowell shared a similar predilection as Del Rey for writing about California and its seedier side. Although she loves them now, she says they weren’t a big band for her growing up. Nowell died from a heroin overdose in 1996 when she was 10, and it took her another 10 years to discover them for herself.

“I didn’t really know cool music until I was a little older,” she laughs. “I think their song ‘Santeria’ was the first song I heard, I definitely listened to that at some college parties just feeling very sexy. They were such a one of a kind band. There’s some really cool stories about them around here, like how they were asked to headline a bunch of major festivals and didn’t show up because they were sleeping.”

You might expect Del Rey to be making her own legends in her downtime but her life, she insists, is pretty regular – a healthy mix of creativity and friend time. There’s the driving (“a lot of driving,” she says), the game nights with her friends, the trips to the dog park with her photographer and director sister Chuck Grant, the poetry writing, the swimming, and filming the things she sees as she flits between LA, San Diego, San Francisco, and other communities along the coast.

“I’m a big chronicler,” she explains. “I spend a lot of time just capturing stuff, even on the phone. When the wildfires were happening [in 2018] I wanted to get up in a plane and see it and film it.” As if to pre-emptively reinforce her point, a day earlier she posted a candid video on her Instagram of a conversation about aliens taking place on a green-lit boat.

Del Rey has never been one to shy away from telling the world how she feels, be it in her songs, interviews, or on social media. Last year, she got into a brief Twitter feud with rapper Azealia Banks, during which she tweeted the iconic come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-you’re-hard-enough line: “U know the addy. Pull up anytime.” Banks never showed. And before that, there was the incident that sparked said beef – Del Rey’s stance on the way Kanye West was advocating for President Donald Trump.

“Trump becoming our President was a loss for the country and your support of him is a loss for the culture,” she wrote in a comment under one of the rapper’s Instagram posts last October. On new song ‘The Greatest’, she alludes to those words in the lines “I’m facing the greatest/The greatest loss of them all/The culture is lit and if this is it I’ve had a ball.” Later, she mentions West directly as she sings: “Kanye West is blond and gone.”

“I didn’t want to,” she says now of stepping into that moment. “I didn’t like that I pressed enter. His commentary felt so bold and reckless and self-assured, and it was talking about somebody – the President – who has engendered a lot of hatred within the culture. I feel like there’s a carelessness there to not see that there’s been an increase of meanness [spread] around by certain supporters.”

As she talks about the moment, she doesn’t seem like she’s fully worked out how she feels about being entangled in that conversation. “I don’t regret doing it,” she asserts, “but it isn’t easy. I don’t really know. It was how I felt but, you know, whatever.” That might sound flippant but there’s a passion to her words on Instagram and in her eyes now that suggests she only spoke out because she really cares.

The 34-year-old musician performed at West’s wedding to Kim Kardashian in 2014 but when asked if she was close to him before speaking out, she replies: “I’d say to us who came after, he was so important. And so there’s that. But I just liked him.” Has she seen or spoken to him since? She breaks off eye contact and looks out of the window again, flipping through her last 10 months of memories. “Nooo..?” she answers, drawing out the word, a wry smile forming on her lips as she does.

Politics is something Del Rey has only recently become more outspoken about. Pre-‘Lust For Life’ she was often criticised for not talking about important things in the world. “People were pissed before when I didn’t say anything,” she says, before offering up her justifications for being focused on other subjects. “We didn’t have Trump as President before. There was less to say. I grew up with Obama and we were happy in New York. We were really, really happy with everything. That’s what I think people miss. We had gotten to a point where we could focus on the music and the arts. It was great.”

lana del ray
Photo Credit: Chuck Grant

On ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’ from ‘Lust For Life’ she wrote of attending Coachella as tensions between the US and North Korea mounted, and on ‘When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing’ asked if Trump’s presidency meant the end of America. Both songs signalled a shift in her songwriting. But ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ doesn’t keep it up, with politics only briefly appearing via the final verse of ‘The Greatest’.

