Halsey: “No amount of experience makes you invincible to trends”

The NME Innovation Award winner talks to us about one year of ‘If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power’, playing Reading & Leeds 2022, fighting for abortion rights, covering Kate Bush, and Bring Me The Horizon coaching them on screaming

“I’m so fucking grateful I get to tour this album here this year,” Halsey tells the audience midway through her powerhouse headline performance at Reading Festival. It’s been a year and a day since they dropped their innovative fourth album ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ and the twin, top-billed spots at Reading & Leeds 2022 mark the first time she’s been able to play these songs on British soil. After battling a gnarly bout of food poisoning at Leeds – they smashed it onstage, despite illness – their Sunday gig at Reading Festival proves a triumph – hailed by NME as a “a ballsy but poignant statement from a true rockstar”.

Just before the shows, Halsey is sat in a swanky London hotel suite discussing her preparations for the iconic festival with us. “The way this tour came together [means] that my performance style has evolved into a space that’s really true to the sentiment of what Reading and Leeds are as festivals,” they explain. Describing the sensory identity for this tour as “pure fun, unbridled rage”, it’s a fitting show for carrying on R+L’s hedonistic rock legacy.

Last year’s release of ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ saw Halsey reinvent themselves, teaming up with Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to embrace a grittier alt-rock sound. With an ambitious accompanying film of the same name, the project was just one of the many reasons Halsey was awarded the Innovation Award at the BandLab NME Awards 2022 in March (something she says today was “really affirming and validating”).

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Speaking exclusively to NME, Halsey tells us about covering Kate Bush, working with Bring Me The Horizon, fighting for abortion rights, and looking back on one year of her rock rebirth.

Hey Halsey. It’s been a year since ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ came out – What are you doing to celebrate?

Halsey: “My gosh, well, it’s funny because the album is so inherently attached to my child, because I was pregnant [while writing] and it came out shortly after I’d given birth to my son.

“It’s really cool to look at how my life has changed since the fear I was experiencing before I was about to release that record. [Fear] because of the record, because of the change in my sound, because I was about to give birth – and that’s a scary thing to do also. And to look at where I am. I’m like: ‘OK, I put out an album that wasn’t a traditional pop record and nobody died, everything was fine, I didn’t fall off the face of the earth, everything didn’t catch on fire’. In fact, a lot of wonderful things happened and it was experienced by so many people in such an amazing way.”

Credit: Jasmine Safaeian

So you’ve come a long way from ‘the fear’? 

“Those things coming together and giving me that sense of peace is really special, so I want to try and give my fans a little bit of an inside look on how I’ve ­– I don’t want to use the word ‘recovered’, because I don’t think there are necessarily things to recover from ­– but I guess a sense of perspective now since releasing [the album].

“A lot of my songs are about things that are troubling or dark, or things I’m struggling with, so I think it’s important to follow up so that people who are listening know it does improve. It gets better, and sometimes it doesn’t and that’s OK too, do it at your own pace. A couple of songs we’ll be putting out, some demos, early iterations of the record and yeah, hopefully some exciting conversations. I haven’t been on social media in a while!”

You delved into this heavier rock palette for the last album. Would you do that again, or are there other genres you’d like to go into?

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“I very much would like to, as I think it has energised me in a way with my live show. I feel like I’m embracing a part of my artistry that’s always been there, but I haven’t always been able to articulate. For a long time I associated rock with angst, and angst with youth. When I was making this record I was 26 and I was pregnant. I was mourning losing my youth and almost thinking to myself that’s almost passed me by, [like] I’ve missed the boat on getting to create a record like this. I was thinking, ‘Am I entitled to angst’?

“At first I was like, ‘The answer is no, you’re about to become someone’s mother – you can’t be angsty, you need to have everything under control’. Then I realised that with maturity, learning more about the world, and learning more about yourself, comes a tremendous amount of angst, and I can continue to grow into my 30s and 40s and still have rock music that is accessible to me.

“With that being said, I also get really impatient and antsy with genre, and I feel like everyone has made a terrible mistake by letting me make whatever music I want, because now I just can’t see an end to it, where I just want to try everything and do everything. I think with the place I’m at in my life now, if I did make another rock album soon, it’d probably be a bit more of a live, organic rock album. Something that’s a bit more acoustic-y, a little more analogue, dive into that sound, just go Stevie Nicks on them.”

You’ve worked with fellow Reading & Leeds headliners Bring Me The Horizon several times. Would you do it again?

“Oh yeah. Oh my gosh, I’d work with Bring Me again in a heartbeat. They’re such great guys. We spent a couple of days in the studio together and we made a couple of songs, and you just wouldn’t believe the range of music we were making. We were in the studio and Jordan [Fish, keys] was coaching me through doing these Justin Timberlake harmonies on a record, and I was like, ‘Dude what?’ And he was like ‘I love music like this’.

