Lana Del Rey is the girl of the moment. On a freezing New York afternoon, wind-chill factor -8C, she breezes into the lobby of an exclusive members’ club with the untouchable aura of someone transported within their own micro-climate. She looks immaculate, as indeed she has always looked since the world first sat up and took notice – perfectly turned out in tight blue slacks, green shirt and a suede jacket, like a beatnik princess. Long auburn hair falls in perfect lines around her face, deep brown eyes casting a frank, steady gaze beneath long, false lashes.
In the flesh she still has a girlish slightness of frame, but in front of cameras she is capable of shifting swiftly from a kind of coltish innocence to vampish knowingness. It’s a quality that is hard to pin down but is present in the videos, songs and photo shoots that have suddenly and dramatically elevated her from the obscure margins of the internet to the centre of the pop zeitgeist, a kind of doubleness, a sense of duality and merging contradictions. She is a person into whom you can read a lot.
Which is what the world has been doing. In May 2010, the unsigned Del Rey posted a home-made video on YouTube of a deceptively simple song called Video Games, in which she sang in a low, sultry voice about a remembered moment of idle and possibly idyllic love to an achingly sad melody, set to found footage of old Hollywood and sun-bleached shots of Del Rey. It’s a clip that has a strange, otherworldly power, emphasised, perhaps, by the absence of beats, the quiet poise of its artful construction, allied to intense yet understated emotion.
By the end of the year, it had been viewed 20 million times, become a top 10 hit single on British indie label, Stranger Music, earned her a big deal with Universal Music, put her on the covers of magazines and at the top of ones to watch polls, and helped make Del Rey the most talked about new star of the year, hailed, in her own pithy phrase, as the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”. Yet a lot of what was being said wasn’t particularly nice. She was accused online of being a fake, created by backroom Svengalis in some kind of nefarious pop conspiracy, a Botoxed, manufactured, spoiled, super-rich airhead being sold to a gullible world as an indie pin-up. Insults flew fast and furious, as commenters called her authenticity to account. It was as if Del Rey was too good to be true.
“Its funny,” says Del Rey, although she’s not laughing. “I don’t really have any gimmicks. I don’t actually do anything that’s strange. I don’t even wear weird things. I have taken taking my music to labels for years, and everyone just thought it was creepy. They thought the images with the music were weird and verging on psychotic. And then, one day, its like people decided it wasn’t actually too strange, it was actually too perfect. The fact that it could even be considered pop is a revelation to me. You know what changed? It got played on the radio.”
Behind a poised, deadpan expression, Del Rey shifts subtly between bruised defiance and vulnerable anxiety. These are qualities you can hear in her music. But the surprise is that, beneath the artfully composed image she has presented to the world, her sensitivity is so close to the surface. Because it turns out that there is nothing ironic or conceptual about Del Rey. “I’m 100 per cent sincere,” she asserts.
On January 30, Del Rey will release an album, Born To Die, which should establish her as not just a big star, but a real talent. It’s a literate, emotional collection of beautifully crafted, pithily memorable songs about good times and bad love, teenage drinking, existential angst, memory, loss and revenge. It has sinuous, clever lyrics set to dreamy soundscapes, lush melodies and trip hop beats. “I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s gorgeous. This album is my self in song form. So if they sort of sound like everything fits perfectly together, it’s because it does. There is nothing altered, nothing compromised, they are perfectly me. For better or worse, it’s like a person in song and video form.”
At the album's core is a kind of dichotomy - a quality of being sad without being unhappy, that is reflected in the title song. “There is a sense of loss underpinning things. I used to wonder if it was God’s plan that I should be alone for so much of my life. But I found peace. I found happiness within people and the world. So there is a sad tone, but also real joy. It seemed like a mix of two beautiful worlds coming together.”
So does she really think we are born to die?
“No, I think we’re born to live.”
Del Rey’s given name is Elizabeth Grant. She was born 25 years ago, and raised in the small town of Lake Placid in rural New York State. Her father is a real-estate investor, her mother an advertising account executive and, while they were comfortably middle-class, she snorts that, contrary to internet speculation, “they’re not millionaires. There wasn’t any money. It was just a life.” Despite the setting, it would appear that Del Rey’s inner life, at least, was anything but placid. “When I was very young I was sort of floored by the fact that my mother and my father and everyone I knew was going to die one day, and myself too. I had a sort of a philosophical crisis. I couldn’t believe that we were mortal. For some reason that knowledge sort of overshadowed my experience. I was unhappy for some time. I got into a lot of trouble. I used to drink a lot. That was a hard time in my life.”
