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Lana Del Rey for New York Times: New Interview & Photos


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LOS ANGELES — In October, before starting an international theater tour, the songwriter Lana Del Rey consulted a clairvoyant. She was instructed to write down four questions in advance and sleep on them. The first question on the list, Ms. Del Rey said in an interview in May at her house here, was “Am I meant for this world?â€

It’s probably not the kind of question most multimillion-selling pop singers would ask themselves with their careers clearly ascendant. This year, Ms. Del Rey was called on to sing a spooky remake of “Once Upon a Dream†for the Disney film “Maleficent,†and she sang at Versailles for the pre-wedding party of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

But doubt, regrets, obsessive longing and self-destructive impulses are often at the core of Ms. Del Rey’s songs and videos. “I wait for you babe, that’s all I do/You don’t come through babe, you never do,†she sings in “Pretty When You Cry†on her new album “Ultraviolence†(Polydor/Interscope), due for release Tuesday.


“I have strong relationships with icons,†Lana Del Rey, says. Credit Kurt Iswarienko for The New York Times
Since her emergence on a major label with the single “Video Games†in 2011 and the album “Born to Die†in 2012, Ms. Del Rey has drawn passionately opposed responses. Her songs and video clips demurely step into cultural minefields, exploring eroticism, mortality, power, submission, glamour, faith, pop-culture iconography and the meaning(s) of the American dream. She has faced, in reviews and online discussions, shifting accusations of inauthenticity, amateurishness, anti-feminism and commercial calculation (although her only Top 10 single in the United States was unplanned: a dance remix by Cedric Gervais of her wistful ballad “Summertime Sadnessâ€). But she has also, largely through YouTube, gathered an adoring worldwide audience that takes her every lyric to heart.

“Ultraviolence†will doubtless stir up more disputes. But one thing the album should immediately eliminate is the notion that Ms. Del Rey is only chasing hits. The album reaches deeper into her slow-motion sense of time, her blend of retro sophistication and seemingly guileless candor. It also moves gracefully between heartache and sly humor, sometimes within the same song.

The music on “Ultraviolence†sets her further outside whatever passes for current pop mainstream. While radio playlists are full of futuristic electronic dance beats and Auto-Tuned testimonials to self-esteem, Ms. Del Rey, 28, has taken a contrary path, melodic and melancholy. Much of her music has been lush and downtempo, invoking vintage movie scores and echoes of the 1950s and 1960s; it opens quiet spaces. Her voice sounds human and unguarded, offering sweetness and ache even when she sings four-letter words.

The tracks on “Born to Die†drew on hip-hop, with grunted samples and hefty beats, but now, she said, “I’m not crazy about some of that production.†The hip-hop influence was already receding on “Paradise,†the EP she released in 2012. And “Ultraviolence†is more languorous than ever. Its first single, “West Coast,†actually downshifts to a slower tempo for its chorus, where standard radio formula calls for a big buildup.

In a throwback to a less-computerized era, many of the tracks on “Ultraviolence†were built around Ms. Del Rey and a seven-piece band recording together and responding to one another. The songs often float in a psychedelic haze that she described as “narco-swing.†Dan Auerbach, the Black Keys’ guitarist, produced and performed on the album, and said, “She was watching us and swaying while we were playing.â€

Mr. Auerbach was drawn to her songs because, he said, “They felt old and new at the same time.†Ms. Del Rey freely cites inspirations including Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Cat Power, Nirvana and Eminem, but none of them emerged in this century. “Think of what’s going on now,†she said. “Where am I going to get my inspiration? I couldn’t think of a thing today that I would really genuinely want to be a part of.â€

In conversation, Ms. Del Rey isn’t the low-voiced chanteuse of songs like “Video Games†or “Blue Jeansâ€; her voice has a girlish, soprano lilt, punctuated with giggles. Wearing a blue mini-dress and clear sandals that revealed toenails painted a pearly peach, she sat on her couch here, sipping coffee and smoking through a pack of cigarettes, under a painting of cherubic angels. She showed off a recent tattoo on her right arm: “Whitman Nabokov,†two authors she has quoted in songs. She had just returned to Los Angeles to finish her North American tour, with a show at the Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall.

After living in London and touring the world, Ms. Del Rey bought her house here, an elegant English-style residence in need of repair, seven months ago. The walls are newly painted in the blues and greens that were also the palette of “Video Games,†the homemade video clip — she edited it on her laptop — that catapulted her career and has now been viewed more than 119 million times on her two YouTube sites alone. The paintings in her living room are of icons — the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth Taylor — and a book on the coffee table had Marilyn Monroe on the cover.


“I have strong relationships with icons,†she says. “They’re probably my most meaningful relationships. They feel personal to me, but maybe that’s what being an icon is. Maybe everyone feels like they have that special relationship that’s different from everybody else, like you love them and you think you understand them more than anyone else, or you get them for who they really are.â€

It’s not a position she aspires to for herself. “I wouldn’t really know how to shape myself as an icon,†she said earnestly.

Many of the accusations that were leveled at her major-label debut were inaccurate. She wasn’t a pretty face serving someone else’s concept, or a dilettante. As Lizzy Grant — born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant — she had worked at being a songwriter since her teens, and playing in small clubs on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg. She grew up in Lake Placid, N.Y., and came to New York City with, she said, “a Dylan-esque dream of a community of writers,†but never found it.

