The sun is just beginning to set in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley and Miley Cyrus is busy “tweaking on some harmonies,” as she proudly puts it. She’s been holed up in her home studio all afternoon with producer Andrew Watt. Her new album, Plastic Hearts, has long been done, but the pair still have more tricks up their sleeves, like a cover of Metallica’s 1992 single “Nothing Else Matters” for an upcoming compilation. Cyrus has been belting the chorus for the past hour, in a growl that once made Waylon Jennings ask her dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, why he let a three-year-old smoke cigarettes.
“You can hear me screaming down here?” she asks, surprised her voice was loud enough to bounce off the zebra-print soundboards, down a staircase decorated in vintage Playboys, and into her living room. The space is homey, but there are still touches of the surreal and “rainbow shit everywhere,” as she puts it, like neon psychedelic paintings and multicolored sculptures sitting next to large coffee-table books on David Bowie and Pink Floyd. Cyrus moved here, to the enclave of Hidden Hills, in September 2019, settling in next to neighbors like the Kardashians, Drake, and Jessica Simpson. At first, the ritzy, gated community seemed a bit “normcore” for her. And today, sporting a dirty-blond mullet, combat boots, and a CBGB-printed vest, she does look like she’d be more at home on the stoop of Trash & Vaudeville in New York’s East Village with the rest of the punk kids.
In the past few months, many listeners have heard Cyrus’ voice as if for the first time. In August, she dropped “Midnight Sky,” a cosmic, Stevie Nicks-sampling Eighties-pop burner, then spent the next several months proving she can sing the hell out of almost anything. Her livestreamed covers of songs like Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and the Cranberries’ “Zombie” have gone viral, and by the time she announced Plastic Hearts, listeners were all but begging her to release a rock album. She was way ahead of them: Plastic Hearts is a raucous tribute to the synths, power ballads, and general debauchery of the Eighties, with help from guests like Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks, Dua Lipa, Billy Idol, Mark Ronson, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, and Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins. It’s an exciting move, but not out of nowhere. “One of my first concerts ever was Poison and Warrant,” Cyrus says, noting she almost broke her leg when she climbed onto a folding chair so she could see. She ended up covering Poison’s hit ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” on 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, the first album she released as an adult singer ditching her teen-pop past.
When we meet, Cyrus is a few weeks shy of her 28th birthday, which is a little hard to believe given how long she’s been famous. She was beamed into the homes of millions of kids as the teenage star of Disney’s Hannah Montana, then spent her post-Disney years shredding any remnant of her America’s Sweetheart image by singing about molly, swinging half-naked on a wrecking ball, and crafting a psychedelic-pop opus with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne.
The irony of Plastic Hearts paying tribute to some of rock’s wildest years is that Cyrus herself is the most centered she’s ever been. “Someone said to me the other day, ‘I think of you as a free bird that can’t be held down,’ ” she says. “I don’t really feel that way. I feel very weighted and grounded. I’m free, but I feel responsibility. I take my mental and physical health a lot more seriously than I ever did before.”
To get to that place, though, she had to spend two years being put through the wringer. In late 2018, the Malibu home she shared with then-fiancé Liam Hemsworth burned down due to the Woolsey Fire. The pair, who had been engaged for six years, got hitched a month later, but then filed for divorce just eight months after that. Cyrus followed the breakup with a pair of tabloid-hounded relationships, with The Hills’ Kaitlynn Carter and longtime friend Cody Simpson.
Then, in November 2019, she faced another cosmic curveball: emergency surgery for Reinke’s edema, often caused by overuse of the vocal cords. The surgery was successful, but the experience — along with a healthy fear of joining the 27 Club — persuaded her to give up drinking and drugs.
“My voice is where I hold most of my value, to myself and other people,” she says, stretched out on the U-shaped couch in her studio, drinking a nonalcoholic Heineken “just for the vibe.” For the first time in her career, Cyrus feels like the voice she so values and the words she’s saying are finally being taken seriously. She cites Jett, Dolly Parton, and Debbie Harry as the blueprints for Plastic Hearts: making honest records without sacrificing any of the glamour she adores. “I’m introducing my audience, my generation, to everything that inspired me and created this cocktail of chaos that I am.”
