Lana Del Rey looks on the verge of tears. Sitting under an old weeping willow, the pop singer’s big brown eyes glint dolefully in the sun as a summer breeze carries her cigarette smoke across Regent’s Canal. To an outsider, there seems little for the 24-year-old to be upset about – in the space of a month, the promo clip for her hauntingly vulnerable ballad “Video Games” has been viewed over half a million times and has reduced hardened music critics to blubbing wrecks. She’s won fans in artists as diverse as Juliette Lewis and Skream, inspired folk and dubstep cover versions and signed a major record deal with Interscope/Polydor – all without officially releasing “Video Games” as a single. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. So, why is Lana feeling so blue?
“It seems like for all the people who really loved ‘Video Games’, there were just as many who said they hated it,” she says in a delicate purr, pausing to drag deeply on her fag. “That changed things for me. They said I looked really fake and posed, and stuff about my lips… It just really hurt my feelings and it made me wish that I had never put it up. If they said I was a bad singer that would be one thing because I know it’s not true, but when they say, ‘Oh, look at her face, she looks so plastic...’ that, as a girl, hurts your feelings. Those comments made me re-evaluate everything.”
Tellingly, she looks drastically different today compared to the “Lolita lost in the hood” who starred in the “Video Games” clip. Gone is the volcanic Priscilla Presley beehive and natural make-up. Instead, bright red power lipstick, dark auburn sideswept hair and sharp eyebrows are the order of the day. She looks like the quintessential American dream girl, a fact re-enforced by a fluffy stars and stripes jumper, short denim shorts and some sparkly Nike dunks. This must be what Del Rey’s YouTube page calls her “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” look.
She laughs at the suggestion. “I didn’t come up with that! My managers were struggling to describe my music to labels and kept saying, ‘What genre is it? What style?’ I called it Hollywood Sadcore. But my manager said, ‘She’s like a gangsta Nancy Sinatra!’ And as soon as it flew out of his mouth, it fucking stuck like glue. I spend eight fucking years writing gorgeous songs and someone in a meeting says ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ and that’s that. It’s brutal. I know two of Nancy’s songs but she’s not someone I’ve ever really listened to. I know everything about Frank, of course, because he’s the real singer. It just goes to show how fucking stupid people can be sometimes.”
The self-confessed rebel lets out another wicked little giggle. She may be reticent to admit the similarities, but you can see where her manager was coming from. Del Rey’s epic vocal harmonies, dark subject matter, devilish sense of humour and vampish pin-up persona owe more to the grindhouse appeal of Ms Sinatra than today’s autotuned drivel. Whereas J.Lo thinks the height of musical innovation in 2011 is remixing the “Macarena”, Del Rey looks to Bogart and Bacall for inspiration. She quotes computer scientists, Baz Luhrmann lyrics and Goodfellas dialogue on her Twitter feed, and as far as we know is the only pop singer who cites the ambience of Coney Island as a major influence on her music. “Yeah, of course!” she says excitedly. “Coney Island is the perfect mixture of grandeur and desolate, barren land. To me, that’s gorgeousness, not to mention the most popular vacation destination of 1932. People came from all over North America just to sit by the seaside. Now no one goes there. To me, that is interesting. That’s what I like in music; that’s what I like in film; that’s why I like Antony and the Johnsons; that’s why I like David Lynch…” A natural born outsider, it’s not too much of a leap of the imagination to imagine Del Rey being cast by Lynch, Tarantino or Stone as a smoky nightclub singer or gangster’s moll. Going by her videos, you get the feeling she lives her life as if she’s starring in one of their films anyway. On “Kinda Outta Luck”, she swigs back a bottle of Jim Beam and brags about how her dead lover is in the trunk of her car. In “Video Games” she sings, “I heard that you like the bad girls, hunnny”, as clips of Jessica Rabbit and Paz de la Huerta flash up. B-side “Blue Jeans” features AWOL boyfriends, white churches, hot denim and a large dose of unrequited love. It seems that wherever Lana Del Rey goes, melancholy, heartbreak and danger are quick to follow.
“I think I started singing because I hoped I would meet someone like me,” she says. “But the further along you get, you realise that you are not terminally unique in your pain or misery. Everyone is confused. You know, the pendulum swings and the darkness comes with it. But I don’t live my life in a dark way. I think I was just lonely for ages, and didn’t really have that…” Her voice trails off and she inhales another lungful of Marlboro Country. “I don’t know if all my songs are about doomed love affairs. But it’s usually about love. Pretty simple.”
What makes Del Rey’s love songs so refreshingly different is that they bear little similarity to anything else that is going on right now. It’s like she’s jumped straight out of a Jim Thompson pulp fiction novel from the 1950s and decided to call bullshit on the dirge plaguing the charts. After all, instead of announcing her arrival with an identikit club banger, her opening cultural statement is a string-laden, five-minute ballad that is so down-tempo it’s basically beatless. Yet everyone who comes across “Video Games” becomes instantly entranced. Her radio plugger has had to turn down requests for it to be released early, which is unprecedented for a new artist in an age of plunging profits, leaks and immediate MP3 gratification.
