Halsey’s one of 2015’s most exciting artists. She’s also one of the most interesting, and a few weeks ago I went to meet her for breakfast. I did have some questions prepared, but it quickly became clear that this would be one of those interviews where you just sit there and Let It Happen.
What did happen?
Well, there was talking. A lot of talking. Fortunately, Halsey’s good at talking: about her vision for ‘Badlands’, about her place in the pop cosmos, and about how the music industry works in 2015. From time to time there was a question or a prompt, but what you’re about to read is pretty much just unexpurgated Halsey.
This might not be the best Halsey interview you’ll ever read (it barely even counts as an interview, let’s be honest), but it might well the one of the longest. And that’s got to count for something, right? Right? Guys come back it’s really interesting.
Right. How are you finding London so far?
I love it here. The air’s different.
How is the air different?
I don’t know. It feels different. I was in a really high altitude part of the US for a while, so it’s really hard to breath out there. It’s nice here, I like it here. No one really knew I was coming, but there were like 40 kids at the airport last night which was really cool, it was like eleven o’clock at night. It was fun to stop and get to meet them all. That’s fun for me.
What are your UK fans like?
It’s so funny because it’s a little different to the US. It’s a bit more diverse here. There were a lot of girls, but also a lot of guys. Now I’m focus grouping, trying to get to know my UK fans as best I can.
What did you want to do with ‘Badlands’?
I kind of got stuck on this idea last winter: Badlands. I didn’t know what it meant but I said to my managers, ‘I’m naming the record BADLANDS’. They’re like, ‘we’re not even thinking about the album right now’. Then a month later I’m like, ‘okay, so for Badlands…’, and they’re like, ‘oh, you do want to name it that’. I’m like, ‘Yes!’.
‘Badlands’ is a concept record, about a dystopian society. I became kind of obsessive about this idea of a dystopian society in the future. I moved into an apartment in LA after my headline tour — no furniture, just paper on the wall. It looked like a serial killer’s house. It was me just writing notes about the album, tearing pages out of things, so
How far in the future is the album set?
I would say 50 to 100 years.
So it’s soon enough for some of your fans to live to see it come true?
Hopefully. But hopefully it doesn’t, because that wouldn’t be a good place. The Badlands are this part of the world that are kind of removed.
I flew over Las Vegas once and I looked down at this desert with this city in the middle of it that seemingly pops up out of nowhere. Las Vegas is such a bizarre thing because it’s all these things that are bad; sex, gambling, drugs whatever, but if you do them there, it’s okay — which I think is the most bizarre concept ever. All of these things are awful, but if you do them in Las Vegas it’s okay because that is what Las Vegas is for. It’s a city that exists for vice.
So I thought that was such an interesting concept and I kind of got obsessive and started thinking about what these people might be like. What are the buildings like? What is this world like? What are things made of? What is the structure of society, and what are the rules? I got obsessive about the society. I wrote ‘Castle’, the first song on the record, then I wrote ‘Hold Me Down’, and ‘New Americana’. The tracklist appears almost true to the order in which I wrote the songs. So it follows an actual story because the songs are reflective of what part of my life I was in at the time, what kind of mental state I was in. The record is autobiographical, but in a surrealistic fashion because I obviously don’t live in a dystopian society. I wish I did!
Can you describe your state of mind when you were making the album?
Neurotic. The interesting thing about ‘Badlands’ is that here I am in this imaginary world and my life is changing in the US and I’m 3000 miles away from my house, I’m flying somewhere new every day and I’m busy and all of a sudden people fucking care about me.
Six months ago no one gave a shit about me and all of sudden a company turns around and says, ‘look at you, look what you did when none of us fucking cared about you at all. Let’s talk about this now!’ I’m in this whirlwind with everything happening really quickly and I think I was regressing almost to like a childlike defence mechanism where I was hiding in this world because it was easier for me to think about the record and give all my time to the Badlands, rather than deal with what was actually happening to me in my real life.
So about midway through the record it occurs to me: ‘holy shit — this is all a metaphor’. And it’s so funny because it wasn’t a metaphor initially. That’s something that had to reveal itself to me. This idea of a booming metropolis is the centre of my head and it’s filled with the gluttony, commercialism, toxic behaviours and whatever else, and this is then surrounded by a wasteland and what that wasteland or desert does is it keeps people from coming in but it also keeps me from leaving, so I am left with this place which is all I’ve ever known.
So I came to that realisation halfway through and it’s kind of therapeutic for me to acknowledge that I’m living in these mental badlands. ‘Can I leave?’ ‘Can I escape this state of mind?’ It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Midway through the record I changed everything. A couple of months later I’d shaved my head — I was slowly figuring out how to leave that state of mind and how to deal with everything that was going on for me.
