It will surprise no one to learn that Dr Dre has very good speakers in his studio. And when I say very good, I don’t mean very good in a pricey and popular headphones kind of way. I mean very good in a “holy s**t, I can hear every individual speck of space dust in this galactic wall of sound” kind of way. It’s how we would all listen to music if we were billionaire music industry moguls.
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Dre has given us permission to use his Santa Monica studio – across the road from the legendary Interscope Records – to hear ‘Lust For Life’, the latest Lana Del Rey album, for the first time. The inside of the studio is clad with expensive-looking wood. The lights are seductively dimmed. It looks both like Don Draper’s office and the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. There’s a bubbling lava lamp next to a Bruce Lee lampshade on top of the main desk. The drinking water is perfectly cool. It’s totally LA.
It’s a fitting place to listen to Del Rey’s coming-of-age record. Huge in scale in every sense – sonically, vocally, thematically – it’s the culmination of two years of relentless work. Writing, editing, discarding, rewriting, tinkering, erasing, rebuilding. As she’ll tell me the following day: “I kind of felt when I started I was going to be in this whole new zone when I was done, a whole new space. I’m really proud that there’s a shift in tone, a shift in perspective. There’s a bit of reflectiveness on what I’m seeing and it’s integrated with how I’m feeling. Normally I’m just, ‘Let me just put this all out there,’ and then I’m really surprised when people are like, ‘You’re f**king crazy.’”
Del Rey has been Interscope labelmates with Dre since October 2011, when she bought herself out of her contract with 5 Points Records, where she’d toyed with different identities and different sounds. Six months earlier, she’d become an overnight star when her aesthetic clicked and she released her debut single proper, ‘Video Games’. In the space of three acclaimed albums (2012’s ‘Born To Die’, 2014’s ‘Ultraviolence’ and 2015’s ‘Honeymoon’) she’s gone from lo-fi internet queen to fully formed Hollywood superstar. And now she doesn’t just have the songs – they’ve been there since the first day Lizzy Grant looked in the mirror and Lana Del Rey winked back – but also the production, the ambition, the pulling power and the brass balls to make ‘Lust For Life’.
I hear nine tracks through the big speakers – ‘Love’, ‘Lust For Life’ (Ft. The Weeknd), ’13 Beaches’, ‘Cherry’, ‘White Mustang’, ‘Groupie Love’ (Ft. A$AP Rocky), ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’, ‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’ (Ft. Stevie Nicks) and ‘Tomorrow Never Came’ (Ft. Sean Ono Lennon) – before driving up to a rooftop bar in Hollywood to order drinks from wannabe film stars and looking up towards the hills to meditate on what I’ve just heard. Shoo-wops, doo-wops, wall of sound production; tender moments, angry moments; sex, cars, uncertainties; opulent LA life. If you squint, you can see the famous Hollywood sign in the distance. If you close your eyes you can see Del Rey looking out from her window right inside the middle of the H.
The next day we’re in a different studio in a different part of town, this one belonging to Del Rey’s longtime collaborator and producer Rick Nowels. He greets us at the door with a massive grin and ushers us into the main room where the album was recorded. It’s untidy, in a warm and homely way. He wants to know what we think of the record. He’s excited to talk about it. Nowels is a 57-year-old music industry legend who’s worked with Madonna, Tupac, Stevie Nicks and more, but it’s obvious that there’s a particular space in his head and his heart reserved for Del Rey, who he repeatedly describes as “special” and “remarkable”.
Del Rey arrives. She’s wearing a crocheted T-shirt and jeans. We sit down in a side room and both press record on our phones. There’s a book about Manson Family victim Sharon Tate on the table that neither of us notices until after the interview is over. I ask her if she’s as happy as she looks on the cover of the new album. “Yeah…” she says. “That was my goal, you know, to get to that place of feeling like in my daily life I had a lot of momentum. Like a moving-on-ness from wherever that other place was that ‘Honeymoon’ and ‘Ultraviolence’ came from. I loved those records, but I felt a little stuck in the same spot.”
How did she move on? “I just felt a little more present. Writing a song like ‘13 Beaches’ – it’s a little bit of an abstract notion, but for me it took stopping at 13 beaches one hot day to find one that nobody was at. And I just thought, you know, the concept of needing to find 13 beaches might seem like a luxury problem for someone, but that’s OK, I’m going to go with that.”
It’s a key song on the album. Her voice has never sounded bigger or more emotional. “I usually do things in a few takes,” she says, “but I took a lot of takes to do that. The mood that I needed to convey was better than what I was doing. I knew it was important that I came in straight as an arrow with that one. I always feel like I’m creating a new path when I’m doing a song.” Writing, editing, discarding, rewriting, tinkering, erasing, rebuilding.
Not that Lana Del Rey has been completely reinvented on ‘Lust For Life’. The title track, the first of five collaborations on the album (no previous LDR album had ever featured a guest artist), may not come from the melancholic cool world of ‘Video Games’ or ‘Terrence Loves You’, but it’s just as nostalgic. Nostalgia can be sad and nostalgia can be happy, and at her best – and let me put it out there, I think this song could be her absolute best ever – Del Rey taps both at once. Does she agree?