You’ve always seemed to have a taste for rock, from covering Nirvana as a teen to singing “Say Hello 2 Heaven” at a Chris Cornell tribute last year. It feels like you’ve been waiting to make this album for years. Why now?
I could say I fucking planned it and I’m a strategic fucking genius, but I wish I was this strategic. I don’t ever know what kind of record I’m trying to make when I start making it. And then because of how my lifestyle [is] and where I am in my life, it always fits and works because it’s just honest. I fucking grew up listening to country music; we’re storytellers. Every record is storytelling.
It seems like you’ve never gotten as much respect as you have now. Does that mean anything to you?
I think that I’m really embracing — and everyone else is embracing, too — that the music is a priority right now. [Points to giant photo of her licking an ice cream cone shot in 2013.] Look at this fucking wall. That wasn’t about the music for a moment. The music was driving it, but all those things from that era, especially with Bangerz, the pop-culture moments almost eclipse the music itself. I guess I’m just in love with the fact that for once it feels like it’s really focused on the music, and I think I felt that I almost took some blame for the distraction sometimes.
I remember comments saying, “Why the fuck do you distract everybody with getting naked and shaking your ass when you’re a fucking talented-ass singer?” But because I did grow up watching the Cher show religiously, I love show business. I love entertainment. I love pop culture. I love unforgettable moments. I think there was a balance of me just loving making big media moments but also a sadness in the fact that I would think, “Did anyone even hear my song?” When you think of [2013’s] “Wrecking Ball,” you don’t think of the pain. You don’t think of me looking directly into the camera, breaking the wall, crying, reaching out. You remember me getting naked, and I don’t know whose fault that is. I don’t know if that’s mine or the way that our brains are programmed to think sexuality, for lack of a better word, trumps art.
We’re reclaiming that word, “trumps.”
It’s actually a perfect word for it, especially for that. I do believe there’s power in sexuality. When you think of “formulaic pop stars,” you think of pop stars naked in a bodysuit. And that’s not really what pop culture is. That’s not what pop is. Pop stars . . . it’s like superheroes.
I really love Dolly [Parton] for her character, for what Dolly as a character represents, and that the music is true. Same thing with Bowie. David Bowie coming out in a teal suit and stack shoes, that’s intriguing to us, and he’s beautiful and he’s alien. He’s not pedestrian. That is what creates the fantasy, which creates escapism. When used responsibly, it’s an incredible gift you can give to the audience. Especially in years like this one.
Those potential “distractions” can be what makes a song legendary. You still have enduring hits from your Disney days.
Which is why I love having idols like Joan [Jett]. When I think of the Runaways, they were a teen band. It was rebellious because no girls were doing what they were doing at the time, but they were a teen girl group. If we could only give the credit to ourselves that we give to other people . . .
My therapist always goes, “Would your sister say that to you?” The things I say to myself, would I say this shit to other people that I love? No.
I discredited myself for what I had been almost every step of the way. During Dead Petz, discrediting Bangerz. During Bangerz, discrediting Hannah Montana. During “Malibu,” discrediting Bangerz. It’s almost like when I have evolved, I’ve then become shameful of who I was before. What makes you an adult, I think, is being OK with who you’ve been before.
Was the album finished before “Midnight Sky” came out?
It was. We had pretty much every song besides “Midnight Sky.” I was going to have “Angels Like You” be my first single, and then I’m like, “Let’s just go in the studio. Let’s just write one more thing.” Having Stevie [Nicks] bless “Midnight Sky” made me know it was the right one, because it’s almost like she validated this whole era. It’s beyond an era.
I guess me stepping into that, it’s pretty pivotal. . . . Actually, one of the reasons I got sober was I had just turned 26, and I said, “I got to pull my shit together before I’m 27, because 27 is the time you cross over that threshold into living or dying a legend.” I didn’t want to not make it through being 27. I didn’t want to join that club. Probably about halfway into 26, I got sober. Then by 27, [November 2019] I was pretty much fully sober. Then, like a lot of people during the pandemic, I fell off. It was really a struggle. Mental health and anxiety and all that. I lost myself there, and now I’m back on five weeks.