In 2007, she got her first recording contract when she was a senior at Fordham, studying metaphysics. She recorded a debut EP in 2008, and briefly released an album in 2010 — “Lizzy Grant a.k.a. Lana Del Ray†— before it was withdrawn while she renamed herself Lana Del Rey. The songs on that album were already exploring the tarnished innocence and dangerous compulsions that she would return to on “Born To Die.†The production would change with her collaborators, but her perspective did not.

As many songwriters do, she works with more trained musicians who supply foundations for her melodies and lyrics. Sometimes they offer chord progressions while she improvises; sometimes she brings finished words and tunes for them to harmonize. “She’s very clear about what she wants and doesn’t want,†said Rick Nowels, who wrote “Young and Beautiful†and “West Coast†with her, and who has collaborated with Madonna and Dido. “She is the captain of her own ship.â€

Ms. Del Rey describes her songwriting simply. “I want one of two things,†she said. “I either want to tell it exactly like the way it was, or I want to envision the future the way I hope it will become. I’m either documenting something or I’m dreaming.â€

On “Ultraviolence,†that means songs like “Cruel World,†in which she breaks away from a long failed relationship — “Shared my body and my mind with you/That’s all over now†— and “Sad Girl,†a bluesy reflection on “being a mistress on the sideâ€; she also sings “The Other Woman,†a song recorded by Nina Simone.

Already braced for disapproval, she said: “If you really do want to analyze me, if that’s maybe something you’re interested in, let me tell you my story and you can look at that.â€

The recording of “Pretty When You Cry†is built around the original writing session: chords from her band’s guitarist, Blake Stranathan, a fluctuating tempo and words she was making up on the spot. “I’m stronger than all my men,†she sings, “except for you.†A more conventional approach would be to redo its shaky, scratchy lead vocal with something prettier. “I didn’t even think to go back and fix it,†she said, “because if you know the story behind it, then you can tell why it was sung that way.â€

The angry responses to “Born to Die†left scars. “Carl Jung said that inevitably what other people think of you becomes a small facet of your psyche, whether you want it to or not,†she said. Her new album includes a retort: “Money, Power, Glory,†which claims, with deep sarcasm, that those are what she’s after.

“I learned that whatever I did elicited an opposite response, so I’m sure ‘Money, Power, Glory’ will actually resonate with people as being what I really do want,†she said with a shrug. “I already know what’s coming, so it’s O.K. to explore irony and bitterness.â€

A recurring criticism was that her songs about being swept away by love were anti-feminist in their passivity; she contends that she was writing about private, immediate feelings, not setting out doctrine. “For me, a true feminist is someone who is a woman who does exactly what she wants,†she said. “If my choice is to, I don’t know, be with a lot of men, or if I enjoy a really physical relationship, I don’t think that’s necessarily being anti-feminist. For me the argument of feminism never really should have come into the picture. Because I don’t know too much about the history of feminism, and so I’m not really a relevant person to bring into the conversation. Everything I was writing was so autobiographical, it could really only be a personal analysis.â€

She has also been denounced for video clips that culminate in her death: by drowning, by falling, by choking. The video for “Born To Die†ends with her in a boyfriend’s arms, inert and covered in blood. She agrees that her videos have often been “exploring ways to die,†she said, adding: “I love the idea that it’ll all be over. It’s just a relief, really. I’m scared to die, but I want to die.†The title song of “Ultraviolence†ventures into precarious territory. In an arrangement that melds Baroque dirge and wah-wah guitar, the singer describes herself as “filled with poison but blessed with beauty and rage,†and goes on to quote a fraught 1962 song from the Crystals, “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).â€

The lyrics also mention a “cult leader,†and Ms. Del Rey said the song looked back to a time soon after she moved to New York City, when she considered following a guru who “believed in breaking you down to build you back up again.†“It sounds kind of weird,†she added, “but that is what it’s about, and having romantic feelings entwined with the idea of being led and letting go and surrendering. That’s always a concept to me, like I’m wavering between independence and falling into lifestyles and being led.â€

There’s an underlying pattern to the songs throughout “Ultraviolenceâ€; Ms. Del Rey’s voice appears alone and often fragile in the verses, then is swarmed by instruments and multiple backup vocals. “Each tune fully represents the ebbs and flows, the periods of normality mixed with this uncontrolled chaos that comes in through circumstances in my life,†she said. “It’s your story. If you’re the one writing it, you want to tell your story right.â€

The next night Ms. Del Rey was at the Shrine’s Expo Hall before a packed, standing audience. There were high-pitched screams when she strolled onstage, and from the front to the back of the hangarlike hall, voices were raised to sing along. It wasn’t, like some concerts, a social occasion; this audience was devotional, sharing every word, sometimes close to drowning her out. Onstage, Ms. Del Rey just stood there and sang, swaying occasionally; when she did her one planned bit of choreography, a single hip flip in “Body Electric,†the whole room roared.

“The energy is so much higher in the pit than it is onstage,†she noted afterward. She strolled twice down into the photo pit, trailed by a video camera, as fans reached for her with offerings and hugs; one fervent embrace looked like a half-nelson. “I’ve lost a lot of hair on this tour,†she said later, backstage. “The audience has been an unexpected well of comfort that I’ve dipped into recently. It was never something I even thought to go to for strength or affirmation.â€

But the adoration hasn’t quite broken through the solitude of her songs. “Yes, I’m in a different place today than I was four years ago,†she said. “But I’m some ways I’m still in the exact same place. I’m still on the periphery.â€



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