“They were having a lot of fun with me I think, as we were getting to write stuff together that Oli [Sykes, frontman] wouldn’t necessarily sing. In most situations I’d walk into a room and say to a producer, ‘Hey I want to make a very futuristic, pop nu-metal song’. They’d look at me and be like, ‘You have to go home’. Whereas the Bring Me guys were like, ‘Let’s do it! Let’s go!’

“They coached me through my first time screaming on a record which was really fun. You can’t ask for a better person to coach you through that. Now I do it in the show, live every night, which is awesome.”

Speaking about your live show – you’ve been covering Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ recently. Why did you decide that was a song to bring into your set?

“I’ve obviously been so influenced by Kate Bush, I feel like anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes with my music would know that. It’s written all over it, that there’s a genesis there from the music that she was making to the music I make today. I really admire her fearlessness and her weirdness.

“When the song started having a bit of a resurgence [due to its inclusion in Stranger Things], I was excited as it was a song I’d wanted to cover. Now I had a really good reason to, as my audience would react to it and respond to it and know it. I’ve performed it so many times now. I was having dinner with my manager the other night and the DJ dropped ‘Running Up That Hill’, and my body responded viscerally as if they’d played one of my songs. I feel so attached to it now, that it started playing [Halsey sings the opening riff] and I was like, ‘Oh shit they’re playing Halsey, oh wait no they’re not, that’s Kate Bush!’ It’s become a part of me now.”

You’ve also recently released a new track, ‘So Good’. What can you tell us about writing that?

“That was a really interesting time for me because I’d just come off the road of making an album with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. That process had kind of condemned things about myself as an artist; sort of exiled parts of being a pop musician and committed myself to a process that was very fearless and avant-garde. When I first sat with ‘So Good’, I was like, ‘Wow, I really want to put this out, this is a really good song’.

“I had that moment when I was like, ‘Who am I going to be letting down by making another pop song? Does this make me a fraud? Am I evolving too quickly, is this a step backwards for me?’

“What really did it for me was listening to it as a demo, just vocals and piano. That’s when I was like, ‘This is a song that is just story-telling from top to bottom’. At the end of the day, when you strip away all the production and the fancy guest producers and the visuals and all that stuff, my job is to be a storyteller. I did that job with ‘So Good’, so I was like ‘I gotta put it out’.”

And obviously there was a bit of a push to get it out there, after you said your label were withholding it until you got a “fake viral moment on TikTok

“That was a really interesting situation to me, because it showed me that no amount of experience or time or longevity in this industry makes you invincible to trends. All of us are at times susceptible to how fast culture is changing, and it was a reminder that I can wake up any day and people might be like: ‘Halsey’s not it anymore’. And then I have to make a choice: am I going to change to be heard and to have my art experienced, or do I accept the culture has changed and just continue to be me and to continue to do what I do even if there’s not a receptacle for it in the zeitgeist anymore?

“I don’t know the answer to that, honestly. It could be one, it could be the other, it could be an intersection between both. But yeah, it was definitely a wake-up call.”

You’ve been very vocal on abortion rights. It’s pretty bleak out there, but does the response from your fans to things like this make you maybe a bit more hopeful for the future?

“Oh, 100 per cent – and not even the response, as it goes beyond blind rage and my fans do a really good job at keeping themselves educated. One of the things we did at the shows was at every city we’d say the names of the legislators out loud. Saying the names of the politicians. This isn’t an imaginary bad guy, these are people who live in your cities and your counties and states, so remember their names so if they come up for re-election when you’re old enough to vote, or you’re accessible to vote. Remember the name and be like, ‘No, screw that dude – I remember what he did a few years ago’.

“Especially in the US, politicians have an incredible way of shapeshifting through their beliefs; when someone can run on a platform they were staunchly against years ago. It’s more for me trying to seer those names into their minds. I really didn’t have to do much as they’re so educated and so autonomous, and it’s really, really wonderful to see.

“It’s also great to see globally. My fans all over the world have a really strong network where they’re supporting people in other countries when similar things happen overseas, so I’m just really proud of them. I think they’re awesome, I hope every kid grows up to be like one of my fans.”

Watch our full video interview with Halsey above, where the artist also talks to us about winning the Innovation Award at the BandLab NME Awards 2022, selling paintings in Sotheby’s to raise money for abortions rights, and pushing for more change for women’s rights in the US. 

Halsey’s deluxe edition of ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ is out now.

Check back at NME here for the latest news, reviews, photos, interviews and more from Reading & Leeds 2022.

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