March 25, 2015


The New Americana: Halsey Talks Sex, Strength & Songwriting at SXSW

Jatnna Nunez for Fuse
Jatnna Nunez for Fuse

For New York natives, Halsey is a stop on the L-train, an area of Bushwick, Brooklyn on the edge of Ridgewood, Queens. For pop music fans with a thirst for discovery, it's the latest singer you'd be a fool to ignore. Halsey, the moniker of 20-year-old Ashley Frangipane, has in a single year done more than most singer-songwriters could ever dream of: Signed to a major label, headlined a massive tour with the Kooks, secured a place in the hearts and minds of thousands of fans, all while emoting breathy, heady lines like, "I can't find you in the body sleeping next to me." She was also the most-mentioned artist at SXSW 2015, so, Lana Del Rey fans, take note.

We sat down with the up-and-coming musician at the Austin festival to learn more.

How did you start writing music?

I intended to be a fine art major in college. When I graduated high school and time came to go and I couldn't afford it, bitter as hell, I signed up for community college. When you're an art major you have this pretension, especially when you're eighteen years old, like "I know more than these professors." In some fit of adolescent rage I thought I'd piss my parents off and I signed up as a songwriting major. I went one semester and it just sort of worked for me. As someone who enjoys writing, the biggest struggle, I think, for any writer, is people not actually reading what you write. I would hand essays and prose and stream of consciousness things to my friends and my family and they'd scan it and hand it back. That didn't cut it for me. Songwriting was the easiest solution because it forces people to hear what I'm saying from my voice. I always say I'm a singer out of necessity because I can't imagine anyone singing my songs but myself.

I didn't have a choice. I fell in love with it.

That's why music is your medium of choice.

Right. I think you have a higher chance of being misunderstood when someone is reading something for themselves. When you sing something to someone you control the emotion you provoke. It's just a better outlet for me, anyway because I don't consider myself a sports singer. I'm no Ariana Grande. I can't do the runs and sh*t. The bulk of my performance, my art and my project comes from an emotive way of singing. That's how I stylize things. I think the emotion that I intend to portray comes through my voice and how I control the phrasing of things. Deep down I just have a love of performing. The second show I ever played in my whole life was to like 1,500 people. I was on tour with the Kooks. I didn't have a choice. I fell in love with it.

What singers do you admire? Your approach seems like something you learn from people but ultimately have to figure out on your own. 

My parents were really young when I was growing up so I didn't have Jimmy Buffet or the Beach Boys. My parents raised me on Alanis Morissette and Coldplay and Nirvana and Tupac so I had a very, very heavy pop culture influence in my childhood and that's carried me through to today. I love Alanis Morissette. I think it's been a long time since someone has written an angry, female pop record. That's the kind of position I'd like to put myself in. My record is coming out in August; it's called Badlands. I'd like to consider it an angry, female pop record. I haven't seen one, personally. If there is one, please, send it my way. I'll f*cking download it immediately.

Are you a Liz Phair fan at all?

Hell yeah.

Your stuff, thematically, recalls "F*ck & Run" to me. 

Liz Phair and Alainis Morissette do something similar that really appeals to me. They catch you off guard. They throw phrases and circumstances into songs that are so seemingly conversational they almost feel like they don't belong there. "We haven't f*cked yet but my head is spinning." Amazing line! [Editor's note: from Liz Phair's "Why Can't I?"] Or Alanis Morissette with "Every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back I hope you feel it" in a pop song. In a radio smash! That's the kind of thing I'd love to tap into...making music that keeps dialogue intact and is beautiful and romantic and is stylized and throws these conversational elements to it that makes someone go, "Holy sh*t."

Jatnna Nunez for Fuse
Jatnna Nunez for Fuse

You describe yourself as writing songs that are about "being sad and sex." What is it about those things?

For me, that line is almost satirical. I pride myself on making pop music that's almost ironic. The record that's coming out, those songs have such a strong pop sensibility because I f*cking love pop music. I'm not afraid of pop music. A lot of artists are f*cking scared of pop music and there's no reason to be because pop music is essentially popular music. I write about sex and sadness that, in a way, is almost tongue-in-cheek, without being blatantly ironic or blatantly sarcastic. I definitely don't want to have some kind of schtick.

Because then songs will get diluted and you'll lose that sense of healthy vulnerability.

Exactly! I try to keep a healthy amount of vulnerability while still having a sense of awareness and authenticity. I'm self-aware in my writing. I'm twenty years old. My life is run by sex and sadness. This is the year of angst for I wrote an angsty record. Next year I don't know if people are going to be as accepting. They're going to be like, 'You're 21 now. You're done. No more for you.'

What can we expect from the record? How does it differ from the stuff you've released previously?

The Room 93 EP was my indulgence with my obsession with the isolated feeling of being in a hotel room. As I started traveling and making music, everything was out of hotel rooms: Dating people, having business meetings, trying to keep friendships alive in this isolated prop environment that's like a mock house. 'Oh we're going to make this little thing that's supposed to look like a house but it's not, it's pretend.' It's voyeuristic. It's got this security cam mentality, this feeling of isolation. I took that a little further with the record. It's called Badlands because it's supposed to feel like a dystopia, like an isolated wasteland. It's got the Tarantino, Sin City vibe. Badlands is as if you exited Room 93 to the world that it exists in.

I'm not afraid of pop music. A lot of artists are f*cking scared of pop music and there's no reason to be.

That's very Truman Show of you.

It really is. Voyeurism. Keeping details and dialogue in tact in my music is because of my obsession with voyeurism. My obsession, and everyone's else obsession with looking in on someone else's life. I've tapped into that obsession that society has and kind of exploited it I guess. Ha!

Is it all you or can we expect some collaborations?

I wrote most of the record myself. I do co-writes for fun. It brings a new perspective. You get a piece of art that isn't as contrived and isn't created in a vacuum the same way as if you did it yourself. I've been working with Tim Larcombe who does the stuff for Lana Del Rey, the Captain Cuts guys who did Tove LoWalk the MoonGrouplove. Some underground people too! I was working with Young Gud in Sweden... my boyfriend Lido, he's a producer on Pelican Fly, he's in that Cashmere Cat world. I approached a pop record with a very different mentality. Instead of going to the hit makers, I wrote with the people who are going to be on the lists next year. 

If you had to describe Halsey to someone completely unfamiliar with you and your music, what would you say?

I am a blue-haired, 20-year-old girl from New Jersey. I pride myself in being authentic. I pride myself on having a shock value to what I do that crosses a gender barrier that owns an androgyny, that owns a certain sexuality that male artists can get away with that female artists haven't been able to so far. That's the frontier I'm trying to pioneer through.