Photographs by Mariano Vivanco Story by Jonathan Heat
“Video Games’ announced her arrival as a fully formed pop star, but it’s the No.1 album, Ivor Novello award and GG award that confirm the enigmatic-
pneumatic bombshell is here to stay”
In an expansive, gilded suite in the famous Hotel de Paris, Monte-Carlo, Lana Del Rey, dressed in a simple grey hoodie, skinny dark-blue jeans and a crisp white T-shirt, sits down on the floor next to a perfectly vacant couch, lights a cigarette as slim as a Mikado stick and explains how pretty she thinks this part of the world is.
“lt’s just the most beautiful place,”
she enthuses, breathlessly.
‘‘I knew it from the moment I saw it.”
Funny, I say, as Monaco’s reputation for being a tax haven for the world’s filthy rich brings with it a certain, well, contention.
smiles Del Rey, sharply.
“But some people don’t make any money.”
I’m not quite sure what to make of this comment. Does she mean those of us who don’t make enough cash to become tax refugees in this “exc/us/f” sunny state should either put up or shut up – or something else? For a split second, I’m thrown. I’m told Del Rey is prone to doing this — cutting unashamedly to the quick, speaking her mind no matter the consequences, not Previous: Jewellery by Chopard. chopard.com
biting her tongue, laying it on the line. Some, like this writer, find it refreshing, others a little too confrontational. This isn’t her intention at all; she’s as sweet as a peach deep down. Reserved, even. If not a little weird. I don’t mean “kooky” weird. Kooky is the wrong word as that makes her sound like the sort of girl who collects Hello Kitty lunchboxes, wears American Apparel body stockings and draws pictures of unicorns all day long — or someone like Lena Dunham from HBO’s Girls. No, Del Rey is weird weird. Odd. Eccentric. Remarkable. A proper pop star. Not like you or me. She’s also exceptionally beautiful: the cascading, auburn hair, those blown-out lips, the thick kohl-dipped lashes. Del Rey is sexy but with a dreamy apartness, like an old-fashioned movie star whose name you can’t quite remember from a film whose title you can’t quite place. Forget the Day-Glo cartoonish eroticism of Nicki Minaj, the geisha-cyber-punkiness of Lady Gaga and Rihanna’s rude-girl swaggering — Del Rey is a very different sort of modern pop star. Her sex appeal is more refined. Grainier. Vintage-looking. Cloaked in a veneer of prissiness. She’s beauty, Instagrammed. Part of Del Rey’s charm is how such a projected innocence jars against lyrics that drip with a desire to be corrupted: ‘‘I heard you like the bad girls/Honey, is that true?” she sings. For a man, that sort of tease is magnetic. As Del Rey puffs away cross-legged on the expensive hotel carpet, speaking her mind, she seems more content than maybe she has been for some time. It’s little wonder she’s feeling buoyant considering the news: last night in London she won an lvor Novello award for her single “Video Games” – an honour artists crave, as it’s vindication of their songwriting ability, awarded by their peers — and now she’s been crowned GQ’s Woman Of The Year. She’s genuinely delighted:
“Thank you. Just to have someone acknowledge the material I write is incredibly touching. It’s an affirmation of sorts. I just didn’t think that this was going to happen. Not any of it.”
Fifteen months ago, the world fell in love with Lana Del Rey, or more accurately, the world fell in love with “Video Games”; a record that is about the minutiae of daily life resonating to mean something far greater, far darker. Throughout the song, Del Rey sings with a sort of resigned, melancholic subservience – ‘‘I’m in his favourite sundress/Watching me get undressed/Take that body downtown” – her sophisticated lyrical ennui wafting in a sombre key against the sound of doom- sodden harps and soaring strings. Although Del Rey insists it’s about being in love and she’s singing about being in the throes of a loving relationship, that’s not how it comes across. Not at all. The whole record sounds elegiac – sort of a mourning song for a certain
type of perceived American dream; the perfect fit for Del Rey’s aesthetic.
“It’s a song that I wrote with a boy named Justin Parker, a producer I met in London,”
she tells me.
