In 2021, MOJO had an exclusive audience with the Springsteen-approved laureate of L.A. darkness, Lana Del Rey_. Her album, Chemtrails Over The Country Club, had opened a sunnier chapter in her controversial roman-à-clef, and folk legend Joan Baez had advocated her acceptance in the pantheon. But while serenity seemed almost in reach, some wounds still burned and grievances rankled. “Fame can put you on the peripheries,” she told_ Victoria Segal, “where the vultures can pick at you...”
IT’S MIDNIGHT IN MODESTO and Lana Del Rey has swung into the backyard, pulled up in her fast car. “I told my boyfriend I was going to go out and sit in the car because I hate it when people listen to me talk,” she says. “I’m at his parents’ farm, so we’re in, like, the guest house. It’s pretty idyllic: Northern California, pretty cold, 40 degrees and a little fireplace. We had a sweet little night singing all the old Disney and holiday songs – not what I expected after a long car ride, but everyone was in a good mood.”
Tomorrow, Del Rey will hit the road back home to Los Angeles, preparing to spend Christmas Eve “with my sister and brother and just two girlfriends.” After the holiday, it will transpire she fractured her arm while spinning on her “beautiful skates” through the “twilight of the desert”: that’s why she’s wearing a sling in MOJO’s cover photograph.
Ever since she studied philosophy at New York’s Fordham University in the late 2000s, there’s been a question lurking in Del Rey’s mind: what if something happened to make the world stop? “So when it did,” she says, “I was kind of shocked.” The pandemic has inevitably hampered her movements – festivals cancelled, studio time with producer Jack Antonoff truncated – but it hasn’t slowed down her creative jumps (or her willingness to crash into social media).
September saw the publication of her poetry collection, Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass. In November, she covered Summertime as a fundraiser for the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras; covering all bases, she also recorded You’ll Never Walk Alone for a documentary about Liverpool FC.
The most significant landmark, however, was the completion of Chemtrails Over The Country Club, the album she has been promising (sometimes as White Hot Forever) since the release of 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! Bruce Springsteen, who knows a bit about the flipside of the American dream, loved that album: “She just creates a world of her own and invites you in,” he said. The cover showed Del Rey standing on a boat, one arm around Jack Nicholson’s grandson Duke, the other reaching towards the camera as if to save the viewer from the water. Behind her, the Californian coast is on fire. The Greatest, Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s defining song, was the cover’s aural analogue: “Hawaii just missed that fireball/LA is in flames it’s getting hot… Kanye West is blond and gone/Life On Mars ain’t just a song/I hope the livestream’s almost on.” But where do you go after burning America down? Did she know what was next?
“No,” says Del Rey lightly. “I felt totally fucked.”
You’d have got long odds, in 2012, on the internet phenomenon of the previous year’s Video Games becoming the decade’s most remarkable and provocative pop star. Back then, Lana Del Rey was more think-piece cipher than Boss-approved songwriter: “a young fiction,” sniffed the Los Angeles Times, “daughter of a domain-name magnate.”
The record states that Elizabeth Woolridge Grant was born in New York in 1985; as a baby, she moved with her parents upstate to Lake Placid. Music was around, but not unusually so. “From what I was told,” she says, “I sang verses before I spoke words, but I don’t think that necessarily meant I had to, or was going to be a singer.” Much else in her supposed biography, she says, is misinformation.
“People said I came from money,” she recounts. “It was really tough to get over some stigma of this idea of having my dad buying my album and giving me a record deal and us being some rich white family when we fought over money constantly when we were young.” Later, she says “I was not from the right side of the tracks, period.”
Sent to boarding school to address an alcohol problem – a period she captured in This Is What Makes Us Girls from her Born To Die album of 2012 – she “was made fun of mercilessly for being white trash. It was so hard, every minute of it was super-tough, not having come from Greenwich. Being super straight-edge in college was just, like, crazy. It’s been the road less travelled the whole time.” She has no interest, she insists, in properly telling her own story, “beautiful” though she says it is: “I don’t give a fuck about people knowing [mocking little voice] my inner thoughts as a third grader.”
