In two short years, Lana Del Rey has emerged as an American icon.
“Where I’m at now...calls for a cigarette,” Lana Del Rey decides with a laugh, drawing a Pall Mall from a pack and lighting it. Casually dressed in faded jean shorts, a chambray shirt, and brown loafers, her dark auburn hair piled on top of her head and held with a clip, the sad-core soul singer of “Video Games” fame might pass for the prettiest girl from high school—the one everyone assumed was aloof but who was probably just shy, the one who, yep, Facebook confirms it, is still pretty—were it not for a pair of lush, red carpet-ready lashes casting shadows across her cheeks with each blink.
Geographically speaking, she’s at the midcentury home in the Hollywood Hills that she’s rented for the past year, lounging on a mod patio chair on the circular back deck that overlooks a glinting turquoise pool, a back canyon to the Sunset Strip, another hill, and, on less smoggy days, the Pacific Ocean. Her lease is up at the end of the week, and just inside, her belongings are half-packed for an impending move across town to a historic house she recently bought.
Professionally, Del Rey, 27, is at a bit of an in-between place as well. More than 20 months have passed since the release of her breakthrough album, Born to Die, almost 12 since her follow-up EP Paradise, and yet the amount of bandwidth devoted to the baroque-pop star continues to balloon. She’s served as a muse for Mulberry and modeled for H&M. The day of our inter- view, Cedric Gervais’s dance remix of “Summertime Sadness,” a song not originally intended for formal release, shot up the Billboard charts to No. 6. She’s been traveling, and heard the track for the first time yesterday on her way to pick up groceries. “It’s very dance-y,” she says, almost in disbelief. “I love to dance—just never thought I would to my music.”
Her second-best-selling single in the U.S., “Young and Beautiful,” off this year’s The Great Gatsby soundtrack, just might be her most captivating to date, made for a film that complements her vintage aesthetic but, ironically, the one best suited to pure listening, lights off, tears streaming. This fall, the singer stars in a film of her own, Tropico, a short directed by Anthony Mandler. Meanwhile, demos from her hacked email accounts continue to surface online, including at least one she’d slated for her next full-length, tentatively scheduled for 2014.
It’s no wonder she’s decided to chill out for a while and reboot. “Right now, I’m doing family and thinking about what I want to be doing,” she says. “I’m enjoying living easily, planting trees, things like that.”
Del Rey’s gaze shifts to the window of a bedroom she shares with Barrie-James O’Neill, frontman of the Glaswegian alt-folk band Kassidy, and her boyfriend of a little more than two years. The two met after O’Neill’s manager sent him “Video Games” with the description: “Your future ex-wife.” He called asking to meet her, and they’ve been together ever since. The Pall Malls are his. “I’m just a little copycat,” she quips. “Plus, I don’t like to buy my own because I’m not a real smoker, you know?” She smiles, whispering that O’Neill and her younger brother, Charlie Grant, are inside, sleeping. “So if you see two six-foot-five, half-naked giants emerge, that is who they are.”
It’s almost a mystery in itself how Del Rey has managed to remain an enigma. The think-piece police have been out in full force, screen-grabbing her digi- tal bread crumbs in an attempt to connect the dots between a blonde, open-mic-circuit singer named Lizzy Grant and the pin- curled indie pinup-turned-Inter- scope buzz act who barreled to stardom after a much-discussed Saturday Night Live performance.
Google listed her in the top five performing artist searches of 2012, but the reviews for Born to Die were mixed, a response that matched the dichotomy of Del Rey’s persona—a mishmash of Priscilla and Ann-Margret, Jackie and Marilyn, Valencia-filtered to hazy perfection. Whether you were a critic, a member of the record-buying public, or Brian Williams, you had an opinion on her music. And you were also buying it: five million albums to date, 8.5 million singles.
Almost two years later, the discourse appears to be shifting heavily in her favor—even some of the early critics have come around to acknowledge that Born to Die is unquestionably interesting and quite possibly a classic. With anticipation for her next album growing stronger by the minute, it may be time to ask: Has Lana Del Rey successfully transitioned from the most polarizing figure in popular music to the closest thing our contemporary culture has to an American icon?
“Let’s go inside,” she says.