The breaking point for me was when I wrote ‘Drive’ which is track four on the album. It’s the first happy song I’ve ever written which is really cool for me, because it’s an optimistic song. It’s a sweet song, it’s about being in a relationship, being in love with someone and not knowing how to tell them. The premise of the song is: all we do is drive, all we do is think about the feelings that we hide.
It’s the first happy song I ever wrote and it’s so ironic that it’s called ‘Drive’ because it symbolises this departure from the Badlands — this point where I drive away. I leave. After that come these pop songs — they’re bright, they’ve a different kind of energy, this coming-of-age, nostalgic sound to them. That was such an important thing for me as a songwriter, to be able to branch out into this new world an embrace this pop sensibility that’s been hiding in my music all along.
Embracing that was the best thing I did because I made this record that is uninhibited and uncensored.
It feels like a bold record.
I need to prove a lot of people wrong. I put out this EP that was safe. From a content standpoint it wasn’t because it was about drugs, domestic violence and so on, but it was sonically safe. I wanted people to feel. I went full force with this record.
From a production and sound design standpoint we sat down and I was like, ‘I’m creating a universe. I’m taking a stab and creating this universe, creating these badlands that I want people to come and be a part of’. How could I transport my listener there? How can I create a landscape? How can I create space? All my favourite records that I’ve ever listened to, — Kings Of Leon records, Lana Del Rey records, Kanye records, Frank Ocean records, 1975 records, Arctic Monkeys records — I go somewhere when I listen to them. Those records feel like they exist in their own dimension. They exist in a world where everything is consistent. It’s got a colour, it’s got a shape, it’s got a sound, it’s got a feeling, it’s got a story and it’s almost real world, but something is not quite right about it.
I could have ran off to big producers and just been like, ‘recreate this idea’. Bubt I sat down with these no-namers and we got scientific with it. For me, it was creating space with sound and I didn’t know shit about production when I started this record. I had to go and I had to educate myself on all these programmes, sound design, mixing, mastering and find out what all these processes are about. I’ve all these people handling my record and need to be able to say, ‘no, you can’t do that and here’s why’ and be able to defend my album.
So I had to educate myself on all these processes. For a song like ‘Castle’, it was the opening track on the album and I needed to create a landscape, to introduce my listener to this landscape. I needed space to unravel before them — I needed them to close their eyes and for this scene to unravel before them. For us it was like if you throw a rock at a wall 50 feet away, how long will it take for you to hear the echo? It was formulas like that that we were applying to the instruments in our production so that it literally creates the idea of space.
Some of the songs feel vast and wide open like a desert, some of the songs feel claustrophobic like being stuck in a small space, some of the songs feel moving like you’re on an open highway, some of the songs feel repetitive like you’ve been driving for a long time, passing the same streetlight over and over an over again, it’s almost like hypnosis. For us it was creating those ideas with sound.
It was hell, the mixing process. I got eight to twelve mixes back on every song and was sending them back saying, ‘this is wrong, this is wrong’. It was about literally going in as if sound was something you could touch and saying, ‘This needs to go here, this needs to go here, put this here and now we’re good’. I had to rearrange it and then had it mastered twice as well, which is a really bizarre thing for an artist to do.
How did your label deal with all this?
Yeah, they freaked out. I delivered the album late, like twelve days late. Then on top of that I wrote, cut and produced a new song the day my album was due. At first everyone was like… Well, my A&R calls me and is like, ‘what the fuck is this? What is ‘Gasoline’? What the fuck is this?’ and I was just like, ‘it’s just what I thought the record was missing’. It was almost like a synopsis for the album and it’s a very self-aware track. It’s right there on the deluxe edition. I’m really interested in people to have the deluxe edition of the record because I just wish that it was the proper version of the album, but obviously for time and space purposes I couldn’t put out an 18-track album.
I get the impression that your fans have immersed themselves enough into your world to see the deluxe version as the standard.
80% of our pre-orders [were] for the deluxe edition, so I think it just goes to show that people want the whole story.
I also get the impression that you read a lot about other artists and that your own interviews can be a lot more self-aware as a result…
I think self-aware is probably… I’m pleased that’s the word you chose, because I was prepared to defend myself otherwise, but I think self-aware is a good phrase. I think for me, it’s like my project is based on honesty. And a lot of artists say that, and a lot of artists are like, ‘I’m myself, I’m myself all the time’. I don’t fucking believe them.