Three weeks before the record’s release, though, a surprise new song appeared online. ‘Looking For America’ followed two back-to-back mass shootings: one in El Paso, Texas and another in Dayton, Ohio, in which a total of 32 people were killed. On it, over barely-there fingerpicked guitar, she sings, “I’m still looking for my own version of America/One without the gun, where the flag can freely fly/No bombs in the sky, only fireworks where you and I collide.

Del Rey says it was these two particular shootings out of the many that take place in America on a regular basis (according to non-profit group Gun Violence Archive, there have been 283 mass shootings in the US in 2019 as of September 1) that made her write this song, because of how strongly people reacted.

“The country was extremely heartbroken and terrified that within 24 hours we would have such big mass shootings,” she says. “I was getting phone calls from people I wouldn’t expect and people crying – really strong, normal people. Everyone’s just really nervous about taking the family to the next parade. It sounds cliché, but it’s not a joke. It was just the time [to say something].”

When pop stars start to wade in on politics, especially on subjects like gun control, they’re often told to stick to music. Suggest she might have faced any backlash for her steps into that field and she scrunches up her face. “I didn’t hear so much negative stuff after I wrote the songs,” she says. “What I learned was people like it.” Maybe she’s right – the comments on the YouTube version of ‘Looking For America’ are mostly positive, save for a few that say things like: “This isn’t Lana singing and she would probably be appalled at the idea of her own voice denouncing the Second Amendment.”

Looking ahead to the 2020 Presidential election next Autumn, the key issue that needs to be tackled, in Del Rey’s view, is mental health. “The thing about ‘Looking For America’ is it’s not just about the citizens’ right to bear arms,” she explains. “I get that. It’s people not being able to pull out and look at the broad picture and be like, ‘It starts with this’. There’s no addressing of mental health. Yes, there’s the gun, but it doesn’t mean that just anyone should be allowed to get one.”

Right now, she’s not sure who she thinks would be best to tackle that concern while challenging Trump next year but she’s “listening to everybody”. “Anyone would be better,” she adds with a dry laugh.

For Del Rey, the dramatic events unfurling over the last year or so – the historic wildfires, the Hawaii nuclear bomb scare caused by an erroneous warning message – mirror what we’re putting out into the world. “The President is a reflection of the culture, the culture is a reflection of our relationship with ourselves and, of course, nature is our great reflector and equaliser,” she says. “Maybe that’s a bit metaphorical but it’s probably no coincidence that it’s raining fire everywhere. I read a caption about the Amazon that said the lungs of our world are burning. It makes me wonder what’s our heart?”

lana del ray
Photo Credit: Chuck Grant

Ever since she broke through with the elegantly downcast ‘Video Games’, Del Rey has been an outlier in the pop world, keeping herself sonically separate from her peers. It’s surprising, then, that on ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ she chose to work with Jack Antonoff, frontman of Bleachers and pop producer du jour who’s worked with Lorde, Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Sia and Pink. While he doesn’t overshadow the women he works with, there’s a definite Jack Antonoff pop sound – a shimmery kind of deceptive euphoria – that weaves its way through most records he’s involved in. If Del Rey had already carved out her own, very specific space in culture, how would teaming up with someone with an equally distinct but very opposite oeuvre work?

“Jack very much takes my lead – I don’t know how it is with him with other people, but he liked for me to know where I was going,” she says. The two met at a party and it was him who extended that invite to work together. “He asked me if I wanted to come over to his studio in New York and I told him I didn’t have anything to write,” she explains, but he insisted that they could do something together if she just gave him a couple of hours. The way she tells the story makes it seem like she was fairly nonchalant about his offer at the time, but she accepted anyway and was surprised by what she found. “His sensibility is a little more traditional and acoustic than I thought it was. That was really good because some of my songs in my journals were already eight minutes and I didn’t want to condense anything. He’d like, ‘Ten minutes?! Alright!’ He’s like a little comedian.”

