When Halsey, the "New Americana" pop maven, and I meet at Serafina in the Dream Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, she is dealing with rumors that she's been hospitalized. "I woke up this morning and my A&R and a couple other people texted me like, 'Do you have pneumonia?' I was like, I don't think so," she says. "Do you know something I don't know? If I have pneumonia, I'm feeling pretty good."
It is early September, and her album Badlands has just debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200. She's stopped in New York for a late night appearance before heading off to do Jay Z's Made in America festival in Philadelphia. Months later, something as trivial as a barely-reported Internet rumor seems like something the singer, born Ashley Frangipane and whose moniker comes from the L train stop, wouldn't even have to register. Since we spoke at summer's end, she's toured extensively, including a stint on The Weeknd's The Madness tour and has already sold out her own 2016 headlining dates at Madison Square Garden. In addition to all that, she's also featured on Justin Bieber's new album Purpose and in the upcoming issue of the newly chaste Playboy Magazine. Before this quick and impressive climb, Halsey spoke to PAPER about social media, being in love with an addict, the real meaning behind her oft-maligned lyric "raised on Biggie and Nirvana" and much more.
Do you have any idea where the pneumonia rumor came from?
My social interaction level is out of control. Someone in Berlin can post something and that person can have 100 followers, but my fans will still find it and talk about it. I think [the rumor-monger] was just looking for interaction and clicks. It's one thing I found, as the months go on and the project is taking its shape, everyone just sees me as a click-bait target.
For what reason, do you think?
There [are] a lot of parts of me that are buzzy conversational topics. There are headlines that are like "Halsey: She's Biracial," "Halsey: She's Bisexual," "Halsey Struggles With Mental Illness," those are all topical subjects right now. I think people see that as a way to get engagement.
Do you feel like the coverage is focusing more on your personality than your music?
Abso-fucking-lutely. I am so fortunate that the record is speaking for itself. But the conversation is polarized in a way: It's topical, clickbait headlines [and then] so many articles about me have been, Halsey's "The Next Big This, That and The Other Thing." None of them say why they think that, so they're kind of sabotaging me in a way. All these articles say is, "Halsey is very popular" but they don't say, "because of her lyrics" or "because of her this, let's talk about this song, let's talk about that." It becomes so, so frustrating for me. All these people saying Halsey's going to be huge. Well, what if one day I am? What's there going to be to write about then?
I think one of the things that's unfortunate with pop music is that there is an expectation of hollowness to the music and that that stops people from taking a more analytical look at the subject.
Did you read my Pitchfork review, by any chance? As far as [bad] reviews go, it was pretty nice. The whole piece was like, "We don't really get her and blah blah blah blah blah, but her lyrics are the best part of the project." What I don't think [the writer] understood is I'm not a singer. I sing because I have to. All of this is about giving a vehicle to what I have to say. For him to say that was almost a compliment. "Cool, so if you cut out all the fat and you cut out all the bullshit, [she] really has a good story to tell here." [But] like I said, I'm being sabotaged by everybody saying I'm the next big thing and Pitchfork goes, "Oh well, no she's not because we don't want her to be." And I'm sure it sucks for them to see me being that left-of-center pop artist in the sense that I get cool looks. I do cool kid stuff. I started as an alternative artist and it's so funny how that conversation changes in such a way: My music didn't change. My popularity changed. So all of a sudden, I'm a pop star.
I think that's what happens when people like Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira, and The Weeknd crossover, the idea of pop changes. When you look at lyrics, particularly about love, in general, in pop music they're always kind of like—
Trite? Sorry... [
Well, I was going to say they approach the idea of love and sex as something that is this magical thing that happens, or that results in some horrible tragedy. You synthesize this really good middle ground where you're relatable, but also extremely specific. But if you were an "alternative artist," then you don't have that pressure to be holding up a really generalized mirror to your listeners because you'd be expected to say something profound.
I write all my own music. Most writers say, "How can I write the song that the most people possible are going to relate?" I don't give a shit if most people can relate to it. And most of my demographic can't. I sing about drugs, I sing about sex, I sing about loss, I sing about death, I sing about mental illness. And a lot of these kids are like, "Yep, nope, never been there." But my objective isn't to write what is going to be the most relatable. My objective is to write what's going to be the most believable.
Do you think younger music fans are tired of that or looking for a more palpable connection than they can get from someone like Taylor Swift?
Absolutely. That's why my type of engagement with my fans is so the way it is is because I'm 20. So, you know, four years ago, I was a fan. I'm still a fan, but I was an engaged music fan the way a lot of my demographic is. But for me, it was Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco. The new wave of alternative artists that everyone is stanning for on Twitter— Lana [Del Rey], Charli, the 1975, the Neighborhood — that used to be MySpace and that used to be Warped Tour bands. "Oh, you like Taking Back Sunday? I like Brand New. Fuck you." I remember being 15 years old and looking in the mirror and practicing Ryan Ross from Panic! At The Disco's makeup, like, "I live for these people. I would die for these people." I didn't really know what that meant because I was like 15, but I felt it. It triggered something in me. And since I've been a fan of music, I know what I would want if I were a fan of me. For me, it's not like, "Thanks for being a great fan! Bye!" I have an Us Mentality. It's not, "Thank you guys for doing this for me." It's, "I'm so happy we did this together."
How do you maintain that connection offline?