[inlinetweet prefix=”Halsey interview: ” tweeter=”” suffix=””]I don’t believe people who say they’re themselves all the time.[/inlinetweet] There are very few artists I know who are true to themselves in their media persona. I’m genuinely myself and I think I’d attribute that to a lack of fear. I’m not worried about something catching up with me, I’m not worried about staying on brand, I’m not worried about fucking saying something that is brand appropriate. I like talking to people.
And you’ve talked about your stage name also being an alter ego…
One of the things I think I explain is that Halsey is an anagram for Ashley, so if you rearrange Ashley you get Halsey and I think the difference is about more than spelling. So I think if you rearrange me a little bit you get Halsey. It’s not quite an alter-ego as much as it’s just an amplified version of myself. The things is, Ashley is just like ‘what kind of fucking cereal do I like to have in the morning?’.
What cereal do you like to have in the morning?
Ashley is ‘did I remember to call my mom on her birthday’. Ashley is if I lose my mail key. Ashley is if I do my laundry, if I give money to homeless people when I’m walking down the street, if I tip my waitress, if I clean my shoes before I walk into someone else’s house. That’s Ashley.
Halsey is the things people fucking care about. It’s all the amplified version of me. It’s when I’m wrong, it’s when I’m right, it’s when I’m at my worst, it’s when I’m at my best — it’s giving people, through music, all the amplified versions of me, immortalising all the high points of my life. If people choose to get to know Ashley, which a lot of the fans have done, and that’s really nice, that’s when they find out what kind of cereal I like, how I dress or whatever else. Fashion interviews — that’s Ashley. When I’m sitting here talking about what fucking shoes I like or what makeup I wear — that’s Ashley. Halsey is a protagonist.
So in terms of your music, you’re choosing which parts of your life you put forward in your songs?
By keeping something back, is there a sense that you’re not being completely honest?
I think there is a difference between honest and offering. I think just because I don’t offer it, that doesn’t mean I’m being dishonest. If I’m asked, I answer. I’m not going to offer all of the boring bits to everyone, but if I’m asked them, I’ll answer honestly.
If you’re on a date with somebody, and you end up in a relationship, you get married and then it turns out that they murdered people before they met you, would you be alright if they said: ‘Well if you’d asked me on the first date, I’d have told you’? Isn’t that the same thing?
I don’t necessarily think so…
Well it’s a slightly amplified version, I’ll give you that.
I was going to say, that’s a bit exaggerated! I think ‘honest’, from my artistic standpoint, is about authenticity, not being contrived, and a lack of censorship. I stand by my choice to call myself that because I think I am. At the end of the day, as a writer, authenticity is the best thing I can do.
One of the first songs that I remember really changing my life was ‘Me And A Gun’ by Tori Amos. My mom has a really similar mental health history to me, and I had really interesting upbringing, one that I love and am really proud of because she was so uninhibited all of the time. I remember her throwing me in the back of the car at eight or nine and her just driving and crying and playing this Tori Amos record. She never said a word, we were just driving down the highway and playing ‘Me And A Gun’. This is a song about Tori Amos getting raped, she’s at the edge of death and she’s thinking, ‘I have to get out of this because I’ve never taken a vacation to Barbados and I always said that I would’. And she’s saying isn’t it funny what you think of when you’re about to die. Of all things; I need to get out this because I need to go to Barbados.
I’m like eight or nine — maybe younger — and I don’t even know that the song is about rape and obviously at the time I’ve never experienced anything like that. All I remember is believing her and believing the realness of what she was saying.
For me as an artist, I think it’s more important to be believable than relatable. I’ve a lot of fans who have never been in a relationship that involved drugs, or watched someone die, or been in a relationship that was emotionally or physically abusive or any of the positions that I’ve been in and write about, but they believe me. I think that is more important than them relating to me. They understand and that makes me a real person to them. I think that is when the authenticity becomes important for me.
Some artists, of course, are believable without being honest.
And increasingly now, when ‘believability and authenticity’ is a currency in itself. In terms of label marketing campaigns. ‘How do we make this person believable?’ It doesn’t matter if they’re being honest, they just need to be believable.
That’s simplicity. For an artist who’s being dishonest to be believable — it’s simplicity. It’s, ‘how little can we say but how believable can it be?’. That is when you get a clickbait artist. That’s blah blah blah. That’s ‘America’s sweetheart’. And you believe it.
Who is ‘America’s sweetheart’?
I’m really not sure. I’m sure a lot of people would say Taylor Swift, or a country artist knowing America. But a clickbait artist is ‘America’s sweetheart’, or it’s ‘the bad girl’, or ‘the hopeless romantic’. It’s believable because it’s short. You don’t have to challenge it. There’s no argument. It’s one sentence.
I’m not that kind of artist. I think it’s very difficult to clickbait me and I’m happy about that — I’m fucking happy about that! I think the closest people can get to clickbaiting me is ‘the blue-haired girl’ which is like, ‘really, that’s the best you can do? That’s pathetic’.
