With her blue hair and songs about a dystopian society, ‘New Americana’ singer Halsey is a modern breed of pop star. Jordan Bassett meets 2015’s most exciting overnight sensation.
Halsey is sick of being asked about her bipolar disorder. “People wanna pigeonhole you,” she says.“When the album came out there were articles saying, ‘Halsey is gonna be the next big thing,’ but they never said why. It was centred around: ‘Let’s talk about Halsey because she’s bipolar, let’s talk about Halsey because she’s bisexual, let’s talk about Halsey because she’s mixed-race.’” Her voice is becoming louder and harder, making the dodgy phone line crackle. “So I just worked my ass off and wrote an album, but no, you wanna talk about these political things.”
For the record, the 21-year-old’s music is unique, arresting and darkly compulsive in its own right. Halsey’s debut album, ‘Badlands’, released in August, was inspired by the post-apocalyptic landscapes depicted in films such as Blade Runner and Gummo (the latter an early work from filmmaker Harmony Korine, who directed Kids). It’s a collection of sophisticated electro-pop songs that form a narrative set in a “booming city surrounded by a desert wasteland”. The video for its latest single, the inescapably catchy ‘New Americana’ (“We are the New Americana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana”), has amassed over three million YouTube views since the end of September, the song rivalling Lorde’s ‘Royals’ as a definitive millennial missive.
Listening to ‘Badlands’’ lyrics, which veer from youthful angst (‘New Americana’) to young love (‘Roman Holiday’), you’d be forgiven for missing that conceptual arc. Yet the production (courtesy of Lido, the Norwegian producer with whom she was in a relationship while making the album) buzzes with the menace of a dystopian city.
Originally from Washington, New Jersey, the teenage Ashley Frangipane soon gravitated to New York.While there she got her “sex, drugs, loss and existential confusion phase” out of the way early, living in a bohemian loft off Halsey Street in Brooklyn, hence her pop-star name (Halsey is also an anagram of Ashley).
Latterly she moved to LA, where she spent a year consumed by the making of ‘Badlands’: “I’d moved into an apartment with no furniture, just pieces of paper on the walls. I painted one wall with chalkboard paint so I could write on it. I looked like a serial killer. My parents were having issues, friends from home were sick or had died and my little brother was going through a tough time. Everyone needed me, but I was stuck in ‘Badlands’.”
Given those sacrifices, it’s understandable that she refuses to be defined as an artist by one aspect of her personality. It’s also why Halsey is sick of being asked about Taylor Swift. Three years ago, she uploaded ‘The Haylor Song’ to YouTube. A parody of Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, it mocked her relationship with Harry Styles, about whom the original song was reportedly written. Halsey’s version went viral but she insists it didn’t kickstart her career.
“I made that video in 2012,” she says, “and there was not another word about me in the press until 2014, but it keeps getting brought up. It’s the same mentality as people wanting to talk about being bipolar or being bisexual; everyone loves talking about Taylor Swift. I made multiple parody videos at that age; I’m quick-witted, clever and kind of an asshole, and it was how I handled that when I was 16.”
Halsey calls herself “a product of the internet”, having amassed a huge online following. She dismisses her record label’s “archaic” marketing methods, whereby exposure is drip-fed by country. “It’s like, ‘F**k you, you have no idea what you’re doing. I’m not Led Zeppelin, I don’t need to tour a country to get support there. The internet is a global narrative.’” Indeed, when Halsey offered to dye fans’ hair in London during her first UK tour in September, she expected “about 100 people” to attend. Instead, “Closer to 600 people showed up and I hadn’t received any radio play in the UK.”
Her influences are also broader than you might expect of a pop star. “Yeah, I was a fan of One Direction when I was 16, but I was also a fan of Bring Me The Horizon and hardcore bands. I used to work at a punk venue in Pennsylvania because I wanted to be near music.”
The hardcore punk fan who hangs out with 5 Seconds Of Summer, the pop star who writes sci-fi concept albums… Halsey is hard to pin down, and that’s how she likes it. “Being bisexual, being bipolar, being biracial – it’s been used to define me, but I am desperate to be indefinable.”
This feature appeared in the October 30 issue of NME