That desire to make sprawling epics, like the near-10 minute ‘Venice Bitch’, are a world away from the songs that featured on Del Rey’s debut album. Not ‘Born To Die, but the one before – the one that saw her moniker spelt ‘Lana Del Ray’ and was pulled from sale after three months because, according to the singer, the label she released it with couldn’t afford to fund it (the songs are easy to find on YouTube). Whether it was widely available or not, that record – with its Nancy Sinatra drama and weird experimental ticks – was the start of all of this for her and the beginning of a whole lot of change.

That record will celebrate its 10th anniversary next January. “Wow!” she says when reminded of that, then takes a second to take stock of what’s changed between then and now. “I’m as different as I am the same,” she concludes. “Which is hugely different and hugely the same, in a creative aspect. I sang before I spoke so singing is a real calling for me, but the rest of my life is like… sheesh. I’m surprised by how much it changes all the time.”

lana del ray
Photo Credit: Chuck Grant

For someone so heavily linked with the rose-tinted lure of nostalgia, it might surprise you that the past is not where Del Rey’s mind naturally resides. Instead, it’s the future that she says she often dwells on. “I have to exhaust myself to be super present,” she explains. “If I know I have a show at the Hollywood Bowl, my mind is on that stage until I get there cos I want it to go well, and then I’m thinking about other random stuff. I have to do more than most people to stay in the present. I’ve gotta run.”

In the immediate future, Del Rey has the first North American leg of her ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ tour, a new album called ‘White Hot Forever’ already in the works, and the theme tune for the new Charlie’s Angels reboot on the way. On the latter, she appears alongside Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus in what is a combination of icons most people wouldn’t immediately put together. Grande and Cyrus might seem like a natural pairing, but Del Rey feels like she’s from another world to them.

“Ariana and I met a while ago and we text now and then,” she says. “She asked me to do it and I was like, ‘Yeah, let me see if I can cook something up for your little bridge.’ I love her record so it was easy to say yes.”

The trio recorded their parts separately so the first time she met Cyrus was on set for the video, which she describes as “really funny and cool”. “I wasn’t nervous to meet her,” Del Rey laughs, “but I didn’t know she was such a bold character, just speaking her mind.” She whispers that last part and clicks her fingers at the same time. “It was definitely different for me, but kind of fitting somehow.”

lana del ray
Photo Credit: Chuck Grant

Grande’s name is one that crops up a few times during our conversation and is clearly someone Del Rey respects. When discussing the long flow of singles in the run-up to ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’, she credits Grande’s “reactiveness” for making her feel “more comfortable putting things out as I wanted to and as they happened”. Later, after having the “the culture is lit” line from ‘The Greatest’ recited back to her (she responds by repeating it in a voice that can only be described as valley girl on spring break), the pop star is one of two artists she cites by name as getting her approval (the other is Billie Eilish, someone who has done a similar thing to Del Rey and carved out her own inimitable cultural niche).

“Ariana’s baseline energy is super interesting to me,” she offers as one reason why she likes her. “She’s really fast. There’s not much time between a thought and a manifestation. There’s something for me to learn there.”

As for the rest of pop culture in 2019, Del Rey is mostly on board. The only other thing she singles out as something she’s enjoying right now is “all the mumble rappers”, whose number includes Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD, and 21 Savage. “It feels sexy and authentic,” she enthuses. “I’m into it. Personally, I’ve been waiting for a bunch of different people to flood in and they’re all here. It’s awesome.”

As the Californian sun drifts behind the huge trees on the other side of the pool, a knock on the door tells us it’s time to wrap it up. Interview over, Del Rey turns the tables, asking questions about freelance life as we gather our things. She seems weirdly interested, drawing parallels between my responses and advice she gives her sister. As we say goodbye, she flashes another big, warm smile, striking one final blow to the aloof persona that’s constantly projected onto her. Lana Del Rey is not who you think she is – she’s so much more.

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