Pictures: Jenn Five
October 5, 2018 3:30pm
Halsey: Cutting It Up
As she marks the end of a long, long tour with the revelatory new single ‘Without Me’, righteous pop star Halsey hits London and Berlin to meet fans, play shows – and get a fierce new tattoo of a dagger. It means “don’t fuck with me”, she tells Douglas Greenwood
Halsey is a pop star yearning for a moment of solitude. She finds it on stage in front of 3,500 shrieking people.
“The stage is my space,” she tells me pointedly in her Berlin hotel room, hours before her Hopeless Fountain Kingdom tour draws to a close after nearly 18 months on the road. “Everywhere I go now, there are so many people who have embedded themselves into [it], who are required to be there for my safety or my own productivity or whatever. I don’t get to spend as much time alone, so when I’m out there, I get that sense of autonomy and I realise that I can do and say whatever the fuck I want.” Her voice, all of a sudden, gets a little more giddy and assertive. “It’s like a game for me!” she says.
This 20-something’s path to stardom is a quintessential story of internet-bred fame. Halsey has achieved eye-watering levels of success – we’re talking sell-out Madison Square Garden shows and multiple platinum records here – off the back of a gigantic online following, without your parents ever having to truly give a shit about who she is.
Still, if her name doesn’t instantly ring a bell to anybody over the age of 30, here’s Halsey’s deal. Born Ashley Frangipane in New Jersey, her two solo records, the 2015 debut ‘Badlands’ and its 2017 follow-up ‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’, have both gone platinum, and have spawned seven multi-platinum and five gold singles between them. Her hooky, omnipresent collaboration with The Chainsmokers, ‘Closer’, which you’ve definitely heard before (it’s the third most streamed song in Spotify history) earned her a Grammy nomination and was certified Diamond – that’s 10 million sales, by the way – earlier in the year. Her songs have been streamed a combined seven billion times, and on this tour alone she’s shifted nearly half a million tickets. Not bad for someone whose name is still occasionally met with obliviousness by those outside of the pop and tabloid culture cognoscenti.
But none of that matters, at least not to her anyway. The enviable chart hits she’s been smashing out like child’s play are merely a throwaway part of Halsey’s wider, more altruistic musical journey. “No accolade, award or nomination changes my fans’ relationship with my music, because I think the young people who listen to it are intelligent enough to think for themselves,” she says, expressing her disdain for the elements of her career that have helped her become more of a public entity than she might have ever wanted to be. “That’s why I stopped caring about all of that stuff. I stopped going to awards shows: I didn’t go to the Grammys, I didn’t go the VMAs…” She reels off the list of events like it’s a grocery list – not bragging, I don’t think, just keen to prove that these gigs aren’t a necessary part of her job anymore. Instead, thanks to her vocality on the things that matter to her – women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, in particular – it’s become her duty to stage shows and write music that has a brazen, personal impact on her now millions-strong following.
Backstage at a meet and greet hours before her London show, a teenage girl leans over to Halsey and whispers a secret into her ear, her hand cradling the nape of the star’s neck. It’s a moment of intimacy that a handful of fans have shelled out £230 for. Paying to meet your idol is pretty much standard practise these days, but you get the impression that most of these artists are coerced into it, wanting to appease fans’ wishes to have 120 seconds with their idols, while also making their record labels more bucks at each new city they visit.
But there’s something different about the way Halsey does things. With each new admirer, ushered in and out under the guidance of her security guard, she strives to make a connection with even the shyest of people. There are no canned questions; only gushing outpourings of love that she responds to with equally fawning compliments. There’s a conversation with two Italian fans (who’ve travelled to the two London shows) about the town on the Amalfi Coast she’s about to go on holiday to. A girl she’s met before embraces her the way you’d hug an old friend you were meeting for that dinner you’d delayed one too many times. Everybody poses for a photo, says one more thing than their surprisingly generous timeslot allows them to, and then slips off around the corner into a post ‘I just met Halsey’ universe. Some, unsurprisingly, weep, but the woman they’re there to meet keeps her composure, knowing she owes that time to people who’ve help transform her into the musician she is today.
“You never know what one of these kids is going to become,” she says. “To put yourself above them, or to write them off? You would be putting [your fans] at a serious disadvantage, because they’re capable of greatness and may come back around one day and express that gratitude to you.”
She’s speaking from experience. Growing up a feverish pop-punk fan in the quiet city of Edison, New Jersey, Halsey spent much of her childhood feeling like an outcast, and was teased at school for her obsession with the emo bands of the early noughties. She’d spend any spare cash she had on annual tickets to the Vans Warped tour (a teenage rock right of passage in the States), and found herself following Panic! At the Disco up and down the East Coast. “I think I’ve seen them around 20 times!” she says.
But there was one interaction that stayed with her to this day. “I remember having this wristband from the pit [at one of the shows], and Brendon Urie being on the edge of the stage and acknowledging me,” she reminisces, re-enacting her mini freak-out. “So I wore that wristband every day. I even covered it with plastic when I showered so it wouldn’t fall off!” An altercation with one of her bullies at school, though, led to the wristband breaking. “I was devastated,” she recalls. “I couldn’t understand how somebody could be so mean.”
