The Halsey origin story follows a narrative that's starting to feel almost standard in modern pop. YouTube covers lead to SoundCloud originals, which spur a massive online following, a record deal and the promise of lasting IRL success. Still, this 20-year-old New Jersey–reared songwriter, born Ashley Nicolette Frangipane, is clearly a singular voice. The admittedly "self-aware" artist and social-media star writes scathingly honest songs about "sex and about being sad," 11 of which can be found on her debut album, Badlands, issued on August 28th via heavyweight pop and electronica label Astralwerks.
Halsey, which is an anagram of "Ashley," is both a project and an alter ego that encompasses Frangipane's personal complexities. "I don't want to be Halsey: America's Sweetheart, or Halsey: Bad Girl," she tells Rolling Stone. "If you can sum up my career in a clickbait headline, I've done something wrong." Over the phone, Halsey is quick-witted and curious; it's clear that her drive stems from a desire to contextualize the complex world she sees into song. Take Badlands, for instance. This ambitious concept album about an alternate universe challenges the paradigms of pop music itself — in Frangipane's own words, "none of the songs are hits." Naturally, that's her favorite thing about it.
You've mentioned that a lot of what you write is autobiographical. What kind of headspace were you in when writing Badlands?
It was an interesting thing going through a concept record. I sat down, and came up with the phrase "Badlands" before I even started writing. [The Badlands] is this society I came up with, this booming metropolis full of commercialism. There's a battle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and it's surrounded by a desert wasteland. It seems to pop up out of nowhere, and it keeps the people of Badlands trapped inside the Badlands, and keeps anyone else out. There's a sense of unity, a sense of privacy.
I was obsessed with this society, so I sat down and thought, "What do the people look like? What do the buildings look like? What are they advertising? What's the music like? What's underground?" I went off into this imaginary world. So much was going on at the time. I had just sold out my co-headliner in five minutes... things were just starting to build, out of nowhere, and I had no idea what was going on, to be honest. It's like this imaginary playland, at home in the studio, talking about these people, this place, writing these songs.
Four or five songs in, and I realized it was a metaphor [laughs]. I'm pretty self-aware and analytical so I know that when I do stuff like this... I picked up on the defense mechanism. I was treating the Badlands as a metaphorical state. This booming metropolis, so that's my brain, surrounded by a wasteland, so nobody can get in and can't leave, either, keeping people out. And there are toxic elements, but also being kind of proud to be from there.
"My favorite thing about the record is that it's not a radio record. None of the songs are hits."
So is Badlands a departure from your other work?
My favorite thing about the record is that it's not a radio record. None of the songs are hits. Something's not quite right about them. Something's off. I like that. I'll take that as my badge of honor. I love pop music, but at the same time, I'm seeking to write whatever I'm organically inclined to. So the whole record was super therapeutic. I hid off into space, and then when I came out of my cave, out of the studio, I came out to all of this anticipation for the record and thought, "Oh, this happened while I was gone! Okay."
I have to say, your description of the Badlands immediately reminded me of Las Vegas.
I remember the first time I flew over Vegas, I looked out the window and said, "That's it. That's absolutely, 100 percent it." Just being there is kind of trippy — you can gamble at the airport. Just this idea of, "Do we put this city in the middle of nowhere? The purpose of this city is to make money for the city. We pretty much allow all of these acts that are considered otherwise immoral in the rest of the country, but if you do it there, it's okay!"
Have you heard Badlands, by Dirty Beaches? It's a great record from a few years ago.
Really! I had no idea, that's so sick. I'm definitely going to check that out. As I started doing the record, I started doing research as to what Badlands meant to other people. You know, it's a national park in South Dakota; it's a Bruce Springsteen [song]. It was a cliché that came to me in a dream moment. I was napping in the back of a car, and I woke up and was like, "We're naming the record Badlands!" But I meant it. It just felt right.
I had just written Room 93, this small collection of songs about a hotel room, and being isolated. For me, writing about hotels is like writing about being in a parallel universe. The sense of voyeurism, and the sense of removedness, and there are all these people silently above you and next to you. It's so bizarre. Room 93 is about having relationships with people that would otherwise not exist out of hotel rooms. Relationships are tested by environmental factors and how you handle an emergency, being insulted, being lost and being disappointed. In a hotel room, it's a sterile environment. There's nothing really to challenge you, so you can be whoever you want or whatever you want. So this parallel universe fictionalized in Room 93 really inspired me to expand into writing this record. I think I write a lot about isolation, because I write about what I fear the most. And what I fear most is being alone.
"I think I write a lot about isolation, because I write about what I fear the most. And what I fear most is being alone."
I would argue that pop music is a way of escaping the real world too. What does pop music mean to you? Is it a place of play, a fantastical realm?
I think it's a satire for me. Which is a blessing and a curse, because I'm naturally inclined to write pop music. It's in my blood. I could have written that perfectly polished pop record. My EP, Room 93, straddled the line between "She could have done something weird or could have made a perfect pop record," and I went way fucking left with it and still managed to maintain a pop sensibility. I call [Badlands] "anti-pop" because it should be pop — it's not, and sonically, this album is so different than the EP. The construction of the record was so important, because we were trying to take it to another universe. How do we extend them to the Badlands and feel like they've been transported there? So we got kind of scientific with the sound. So there's a lot of very, very calculated choices in production to make the parameters of space: some songs sound open, to make some songs claustrophobic. Each song represents a different landscape of Badlands.
I didn't know anything about sound, or engineering, or production. All I could do was songwrite. I had to educate myself about programs, sound design, the mixing process, the importance of mastering in order to hold my own in conversations with people who just wanted me to get it on deadline. So I needed to be able to have an argument: "This is why this is important to me. This is my baby; I need it to be perfect."
It's hard to learn when to delegate, too, when you want to take ownership for everything.
Yeah. I'm learning slowly to not be as much of a control freak. I can't afford to be all the time, but I'm getting better at communicating. Delegating parts of my vision for other people to execute has made it an easier process for knowing what I want, and what people can handle, and what I should probably save for myself. It's been a whirlwind of an experience, you know? I don't know, necessarily... I feel like I'm being pumped; I work really hard and it's been hard and overwhelming. In the moment, it feels tiring and I have no idea what I'm fucking doing, and looking back, everything is happening; the stars are aligning. It's definitely weird. Doing a preorder, [Badlands has] had insane numbers so far. The headlining tours, a lot of them sold out in one day and I don't even have my album out yet — 2,500 capacity rooms, and that's a fucking crazy thing for me!
How do you feel about the record now that it's about to be out in the world?
I had postpartum depression when I finished my album. I had all the signs. I went from being in the studio every day with people I loved and cared about, with a common goal, and having an obsession. I moved into a new apartment in L.A. when I started the record. I had no furniture. The walls were covered in newspaper clippings and cut-outs of songs we were keeping and cutting, kind of like an installation MoMA art exhibit: "This is what a serial killer's house would look like! This is where a sociopath lives!"
"I had postpartum depression when I finished my album."
Every single day we had the same goal, and finally we delivered it; finally we let it go, and now I sit around for three months. I have to wait for it to come out, and I hope people like it. I was pregnant on an album for months, gave birth and let it go and it's like, well... what about all the work I put in? What about this? What do I do now? It was fucking terrifying.