She often alludes to teenage drinking, and says she hasn’t touched a drop in eight years. Pressed on how bad it got, she replies: “Bad enough that I had to stop.” When she was 15, she was sent to boarding school in Connecticut, an event that she recalls on the closing track of the album, This Is What Makes Us Girls, reminiscing about her schoolgirl gang, “a freshman generation of degenerate beauty queens”, and the moment she found herself on a train platform, waving them goodbye, and “crying ’cos I know I’m never coming back.”
At 18, she moved to New York, studied metaphysics at college, and taught herself guitar. “I’ve always written. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at. It’s not difficult, like math. I’m not bad at it, like I am with everything else. But it didn’t have to be music. I like to sing. I also enjoy editing, splicing films together. And so I’ve been doing all those things, but my only ambition was to be a great writer.” Her subject matter has been her life, particularly a relationship that went sour, and that infuses songs like Off To The Races (“I’m your little harlot, starlet, Queen of Coney Island”), Blue Jeans (“You fit me better than my favourite sweater”) and National Anthem (“We’re on a quick, sick rampage / wining and dining, drinking and driving / On our drugs and our love and our dreams and our rage / Blurring the lines between real and the fake”).
“It’s not my fault that love went bad. I met this person I was going to spend the rest of my life with. We were both clean and sober. We lived together and then he started getting into trouble, and he had to leave. There’s a lot of facets to my life, they don’t all seem like they would come together. It’s been a strange ride.”
In her years in New York, working “odd jobs” and “helping out in the community, in alcohol and drug awareness programmes” and playing the singer-songwriter open-mic circuit, Lizzy Grant reinvented herself as Lana Del Rey. But there is a sense in which this was not so much the arch self-marketing, suspected by her internet detractors, as the normal, youthful process of self-discovery. “It’s not like I’m torn between two personalities. There’s no distinction. Not even a little bit. I wanted a name that sounded as beautiful as the music. Just like the only reason I use old footage of Hollywood was because I like the colour and texture, not to give subliminal Americana messages, or hint at the glory of past decades. I don’t feel the need to slip into another world or character, because I’ve inhabited the same world and the same person for a long time. I’m very happy with it. Anyone will tell you that.”
Del Rey could have been invented by the internet, and in a way she was. She is a child of these times and this technology. She took an identity that suited her and discovered a way to present her inner world in music and imagery, compiling clips of old images. She released an independent album in 2008 that sold so badly that the record label withdrew it: “There was no money to support it, so they just thought they’d save it for another time.” She had been telling her own story, in her own unique way, to an audience of herself and her peers. And then the world spotted her, exalted her, and then, in the accelerated mania of new media, a backlash started before she had even begun.
It gets colder in the room as the interview progresses, as the New York chill penetrates. “I know what people think about me,” says Del Rey, pulling her suede jacket around her shoulders. “I don’t understand it, I don’t see why that’s the angle. And I’m a smart person. I mean, like, why that?”
What the gossip-mongers and trolls of the internet haven’t seen is the effect all this cyber bullying is having on the person at its centre. Del Rey has made a record that deserves to be heard, but says she doesn’t want to tour, doesn’t want to leave New York, that she wants “to keep things small. All I wanted to do was make something beautiful, and I think I’ve done that.”
Her nervous appearance on popular US TV show Saturday Night Live last weekend led to more internet abuse. But the thing is, Del Rey is nervous, and with good reason. “I don’t want to talk about how it made me feel because I think it’s disrespectful to God to go to a dark place with this kind of thing. People just want to see me go off the rails. That’s the only reason they’re watching. They just want to see what happens.” Her critics have questioned her authenticity, but Del Rey seems all too human. I ask if she is afraid of what she has unleashed. “Do you think I am?” she ponders, voice trembling, hand dabbing at her eyes. “Well, you might be right. But I wouldn’t tell.”
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