“I’m thinking about that. It goes in line with how I thought I was going to be in this more grown-up zone [writing this record], but actually I’m still somewhere right in the middle. When I think of that song I think of nighttime and this idea of, I don’t know, breaking into somewhere and carving up and kissing. That’s fun for me; like the place where I’m not 100 per cent in something really solid relationship-wise, where you’re still going out and meeting new people and all that stuff. And also, this Hollywood-centric environment is still an important thing that gives me life, being in town and the characters and the constant heatwave. It’s a little bit of a cliché – I totally get it; but I still feel like it enhances something in me that’s already cooking.”
Hollywood and the sunshine can be quite an intoxicating cocktail really, can’t it? “It can. I’m naturally a careful person, so I like that the ambience… I wouldn’t go out and take a cocktail of pills or whatever, you know, but there’s something about the vibe of just being around that gives me a heightened feeling.”
The biggest deal collaboration on the album is the duet with Fleetwood Mac legend Stevie Nicks. Del Rey says hearing her vocal takes made her re-evaluate her own tone. She was convinced Nicks would turn her down. She still speaks about it with a look of happy disbelief that it actually happened. But the most interesting duet is actually with the person who is, in their own personal right, the least famous and accomplished of everyone on the record, but by virtue of his surname, the most fascinating.
“I’m a huge, huge John Lennon fan,” she says. “I didn’t know [his son] Sean. I got his number from my manager, who called his manager. I kind of was nervous about what he was going to say. I FaceTimed him – he was amazing. He was very excited.” The result is the sweetest song on the album, a tender folky ballad that gently taps through the fourth wall as they reference John and Yoko, then Del Rey sings, “Isn’t life crazy now that I’m singing with Sean”.
There’s a story that goes with the song, where Del Rey calls up Lennon to tell him that she thought his part was perfect, and he says that he’s so happy because no one’s ever said that to him before. He’s John Lennon’s son, he’s lived his entire life in his father’s shadow, and Lana Del Rey has just given him his greatest ever compliment. There’s a tragedy in that, don’t you think?
“Absolutely. It’s why I think it’s more than just a song for him – for both of us. He’s sensitive, you know. I assume that’s from his father and I think he would probably say that it’s been… some of his reviews have been difficult. I thought that was one of those moments on the record where it was a little bit of a ‘bigger than us’ moment. I told him, ‘I’m the one who’s honoured, I’m the lucky one; so I just want you to remember that, Sean, I’m singing with you.’”
The interview goes off in lots of different directions. We talk about hanging in LA with Alex Turner and Miles Kane (“I randomly see Alex. I’ve been working with Miles”); about her deep friendship with Courtney Love (“I can call, and probably just ’cause she’s done so much crazy s**t, I can tell her something very weird and she’ll be like, ‘Been there, done that’”); her love of Kurt Cobain (“top influence other than Bob Dylan”); people watching (“I’m a weird observer”); detective novelist Raymond Chandler (“I’m a big fan, I love The Big Sleep”); and Californian independence (“I’m a proponent of keeping the country together, but it’s so its own zone it may as well be a different country.”)
We end by talking about magic and the power of words. Firstly, Donald Trump. He’s still the president, which means that the hex Del Rey asked her Twitter followers to cast on February 24 hasn’t worked (yet). So did she get involved and do it herself? “Yeah, I did it. Why not? Look, I do a lot of s**t.” Do you cast other spells at home? “I’m in line with Yoko and John and the belief that there’s a power to the vibration of a thought. Your thoughts are very powerful things and they become words, and words become actions, and actions lead to physical changes.”
The quirky video trailer that you did for the album (a magical Lana looking down on LA from her home in the Hollywood H, ruminating on the world and the space it takes to make a record) – it’s more than a trailer; it’s a personal manifesto, isn’t it? “There is a message. I really do believe that words are one of the last forms of magic and I’m a bit of a mystic at heart. And I’ve seen how I feel about changing those people’s lives and I’ve been on the other side of that as well – on the other side of well-wishes and on the other side of malintent. And I’ve realised how strong you have to be to be; bigger than all of it, even bigger than your own vibrations.
“I like that trailer because I talk about my contribution, which is something you start to think about. I’ve got good intentions. It’s not always going to come out right – it hasn’t come out right a lot of the time – but at the core my intentions have always been so good. With the music or when I get into a relationship, it’s always just because I really want to. That’s what’s at the root of this really cute, witchy B-movie.”
You make a point in the trailer of saying “in these dark times”. Is there more pressure to contribute something positive right now? “I didn’t like hearing that come out of my mouth. I have a song, ‘When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing’, and I went back and forth so many times about putting it on the record because I didn’t feel comfortable with what I was saying. I don’t like hearing myself say, ‘In error it’s the end of America’, ’cause it’s a troubling sentiment. I didn’t like saying, ‘In these dark times’ either…”
We both stop recording but keep talking about the state of the world we live in. I tell her that I can see more and more artists starting to come to terms with the fact that they need to be more outspoken and opinionated. She agrees and says people need to be bold because there are consequences. For the next hour, she makes silly videos on my phone, eats a messy sandwich and helps me choose photos to send to the NME art desk. She couldn’t be less like the idea of Lana Del Rey that most people subscribe to.
There’s a confidence in her that perhaps she didn’t have before, a confidence that comes, maybe, from knowing that she’s about to release her most complete album, but knowing too that there are tweaks she could have made, things she should have done differently, things she’ll make right on the next record, ideas she’ll try when she’s next in the studio with Rick. Writing, editing, discarding, rewriting, tinkering, erasing, rebuilding.