Lana Del Rey’s a torch singer for the internet era, splicing found footage for her early videos and nudging pop culture references in pastoral come-hither melodies. So it’s no surprise that she’s been both a smash hit and a lightning rod on the web—the former for her billowing voice, the latter because of her seemingly out-of-nowhere rise to stardom (and allegedly collagen-injected lips). Del Rey is the subject of much vitriol on blogs and websites, and rarely does that vitriol have anything to do with her actual music.
Part of what seems to rankle her detractors is that she peels the mystery from pop process: she is the anti-Gaga, transparent about her transformation from normie to performer. Her costumes in videos and photo shoots include elaborate floral crowns and gauzy gowns, but candids show a very pretty — but average — woman who looks very comfortable in distressed skinny jeans and ballet flats, quite like, well, a student at Fordham (her alma mater). She’s not trying to go to the grocery store in McQueen. Most remarkable about Del Rey’s seemingly surefire rise to stardom is that her narrative is largely un-spectacular: a classic smalltown girl from Lake Placid, whose formative exposure to the pop cultural keys and codes that turn people “cool” was limited, but whose smarts and savvy — and yes, perhaps calculation, but so what? — propelled her to this point. So when her next album, Born to Die, drops on January 31, with honey-dipped vocals and searing narratives, it will be fascinating to see whether Del Rey gets a Taylor Swift pass and is accepted as America’s moonstruck version of an everygirl.
Interviewing her at MTV’s studios this week, she seemed more like a chill study partner than a woman whose US television debut will be SNL (this Saturday, January 14, on NBC, after which she’ll hit Letterman February 2 and Ellen later that month). Her mild accent is naturally breathy — without trying, her twang’s a bit like a mafia moll or, more specifically, a forlorn Jackie Kennedy. But that’s the closest she got to the myths in her meme. Online, there are many blog posts devoted to the lack of photographs in which she is smiling, and people seem to expect her to be pouty and haughty based on her model-looking press pics. In person, though, she comes off as sweet and well-spoken, and doesn’t hesitate to crack a smile (or, oh my god, laugh). There’s a dreamer aspect to her demeanor, but it’s tempered by how thoughtfully she seems to choose her words. Hive spoke with her about true love, rap music, metaphysics (as one does) and social activism.
How did you start getting into music?
When I was really little, I liked to sing, just with my mom. I would sing in school, I sang in church, because that’s just what we did. I sang in high school, in choir, a little a cappella group. I didn’t think I’d be a real singer, but I did like to do it. But then I got to New York when I was 18, and I decided that it would be really nice for me if I could be a singer. So I moved to Brooklyn with my boyfriend, and just started singing and playing there.
Did your parents have music around?
They didn’t have too much music around, but they actually both had really nice voices. My dad wrote country songs for fun, and my mom sang for fun. My dad liked the Beach Boys, my mom liked Carly Simon, but we didn’t really listen to them; we just put the radio on — whatever would be on the radio. Growing up, I didn’t really listen to that much music. My friends and I listened to rap — to like Eminem or like, god, whatever was going on then — dance music, electronic stuff. Other than that, we were not that enlightened about all things “cool,” musically. We got there eventually!
When did you start writing songs?
I didn’t write anything that I loved until I was 18, so it was later. When I was younger, I always loved to write — that was one thing I really liked to do.
“When you lead a different lifestyle from a lot of other people — like you don’t do drugs, you don’t drink, you try and stay above the dark side of things — it’s just, that was maybe a position I was trying to embody just to stay calm.”
I would write fiction on my own time, and I liked writing in school. I thought that was one of the less offensive school subjects, so that was fun for me. I transitioned to singing when I picked up the guitar. I’ve never been good at the guitar — always been bad — but it did help me write for the first four years.
I wondered if you wrote — your lyrics are so narrative.
They sound like stories. I’ve been in New York now seven years, and it’s been a really long road, so the parts of my life that I draw from lyrically are maybe the more dramatic segments of the time that I’ve been here. But they are all true.
Do you feel like you struggled when you moved to New York?
Yeah, it was difficult, as it is for everyone. Maybe myself a little bit more, but that was my own fault.
Some of your lyrics, particularly in “Born to Die,” are incredibly sad. Are you a sad person?
I’m not sad, I’m happy. I feel like I’m happy because I’m at peace with the way that things are. It was difficult for me when I was, I don’t know … for a long time I was lodged in my head, wondering how things were gonna turn out, if things were going to be hard forever. And on a philosophical level, I was consumed with the idea that … what happens? Why are we here, What happens to us after we die? I did have a darker filter on sometimes, but that slowly lifted through doing a lot of different things. And finding true love is something that really did inspire me, lyrically. Because I felt so much the same for so much of my life and then when you find someone exciting, you don’t know that you could actually feel differently than you did before. I was inspired.
Is that how you knew that you found true love?
Well, I know now that it’s different for everyone. For some people, true love is complete serenity and feeling at peace and at home and having a life with someone else. For me, it was true love just because my own version of true love was feeling electric and excited. It really just depends on what you feel like you need, but for me, I had never really felt excited about things before.
You’d never felt excited about things before?
Not that I remember.
Just in love, or everything?
Just like, life. I mean you go to school every day and it’s hard … I lived in a small town and I just thought it was gonna be a long life.
Did you think you’d stay there your whole life?
I did for awhile, but I left when I was 14. I mean, I could have gone back — well, I did go back. I was a waitress in town because I didn’t go to school right away, but then I decided to go to college in the Bronx.
Yeah! I loved it! Everyone always told me I was a great waitress.