“I am genuinely fucking surprised about how everything is going. You would be too!” she exclaims. “I’ve always had stuff up on YouTube but didn’t really plan for anyone to see them, because they didn’t see them. No one ever told me that they liked anything of mine and now all of a sudden everyone says they love it and I have no idea why. I didn’t change a thing and my style is the same – same influences. Maybe the angels decided I could have a break. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. I guess I prayed for a break. I pray every day. You have to pray.”
It took a long time for her prayers to be answered. Long before Lana Del Rey, a girl called Lizzy Grant was born in “the coldest spot in the nation” – the town of Lake Placid (pop. 2,638), six hours upstate from New York City. Her dad, an internet domain investor, sent her to a boarding school in Connecticut at the age of 15. She didn’t enjoy the experience and has spent the years since trying to erase it from memory. After moving to New York at 18 to become a singer, she became a familiar face on the Lower East Side and Williamsburg open mic circuit, with all the trials and tribulations that come with the turf.
“I thought that I was good at writing songs from a very young age,” she recalls. “I thought that if I could be the best that would be fucking great, so I just kept singing and writing. The funny thing is that it’s always been really weird music, so I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea! It’s gotten prettier lately.”
Her talent was noticed and she recorded an album under her birth name. It never came out, and due to a shitty contract she was unable to sign another deal for three years. Dejected and bored of trying to make pop hits, she began writing songs that had a timeless, cinematic quality – her take on the dark side of the American Dream. She decided to reinvent herself and moved into a New Jersey trailer park, hung up Old Glory and some fairy lights, turned on her laptop and Lana Del Rey swaggered into the frame.
“It’s the exact same person, babes. Just with a different name,” she laughs as sunshine bounces off her golden knuckle-duster ring. “I prefer Lana, it’s pretty. I think the songs came first and then the name and probably a lot more hair and makeup after that. Lana Del Rey just sounded good coming out of my mouth – it was exotic sounding, and I like exotic places and I like really gorgeous things. It sounded like a gorgeous woman. And once you have a name, you expect certain things from it, so it was like something to aim towards. I could build a sonic world towards the way the name fell off my lips. It’s helped me a lot.”
Her search for new sounds took her from New York to Miami, LA to London. The breakthrough came when she hooked up with songwriter Justin Parker, who played her the piano chords that would become the backbone of “Video Games”. Producers Robopop embellished on the orchestration, adding harps, ominous church bells and a funeral march snare roll into the mix. At the same time, she was dealing with the fallout from two broken relationships, so she took Parker’s template and wrote down what was on her mind. The sombre mood of the minor chord progression quickly brought her rawest emotions bubbling up to the surface.
“The verse was about the way things were with one person, and the chorus was the way that I wished things had really been with another person, who I thought about for a long time,” she says, breaking into an acapella of the song. “‘Swinging in the backyard, pull up in your fast car, whistling my name’. That was what happened, you know? He’d come home and I’d see him. But then the chorus, ‘Heaven is a place on earth with you, tell me all the things you wanna do’ wasn’t like that. That was the way that I wished it was – the melody sounds so compelling and heavenly because I wanted it to be that way. The verse is more matter-of-fact because that’s how it was. It’s a mix of memories and the way I wished it could have been. Just because things happened a certain way doesn’t mean that that’s the way that they are. It really is what you choose to think about. Bad things happen every day but you’re not going to be any happier thinking about them. So I don’t think about them. I don’t have that luxury any more. Some people say that ‘Video Games’ stops them in their tracks; it’s that kind of song. It’s just really sad.”
Relocating to her sister’s apartment in uptown Manhattan, she recorded several performances of her singing it and gazing longingly into her MacBook camera, as if she was Skyping her aloof lover. She then trawled the internet for archive clips in which to tell her teary tale, from drunken celebs and orchestras, to skate slams and apocalyptic CGI landscapes. After editing the narrative together, she uploaded the clip to YouTube, then sat back and watched everything get weird. As the viewing figures hit 500,000, the video was banned from the site due to various legal disputes over her choice of found footage, stoking the flames of her bad girl persona in the process. A new edit has since been published.
Now, with Del Rey’s quest for recognition assured, it must have dawned on her that her dreams of becoming famous have finally started to come true. But does she still want them to? “I did when I was young, but then I realised that that wasn’t important,” she says with a coy smile, pulling the arms of her stars and stripes jumper down over her hands. “It’s important to be a good person, so I stopped wanting it. It’s not what I want at all, not even a little bit. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s just what I do; I wake up and I sing. It’s not any less romantic now, it’s just different. I’m going to keep living my life just the way I live it now. I know exactly what to do.”
'Video Games/Blue Jeans' is out today on Stranger Records
This feature first appeared in the October issue of Dazed & Confused. The interview took place on 27 July 2011.
Follow Tim Noakes on Twitter here @TimNoakes