Early detractors, chasing down a narrow idea of “authenticity”, were bothered by her musical prehistory – stalled experiments and false starts that might once have been called “paying your dues”. In 2006, she made Sirens under the name May Jailer, spindly alt-folk with a Linda Perhacs wobble that was never officially released. Her next ‘first’ album, Lana Del Ray AKA Lizzy Grant, was removed by her managers from the internet in 2010, preparing a clean slate for the post-Video Games era.
Yet as the plausibly deniable satire of Brooklyn Baby from 2014’s Ultraviolence indicates (“Well my boyfriend’s in a band/He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed”), she put in the hours on New York’s grottiest stages.
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In 2008, Del Rey was living in the Manhattan Mobile Home Park in New Jersey. She would also take the light rail to record with producer David Kahne on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District – sessions that would ultimately become her first EP, Kill Kill, and the since repudiated Lana Del Ray. She had a deal with David Nichtern’s 5 Points Records; Lady Gaga’s manager Bob Leone secured her some classes at the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame; her senior year of metaphysics at Fordham was ending. Odd little paths opened up: she auditioned for Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the musical scored by Bono and The Edge, and “maybe thought about Broadway. You’d get like a hundred dollars for singing background on records that would lead to nowhere. There was this company that emerged called The Orchard that was taking submissions for, like, toilet paper commercials and I probably did one, like, under a pseudonym. Definitely the happiest I’ve ever been. Stay in the middle, no dog in the race, people would even hire me for background stuff. I tried to act so cool on every sofa I sat at.”
It was only in 2010, when she met her current manager Ben Mawson at the CMJ Festival in New York’s Chinatown, that gears shifted and she glimpsed a significant future for herself: “Then I moved to London with him that week and he got me out of my deal that day.”
Success was not immediate. “I lived in a shitty flat with no heat, it was so awful – but they told me it was on Camden Road near where Amy Winehouse used to play at the Roundhouse, and I loved Amy.” Her voice softens dreamily. “I loved Amy.”
Fed up with trying to write songs for other people, one day she “just said ‘fuck it’” to her collaborator Justin Parker: “‘I’m going to write what I want to write now.’” In a Dolly Parton-style fit of productivity, within 72 hours she had Video Games, Born To Die, Blue Jeans and Ride.
On July 23, 2011, just under a month after Video Games appeared on the internet, Del Rey was on a train to Glasgow when Mawson told her she had received her first review. “I had 10 seconds of the most elated feeling,” she remembers, “and then the news everywhere, on all of the televisions, was that Amy had died on her front steps and I was like no. NO.” She breathes in sharply. “Everyone was watching, like, mesmerised, but I personally felt like I didn’t even want to sing any more.”
Ten seconds of elation seems to be as much pleasure as Del Rey has ever taken from her press. When she covered Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood on 2015’s Honeymoon album, it was not casually chosen: anger at the way she feels she has been misrepresented surges through her conversation, despite the four billion streams, the four UK Number 1 albums, and the validation of famous fans from Stevie Nicks to Courtney Love.
Even Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s ecstatic reception was no antidote. “I knew they were going to like Norman… because there’s kind of nothing not to like about it,” she shrugs. “Norman…’s just cool, it’s easy to cheer for that.” She doesn’t, however, believe people are cheering for her: in September, she declared she still felt like an “underdog”.
“When I’m in London I’m reminded of what other people think of me in a great way. Being on the cover of MOJO – I fucking love MOJO. It’s crazy to me, crazy to me, crazy to me that I could be on the cover of MOJO but it’s a little different – ha! – over here,” she says, ie, in America. “I mean, I guess I’ll never forget my first four years of interviews. They just fucking burned me.”
There was the one where the journalist “made fun of me mercilessly, for like, five hours about how I adopted a New York City accent and that everyone knew it was fake, so just give it up. It was embarrassing – he humiliated me. So by the time he asked me about feminism, I said I just wanted to talk about aerospace travel.”