As predicted, two giants emerge, though fully clothed. O’Neill wears a white T-shirt and Dark Side of the Moon-themed pajama pants, her brother: shorts and a tee. Del Rey jokes with them before giving a tour of the home under the watchful eye of a large pop-art rendering of Jackie Kennedy (a black-and-white photograph of Marilyn Monroe is wedged in the bottom right corner of the frame).
She points to the pictures of Kurt Cobain and the Virgin Mary lining the baby grand’s music rack. It’s clear the singer has a thing for icons, but she says it’s a coincidence that her lifelong heroes happen to be the most famous people in the world. “I just thought Elvis was the most handsome person I had ever seen,” she says. “I thought I was the only one who knew.”
Del Rey lifts a chandelier out of a box. “I picked this up in Australia—once all of its crystals are back on, it’s going to be great,” she says. Her décor plan for the new house: “the ’70s in the South of France, lots of rattan, blue and gold, bamboo, and long curtains.” Del Rey is looking forward to the move—and not only for the house’s original wood detailing and natural light. “The neighborhood is really quiet,” she says. “The thing about being up here is that people can follow you; it’s harder to just be.”
The constant attention has affected her writing process as well. “It’s harder to be an observer when people are watching you,” she says. “You have to go further inside because the outside world becomes a harder place to draw from.” She’s also not win- ning any “good neighbor” awards in her current home. “We leave the trash out, and we don’t put the bins in the friggin’ street,” she admits. “Everyone just hates us. They are going to have a party— and so are we—when we leave.”
Lana Del Rey’s parents met in advertising in New York City. In 1986, they gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, and moved to Lake Placid, where her father began investing in real estate and, later, online properties. “Where we lived in the Adirondacks was very small, like 1,100 people,” she says.
Del Rey recalls family trips to Florida down the eastern seaboard. “I remember driving over all of the bridges and seeing all of the flashing lights and more and more people and being absolutely thrilled at the possibility of all these things I could do when I grew up,” she says. “Lake Placid is the coldest spot in the nation, other than Duluth.”
She attended a Catholic elementary school called St. Agnes, and was the cantor of the church across the street. “I loved church,” says Del Rey. “I loved the mysticism, the idea of something bigger, the idea of a divine plan. For me, the concept of religion transitioned into a really healthy idea of God—I don’t have the traditional views of a conservative Catholic, but my imagination was opened within the big blue-and-gold cathedral walls. I liked the idea of being looked after.”
She spent most of her school days looking out of windows and wishing she were somewhere else until a philosophy class she took at 15 changed the course of her life. “That was where I knew I’d find my people. I wanted to be around people who were asking, ‘Why are we here?’” Around the same time, she’d also discovered alcohol—her teenage drink of choice: “anything fast and dark.”
“Sometimes when I write about my feelings, about what sounds like a person, I’m actually writ- ing about the way I felt when I was completely inebriated, which was really good—until it wasn’t working for me anymore,” she says. Her parents sent her to Kent, a strict boarding school in Connecticut, and by 18, she was sober. “Thinking about not drinking forever was very scary, but once I did it wasn’t hard any- more because I had all of these miracles happen that let me know I was on exactly the right path,” she says.
She enrolled at Fordham University in the Bronx to study philosophy and began volunteering at homeless and drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation programs. At one point, she took a road trip across the country to paint and rebuild houses on a Native American reservation. Around this time, she also began singing at Williamsburg and Lower East Side venues like Laila Lounge, Galapagos, The Living Room, and The Bitter End.
Throughout school, she moved around between the apartments of friends and boyfriends. “My mom called me ‘the couch queen,’” she says. She remem- bers spending long nights at a Chinese deli on 42nd Street. “They’d let me buy a banana and a coffee and stay there until mid- night,” she says. “I would go over different rhymes in my head, like rhyming ‘disco’ with ‘go-go,’ writ- ing about girls with blue mascara and black eyeliner, and about all of the men I had met who I just loved. It was a very liberating, penniless, hilarious, fun, fun time.”
One of the apartments she stayed in was that of her then- boyfriend, Steven Mertens, a fixture in New York’s alt-rock and antifolk scenes. He wound up producing her first album, Lana Del Ray a.k.a. Lizzy Grant, which was eventually re-recorded by David Kahne for the independent label 5 Points Records. The “Ray” would change to “Rey” by her breakout sophomore release, of course, but the title of her debut spelled out in plain letters that a transformation was afoot.