Every time a kid comes up to me at a meet and greet and is like, "I'm so nervous, I'm crying, I'm shaking, I'm so nervous to meet you." I tell them, "I'm fucking nervous to meet you, too. I have 30 seconds to prove to you I'm just as cool as you think I am. And if I don't, you walk away disappointed. So you're nervous? I'm nervous and I'm gonna be nervous a hundred more times as each kid comes up to me." So to have this idea that, like, some fans have this idea that they're lesser than the musician that they like. It is very much the opposite. A lot of people think that being an artist is a really arrogant and egocentric career choice and that you think the whole universe revolves around you. For me, it's quite the opposite. I realize to the fullest that the universe doesn't revolve around me. Without those kids, I have no universe.
Before this was your life, you were a teenager who had left the New Jersey suburbs for Brooklyn. You reference this a lot in your music, especially the very Bed Stuy-centric "Hurricane." Did you leave Jersey after high school?
I was 17 when I graduated and then I was, like, in love with this guy and he was way, way older than me. I was seeing him for months and then found out that he was using heroin. My brain exploded into tiny pieces. I'll never forget that day I found that out. I had experimented with stuff before, but it was all relatively harmless. I just remember being like, "Oh my god, this is real. This is not just something that people in back alleys and scary movies do. This is a kid from suburbia." He moved to Brooklyn, I went with him.
How much older was he?
He was 23, 24. He wasn't like 30, but it was old for a minor. What we were doing was illegal, and I had no capacity to understand that at the time. I was just in love with him. He's still a really good friend of mine. I still go to visit him in the Eldert Lofts. I talk about the Lofts all the time in interviews, so I'm like Chelsea Hotel-ing [them] because people keep going there. [But] you know when you're sick and you eat a restaurant and you can never eat there again? I almost feel like I can't go back to Brooklyn because I associate it with a different time in my life. There's definitely a lot of nostalgia for me. But yeah, I followed this guy there. I was in and out of the city. For the first few months, I was just taking the train in and back and then I stayed.
Were you immediately drawn to Brooklyn?
I bounced around. I lived in Brooklyn with him, I lived in the East Village, I've lived on Broome, I've lived on Delancey and Allen. I've lived in a lot of places. New York can be two very different things. It can be very awake and it can be such a dream. You can feel more awake and more attentive and more observant and more alive than you've ever felt when you're in New York because of how stimulating it is. Or you can slip into that dream state where days go by and you wonder what day of the week it is and you're fucking partying. I was like 17 and I was doing that.
I'm almost 30 and after I had listened to the album a couple of times, I realized it was like looking into a portal to ten years ago.
The thing I say to people all the time, and you can definitely understand it, is [that it feels like] you're in a three-way relationship. I just remember [him] almost sexualizing heroin. He would say "Her." "I need her. It's been a few days since I've used her." And it's also slang, but I always remember being so weirded out by that. Like, "You're a fucking weirdo. Her? She?" He had all these nicknames: The Amber Lady and all this stuff. And I was always like, "You're sexualizing a drug."
Your song "Colors" has a line about hoping someone makes it to 28-years old, a reference to the 27 Club. How has that lore impacted your songwriting?
The reference is almost sarcastic. I'm talking about someone who has such a rockstar god complex about himself that would be something he would want, to go down in that legacy and that romanticized immortality. It's almost like I'm teasing them, like I hope you make it to the day you're 28 years old. So, the line is about the 27 Club, but it's a sneak diss.
Related to the 27 Club, I wanted to talk to you about the chorus of "New Americana." You gotten a lot of flack for the pop culture references, but you're very clearly not the type to romanticize something you don't know.
There are a lot of kids out there who are like, "These lyrics are so wack. It's so lame. I bet she wasn't raised on Biggie and Nirvana." This is a satire. I sat down to write this song like, "I'm writing a song that's a social commentary on pop culture. I'm gonna make this as pop culture-y as possible." And I think that I achieved that because people are tweeting me saying it's too pop culture-y. That is [also] a cheeky, tongue-in-cheek way of saying my dad's black and my mom's white. My generation was raised on MTV, which means my generation was literally raised on black culture and white culture in pop music. It's defined us. People fear what they don't understand and that fear is what starts war, genocide, social injustice, and a lack of understanding. [Diversity is] the reason why we're so in tune — we call it "being woke": Knowing the difference between someone who is transgender, someone who is a transvestite, someone who is non-binary, genderfluid, someone who is asexual. Knowing when it's cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation or cultural sharing. We've been raised on such a culturally diverse conglomerate.
What's interesting for me, without it even being a metaphor for being biracial: Is that just the norm now? Are they the Beatles, Bowie, Motown?
I think so. There's this romanticized idea. When I see kids saying, "Tupac would never stand for this." Well, you don't know. "Kurt Cobain would never stand for this." They've almost become the godheads because they spoke for something and they had radical ideas at the time. I think people wanna see them as the godheads of social justice and pop culture, of underground culture. It's going to keep cycling through and through. But I think we've reached a crossroads where Kurt Cobain and Biggie and Tupac, those artists have become those godheads, because this generation is a little bit too young. It makes everyone that's older than them go, "Oh, what the fuck?" Because they know they were not. But my 15-year old fans, Kurt Cobain, and Biggie are to them what James Dean or Marilyn Monroe is to [someone older].