A 2014 Guardian interview headlined “I Wish I Was Dead Already” is another thorn in her psyche. “I didn’t say I wanted to die because of the 27 Club – I said I was having, like, a fucking hard time. The way people talk about mental health in 2020” – she makes the noise of an explosion – “mind blown. Talk about a different world compared with five years ago. You said anything remotely like you’re not feeling so good that day and it’s like, ‘Woah, you’ve set women back like 200 years.’ Or ‘Witch!’ It was super-hard to be a real person.”
Instead, Del Rey continued to build her musical world, creating a reality nobody could dismiss. ‘Evolution’ suggests dramatic Bowie-like shape-shifts; instead, her six albums have been a process of refining her core material – the palette of upcycled hip-hop, vintage Hollywood glamour and Laurel Canyon classicism. But Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s widescreen dazzle was a dead end of sorts – “I had to turn back inward,” she says – and Chemtrails Over The Country Club appears to reveal a more vulnerable Del Rey: lighter on the LA menace, more innocently emotional: “We did it for fun/We did it for free,” she sings sweetly on the song Yosemite, “we did it for the right reasons.” It’s an album that looks at the road ahead, but also, back to where she’s come from, making her strongest connection yet with her antecedents.
“I’ve been covering Joni and dancing with Joan,” she sings on Chemtrails…’ Dance Till We Die – and it’s all true. In October 2019, Del Rey duetted with Joan Baez on her 1975 song Diamonds And Rust at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre; a night of non-stop dancing with the 80-year-old folk hero followed. And as promised, Chemtrails… includes a Joni Mitchell cover from Mitchell’s 1970 album Ladies Of The Canyon. Reprising their October 2019 performance at the Hollywood Bowl, Del Rey shares the verses out with Arizonan singer-songwriter Zella Day and Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering. A bittersweet commentary on the value of art, Mitchell contrasts her “velvet curtain calls” with a busker’s purity – it’s a song, says Del Rey, that means “everything” to her.
“The way things started off for me in the way I was portrayed was that I was feigning emotional sensitivity. I really didn’t like that,” she says coldly. “Because I didn’t even get famous ’til I was, like, 27 and until then, I sang for less than free. And I loved it. I really was that girl who was pure of soul. I didn’t give a fuck.”
For one, Natalie Mering doesn’t doubt Del Rey’s investment in For Free. “I think the verse that Lana sings – “Me, I play for fortunes” – it’s her story too,” she says. “She understands the ephemeral quality of music and that it can’t be completely commodified, even though she’s done such a great job of doing that. I think Joni is very similar.”
Baez and Mitchell, Del Rey says, are “like unicorns”. “Joan, Bob, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, it’s less the albums and more the songs – the single perfect songs. Like Diamonds And Rust or Woodstock.” She rummages on You Tube to find a “staggering” 1962 coffeehouse performance from Baez. “I see a lot of people now wanting to be like other people – and hey, it’s not like I don’t want to be like other people too – but I think there were so many less options to look at in the ’60s, so you kind of just got what you got. You got a Janis or you got a Joan or you got a Jimi – it wasn’t like there was Jimi One, Jimi Two, Jimi Three. When I’m producing things alone, it’s impossible for me to sound anything other than a singer-songwriter. Actually, that’s not true,” she corrects herself. “I’ve got my own little ways about me.”
Mering, comparing Del Rey to Peggy Lee “if she was, like, I’m just going to write everything myself,” agrees. “She’s very free and she’s loose. What she goes for in terms of when she’s writing and working, it’s very magical and intuitive and it’s not very calculated – even though I think maybe she’s been accused of that in the past.”
That looseness – a willingness to wander – feels more present on Chemtrails… than previous albums, yet she insists it has been “so much harder than any other record I’ve made.” Covid separated her from Antonoff – also a collaborator with St. Vincent and Taylor Swift – in the final stages of recording and she missed him. “Everything that could be terrible is hilarious in Jack’s world. I think that’s why he does so well. It’s a rare quality for a man to have that softer kind of side – all hilarity and no inappropriateness.”
