Comfort In Chaos: Halsey Interviewed

“I’m constantly creative directing my own human experience.”

Halsey is a pop star not by design but by destiny. Her need to inhabit different worlds and different stories has led her to a place she never expected to be, but in which she’s thriving.

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Like all of us, Halsey is multifaceted, with many – often conflicting – sides to her. But unlike most of us, this is something she’s exploring on an international stage, to an audience of millions.

Taking her moniker from a Brooklyn subway stop where a heroin-addicted boyfriend once lived, the artist formally known as Ashley Nicolette Frangipane started writing music when she was 17, using social media sites such as YouTube and Kik to push her sound out into the world. Tellingly, she first became known for parodying a Taylor Swift track, and ever since then stories and imaginary worlds have been key to her creativity; someone who’s candy pop one minute and grunge the next, via EDM, K-pop and everything in between.

Halsey apparently arrived at Astralwerks – the label that first signed her, back in 2014 – as a fully-formed artist, complete with a back story and rounded identity. For someone who thinks so deeply about narratives, being able to jump between identities and sounds seems to be second nature. This is a woman who talks about Bukowski and K-pop in the same breath, and is as comfortable in Camden as she is in LA; simultaneously a grassroots indie artist and a glitzy pop star, who’s cleverly carved a niche for herself where she’s able to exist as both.

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And that approach is working. Halsey’s released platinum-selling albums, broken radio and YouTube records, amassed over 23 billion streams worldwide and collaborated with artists as varied as BTS, The Chainsmokers and Post Malone. She’s been outspoken on mental health issues – including her own suicide attempt and bipolar disorder – feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, her sexuality, miscarriages as a result of chronic illness… a shrinking violet, this is not.

Her new album ‘Manic’ promises to be as arrestingly refreshing and boundary stretching as what’s come before. Written during a manic episode, surrounded by instruments in Halsey’s new LA home, it explores issues like fertility and mental health, as well as featuring an unexpected line-up of guest artists, from Alanis Morissette to Dominic Fike.

Clash spoke to Halsey in California, to find out more about the new project, and her stratospheric story so far.

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It’s been two years since your last album, how are you feeling about the upcoming release?

In terms of the album coming out, it’s been a long lead, which is rare for me; I usually like to announce things and put them out right away – I’m not the type to keep a secret for six months, but here we are! It’s definitely very cathartic.

I’m comforted by the fact that I’ve been sitting with this body of work for so long and I still feel so strong about it and connected to it. You always love the work you did most recently the best, but just because it’s the thing will care about the most doesn’t mean it’s what everybody else will. That can be kind of hard – seeing through that illusion. With this album, though, I do feel really good. It had a very clear identity once it revealed itself.

At first I was intending to write something that was really angry and volatile and angsty and self-deprecating and unreliable. I wanted to write an album about mania, and that’s what my understanding of it was at the time. And I kept sitting down to write like that, but it felt kind of performative. I did some greater self-inventory and self-forgiveness, and then the faucet opened. The writing became easier upon my discovery that I actually get on with my manic self a lot more than I thought I did.

So as my perception of her became more colourful and whimsical, and nostalgic and juvenile, and limitless and impulsive, with a sense of humour and a self-awareness, once I started perceiving those traits within myself with a less negative connotation the writing became easier. I wasn’t writing with something I was battling; I was writing about something I’d made peace with. Which, for the first time in my life, I found easy to do.

So often we tend to write about the negative, because it’s a quest for deciphering it. Writing about something you’ve made peace with is rare, because usually it’s the writing that brings you the peace.

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What came out of that process? What did you find yourself writing about?

The album isn’t a commentary on mental health – the reason I called it ‘Manic’ is because I wrote it manic. Which I’ve never really done before – usually I’m too distracted or too impulsive to wrangle myself into a room and do something productive. It was my first time ‘off’ in a while, and usually I vent a lot of that [energy] into the chaos of my lifestyle and the chaos of my schedule; it brings me comfort because it gives me a way to exhaust that energy.

Having time off – even though I was out promoting ‘Without Me’, which is pretty demanding, but not on tour – I bought a house in LA and built a studio, and surrounded myself with a grand piano, guitars, mandolins, violins, all this accessibility, so that when that behaviour and state of mind came I had something to do with it. Sometimes I’m unable to harness it, but this time I was in the perfect position to do that.