The record also helped her secure the first permanent address of her young adult life. “Obviously, when you’re 20, you don’t have too much money, but when I signed my first deal, I got a check for $10,000,” says Del Rey. She used the cash to rent
a trailer in the Manhattan Mobile Home Park in North Bergen, New Jersey, and commuted on the Hudson-Bergen line for her final year at Fordham. “There were a lot of families and residents who had been there for 35 years,” she says of the community. “I liked the time by myself. I liked decorating it with streamers—but only on the inside—fish tanks, little pink speakers with a jack for my iPod Touch. I wasn’t partying, I was really serious at the time, and I liked the diverse environ- ments—going from the Bronx to New Jersey, and then recording with David on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District. I loved taking cars from one place to another.”
Her label shelved the record- ing for a couple of years before releasing it on iTunes in 2010. Three months later, Del Rey met a lawyer named Ben Mawson, who, along with Ed Millett, would become her manager. Del Rey was their first client.
“When I met Ben and Ed, they helped me facilitate, but the tunes were a natural progression from where they began,” explains Del Rey. “Even the new videos, conceptually, are an extension of what I was exploring a while ago.” Mawson and Millett also helped her get out of her deal with 5 Points, where, she says, “nothing was happening.” Not too long after, she moved to London, where she crashed with Mawson for a few years.
All the while she was uploading spliced YouTube videos to tunes of hazy young romance, songs like “Yayo” and “Mermaid Motel,” to little attention. “I loved what I was doing and had so much fun,” she says. “I loved the moods I was creating just for myself and by myself.”
About fifth in line was a montage for “Video Games,” a song she’d written with Justin Parker about the simple pleasure of watching an old boyfriend play video games. The instrumentation was minimal and melancholic—an unfussy piano line, soft strings, occasional harp trills. For the video, she interspersed found footage of California landscapes and the Chateau Marmont with fuzzy shots of herself singing.
By then, she’d traded Lizzy Grant’s blonde bob for Lana Del Rey’s long, silky locks. A French manicure, off-the-shoulder sweater, and come-hither pale-pink pout completed the look.
Del Rey’s younger sister, Caroline “Chuck” Grant, took many of Del Rey’s early promotional photos, and continues to help define her visual aesthetic. Grant says growing up in a resort town inspired the sisters’ mutual appreciation for visual represen- tations of the American Dream. While the decadent camps on Lake Placid didn’t belong to them, they took comfort in their cinematic grandeur. “[During shoots,] we’ll talk about creating realities through creative and spiritual intention,” she says. “I think of the photographs as a series of postcards that represent the different worlds we’ve created or been to—worlds we’ve spent a lot of time in.”
With the video for “Video Games,” Del Rey perfectly encapsulated a similar misty reverie—something the Internet generation craved near the tail end of the first decade of the new millennium. Plus, the mysterious, self- styled “gangster Nancy Sinatra” cooing to the camera was, to say the least, compelling. “Suddenly, well-known people were posting it, and I thought, ‘How did they get my video?’” she says.
Among the video’s die-hards was actress Jaime King, who has become one of Del Rey’s closest friends. “Seeing all of those images put together, along with the songwriting, the melody, and just her face, was something that captured me where I could barely breathe,” says King. When she heard the singer was performing a small show at the Chateau Marmont, she rushed over after shooting an episode of Hart of Dixie but got there too late. “She was walking out as I was walking in, and that’s how we met,” she says. The two ran into each other a few more times in L.A. over the next few months. “It was like the universe brought us together, and it makes sense because she’s like a sister to me,” says King. “I’m pregnant right now, and having her by my side through this process has been so important to me. There’s something very calming about her presence.”
Del Rey isn’t sure why “Video Games,” a long song with no drums, was the one that took off. “I know when I wrote it, I was in love with it—I sent it to everyone, saying, ‘Look! This is me in song form,’ she recounts. “No one in my own circle had a very big reaction, but then Fearne Cotton on Radio 1 started spinning it every day, and that’s when things really started to change.”