I don’t want to be an artist where you can sum up my life’s work in a clickbait sentence. I don’t want to be America’s sweetheart blah blah blah, the bad girl blah blah blah. I don’t want to be Halsey the anything, I’m more multidimensional than that. I’m a person. My music is about me as a person. It’s unfair to me, to myself, to let people pick apart the dimensions that make me who I am.
I think that’s why my fanbase is the way it is — that’s why the mainstream media doesn’t give a shit about me. You have to get to know me to understand me and I think these fans have. It’s what keeps them so fucking incredibly dedicated. When I was at Lollapalooza there was a tonne of industry backstage, and it was honestly one of the best festival experiences of my life — I was genuinely moved, crying coming off the stage and everything. There’s six or seven thousand people there and they knew every word, even of songs that weren’t out yet, and they were screaming. I’m standing up there, an artist with a five-song EP, headlining my stage and these kids were screaming these words at me. Everyone backstage, the industry people, was like, ‘I don’t get it’. And I was like, ‘Good. You don’t have to. They do’.
I don’t understand what people would fail to get, though?
It doesn’t fit a formula — that scares people. People don’t like what they don’t understand, and I think people don’t understand me because of the way that my project has gone and I hear it all the time from an industry standpoint. It’s like, ‘oh, you can’t come to the UK and play a show because nobody knows who you are here’ and I go, ‘fuck you, yes they do — this is a global market, social media has created a global conversation. I have a fanbase here’. And then we sell out Koko in five seconds. You know what I mean?
For me it’s showing that these young people have a voice that you don’t know about. They don’t only know what the media is telling them. Just because there’s not a media conversation about me here doesn’t mean that they don’t know about me.
And discovering something on your own is a longer lasting discovery. Because something you discover on your own you care about more than something someone tells you about. I would rather be an artist that people find out about on their own that someone they are told to like.
So the mainstream media as we understand it at the moment is irrelevant to you?
Yeah, I couldn’t honestly give a shit.
Why are you doing interviews then?
Because I do want to open my awareness and I do want people to—
But if the media are irrelevant…
It’s still an entry point. I think the media’s opinion is irrelevant, but I think my presence in it is important. My presence is an entry point and I think that’s important because obviously I want to have as many people be a part of this as possible.
Okay, I just did the Imagine Dragons tour for two months. I was playing arenas in the United States and I was playing to a very sterile audience. I was playing to an audience who knows who Imagine Dragons are because they have radio hits. I wasn’t playing to a group of people that are into their own discovery of music, or into discovering music for themselves or curating their own taste. Obviously they have a very dedicated fanbase and there are a lot of people that are die hard for them and discovered them on their own. When you get to an arena standpoint a lot of those people are there because they are casual fans. I walk out, I’ve got short blue hair and I’m playing to conservative America like, ‘is she gay? I don’t get it. She’s singing about guys but she looks like a lesbian’. I’ve got this song that’s about how this new generation’s accepting of diversity, accepting of different walks of life etcetera. No one fucking understands it.
For me, the media is very much like playing shows to arenas. There’s 20,000 people there. I don’t really give a fuck what they think about me but it’s an entry point, because if one thousand kids walk away from that show and they like me, then I did my job. And if the other 19,000 walk away going, ‘I don’t really get her’, that’s fine too because I was still myself and it was still an entry point. That’s what it really comes down to for me.
What if the media decided there was going to be a complete shutdown? Aren’t you going to visit Radio 1 after this interview?
Yeah, I’m at Radio 1 in an hour.
Okay, so if Radio 1 and Capital both went, ‘no’, and all the TV channels said, ‘no’, and everyone had a complete shutdown on Halsey, how would that affect your career? In five years would you still be where you want to be, just via a more circuitous route?
[inlinetweet prefix=”Halsey interview: ” tweeter=”” suffix=””]I think I’ll have to take the hard road, and that’s okay.[/inlinetweet]
You strike me as the sort of person who enjoys taking the hard road.
I do! I think I get a kick out of proving people wrong, you know what I mean? That’s one thing I get a kick out of. It’s cool for me because I think there is a fear, you know: ‘Maybe the BBC’s not going to like you, they’re not gonna receive you well, they’re not going to understand whatever’. Obviously I want them to like me, obviously I care from a business perspective, I care about this tastemaking world and these people who are going to let that entry point exist, but from an artist perspective I don’t necessarily.
I think that deep, deep, deep, deep down inside me I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t want to succeed. And I do. I do want to succeed.