It had been two years since I put out an album and I felt like the public narrative about me was built around me and other people – people I’d dated or people I’d collaborated with. I had very little narrative, zeitgeist presence on my own, because it’d been so long since I’d spoken singularly. I thought it was time to do this sort of re-introduction to me.

When I first started making music I was this open book because I was so naive. I would tell anyone everything about me, but the problem was no one was really listening, no one fucking cared; I didn’t have an audience. I was giving all this shit away to nobody. And by the time people started paying attention I was already jaded and scared, and really wanted to protect myself and not give things away for fear they’d be changed or abandoned. So I wanted to give everyone a little crash course in me, that isn’t so controlled or polished or, you know, commercialised.

When I first started making music I didn’t really intend to be a pop star. I wanted to play indie showcases and do fucking Reading and Leeds for the rest of my life. And I will play Reading and Leeds for the rest of my life – that’s something really cool about how my career has defined itself: I have the luxury of being able to exist in two spaces, which has been an exercise in allowing myself to adapt and evolve.

I didn’t intend to be this kind of artist, but then I have this year where I’m the most played artist on the radio in the US; there are millions more people engaging with my content, but they're judging me or forming an opinion on me in like three minutes, on the radio. And this started happening two years after I released my last album, which was a concept album, so I thought, ‘Okay, I’m a different kind of artist now. I need to tell people about me.’

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How do you handle having so many sides to yourself as an artist?

I don’t do anything but this. I have very few personal relationships, I don’t have many hobbies, I don’t really take vacations; I don’t really do anything but this, all the time. So I’ve committed myself to being two people. I do all the work of the pop star and I do all the work of the alternative homegrown ‘fan relationship’ artist. I do two people’s amount of work.

Most people choose to do the pop star thing or they chose to be the homegrown, touring, fan-connection, base level artist. They pick one and then save the rest of their energy for like having a boyfriend and playing fucking soccer. I don’t really do that, so that’s been quite a task; balancing all of that, and reminding myself and evaluating myself every day, asking: ‘Are you still doing all this because you want to?’

And what do you say when you ask yourself that?

I think the answer is yes. I mean some days it’s no. Some days it’s: ‘No, I don't fucking want to, but I’m not going to let these people down.’ Sometimes that’s the answer for sure – I’m only a human being.

I was reading this great poem last night – it’s Bukowski so I’m conflicted because he’s super polarising – but I was reading So You Want To Be A Writer and he says – and I’m completely summarising right now – unless it bursts out of you in white hot light, unless you can’t keep it in, if it doesn’t burst forth out of you, if it wouldn’t make itself happen even if you didn’t try: don’t do it.

If you have to sit and stare at the computer screen or hover over your typewriter, if you have to read it to all your friends first, if you’re doing it because you want to get fucking laid, or you want to make money: don’t fucking do it. Unless you would literally die if you didn’t do it, don’t do it. 

And I was reading that thinking, ‘Yep, that sounds about right.’ That's really the only way I could explain it. The biggest challenge this year has been learning to accept the growth of my project with grace and gratitude and humility. And say, in the most respectful way possible, ‘I don’t really fucking care. Thank you for the success and the growth and all this crazy shit that’s been happening to me the past year or so, but also: that’s not why I’m doing it.’

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Maybe it’s because you want to do something entirely for you? You’ve spoken about sharing a lot of yourself early on in your career. Would you change that?

Maybe. I guess I want to say no, and that if it was my impulse at the time then it was the right decision. But I’m 25 now and not 19, and looking back I probably could have just shut the fuck up and everything would have been fine. It’s a double-edged sword: if I’m sharing an experience and people are going to villainize or judge me, but it’s going to help other people because I shared the experience, that’s when I can think it was for the greater good.

But then you also need to realise when you’re being a martyr, and for what? It’s not that profound; you’re a fucking musician, not a saint. You have to remember that sometimes and check that.

It sounds like a bit of an emotional whirlwind!

I don’t think it is for everyone, but for me it really has felt like that. Maybe I’m doing something wrong.

Maybe it’s because you really feel stuff rather than just going through the motions. Which is commendable, but also probably exhausting.

I like those two word choices a lot: ‘commendable and exhausting’. That’s what I want my headstone to say.

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Halsey's new album 'Manic' is out now.

Words: Emma Finamore
Photography: Masha Mel
Fashion: Grace Joel
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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