Del Rey uploaded the song, as is the modern way, on 29 June 2011. The video on her YouTube channel has been viewed more than 40 million times. Del Rey herself made it on her MacBook; composed of clips she found on the internet – vintage-looking Super 8 footage of skaters, pink roses bursting open proactively, Betty Boo cartoons, dappled sunlight over an LA canyon, the Hollywood sign, TMZ video footage of Paz de la Huerta stumbling away from the Chateau Marmont after the Golden Globes, visibly worse for wear. Occasionally Del Rey herself pops up, out of focus with beehive hair and bee-stung lips looking like a hipster Jackie 0. Or an Abercrombie & Fitch model. If you watch the video with the sound off, as I’ve done, you’d think it a song about the trappings and fragility of fame, a yearning for a more golden, more dignified age of celebrity – knowing Del Rey (someone more aware of her image than perhaps any other pop star working today) such a tone is certainly no accident.
“It took me two hours to write,”
she explains of the track, to be found on her album Born To Die, released in January this year.
‘‘It was in the middle of a long writing process where I had moved to London. I was in the Sony Writing Room” – a creative sanctuary provided by the label that acts as a sort of boot camp for wannabe hit- makers – “and Justin would write the chords and I would write the words and the melody. We’d written five songs and we took a rest. Then I started to write things that I especially loved, that were just perfectly tailored to me – ‘Video Games’ was one of them. No one thought much of it at the time; it was just pretty simple with one piano line. But I liked it right away. I knew. I have an instinct about these things. With songs or with people…”
Throughout last summer, as the song spread online and across the globe, so did the critical acclaim for the New Queen Of Sadcore. But with the praise for the song came a backlash against the singer – all before Del Rey had even officially released a single note of music. People were suspicious. It was as if the song was too accomplished, Del Rey too beautiful. Who was this enigmatic artist, the self-coined “gangster Nancy Sinatra”? Some were saying that Lana Del Rey, far from being a fresh talent, was in fact a reincarnation of a folk singer (with a previously released, unsuccessful album) called Lizzy Grant – cosmetically enhanced (those lips were just too pillowy by far, apparently), label-made, ambitious and, rather than a new discovery, she was a bona fide fraud who sang about living in a trailer when really her dad was a millionaire real-estate developer buttressing her career. The online attacks were vicious and unrelenting; the internet trolls feasting on all the digital hearsay. Her American audience was particularly savage. And it hurt.
“People were just so mean to me,”
she admits. The truth of Del Rey’s story is this: born Elizabeth Grant in New York City 26 years ago, she was raised upstate in Lake Placid. Aged 14, she was shipped by her parents to Kent School, a strict boarding house in Connecticut. She left, or, rumour has it, she was kicked out for bad behaviour, moving back to NYC aged 18. She enrolled in Fordham University to study metaphysics, all the while playing in clubs and bars, just her, her guitar and a mic. Aged 20, two years later, Elizabeth Grant was offered her first recording contract – for a rumoured $10,000 — and moved to New Jersey to live in a trailer park.
This was 2006, and the record label was a small independent called 5 Points Records. Under the guidance of a producer called David Kahne – who apparently signed her on the strength of hearing only one demo — two years later in October 2008, Grant finally released her first three-track EP entitled Kill Kill. A full-length album would follow in January 2010 entitled Lana Del Ray AKA Lizzy Grant. Somewhat mysteriously — and this is the bit the sceptics really enjoy getting their teeth into – this first album was only available on iTunes for a matter of months, until it was suddenly withdrawn, with Grant buying back the rights from her label. The artist called Lizzy Grant then vanished. In June 2011, someone called Lana Del Rey – this time with an “e” — released her “debut” single “Video Games” and signed to Stranger Records. A few months later, she signed a joint deal with majors lnterscope and Polydor. You can see why all those nitpicking guardians of pop culture’s “authenticity” got so upset – for some it looks like a classic case of a pretty, yet so-far-unsuccessful pop star (Lizzy Grant) being moulded and reshaped (physically via the surgeon’s knife as well as sonically) into a more appealing, more exotic package (Lana Del Rey) by some Machiavellian record company suit and a bunch of blowhard lawyers with dollar signs for eyes. What happened couldn’t be further from the truth. If anyone here is the Svengali behind the phenomenon of Lana Del Rey, it’s Lana Del Rey. Or rather Elizabeth Grant.