By fell off, you mean drinking?
Drinking. Haven’t done drugs in years. Honestly, I never try to, again, be a fortune-teller. I try to not be naive. Things fucking happen. But from sitting here with you right now, I would say it would have to be a cold day in hell for me to relapse on drugs.
I would possibly take mushrooms. I did take ayahuasca, and I really, really liked that, but I don’t think I would do it again.
It seems very intense.
Very intense. Have you done it?
I have not.
Ayahuasca was definitely one of my favorite drugs I’ve ever done. When I did it, I asked everyone else in the room, “Did your entire life just change? Are you a new person?” They all looked at me and said, “No.” And they’re like, “You’re so extreme. Of course you have to have the most extreme trip off all.” Actually, the shaman said people take ayahuasca three, four times, sometimes 30 times before they have the kind of trip I had.
I saw the snakes right away, and the snakes come and grab you and take you to the Mama Aya, and she walks you through your whole trip, and it was pretty crazy. I loved it, though.
The lyric on “Angels Like You” that really struck me is “I’m everything they said I would be.” You’ve been a public figure for half your life and perceived a million different ways. How do you think you’re looked at today?
Today is very different. I think since “Midnight Sky” a lot has changed. I think I’ve always had a level of respect, but the c-word, “crazy,” was labeled on me a lot. It was that I was crazy, that I was, even at some points, cold or unable to settle down. And that’s what “Angels Like You” was about. I’m the stereotype. I’m what you thought I’d be, I’m everything they said I would be. I had some guilt or shame with that song in the way that it’s written, but now that I listen to it, it is actually apologetic. It is saying, “It’s not your fault I ruin everything, and it’s not your fault that I can’t be what you need.” My independence and, I guess, my survivalist instincts make it where I can seem selfish.
It’s funny that people accused you of being unable to settle down. I can’t think of anything more stabilizing than marrying someone you started dating when you were 17.
Exactly. In the past two years, I think, we’ve made some big progress, especially toward women and bodies. I don’t even know if you really can slut-shame now. Is that even a thing? The media hasn’t really slut-shamed me in a long time. At one point I was like, “Yo, when I’m 16 and you’re circling my boobs and shit like that . . . I’m the bad guy?” I think people are starting to go, “Wait, wait, wait. That was fucked up.” They’re starting to know who the enemy and who the victim was there.
Do you feel like there has been a long-term effect on you from the intense scrutiny on your sexuality and body from such a young age?
I can’t remember if it hurt my feelings or not. I don’t remember it really penetrating. I think I knew who I was meant to be, but I’m sure there’s something in there. Some trauma of feeling so criticized, I think, for what I felt was pretty average teenage, early [twenties] exploration.
How did your parents handle it when you had private photos leaked, or when some claimed you were dancing on a stripper pole at the Kids’ Choice Awards?
My dad ignored it because it’s just like any teenage girl and their dad’s like, “Let’s please not have this conversation.” My mom, I think it made her really angry. I think even she felt it could be distracting from what I was doing. She knew the voice and talents that I could showcase. She was like, “What the fuck? You have the biggest song. Can you just make it about the song? Why do you have to make it about being a stripper?”
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
“Pink Isn’t a Color, It’s an Attitude.” “It’s the sparkle in the shine. It’s the green and the grass to kick in the ass.” That was my first song. That’s an Avril Lavigne song. I’ve been doing pop rock. I wrote a song called “Evil Mother in the Dead of the Night.” It was about my mom trying to buy happiness at the mall because my mom would always take me to the mall for hours on end, and I would pretend to be a mannequin. I’d get a crowd gathered around me because I would pose for so long. It was about her being shallow. When I went home, I got my journal out and sang it to her, and she’s like, “You little bitch.”
How old were you?
