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Halsey: a brand new type of pop star

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The Tumblr sensation on her new album, sexuality and being pop’s accidental spokesperson for mental illness

Ashley Nicolette Frangipane – or moniker Halsey, an anagram of her name and also a street in Brooklyn where she spent a lot of time as a teenager – blew up overnight. Growing up in New Jersey with an Italian-American mum and an African-American dad, she fell in love with a melting pot of musical genres, swinging from Tupac and NWA to Nirvana and Alanis Morrissette; a dichotomy that led to her millennial anthem “New Americana”. Already Tumblr-famous when she put out sticky, synth-pop track “Ghost” on SoundCloud, she got a record deal almost instantaneously, and was the most talked about performer at this year’s SXSW on Twitter.

Halsey is a new breed of popstar. She’s internet culture come to life; she’s intelligent and impassioned and international. She’s openly bipolar, bisexual and biracial. But in the aftermath of her first album Badlands, a concept album inspired by Las Vegas, a combination of honesty and huge success has led fans and press to keep returning to those labels (for example, it was falsely reported she identified as the term “tri-bi”). Now the dust of the past year has settled, we had a chat with her about life post-Badlands.

Since you came out and spoke about mental illness, have you felt like you’ve had the pressure to be some kind of spokesperson?

Halsey: Definitely. It’s just weird because the only time I’ve ever really talked about my bipolar disorder was in an interview that I did with ELLE and it kind of got treated like a disorder “expose”, like, ‘Coming Out with Bipolar Disorder: The Illness Issue’. Then other publications got hold of it and revived and reiterated what was said, and since then it’s just been all anybody wants to talk about, all the time. Which is a really positive thing if you feel you want to represent that, you want to show people that you can be functioning, you can be successful, you can be admired and you can be idolized and still have a mental health illness. It’s a positive thing, but at the same time it becomes kind of frustrating because I’m a musician.

When I wanted to talk about my album, people wanted to talk about my mental illness, so that was frustrating because do I choose to not talk about this for the sake of my art and potentially let down my responsibility as a role model? Or do I talk about this and then let my art suffer and become what people start to make as my identifier, you know? How do you decide where you draw that line? How do you decide when is enough of being a role model and do you have to stop everyone and say, “Okay, but I’m a musician. I do music.”

It’s such a talked about thing right now and because media outlets are looking for a vehicle, for a way to speak about these things. I think that I will often be used as a scapegoat for that, in which people will say ‘we need to talk about race and we need to talk about sexuality and mental health – let’s talk about Halsey’ and it doesn’t help that I have quite an engaged fan base now, so if you talk about race or sexuality and you include me in the conversation you’re bound to get a lot of click throughs.

“You’re going to romanticise an issue with art, whether you try to or not, because what you’re doing is making something beautiful”

Do you feel that if you didn’t have such a teen fan base you wouldn’t feel so indebted to talk about mental health?

Halsey: Yeah, I think so, but that’s the demographic that has chosen me. That’s one thing the musicians don’t remember: you don’t choose your demographic, they choose you. I feel like, if I’m going to have young, impressionable people listening to my music then I’m going to respect that. But I’m noticing more and more that adults kind of do too, they just don’t know how to ask for it. My songs touch on multiple different things: my relationship with my family, my relationship with people I’ve been romantically involved with, my relationship with being a business woman, a 20-year-old girl who is running a corporation, and then my relationship with having a mental illness; my relationship with myself.

Do you think pop as a genre is getting smarter? Is that why young people on Tumblr are resonating with you and these issues?

Halsey: Every 16-year-old person has a love for pop in them because pop is popular. But now they want it to be intelligent, they want it to to be smart. They don’t want to hear vague songs written about traditional love circumstances, they don’t want heteronormativity. They want music that’s a bit more intelligent, which is why I think music that has straddled that line of being poppy in sound but a little alternative in lyrics appeals to them right now.