“People act like I’ve been trying to rewrite history,”
she explains when I ask her why she bought back the rights to her first album and took it off iTunes.
“I made that first record in 2008, alongside the EP, but my label at the time waited three years to release it. They thought maybe someone bigger would buy it, but they didn’t, so in the end they just released it themselves. By that time, three years had passed; I’d moved on. All I wanted was own the masters myself and the easiest way of doing that was to buy the rights back. That album is still online for anyone to hear; it’s not this terrible lost album I hate and never want to claim ownership of. I’m actually pretty proud of that earlier stuff.”
So why, and how, between 2006 and 2011, did Lizzy Grant become Lana Del Rey? Rapper Princess Superstar, who became friends with Del Rey in New York as she was going through this metamorphosis, helping the young singer find a new vision and a new voice, has this to say:
“I’ve never understood this controversy about whether [Del Rey] is real or fake. All artists have a persona. She’s not put together by some company. These are her songs, her melodies, her singing – she’s always had this Sixties aesthetic.”
Del Rey’s one-time mentor is spot on. Since when has it been “inauthentic” to reinvent oneself if you’re a pop star? Isn’t that what being a pop star is all about? Isn’t it this precise aspect of them that keeps us absorbed? Who wants David Robert Jones when you can have Ziggy Stardust? Or Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta instead of Lady Gaga? Or Lizzy Grant. ‘‘It was nine years ago.” Some of the answers as to tracking the emergence and the evolution of Lana Del Rey can be found in knowing that when she was young, very young, somewhere between the ages of 13 and 18, Del Rey began drinking. Heavily. Even before she had her current persona, Lizzy Grant was seemingly trying to escape from something, or more precisely someone – herself.
“lt’s been nine years since my last drink,”
she explains, a subject she’s never gone on record about so candidly before.
“That’s really why I got sent to boarding school aged 14 — to get sober.”
Did it work?
‘‘I was a big drinker at the time. I would drink every day. I would drink alone. I thought the whole concept was so f***ing cool. A great deal of what I wrote on Born To Die is about these wilderness years. A lot of the time when I write about the person that I love, I feel like I’m writing about New York. And when I write about the thing that I’ve lost I feel like I’m writing about alcohol because that was the first love of my life. Sure, there have been people, but it’s really alcohol.”
I ask Del Rey how she got over her alcohol addiction:
“My parents were worried, I was worried. I knew it was a problem when I liked it more than I liked doing anything else. I was like, I’m f**‘ed. I am totally f‘*‘ed. Like, at first it’s fine and you think you have a dark side – it’s exciting – and then you realise the dark side wins every time if you decide to indulge in it. It’s also a completely different way of living when you know that, it’s like being a different species of person. It was horrific. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Drugs too became part of her life:
“It was everything in the end.”
“No. But other things just to feel different.”
In the end, Del Ray ended up leaving school and being sent to rehab.
“I moved back to New York and worked at an outreach programme for drug and alcohol addicts in Brooklyn.”
Such work is something she still does to this day:
“It’s the only thing that’s really important to me. My music is a luxury. Just like being here in Monaco is a luxury.’’
It was while attending rehab in Brooklyn, aged 18, that Del Rey’s musical journey began in earnest. Although it was her uncle who first taught her to play guitar, she looked to other people, strangers, for another kind of inspiration. She began exploring the city. Alone. Fearlessly.
“It’s interesting for me to be where people are not,”
“When I was young I felt really overwhelmed and confused by the desire not to end up in an office, doing something I didn’t believe in.”
So she did what any curious I8-year-old recovering alcoholic schoolgirl would do – she started wandering down dark alleys looking for trouble.
“I was a secret thrill-seeker. I was putting my feelers out all over the city, in different places with different people, trying to see what felt right.”