I probably started writing songs when I was 10 years old. It’s probably some sort of publishing problem. I would have been sued if this was a real song, because I bought something at the fair that said, “Pink isn’t a color, it’s an attitude.” And I was like, that’s genius. I started a band called Blue Roses, and our first song was “Pink Isn’t a Color,” so we had the blue and pink. That was my first band. It was a girl rock band.
Were you still writing a lot when Hannah Montana started up?
I was always writing. I wrote the Meet Miley Cyrus record with my collaborator from “7 Things.” That is as honest as anything I write today, “7 Things.” I came in, and I think I said, “These are the seven things I hate the most about this dude that broke my heart.” And he was like, “Well, let’s just write ‘7 Things’ then.” “Fly on the Wall” was really about the media at that time. They were already starting to label me as “America’s Sweetheart Gone Wrong.” I was thinking, “If you could only be a fly on the wall. It’s worse than you can imagine.” Or better, I guess.
It must have been difficult to come into your own as a pop star outside of the show.
I had to evolve because Hannah was larger than life, larger than me. I felt like I was never going to amount to the success of Hannah Montana. That’s how Lil Nas X actually knew of my dad. He grew up watching Hannah Montana and said, “I want to do a song with Robby Ray.” That’s literally what happened. Being a young queer kid’s idol that could turn out to be a Lil Nas X and create a whole identity for themselves off being inspired from watching me growing up. Or I hear artists like Troye Sivan say he felt more comfortable with his sexuality when I came out with “My Heart Beats for Love.”
When my peers are having these experiences and accepting themselves because of something that I demonstrated while they were a kid, that’s when I go, “Shit, I fucking am Hannah Montana.” Really, Hannah Montana was not a character. That wasn’t what the show is about. It was about a normal girl with a fucking wig on. Everything was always in me. The concept of the show, it’s me. I’ve had to really come to terms with that and not be third-person about it.
Do you have a similar fear now when it comes to Miley Cyrus, pop star? Do you worry that your past eclipses your present?
I feel like I’ve outgrown that fear. I’m so settled in what I’m doing and who I am. All I’ve ever wanted is respect as an artist and to have pride in what I make. I think that comes with the dedication and diligence that I really put in the effort. I put in the work.
You get to a point where numbers and headlines don’t do the same chemical reaction to your brain they do in the beginning. There’s actually a release of dopamine that gets dumped into your skull when people are raving about you or when you walk by a magazine stand and you’re on every cover. Finding the balance I have now has made it much easier for me. It completely ate up that fear and spit it out.
You haven’t been on a big arena tour since Bangerz. Was there a conscious reason to stay away from that?
I think it’s the expectation. It’s so many seats to fill, and that means so many people have to like you.
After Younger Now came out in 2017, you decided not to tour and instead stayed at home with your pigs, as you said back then, and Liam. What was that like?
In early 2018, I was playing house, which felt really good at the time. Now I have this healthy perspective that I didn’t have before. I learned a lot about what I can and cannot be for someone else and what I can and cannot accept for myself.
A couple of years ago, it looked like I was living some fairy tale. It really wasn’t. At that time, my experimentation with drugs and booze and the circle of people around me was not fulfilling or sustainable or ever going to get me to my fullest potential and purpose.
The experimentation with drugs and booze was happening simultaneously with playing house?
At the same time. There’s an idea that during the Younger Now era, I was pure. The media likes to have my hair or what I look like be the point of reference for my sanity. “Hair’s long and blond, she’s sane right now. She cannot be fucked up on drugs. It’s when her hair is painted or she’s growing out her armpit hair [that] she’s on drugs.”
That’s also a very stereotypical view of femininity and women.
A hundred percent. “She’s got a man. She’s living in a house playing wife.” Dude, I was way more off my path at that time than any of the times before where my sanity was being questioned. I don’t like ever saying anything in a very solid concrete way, but right now I have been focusing on sobriety as I wanted to wake up 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. If I’ve ever learned to balance myself and to not take it too far, I would. But so far any time I’ve messed with that, it hasn’t gotten me what I want.