I had to go around to alternative radio stations and talk to people and say “Listen – the people listening to alternative music now aren’t 27-year-old men anymore, it’s young girls now”. I thought I was smart when I was 16, but I know shit compared to the 16-year-old girls that I see coming to my concerts. They talk to me about issues of social justice, and they know about intersectional feminism, they can tell you the difference between someone who is non-binary and agender and genderfluid. I didn’t know any of that when I was 16. I didn’t even know those words existed. And so along with that comes this open discussion of mental health. These teens are growing up with pop music, and this educated and socially aware dialogue that’s happening globally, and they want to listen to smarter music.

Does making it popular romantisize it?

Halsey: I certainly hope that what we are doing is not seeking to romanticise issues but rather normalise them. But you’re going to romanticise it, whether you try to or not, because what you’re doing is you’re making something beautiful, you’re making a painting, you’re writing a book, you’re writing a song. 

That’s definitely true. Who else do you think has done that well artistically?

Halsey: I love Larry Clark and Harmony Korine who have done a good job of showing different facets of the human condition and human life, involving mental illness, drug abuse and sexuality. Kids was a really shocking film, because it kind of put the idea in people’s heads that there were children who were engaging in sexual activities and drug use and dealing with sexually transmitted diseases, drug addiction and death from drug addiction. Really living these lives and they kind of put that reality in people’s faces.

That was very real for me. For a couple years when I was 17, I was dating this guy that I found out was addicted to heroin – intravenous heroin, so he was shooting up – and the next three years of my life after that were a fucking kaleidoscope, a fucking whirlwind. I was living in New York, I was trying to help this guy get clean, I was way in over my head, I was 17-years-old, I was trying to be a grown-up and I had no idea how to. So I think a movie like that really related to me. Is there a romance in it? Yeah, absolutely. Because you know you have Chloe Sevigny and you have Rosario Dawson, all these beautiful young girls and it’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s cute and it’s flirty and you know everything looks crazy but you know what? When I was living it, it was none of those things.

I've heard your next album is about you metaphorically or mentally stepping out of the Badlands into the land beyond.

Halsey: Yeah, I think that for me being a musician is just constantly opening a door into a new place and then getting to the end of that and there’s another door, etc etc. It’s funny how quite literal that becomes in the title because I stepped out into the Badlands and then I’ll step out with something even greater. I already know what the album’s called, but obviously I’m not going to tell anyone yet. I named it probably before Badlands was even finished. The name on the second record is in reference to a very real event that happened to me.

“Badlands is blue and red and the next record is silver because that’s the feeling I’ve had inside of me the past year”

How far have you got with that imagined space?

Halsey: Badlands is a very tangible record; a lot of the sounds were actual things, they were pots and pans and they were rocks, and they were voices, and instruments used in a way to create a landscape of sound. The next record is going to be quite literal and political and sonically I think it’s going to feel a lot more abstract and feel a lot more ethereal. I talk in colours a lot. Badlands is in blue and red and the next record is going to be silver. It’s all I know. I haven’t even started writing music for it yet. I’ve just named it and I know it’s going to be silver and I’m going to figure the rest out because that’s the feeling I’ve had inside of me in the past year. And why wouldn’t I, you know? I had a year where I felt invincible, I’ve had a year where I felt vulnerable, I’ve had a year where I kind of felt that everything was rushing past me faster than I could keep up. I think silver is a very appropriate colour to describe those emotions and that’s what the next record will entail.

What is it that you’re working on at the moment?

Halsey: Other musicians. I have a really good eye for knowing what a project is missing and knowing what a song’s missing. I think I’m better at that than I am at creating, to be honest, it takes me a while to conceptualise something. So I’ve been behind the scenes, in a way. It’s kind of like scheming on the low until I can put out my next record and trying to meet as many interesting people as possible. All I love is music and that’s all that I reallly want to be doing no matter how many fucking retweets my selfies are getting, you know what I mean?