She says she finds listening to the new album “a fight”, conceding that she’s offering a pre-emptive critique. “It wasn’t so much that I thought the songs fantastically fit together with like seamless, sunkissed production – but you know, there’s a life lived in there.”
Del Rey has long used Los Angeles to colour and contour her songs. But Chemtrails roves further – Tulsa, Nebraska, Florida – a fitting backcloth for a record about freedom in a world where everything has a price. Not All Who Wander Are Lost – a song whose sky-high trill reminds Del Rey of “Cinderella in the movie where she’s holding the bluebird” – romanticises wanderlust. Wild At Heart and the title track (“I’m not unhinged or unhappy/I’m just wild”) hint at something untameable. If For Free is the record’s presiding spirit, you can also feel the vibrations of Mitchell’s Cactus Tree, a song that acknowledges the hard work of “being free” – shedding compromise, swerving control.
It’s a struggle Del Rey maps onto her folk and country influences, most explicitly on Breaking Up Slowly. A mournful lament riffing on Tammy Wynette and George Jones’s notoriously turbulent relationship, it was written with Tennessean singer-songwriter Nikki Lane, who supported Del Rey in 2019. In a hotel room, Lane mentioned that somebody told her she was “breaking up slowly”. Del Rey immediately sang “…is a hard thing to do”.
“One of the most incredible things about being around her is like, she is a song,” says Lane of Del Rey. “It’s just coming out of her at all hours of the day.”
It's interesting that the best musicians end up in such terrible places.
They have written four more originals; there is also, says Del Rey, “a cover album of country songs” and one of “other folk songs”. Del Rey expects “scepticism,” but explains her father and uncle Phil Madeira (one of Emmylou Harris’s Red Dirt Boys) exposed her to country music in her youth. Her tastes are “stark and blue, somewhat outlaw”: Hank Williams, Bobbie Gentry, Patsy Cline, Wynette. “With a little Marty Robbins and Johnny Paycheck. I went back and listened to Ride [from 2012 EP Paradise] and Video Games and thought, you know, they’re kind of country. I mean, they’re definitely not pop. Maybe the way Video Games got remastered, they’re pop – but there’s something Americana about it for sure. So let’s see how these things come out – I’m not going to have pedal steel guitar on every single thing, but it is easy for me to write.”
A year or so ago, Del Rey attended a party with Jack Antonoff and St. Vincent at the house of Guy Oseary, manager of Madonna and U2. “Something happened,” she says, “kind of a situation like – never meet your idols. And I just thought, ‘I think it’s interesting that the best musicians end up in such terrible places.’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to try my best not to change because I love who I am.’ I said, ‘Jack, it’s dark.’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s dark – but I mean, it’s just a game.’”
The incident inspires a song on Chemtrails… Dark But Just A Game mixes Portishead, Ricky Nelson’s song Garden Party and Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl (“The best ones lost their minds”) into a potent statement of defiance.
“Dark But Just A Game is so her to me,” Antonoff will tell MOJO: “fly down the rabbit hole and smile in the same breath.”
The game, however, takes its toll. As Del Rey talks, it frequently feels as if she’s dusting herself down from past humiliations, brushing off old slights.
“People are constantly inferring that I’ve done so much to myself, when I’ve never even been under anaesthesia or whatever,” she says unprompted, apparently still stung by 2012 speculations over the size of her lips. Occasionally, she makes grand statements: “I wanted music to change in the early 2000s and I wanted it to be better than it was. I think it is and I genuinely think I had a hand in it for female singer-songwriters.” They don’t land like shots from a weaponised ego – more the affirmations of someone who still feels as if she doesn’t say it, nobody will.
On a Chemtrails… song called White Dress she sings in a breathlessly rapt whisper of being “only 19”, working as a waitress, listening to The White Stripes and Kings Of Leon. “Look how I do this,” she sings with trembling innocence, “look how I’ve got this.” Then comes the fall: “It kind of makes me feel that I was better off.”