I don’t believe [in] the manifestation of sitting on a pillow in the morning, with the pointer finger and the thumb touching and my eyes closed and hoping. I grind until it’s real. That time in my life just wasn’t for me. In every way.
Was sobriety more of a choice or more of a necessity?
Sobriety was a choice. It depends how you look at it. I think it’s necessary for me to fulfill my purpose right now. I try to bookend everything for right now, because otherwise it becomes a statement [and] that pressure of maintaining. I guess that’s what “Midnight Sky” says, “Forever and ever no more.” No more concrete statements.
Did you reassess what fun looked like for you?
I’m really good at quitting things. I have a weed machine right there. I’ve never smoked out of it, and it’s full. [If] I had a cocaine machine, it might not be full. That’s the thing. I’m really not an addict. You can have that. You’re good. To me, fun is any time I feel like I really display or I really reach my full potential. When the glass ceiling breaks. That’s fucking fun for me.
I can’t imagine what losing a house in a wildfire felt like. How did that affect you at the end of 2018?
In a way, it did what I couldn’t do for myself. It removed me from what no longer was serving its purpose. And then as you drown, you reach for that lifesaver and you want to save yourself. I think that’s really what, ultimately, getting married was for me. One last attempt to save myself.
The last solo song you released before your vocal-cord surgery was “Slide Away,” which felt like a raw statement on the end of your marriage. When did you write that song?
I was still in my relationship, I was still living in my house in Malibu. That’s why [I sang], “I want my house in the hills.” I wanted out of there, and it says, “I don’t want the whiskey and pills.” I didn’t want to maintain that lifestyle. It’s really weird because I can never figure out what comes first: art or life? Does art imitate life or life imitate art? Or do you speak it into existence? Am I that powerful that when I write something, I become it?
I think of making music sometimes as a sacrifice because you end up writing songs that can hurt people, that can hurt one person but make you feel less alone. It’s like, is it worth it? Is it worth writing music that’s so honest? Dolly said there’s two sides to every story. When you’re telling your side of the story, is it fair? You don’t make songs to hurt somebody, but they do. Songs like “Angels Like You,” it’s not easy for someone to listen to when they know it’s about them. “You’re going to wish we never met on the day I leave.” Music can be a sacrifice.
On “Hate Me,” you contemplate what will happen if you die. Are you thinking of your own mortality often?
I think everyone’s mortality lingers in some way. I think thinking about life and thinking about death is a part of gratitude. Being afraid of inevitable things is just wasting time. I’ve tried to think a lot about each second of my life and making it really count. That’s what has really been sort of a cure for me, whether it’s with anxiety, jealousy, resentment, bitterness.
That had a lot to do with me and my back-and-forth with sobriety. It’s like, I want to get fucked up and live life to the fullest. But is it really living life to the fullest if you can’t remember [anything]? “Live fast, die young” isn’t really the goal. I want to push myself. I want to see if I can become less solid and trapped in this physical form of ourselves, and how we can expand, which I think is what music does.
I actually feel that, on a physical level, on days like today, when “Prisoner” is being released, knowing the birth of this album is about to happen. I can actually feel myself, not my physical self, but in this soul form, getting pulled in all these different directions. It can be pretty tough to bring yourself back to a weighted, heavy existence that’s anchored and settled, because it’s very unsettling being pulled by all these other consciousnesses all over the place.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to lay down a new stone for a path for the next generation of artists, philanthropists, the way that Debbie Harry has done for me. I’d like to be known as someone that created something that didn’t quite exist, or that I delivered something that no one knew that they needed or wanted, but when they had it felt that they couldn’t live without it. That’s what I would want as an artist.
But I have no idea how the fuck I’d want to be remembered. I’m a pretty wicked daughter. I think I’m fucking very dedicated to my family. I feel like I’ve fought for what I really wanted, whether that’s fighting for rights, or against injustices, working with Happy Hippie Foundation. I’d want that to be a priority. I’d want to have been a trailblazer, but I think it’s really hard talking about it because I’m still so here with so much left to do. I couldn’t really tell you how I’d want to be remembered because all the things that I’d hopefully be remembered for haven’t happened yet.