You get a lot of stories that way, too. What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to read, write, I like to dance. I’ve been really involved in my community for the last seven years that I’ve been here, in lots of different ways. I’ve been involved in homeless outreach for the last seven years. Drug and alcohol awareness — I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs anymore. When things aren’t going that well musically, you know … I stopped focusing on music for a long time so I started focusing on other things that I knew more about.
Some volunteering. I have a group of friends who work individually with different affiliations, but basically, yes. It’s been good. I consider being able to pursue music a luxury, but it’s not the most important thing in my life. It’s just something that’s really nice that ended up working for me for right now.
Where are you involved?
Just in New York, just in the last seven years. When I realized that maybe singing wasn’t going to be so easy I went back to what I knew how to do, what I was also really passionate about. There’s not many things, but …
What about your videos?
Yeah, for “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans,” I edited. I only work on YouTube cause that’s the only medium I know, but I knew what I was looking for — the clips I wanted to splice into them. And for “Born to Die,” I wrote a treatment for it called “The Lonely Queen,” so that I would be in a setting that represented Heaven, sort of in like a remote castle in Romania. [Laughs] Walking through the halls flanked by tigers. And then she’d be flashing back to happier times in the arms of her love. And then Yoann Lemoine adapted that treatment and made it more doable. But I love that video. I really do. I can’t believe it turned out so beautifully. I spent a lot of time thinking about where I wanted it to go.
Also the whole concept of a lonely queen. Is that a narrative that …
Something I relate to? Yeah. I mean, I do feel alone in the things that I do sometimes … sometimes I feel that I’m walking my own path. I’m not anymore actually, but I think that I did. When you lead a different lifestyle from a lot of other people — like you don’t do drugs, you don’t drink, you try and stay above the dark side of things — it’s just, that was maybe a position I was trying to embody just to stay calm. But I’m always thinking back to the way that things were, especially in terms of a particular relationship that was tumultuous. And Brad, the guy in the video, he’s in the video because he kinda reminds me of that guy. So yeah, it was really perfect, because everything came together.
What do you like to read?
I really like to read biographies, just like I like to watch documentaries; I like to figure out how people did what they did, why they ended up where they were. Mainly I like singer’s biographies. And two years ago, my favorite was Elizabeth Taylor’s biography, which was by her biggest fan who’s also written a lot of books on her, like all her romances. Also, Anthony Scaduto’s book on Bob Dylan was really good. And you know, I studied metaphysics in college so I’m always kind of reading on the side for fun.
What does metaphysics entail?
It’s not as complicated as it sounds. There’s different branches so it depends on which branch you’re studying. If you’re studying something like cosmogony, you’re studying about the origins of the universe, and how reality came to be reality. Like this space that we’re sitting in now — how did we come to inhabit this place? And why this reality strikes us as it is. I studied that up in the Bronx.
Do you still live there?
I just moved back in with my friend in Brooklyn actually, because I’m never really here now and I wanted to be with a friend again.
So have you been practicing all week for SNL?
Well, no, I haven’t because I’ve been working. I don’t even know what I’m singing! I know it’s “Video Games” and I think “Blue Jeans,” but I thought it was supposed to be “Born to Die,” so I have to go figure that out. I better fucking figure that out! [Laughs] There’s a lot going on so there’s a lot of catching up to do.
Are you excited?
Yeah … I’m excited if it goes well. If it doesn’t, I’m gonna kill myself! But yeah, what an honor. And who knows why, but it’s really nice for me.
What do you hope for your record?
You know, I say this and I really, really mean it: Everything I hoped for, I got it. It is just beautiful. My main hopes for the record were just in terms of what it sounded like and who worked on it. And now I have this crew who I’ll just work with forever. It’s amazing. This kid Justin Parker, and my producer Emile Hayne, the Philadelphia Orchestra … my main hopes were just that it sounded gorgeous, and it does. And the rest? You know, whether it’s received well or not, I did a good job. So I’m not too worried about it. Because you can’t say it’s bad, because it’s just beautiful — it’s just strings and beats.
Do you hope to tour the world?
No, what I’d honestly like to do is just stay here in New York. I’ve been here for seven years and I just love it here. I’ve been to almost every country and really, for me, nothing compares to New York. I’m just obsessed — I’m in love. Every day in New York is a good day. I mean, here’s my ambitions: my big plan is to get residency back down in the West Village. When everything is said and done, I’ll do my tour, I’m gonna do my live television, but what I’d like to do is have residency in the West Village 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.
That’s on some Bob Dylan shit.
Bob wanted to tour the world! He was like … he really fucking wanted that. He started in the West Village, but he had visions of extreme stardom. He complains about it now, but he really wanted it! Do you live in the city?
I live in Brooklyn, close-ish to you. I was at Glasslands last night.
What did you see?
Some friends who are rappers!
Oh, do you know this band called Flatbush Zombies?
OH MY GOD, YO!
SHUT! UP! JUST SHUT UP! [Laughs] So me and my friend had this marathon the other night and he showed me that, I was just like … It’s just really weird — Flatbush Zombies, A$AP Rocky, Azealia Banks, it’s something glossy, some of it’s weed rap but it’s all do-it-yourself videos. It’s really great! The whole time I lived in Brooklyn, I never felt like there was really a scene emerging, but now there is.
Brooklyn and Harlem rap right now is so ill. It’s a real New York scene forming.
Yes, that’s what it is! When I was here, MGMT was blowing up, but after that it was like, nothing. But that’s what’s happening right now.
Lana Del Rey’s debut album, Born To Die, is out January 31 via Interscope.