Can’t wait for the new Lana album? You and us both. To help ease the wait, here’s a short saunter down memory lane: Del Rey’s first NME cover interview from January 2012. NME’s Laura Snapes joined her a few mere hours after her ‘Blue Jeans’ video hit the internet, confirming the singer as more than a one-trick pony…
Online popularity algorithms and comment board snarkers can go whistle: if the cast iron weight of expectation carries any significance, then Lana Del Rey is the biggest new artist on the planet right now. The week before she releases her official debut album, ‘Born To Die’, it’s the biggest selling pre-sale record of 2012 on Amazon UK – selling twice as many copies as Leonard Cohen’s ‘Old Ideas’ (also out January 30) at Number Two – and it will be Number One a week on Sunday. Bookmakers William Hill have given us 1/2 odds on Lana grabbing the top spot, and 6/4 that she fails. ‘Video Games’ has been in the Top 40 for over 14 weeks.
Kanye, David Cameron, Odd Future and your dad all love her, a motley crew that’s even more impressive considering that hardly anyone had heard of Lana until about five months ago. And there are plenty of people at pains to declare how much they hate her. Because Lana’s rise to super-stardom has been so concentrated (despite having been trying to make it for nearly seven years, with the LDR push constituting just two of those) the controversies loom as large as the successes. And goodness knows there’s been a lot of controversy: the non-issue of whether she’s had surgery, trifles about her authenticity, and repeated poor live showings.
Most recently, there was Lana’s uncomfortable performance on US sketch show Saturday Night Live. Whilst its comedy wing is responsible for building careers (Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman etc etc), SNL’s music stage is reserved for more established stars (and is notorious for its terrible sound quality). Lana was the first musician to play the show before releasing an album since Natalie Imbruglia in 1998. She joked in an interview two days beforehand that she would kill herself if the performance went badly.
But to say it went badly is an understatement – dressed like a candlestick crossed with a mermaid, and moving just as fluidly as that suggests, Lana rushed through ‘Video Games’ and hit guttural notes on ‘Blue Jeans’. Holding herself as she sang, she was visibly nervous.
Unsurprisingly, that didn’t temper Twitter’s response. Juliette Lewis wrote, “Wow watching this ‘singer’ on SNL is like watching a 12 year-old in their bedroom when they’re pretending to sing and perform #signofourtimes”. Brian Williams, a news anchor at NBC – the network that broadcasts SNL – emailed irreverent tech website Gawker to call Del Rey “the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history”. Daniel Radcliffe presented the episode she performed on, and stepped in to defend her. “It was unfortunate that people seemed to turn on her so quickly. I also think people are making it about things other than the performance.”
Exposure aside, you have to wonder why Lana and her team keep signing up for TV appearances that she’s clearly not prepared for. She’ll also perform on the prestigious Late Show With Letterman on February 2, and Ellen DeGeneres’ chat show later on. On tour in November and December 2011, Lana repeatedly told crowds that songs would sound better on the record. In French magazine Les Inrockuptibles she was asked whether performing is ever a pleasurable experience for her. “I’m concentrating too much to let myself go,” she said. “I’m scared of making a mistake, so I try and control everything… I can’t escape myself.”
She also recently claimed she’d forsake touring to stay in New York. “My big plan is to get residency back down in the West Village. I’m gonna do my live television, but what I’d like to do is have residency [there] and do my other work that’s important to me on the side. And that would be a better life than most because I’d be doing what I wanted.”
Touring or no touring; it’s arguably beside the point. No matter how extraordinary a song she might write in the future, she’ll always be the girl pouting in the promo for ‘Video Games’ – a phenomenal song still wholly possessed of all its power to floor – frozen in time at the point at which she became famous. She and her label are evidently aware of this from the way they’ve been throwing out new album tracks like sandbags, desperate for one to tip the balance from one-hit wonder to a career with some longevity.
Lana Del Rey has reached a level of saturation where it’d be impossible for ‘Born To Die’ not to hit Number One next week. Her rising fame has become an unstoppable juggernaut, and it’s impossible to predict where it’s going to go next. She’s certainly never going to silence her detractors. In critical terms, she could become a phenomenally expensive one-hit wonder. If the record and her future career succeeds, it’ll either be down to her audience’s faith in the power of marketing or, it’d be nice to think, in the enormous potential of her talent.
It’d be nice to think September 9, 2011 was a more innocent time for Lana Del Rey. ‘Video Games’ had gradually seeped into consciousness over the preceding months, building anticipation around the YouTube premiere of its b-side ‘Blue Jeans’, that morning.
That day I met Lana in her small, posh west London hotel room. It was a few days before snarky blog Hipster Runoff would publish an “exposé” on her past as Lizzy Grant, daughter of a moneyed family with a shelved album to her name (nothing she had ever denied); a few days before she would play an invite-only secret show at Brooklyn’s Glasslands, and then postpone her October tour dates – which had sold out in a heartbeat – until November.
But even on the cusp of becoming the phenomenon she is right now, as her debut album looks set to hit number one, there was something about Lana Del Rey that suggested she wasn’t all that innocent. It’s in the way she avoids eye contact, staring at her feet as she ties her vest in knots, awkwardly trying to run her rectangular, baby blue and pink nails through her stiff auburn curls.
We sit around a table at the foot of the bed in her room, as the TV on the wall displays a home shopping channel hawking ceramic Disney princesses on mute. She speaks like one of them – all wispy “oh my!” cautiousness and beauty queen charm. She asks if I mind her smoking the first of the many long Pall Mall cigarettes she’ll get through, saying that her PR man has told her – rather presciently – that people will write about everything you do.