I think for me it’s about figuring out what it means to succeed and if that means the BBC is playing the record or if it means that my fanbase is really into what I’m doing and they come see me every time I’m here. If to succeed means to get a Grammy nomination or if it means that every single kid who bought my record was pleased with it and satisfied and wasn’t disappointed. So for me it’s about figuring out about what it means to succeed and I don’t know what that means yet because I’m still doing this because I love it.
I think the time will come when I need to figure out: ‘When will it be enough? Have I reached my potential? Have I done what I wanted to do here?’.
How will you feel when you decide you’ve done what you needed to do?
I think my biggest fear is that I won’t. I’m very competitive. I think I’m reckless with my formula. I think that’s the paradox for me. There’s a sense of recklessness and there’s a sense of formula and I think the recklessness comes from how I apply that formula — how I apply the calculated nature of what I do and the risks I take with that formula.
That’s why I’ve got this project that’s existing because of my very calculated use of social media. It was a reckless tactic to say, ‘Hey, fuck promo, fuck the traditional way of doing this, I’m gonna do this my way and I’m going to do it in a very calculated manner’.
You say you’re worried you’ll never get to the point where—
Where it’s enough.
Yes. But if I were a creative person, I’d be worried I would get to that point. Because surely once you’re at that point and you’ve got nothing left to do, and you feel you’ve done everything, you’re just looking at an abyss?
Yes and no. I definitely think that’s a scary thing but I don’t think I’m fearful of that because I don’t see getting to that point as a possibility for me. I think I’m scared of the inevitable and I think the inevitable is that I’m going to be chasing this until I die, and that’s okay because I really can’t see myself doing anything else. There are two things in my life that I wouldn’t give up: communicating how I feel, and making people like me. There’s jobs I should’ve been fired from, boys that should’ve broken up with me, times I should have gotten grounded and I haven’t… Because I think I’m good at making people understand me and therefore maybe sympathise with me.
Is that also quite manipulative?
Perhaps, but I don’t think you can get through life without manipulating your reality, and without manipulating your surroundings.
Is that why you work so well with social media? You said earlier that you were quite calculated.
I would absolutely say so. Sometimes I do question this place of honesty, this place of one second putting everything out there and the next second having all these kids speculating like, ‘Who’s this song about? What’s this song about? Who’s this song about?’. I think initially that’s where I panicked and I was like, ‘maybe I don’t want them to know. Maybe I’m going to keep that to myself’ and then I just had to accept it. For me, if I want to be accepting of this idea of putting everything out there and being wide open I need to be manipulative about how I present it, just in order to make myself as comfortable as I can.
You’ve got half a million Twitter followers. They like your music but what they also like about your social media presence is that it’s honest and direct. Do you think it would be confusing to them if you went and said to them, ‘I’ve got half a million of you because of a calculated marketing vision that I’ve had’?
It’s not marketing, it’s communication. They do have a special bond with me and they know that. I think this is where it gets ironic. What I do is calculated because of how uncalculated it is. My Twitter is not full of promo. It’s not, ‘buy my album, buy my album, buy my album, thanks for being a great fan!’. I’m calculated in an organic way.
Calculation for me means I’m gonna tell this girl she looks really nice at her sister’s wedding because I fucking care about her and I want these kids to know that I care about them. So I’m calculating how I’m going to express that I care about them. The calculation is not malicious. ‘Let me calculate this situation, how can I make these kids know that I’m thinking about them right now and that I really fucking care about them?’ So I’m going to calculate this response and I’m going to say, ‘hey you, random fan, you looked fucking beautiful in that dress at your sister’s wedding — I just stalked your Twitter account’. And what that does is it says to everyone, ‘she fucking cares about us’, and it’s not fake.
It’s calculated and it’s not fabricated. The calculation is that I’ve got five hundred thousand people here and I need to calculate the most organic way that I can present myself to them. Do you know what I mean? My biggest fear is being miscommunicated, I think that’s why I talk so much.
I saw an interview where you were talking about how you would hope that through your presence in the pop sphere teenagers would be able to grow up not having to idolise male rock stars. But there seem to be a lot of female role models around now. What kind of space do you want to fill?
I don’t think that there is a lane that exists that I need to fill — it’s one that I need to pave for myself. I don’t think I need to fill a pre-existing hole. I also don’t necessarily think that I need to be a role model. I know that it is inevitable that I will be one because of my platform, but it’s something that I need to accept and decide how best I am going to handle it.
I’m at radio right now in the US with this fucking anthemic song and I’m walking into interviews and people are like: ‘So Halsey, you’re the voice of a generation’. And I’m saying, no I’m fucking not! I speak for myself. If the listeners decide that the song speaks for something that’s out of my control. I put it out into the world, it’s taken shape, it’s taken form, it’s taken on something. But I am not the voice of anything but myself.