King, for one, was not surprised. “What’s really stunning to me about Lana is that everything she creates is completely from the depths of her heart and her soul,” she says. “Most artists these days, especially female pop artists, unfortunately, have
a whole machine behind them. They choose from the same core of songs that are being written by the same five people, and then they have No. 1 hits, but it’s not something they conceptualized, or sat down with pen and paper and wrote. What’s astonishing is that she’s sort of a Jim Morrison. There’s nothing inauthentic about what she does. Every song, every look, every video, everything that she puts out into the world is all from her, and that’s so rare. The only person who created Lana Del Rey is her.”
And the evolution is ongoing. After all, like many women in their 20s, she’s been seduced by the constant reinvention possibilities of persona-generating social-media outlets. Her family still calls her Lizzy, though sometimes they’ll switch to Lana. “It’s interchangeable for them, like a nickname or something,” she explains.
These days, a typical afternoon involves waking up late, drink- ing coffee, smoking a cigarette on her back porch with O’Neill, and then taking a drive, usually to Malibu and always with Del Rey behind the wheel. He’ll hum a song into his iPhone recorder; she’ll put in her two cents. Sometimes they’ll stop at Neptune’s Net, a biker bar at the end of the beach. Del Rey feels connected to motorcycle culture, the freedom of the open road, the nomadic lifestyle. “It’s about living for the day, which was my mind- set for a long time,” she says.
Other days, they’ll just drive to the ocean, stop on the side of the road, and watch the waves. “We talk about the future, what we want to do, and how we’re going to work out everything with timing, since I have a lot of shows coming up,” she says. “Driving is our thinking time. Then we’ll come back and write.”
The two initially bonded over a mutual love of Kurt Cobain. “He’s a big part of our daily conversation. Jeff Buckley is another big inspiration. And Jim Morrison—I mean, we talk about these people like we know them. They’re a part of our relationship. We always say, ‘All of our friends are dead, and they never knew us.’ I’m lucky to have met someone who feels that way, too.”
The couple have been recording some ’70s-style rock with producer Jonathan Wilson in Silver Lake for fun, but Del Rey characterizes her next release as a work-in-progress, done on her own terms and timetable. “When people ask me about it, I just have to be honest—I really don’t know,” she admits. “I don’t want to say, ‘Yeah, definitely—the next one’s better than this one,’ because I don’t really hear a next one. My muse is very fickle. She only comes to me sometimes, which is annoying.”
Also bothersome: having your email hacked. “When ‘Black Beauty’ got leaked, I was a little bit discouraged, because I usu- ally focus an entire record around one song, or one phrase, or one title, like...‘Black Beauty,’” she says. In a time of contrived viral videos and choreographed twerking, the incident feels legitimately unplanned, unfortunate, and un- spinnable. The leak didn’t completely crush her creativity, “but it didn’t help,” she says.
What fans do have to enjoy in the interim is Tropico, a short film featuring three songs off the singer’s Paradise EP. “It’s Elvis and Jesus and Marilyn and extra- terrestrials all in one,” she says, her eyes sparkling.
Previously, she’d worked with Mandler on videos like “National Anthem,” in which she plays Jackie and Marilyn to A$AP Rocky’s John F. “I had storyboarded this idea of a modern-day Kennedy story,” she says. “I’ve been inspired by the footage I’ve seen of them, more than their story, just all of the colors in the film. And as far as the song, I’ve had a few relationships where there was complete devotion on behalf of the guy. I loved the idea of a girl telling her boyfriend, ‘Tell me I’m your national anthem, your star-spangled banner, salute to me and love me’—you know, in a good way, in a beautiful way. I wanted to show how modern- day romance could still have that classic feel.”
She panicked the day before the shoot, worrying her fans might think it was weird that she’d decided to portray both the wife and the mistress. “But I just couldn’t choose between them. I wanted to do both,” she says.
Back outside, Del Rey drops a burning cigarette into a glass jar half-filled with water and forms a steeple with her long fingers, extended by red-painted acrylic tips, a remnant of her NYLON photo shoot from a week earlier. A tiny cross of gems dots the nail of her left ring finger. Below it, a faint tan line marks the spot of a certain piece of “mystery bling” the paparazzi have been scoping since February.
It’s clear that no matter what Del Rey decides to do next, she will continue to fascinate—and inspire more myth-making. “It’s important to have a good relationship with yourself when you become well known,” she says. “People will say a lot of things, and you’ll start to wonder if they’re true. But then you have to go back to all of those little truths and kernels you found along the way that remind you: You are where you’re supposed to be.”