She’s disarming in her nerves, often sounding as though she’s about to burst into tears, but equally for the prevailing suspicion that this could all be an act. For all the accusations that will be levelled against her over the coming months, Lana Del Rey certainly isn’t dumb. If you ask her a tricky question, she’ll answer through dipped lashes before looking up and forcing you to confirm what she’s just said; she girlishly asks, “Don’t you think I look similar?” after I’ve asked her if she’s had plastic surgery.
For all the bands that have recently peddled intrigue and mystique in their bid for popularity, none have done it as well as Del Rey – even if she’s achieved it unintentionally. Arguably, she would rather remove all doubt and speculation about her past in order to get on with the job in hand; but it’s one of the things that’s made her such a beguiling pop star from the first time we set eyes on her….
This must all seem very strange.
“Strange is the right word. When things go absolutely nowhere for so long, you can tell when the energy is shifting around a project, and in the last two months, I’ve been, like… is this real?”
‘Blue Jeans’ went online this morning. Have you been keeping up with the reaction?
“I’m so nervous that I haven’t really looked! I feel like the album will walk the line between ‘Blue Jeans’ and ‘Video Games’. It’s still really fresh, but glamorous.”
You can hear your unreleased album, ‘Nevada’, online. Would you rather it wasn’t there?
“Yeah, it bothers me. The internet’s a really good place, but definitely a scary place too for someone when not everything that you’ve done has been good.”
I found MySpaces for your past projects under the names Sparkle Rope Jump Queen and Lizzy Grant & The Phenomena. When are they from?
“Wowwwww! Well. I would say Sparkle Rope Jump Queen was maybe 2008, 2009. I was playing guitar. I actually saw that about three weeks ago, something on Google came up. I thought, ha, you cute girl, look at what you did. They’re pretty dark. I was just playing into Garage Band.”
There are lots of interesting stories about you on the MySpace for Lizzy Grant & The Phenomena – that you were a trapeze artist in Alabama, for example.
“Haha! That’s not true. That is very funny. I’m a psycho. I was born on the day of the worldly rapture, according to the most famous biblical birthdays, June 21, a Gemini. What else did I put in there… I think it was Alabama, I did visit there, but I’m not a trapeze artist!”
With Lana Del Rey, how important is it to tell people the truth?
“Very important. Because I don’t like to get caught! I was probably 20 when I put [the …Phenomena MySpace up], no-one was paying attention to me so I was writing whatever I wanted. Even though the project has kinda taken a sort of exotic twist, which I did want, what I say is usually pretty straightforward.”
There’s been a definite change in image between your former projects and now. Did it all come from you? And also… did it go further than just being aesthetic?
“There aren’t many pictures of when I was singing before. They’re paintings that my sister had done from photographs. My face actually looks exactly the same as when I was really little. I know everyone talks about my lips, but my lips are my lips, and I’ve never gotten anything done. Also those paintings from those photographs, they’re taken when I was like 17, 18, the only real difference was that I had short platinum hair. But I don’t think they look that different.”
Does it bother you that you’re being asked whether you’ve had surgery?
“Well… yeah. I think as a girl, when you work for a long time and you don’t really get anywhere, you work on keeping a lot of integrity in your music but then all anyone talks about is your face – it’s not something you can really plan for. I don’t have a new face, I look the same.”
What kind of pop star do you want to be? ‘Video Games’ came up through YouTube, but you’ve been working with some big people.
“In terms of being a pop star, it’s not something I’ve thought about for a long time now, because it was so long ago that I started. Even though I’ve been singing and writing again for two years, I haven’t been on the stage for 16 months. I started living a regular life, so I’m not really sure. I don’t have to be a singer at all, it’s not the end all or be all any more.
Did the idea of being a pop star drive you?
“I wanted to be part of a high-class scene of musicians. It was half inspired because I didn’t really have many friends, and I was hoping that I would meet people and fall in love with and start a community around me, the way they used to in the ‘60s. I wanted to be recognised as a good singer, and not much more than that.”
Did you not have a lot of friends at school, or in your hometown?
“I did find it hard to make friends, but it wasn’t because of the people, but because I was sort of a cerebral person, an over-thinker. I was trying to figure out a vision for my future that would make me happy when I really was not happy doing that many things.”
Danger seems to recur as a theme in your songs…
“I think I’ve been in more dangerous situations than other people. I am attracted to the dark side, but in the same way that everyone else is. Sometimes the things that are really dangerous are because the situations or people are really magnetic and imperfect, but then when the pendulum swings you see the reason things are so amazing is because the situation is really strange.”
“I don’t know… It just felt like fighting for survival for such a long time. Having no money, or a place to live, living day-to-day trying to figure out how to keep making music and stay alive. You sometimes find yourself in situations that you wouldn’t exactly uhh, that aren’t like, the safest, but um… Just figuring out how to make ends meet.”
What kind of jobs did you have?
“Basically I did anything on Craigslist. $100 a pop: I would move people out of places, paint houses, wear bike sports jackets for a truck magazine, or NYU students would pay $100 to spend a week doing a film.”
Amazing – have you got some poncey student films made about you?
“Well they’re not pretentious, but I am terrible! The kids who would ask me to do it probably thought I looked right, but then we would get on location and they’d be sorry they asked because I’m really shy in front of the camera!”
Were you not tempted by a regular job?
“I definitely thought, ‘If it’s gonna be this hard I’m not gonna be a singer and have nothing’. That would have been fine, but it’s only in the last two years that I started getting tired.”
Did you ever nearly quit singing?
“In my mind, I was always thinking about it. I stopped playing shows. I definitely didn’t wanna be a singer any more after a while.”