I thought the song was about a whole generation of people who are growing up—
Oh it is, absolutely. But it’s about my interpretation of it. For me growing up with a black dad and a white mom, they’re both super young, I grew up listening to Biggie, Tupac, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, my mom was listening to Nirvana, The Cure, Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos… Like here I am as a young child, and I think music is a universal language, it’s how you introduce walks of life that are not otherwise familiar with to people.
I grew up in the US and I had this fucking fantasy idea of what London was like listening to the Arctic Monkeys and fucking whatever else, you know what I mean, just because of how it was communicated in the songs. I’ve developed my opinion of the culture by coming here, but I grew up listening to those two different types of music and that represented a sense of diversity for me. So when I went out into the world and started becoming a person and cultivating a personality there wasn’t much I was afraid of. There wasn’t much that scared me because diversity was something that I was used to. It was difficult for me to be thrown off by something that was different, something that was new. I think a lot of that comes from pop culture, a lot of that comes from MTV putting cultural music into the homes of people who otherwise wouldn’t have experienced it.
I’ve so much respect for the BBC because it’s revolutionising this culture of radio and saying here are all these different kinds of walks of life, different sub cultures, different counter cultures and the music that is coming out of them and putting them all in one place, throwing them in a blender and saying, ‘this is our culture’. I think that is what ‘New Americana’ represents for me. If these kids hear that song and they go, ‘you know what, that is us. I fucking like that’ then that is awesome. But for me it was about summarising how I feel my place is in the culture.
Let’s talk quickly about what put this current business in motion — so you had ‘Ghost’, whacked it on SoundCloud, got a record deal, did an EP, bosh. Did you do all that without a manager?
I got in the studio with a friend Anthony and he was like, ‘hey, I know you’ve got a pretty cool voice. We’re writing a commercial for a yoghurt company, do you wanna come in and sing on it and make 500 bucks?’. I was homeless at the time, I’d been kicked out of my parents’ house, and it was $500 so I was like, ‘yes, absolutely!’. So I came in, started writing this yoghurt commercial and someone turns around and says, ‘you’re actually a good songwriter’. And I went, ‘no, I’m just clever, I’m not a songwriter’. So hours later I get distracted and write ‘Ghost’, and ‘Ghost’ is the first vocal I ever cut. That vocal on ‘Ghost’ is the first vocal I ever cut in my entire life. The song was the first song I’d ever written. So two hours later I’ve made ‘Ghost’, I send it to my friend Anthony like, ‘we didn’t write the commercial, but we did this, what do you think?’.
So you didn’t get the commercial?
No, which is probably a good thing!
Does it exist somewhere?
Oh, on someone’s hard drive, yes absolutely. I’m sure it’ll see the light of day at some point, it’s awful. It’s about like watermelon, summer and smiles or some shit. Anyway, Anthony, he’as like, ‘this is cool’ and then we start talking. I had this following on Tumblr — nothing excessive, it was like 10,000 people not millions…
What did you do on Tumblr?
I used to post art and drawings and photography. I had a pretty eclectic life. I was dating weird people and we’d go on crazy adventures. I was dating this guy who was modelling for Ryan McGinley at the time, so he was travelling across the country and we were sharing our experiences on this blog and people started following me as like a lifestyle thing, living vicariously through me I guess.
I was always putting stuff out, drawing things, covers like music covers and shit like that. So I put ‘Ghost’ out and changed my name to Halsey because I felt like I needed a name to go with it. People were just like, ‘this is cool. I like this’. And then with that little tiny fanbase I had — I say fanbase, really what it was was people paying attention — it spread and people were like, ‘I really fucking like this!’. Next day I took six record company meetings. They started calling and emailing through the night. As soon as it went up I got contacted by Ben Adelson at Republic in the US and I panicked. I called my friend Anthony and was like, ‘You’re in a band, I don’t know what to do, you need to help me because I don’t know what the fuck is going on’. I had no intentions of an EP, or anything. It was just a song. So I’m freaking out. Anthony is like, ‘put my Gmail address in your bio so that you look like you have representation’ and I’m like, ‘cool’, so I stuck his address in my bio and they start emailing. It was like one every hour until like three in the morning. It’s like Republic, Atlantic, Island, Sony RCA, Atlantic, Columbia and they are all just like, ‘come in, come in’.