Del Rey calls her hobby “stranger searching”. She adds:
‘‘It’s still my passion. I would just walk out of my front door in Brooklyn or Manhattan with an intention to meet somebody who has the same energy. You just put it out there. I would always run into somebody and see them and say, ‘Oh excuse me, your money is hanging out of your pocket.”’
“We’d ride motorbikes or go somewhere. It’s amazing what happens when you put your interests out into the universe and make it known what you want – you just have to know what it is. For me, I didn’t want anything except to feel new every day. I wanted to try different things. I felt alive. But you have to put limits on. You can’t go too far with it.”
This all sounds a little dangerous to GO. Jumping on bikes with total strangers. Picking up weird guys on the street just for kicks. Did she have any bad experiences?
“No. Never. I’m an independent operator. It’s just f*‘*ing different. I never wanted to lead a normal life.’’
Did she keep in contact with any of the randoms she encountered?
“Some of them.”
I ask Del Rey whether she believes in soulmates:
‘‘I do. But I think there’s more than one for everybody. I could meet one person, but like other people too. I’ve seen it happen before: people who have their true loves, with many great loves around them.” She stops, suddenly, blushing. “GQ’s Woman Of The Year is a polygamous thrill-seeker!”
Until recently Del Rey’s one true love, other than alcohol, was America, in particular her home city of New York. Part of the fallout from all the criticism she received at the beginning of this year — the greatest vitriol reserved for her performance on Saturday Night Live in which Del Rey’s pitch was, admittedly, a little flat in places – is her despondency at how certain parts of her country attacked her so savagely. The mauling truly blind sided the singer, the wounds yet to heal:
“It didn’t affect my writing, but it affected my happiness. I became depressed. Because I love New York so much. I was born there; it was my city. I was going to die there.”
Even now, almost a year on, performing live is one of the hardest things for Del Rey – difficult to avoid when you’re a pop star. When she saw the hologram of Tupac Shakur performing at Coachella festival this year, she said to her manager,
“Right there is the future of my live tours.”
She was only half joking. To compound her insecurities, not only were critics saying she hadn’t written her own songs, Del Rey was sued for the video she put together for “Video Games”, having failed to obtain any copyright permission. Does she feel betrayed by America?
“No, just like the love of my life isn’t with me any more. The Hollywood community has been so good to me and they didn’t have to be, but not New York. As a person who becomes really attached to places for their energy and their beauty, for me New York was a match. To lose it, it really felt like my life was over. It’s a totally different life experience when you have to learn to love the things that don’t love you back. It’s the last great life experience. Not that many people have to live like this – live without their icons or their idols or their country. I know people won’t be listening to my music next year, but I still will have lost those places I cared about so dearly.”
Such was the criticism, and Del Rey’s heartbreak, that, from the sounds of it, either this year or last year, she came close to pressing the self-destruct button once again:
“Yes. It hasn’t been activated in some time. In the last two years I do feel more upset, which kind of triggers those feelings, making me feel as if not everything is in my control. The bigger things get, the bigger this whole thing gets, the easier it is for things like that to start happening again. When I feel like I’m being overwhelmed it’s hard to remain a guiding force. That’s one reason to keep things small, play small venues, that sort of thing, which is what I always wanted to do.”
The trouble is, Lizzy Grant may have had a chance of keeping things small, but Lana Del Rey hasn’t a hope. Born To Die went to No.1 in 14 countries this year. Keeping this thing small, keeping incognito while roaming the streets, trying not to let the critics get to her, learning to live with lost loves — none of it will be easy for Lana Del Rey. For someone who strives so hard to be free, containment, even amid Monaco’s moneyed splendour, is perhaps harder than it appears. The turmoil for this fantastically original pop star – and the great appeal of Del Rey for her audience – is that all this friction bubbles to the surface, through her voice. In some ways, the singer couldn’t be more like this beautiful, damned town: a gilded place with a dark heart; real yet fake; a paradise from the outside, a prison from within. It’s a true spectacle. After all, what’s more beguiling than a very bad girl, desperately trying to be good?