“I’m sure the grass is always greener,” Del Rey says, looking back on her waitressing days, “but I had a lot of fun dreaming about what was going to come next. Also, I really liked being of service and I still do – I do lots of little things in my spare time that put me back sort of in that service space. How I kind of grew up was to be a man amongst men and a grain of sand on the beach and I preferred to stay in the middle of the boat in that way. Sometimes I feel, with fame, it can put you on the peripheries, where the vultures can pick at you. It’s dangerous on the edges.”
“It’s not that I aspire to be the girl next door,” she says later, “but it’s just that I actually was and I think what some people don’t understand is that the girl next door has things going on, too. A lot of these other people who I see portraying that image are not that way at all – they’re like the biggest bitches who live in, like, insane mansions and who rip people off. This is not bitterness speaking at all. It’s literally just kind of just the facts, ma’am.”
In May 2020, Del Rey posted a “question for the culture” on Instagram. In it, she expressed her belief that artists including Beyoncé, Cardi B and Kehlani were applauded for portraying their sexuality in all its messy complexity, while she was accused of “glamorising abuse” in songs like Ultraviolence, where she quoted the title of The Crystals’ Goffin & King classic He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss). The culture’s answer was not sympathetic: Del Rey was held to account for appearing to single out artists of colour, and criticised for asking feminism to save a place for “women who look and act like me… the kind of women who are slated for being their authentic, delicate selves.”
“I wasn’t saying white like me,” she insists, emphasising that the women she mentioned are artists she loves. “I was saying people who are made a joke of like me.”
Shortly after speaking to MOJO, Del Rey issues another pre-emptive social media strike, pointing out the new album’s artwork – a photograph of the singer surrounded by her friends – does feature women of colour. Three days after that, she posts a video railing against magazines suggesting she told Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac that she didn’t believe Donald Trump meant to incite the Capitol riot. In fact, she says, she was accusing him of sociopathy – a subject, she tells MOJO, she studied for six years, along with “psychopathy and narcissism and delusions of grandeur”.
“When Trump became President, I was not surprised,” she says, “because the macrocosm is the mirror of what goes on in our bedrooms. In our inner lives.
“A lot of the things I was writing [songs] about, people shamed me for,” she continues, “but I like to think now I was actually writing about what thousands of housewives were experiencing and no one ever said a thing from Brentwood to Boca Raton. I just dyed my hair black and talked about it and I got a lot of shit for it.”
She declares that “It takes a more dignified-looking person with a better reputation to call out the world, or the President or some guy who runs a restaurant. I’m going to be the person who corroborates that story, the blonde at the end of the bar… The reason why I can’t be a person who starts certain movements is because of what people have written that isn’t true. And that’s too bad – because I know a lot.”
Does she feel she’s been discredited?
“I was discredited for seven years,” she says, her voice rising so fiercely it’s briefly unclear whether she’s laughing or crying. “There’s no other way of looking it.”
In the poem SportCruiser from Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass, Del Rey wonders if learning to fly could help her navigate life, if learning to sail would show her which way the wind was blowing. Then she realises writing is all the adventure she needs.
“I certainly have to circumnavigate the globe quite a few times to come back to the fact that what I do is that I write, that I live here in LA, that I know who I am,” she says. “I think I’m very hopeful that I’ll feel more and more serene, because that is an objective for me. I just like the idea of waking up peacefully, rather than waking up in a sweat, throwing my feet down on the ground and being like, ‘Oh, what’s going wrong today!’”
Talking earlier about her whispery vocal on White Dress, Del Rey said it was not only close to unedited “journaling” but “also, not too afraid about being kind of stupid. The way I sound in the chorus – because I know it’s… not great, you know,” she laughs.
It sounds perfect for the song, though – trembling, awestruck. The voice of somebody on the brink of something. She agrees – not because it catches her teenage perspective, but because it speaks to her now.
“I actually said to a friend the other day I feel something brewing,” she says. “And that’s the first time in a long time. I have no idea what it is. But I know that it’s good.”
This article originally appeared in MOJO 329.
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