So [with the first meeting] I call Anthony and I’m like, ‘can you pretend to be my manager?’. I’m living in New Jersey, take a train into Manhattan, he shows up in New York dressed like a fucking college student. I’m in a leather jacket. We walk in, we sit down on a couch and Anthony’s all like, ‘my client’. And I’m like, ‘CLIENT?! What the fuck?’. So they’re like, ‘we want to put you into development’ and I didn’t even know what that meant but I went, ‘I don’t like how that sounds, what do you mean put me into development?’. They say, ‘well, what we can offer you is blah blah blah blah blah’. It was pretty much ‘what we can offer you is seven dollars and we’ll tell you what to do’!
It was the hardest decision of my life because I had no money and I was sitting there going, ‘do I take this money?’ I don’t even know if I can be a singer, or be an artist. I’ve got one song, I don’t know what I’m doing, do I take this money and roll with it with one song or do I take this opportunity of all these people saying they see potential in me and start to find potential within myself? And I think, ‘maybe I can write. Maybe I can do this’. It was such a lightbulb moment for me because I was so lost and had no idea what I was doing and I didn’t know what my job was supposed to be or what I was doing with my life. I think I had this kind of epiphany at the time that maybe this is it — maybe this is the moment that I’ve been waiting for where I figure out what I’m supposed to do. I went home and I started writing more music. Some of it was awful, like really awful.
What was the worst song you wrote at that point?
A song called ‘Reckless Youth’. It was supposed to be a single and it’s never going to see the light of day! I started working and then Sirius radio in the US added ‘Ghost’ on full rotation, so all these record companies are getting Soundscan reports saying this week the most spun songs are Iggy Azalea on Island, Ariana Grande on Columbia, Halsey… Independent. And all of sudden [all the labels] go, ‘that could be us’. So eight months later I go back in and I sit down on the same couch I was sitting on before, and the conversation is different. I’ve cultivated a fanbase, that happened rapidly, and now it’s, ‘what can we do for you?’.
Was this with the same pretend manager?
Yeah! He became my actual manager. He was a friend and now he’s my manager and he’s about to close his second major record label deal. It was a moment for both of us! He didn’t know what he was doing, I didn’t know what I was doing. We joke about it all the time, about how the stars aligned. He proved to be very fucking good at this! And I think I kind of did too.. Hopefully! Maybe we both figured out what we were supposed to do. He’s my best friend and we’ve done very well for being two people who have no idea what the fuck we are doing and are still winging it to this day. It was a series of difficult decisions. I sat down in Sony offices, I met with every major label in the US, every single major label and most of the subsidiaries underneath them — Atlantic, Canvasback Atlantic, RCA, Sony, Columbia, Island, Republic before the split, every company. I went from seeing lower level A&Rs to meeting with the fucking chairmen.
What was your experience of meeting these chairmen? Presumably they all were men?
Everyone except for Michelle [Jubelirer] at Capitol, which is sick.
Is there a particular personality type that you’ve noticed gets you to the top of a record label?
Yes! It’s someone who is incredibly confident. But I think deep down there is a sense of insecurity in a lot of those people. I think a lot of those people are outwardly confident but deep down a lot of them are like me and have no idea what the fuck they are doing. They’re just throwing it to the wall and hoping it sticks. You know, being the chairman of the record company is being the head of a business. It’s very much the same being an artist as being the head of the business. You have to a) figure out who is buying your product and then b) move past seeing them as a consumer. Because [inlinetweet prefix=”Halsey interview: ” tweeter=”” suffix=””]if you see your fan as a consumer you’re gonna fuck everything up[/inlinetweet]. They’re not a consumer, they’re people and they have moving fucking mechanics to their life and you need to think of them as such or you’re going to lose touch with them, and the worst thing you can do with the people that you want to receive what you’re putting out there is to lose touch with them.
The CEOs and the chairmen of record companies are people that have kind of figured out that formula in the same way that artists have. Also, learning to delegate certain tasks. I’ve gotten along very well with every CEO, chairman etcetera that I’ve met. Ashley Newton at Columbia I think is one of the greatest people in the world. He’s English and he’s fucking great. I met Jimmy Iovine the other day and that was scary, really scary but really cool. We had a good conversation. I also have a good relationship with Steve [Barnett] over in the US at Capitol and Ted Cockle over here at EMI Virgin. It’s like I’ve gotten along with all of them because we have very similar personality types.
I was just thinking about the way you discuss your approach to business, in relation to how ‘New Americana’ is about a generation of people growing up knowing the difference but not bothering about the difference between genres. And also the way that generation knows how to sell itself acrokss social media. Earlier when talking about your Tumblr and what’s on it, you talked about it as being “content” and you reflexively, without necessarily even thinking about it that much, knew that you had to change your name from Ashley. You knew that you needed to rebrand yourself. It feels like the way you’ve brought your music and personality into the world totally matches the message of the song — in that the way you’ve done all this is completely reflexive and intuitive in terms of the knowledge of how to market yourself as an artist.