As Halsey’s fame grew, she crossed paths with Brendon again. Now he’s a friend, and knows about the school drama that broke her heart back then. “I went back to my dressing room after [a show of mine he came to recently],” she tells me, “and there was a bouquet of flowers and two plastic Panic! At the Disco VIP wristbands, with a little note that said: ‘This is to replace the one you lost.’”
When you’re in Halsey’s position – fresh faced and on the cusp of either legendary status or being kicked about the gutter by the tabloid press – the way you navigate public spaces and curate your internet presence is what sets you apart from your contemporaries. There’s such a thing as being ‘the right kind of famous’: a perfect, indefinable balance of mystique, good artistry and public presence. Too much or too little of one of these traits, and you risk being met with eye rolls whenever you show up to a function or open your mouth.
But the concept of shutting up and simply making music is something Halsey, rightfully, refuses to submit to. As a bisexual woman of colour living in Trump’s America, it’s become clear to her that her elevated platform isn’t something that she should take for granted. She’s candid about her sexual identity in a way that few women in the industry (especially with her wide-reaching voice) have the opportunity to be, but she also has to face an internal stigma within the queer community, in which she’s othered for her unwillingness to, as she says, “pick one”.
‘Is Halsey really a good queer icon because she’s bi?” – all of a sudden, she’s adopted the persona of a condescending character to discuss a Buzzfeed News takedown of her from 2016: “She’s, like, gone out with a lotta duuuuudes, so maybe she’s, like, a promiscuous he-te-ro!”
Halsey laughs at it, but you can tell that it’s clearly incensed her enough to be talking about it two years down the line. “I’m just like, ‘Don’t figure me out then. It’s none of your business.’” She launches into a spiel about pop’s hypersexual double standards. “It goes back to that fear; people saying, ‘I can’t put you in a category and I don’t like it’. Well, you’re not entitled to a dated and detailed history of the women I’ve fucked. You wouldn’t ask a heterosexual woman artist for a list to prove that they’ve slept with men, so why are you asking for evidence that I’ve been with women?”
Since she’s become famous, she’s only had one high profile relationship – with the California rapper G-Eazy – but it’s been the subject of glossy mag and gossip rag coverage from the moment they went public to their tumultuous break-up earlier this summer. (Since we’ve spoken, the couple are now back together again).
“You’re caught in a crossfire where you want everybody to know the truth, but you also don’t want them to know anything at all,” she tells me. Desperate to ensure her life stories don’t get spun into tabloid fodder, in the past she’d use her Twitter account to clarify bullshit rumours doing the rounds. But at the tail-end of an album cycle that’s dominated the last two years of her life, Halsey did something different.
On her previous records, she’s guarded herself beneath characters and concepts, writing from the perspectives of fictional people. Creatively, it’s what’s most invigorating for her; she credits a love for “universes, like Harry Potter” and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet as the key inspiration for her work in the past. But when that first major break-up in the public eye happened earlier this summer, she did something she’d never done before: away from a protective front of fiction, she wrote a song that was unmistakably about herself.
New single ‘Without Me’, released yesterday, feels like a necessary step for an artist whose narrative is so often shaped for her by those viewing her life from afar. It delves into the idea of dependency on love, but instead of painting the female character as someone vying for the attention of her boyfriend, the narrative is switched. “In a way it’s the most vulnerable I’ve ever been,” she concurs, opening up about some of the subjects that had been ruled ‘off limits’ by her publicist beforehand. “It’s me saying to everybody: ‘This is it. This is everything that’s been going on. This is my commentary on everything you’ve been reading in the tabloids.’
“It’s funny for me,” she adds, with a dry, short laugh. “Doing something with ‘shock value’ sometimes just [involves me] being myself.” She’s right. In a time when overcomplicating pop music risks losing that sense of rich, immediate brilliance at its core, songs like ‘Without Me’ – unfussy, personal and to the point – are what Ashley Frangipane, the pop star, seems to be best at. It’s a single that sits between albums, a song that just needed to be put out. “It’s complicated, because it’s definitely just a standalone single, but it is a part of something new. It’s the first time I’ve put out a song that wasn’t part of a concept record,” she says.
It’s the first frosty Autumn afternoon of the year in London. The same international pop star who’s sold umpteen-million records and shifted 7000 tickets to her show in the capital in a mere matter of minutes is stomping down the streets of Dalston searching for a tattoo parlour. She has a tendency to choose what she’d like to be inked onto her body permanently at the last minute. But she’s spoken with a designer, the sought after Emily Malice (who also happens to be Frank Carter’s partner) and knows what she wants: a dagger strapped to her ankle.
“To feel like a dangerous woman is a really powerful thing,” she enthuses, exuding the kind of energy that, undoubtedly, has transformed her into one of the most fascinating, sweet and yet both confrontational and divisive women in pop today. “I wanted to get the tattoo to remind myself that I’m armed and ready, but the handle of it has little flowers in it, and that reminds me of myself.”
She takes a breath. ‘What does it mean?’ I ask.
“That I can be delicate and feminine if I want to,” she responds, with a slight lick of playful menace in her voice, “but I can also be really fucking dangerous – so don’t fuck with me!”
Halsey’s ‘Without Me’ is out now