Halsey Talks Sci-Fi Breakup Album, Following Up Megahit 'Closer'

After topping the charts with the Chainsmokers, the singer recruits big names for her cinematic second LP

Halsey discusses her transition from "underground blog girl" to mainstream pop force. Credit: Charles Reagan Hackleman/Lollapalooza 2016

When Halsey started work on her second album, June 2nd's hopeless fountain kingdom, she faced an entirely blank slate, having written zero songs for it in the year since her debut, 2015's platinum-certified Badlands. "I'm a purger," she says. "I bottle everything up and purge it all out of me. That's why I write so quickly. It's like I'm vomiting months of psychoanalysis."

She worked with producers including Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia), Benny Blanco (Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran) and Ricky Reed (Twenty One Pilots), and the result, like Badlands, is a concept album of sorts. Its story centers on a pair of lovers in a limbo-like realm that connects to the futuristic setting of the previous album: Call it the Halsey Cinematic Universe. "I was a big comic-book kid," she confesses. "A big Marvel nerd."

She also came to realize that, sci-fi trappings aside, she was really writing about her own collapsing years-long relationship. "The whole reason you make a record," she says, "is to figure stuff out about yourself." She had been nursing a mysterious obsession with the story of Romeo and Juliet, which she finally connected to a feeling that "I had killed off a version of myself just so we could make our love work. Sometimes you're in a relationship for so long and you become a different person. You lose yourself because you change for that person." In the end, she says, "I put the seal on that relationship and fully purged myself of the feelings for that person at the same time as I finished my record."

Halsey has talked down her own singing voice in the past, but she found new confidence in the recording process, stretching out into more nimble and soulful R&B-tinged moments. There's at least one pure piano ballad on the album, recorded with Kurstin. "A lot of my sound has been attributed to this experimental pop production style," she says, "so stripping a song back is unique for me."

She credits "Closer," her smash single with the Chainsmokers, which vastly outperformed her own tracks on the charts, with having "fine-tuned my sense about my new music," even if she had never expected that song to have quite so much success. "It threw me into the deep end," she says. "I went from being this underground blog girl to being this mainstream thing."

Her own debut, she contends, "wasn't supposed to be a radio album." Though she still sees herself as an "alternative" artist ("'alternative' used to mean alternative rock," she says, "but I think in 2017 the word 'alternative' means alternative pop"), she expects hopeless fountain kingdom to generate some airplay. "I am more than capable of writing radio music," she says, "and hopefully I'll put my money where my mouth is on this album."

(Our entire Halsey interview will be featured on an upcoming episode of Rolling Stone Music Now. Listen and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Spotify and tune in Fridays at 1 p.m. ET to hear the show live on Sirius XM's Volume channel.)