[inlinetweet prefix=”Halsey interview: ” tweeter=”” suffix=””]We’ve created a generation that knows how to brand itself.[/inlinetweet] Think about social media, usernames, profile pictures, the tweets you’re putting out — you are branding yourself. It’s such a bizarre thing. This is such cheesy rhetoric, I actually didn’t know this until it just came out of mouth right now — I’m having this realisation as I’m speaking to you and I’m probably going to go use it later for something, but it’s since MySpace really that you’ve got this homepage and you design it and you add a song, you add pictures… You are branding yourself. You’re branding yourself and putting it somewhere… And sometimes it gets out of hand to the point where we have social media celebrities! We have people that have branded themselves so well on websites. It’s so bizarre to me that there are celebrities on a website that everyone else is using in such a lifestyle way. The same website where a mom is posting a picture of her children at the beach because she wants to share it with her family — on that same website someone else is making $100,000 off of a sponsored post because they’ve garnered so much attention.
But that is quite ring-fenced isn’t it — mainly in the favour of people who are quite hot and have great hair.
Yeah, pretty much. Yes and no I guess. I think in 2015 it’s really advanced in a positive way towards the underdog — there are a lot of people who want the traditional hot person with great hair with boring clickbait, but I think it’s gone past that. I see a lot of kids who are online garnering some attention who are the underdogs, who are the weird kid, the offbeat person who has found solace in social media as the best way to communicate their personality, which I think is cool too.
Everyone when people are doing it from, like, the age of nine?
My little brother is ten and has an Instagram, which I think is beyond fucked up, but I told my mom and she’s like, ‘it’s private, it’s okay!’. But it literally drives me insane. For someone who is so involved in social media and sees how fucking awful it can be, because it can be fucking awful… I can get told by tens of thousands of people every day that I should die, that I’m a slut, that I suck…
My brother, I keep him away — I don’t let him see my accounts. My music has a parental advisory on it, and just because he’s my brother doesn’t mean that that doesn’t apply to him. Like my concert is still meant for young adults not ten-year-olds. I do do the best I can to make that blatantly known. I’ve parental advisories, I’ve age limits on my concerts. I have made it excessively clear that it’s not right for kids. But at the same time, I had a girl post recently, in some strange motion of internalised misogyny, ‘who’s Halsey fucking at MTV, they keep posting about her, including her in stuff?’. And I quoted the tweet and tagged Katie who is MTV’s social media director and said, ‘Katie, I hope I satisfied you’ just to call this girl out.
Like how fucking dare you insinuate that I must be sleeping with someone because people overseeing content want me to be a part of their company? I get on great with MTV because we have a similar message and it’s about bringing music and popular culture together. I think what they’ve managed to do in keeping their company alive through the internet essentially shutting down, you know, what they’ve done as a company managing to stay relevant, keep their head above water is fucking admirable. I like that and that’s why I like doing stuff with them. Like I said, the internet is a fucking awful place but in any place where there is freedom of expression there’s going to be awful things, and there’s going to be good things.
I suppose it goes back to when we were discussing about how you’re being completely honest on your album, but equally you’re only showing a portion of yourself. And everyone does that. They’ll Instagram their beautifully arranged lunch but you won’t see that there’s a mouse trap in the corner of their kitchen.
It’s this hyper-sexualised culture as well. I put up the ‘Ghost’ video and it’s [about] this lesbian relationship. I’m bisexual so it’s my opportunity to take heteronormativity out of this world of media and culture and blah blah blah. And also I just wanted to piss off Capitol because they were like, ‘cool, we’re going to cast you a guy’ and I was like, ‘fuck you, don’t assume that I want a guy in my video, fuck off!’. I’m consistently the devil’s advocate.
Then the comments underneath the video are ‘Halsey made me gay’, ‘Halsey’s so hot, she made me gay’ and they don’t understand that through this hyper-sexualised culture, what they think they’re doing is being accepting of homosexuality and really what they’re doing is insinuating that gay is something that you can be made, and that is counter-productive to my MO. My MO is to normalise it, to make it understood. Comments like that come from this hyper-sexualised nature of the internet, this hyper-sensitive political correctness, and this crazy, crazy world of awareness. I think it’s positive, but there are products of it that are not positive, like kids saying, ‘Halsey made me gay’. I get what you’re trying to do, but it’s counter-productive because you don’t understand.
And that, ladies and gents, is where our chat ended. She deffo feels like one of those still-around-in-five-albums’-time artists, doesn’t she?
‘Ghost’ is Halsey’s current single; ‘Badlands’ is on Spotify and iTunes, and she’s touring the UK in February (but it’s sold out).