From the archives: Hanna Hanra interviews the pouty-lipped singer for our Nov/Dec 2011 cover, just as the ‘Video Games’ girl hit the big time.
Lana Del Reyand I are perched on the curb trying to light cigarettes with a novelty lighter shaped like a gold bar. Tiny, encased in a leather biker jacket and skintight jeans, her soft brown curls cascading over her shoulders, she finally beats the breeze with the diminutive flame that pops out the top.
It has been a whirlwind year for the 25-year-old NY native, who has been splitting her time equally between Brooklyn and east London’s Kingsland Road (couch surfing all the way). Like Willow Smith, SuBo and, er, Boo the dog, she has achieved that dubious accolade of “internet sensation” status and is in the process of turning her hit ‘Video Games’ – seemingly everywhere at the moment, from the Christopher Kane show this September to the latest episode of Made In Chelsea – into a proper chart topper.
To be fair, the song does its own PR pretty well. It’s one of those niggling tunes that lodges in your head, both because of its simplicity (the main refrain is just four notes, mirroring the slow march of the backing chords) and a more complex, displaced sense of nostalgia, full of odd contrasts. Lyrics like “I say you the bestest/ Lean in for a big kiss” have a sad, faded coquettishness to them, while the chorus (“It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you”) blaze with naïve sincerity. Then there’s the repeating full stop of ‘Video Games’ – which seems both weirdly out of place and suitably childlike in the midst of it all.
Del Rey’s heart-stopping voice – think Mazzy Star with Stevie Nicks’ vocal range and Nancy Sinatra’s fragile strength – stands a mile out from the other stuff in the charts. There’s no Auto-Tune or expensive video or banging remix. It’s just Lana, and some harps and a bit of piano, creating a spooky, swirling filmic atmosphere.
I expect her to be like her songs, a bit sad and introspective. She’s not. She’s giggly and full of beans. She jumps up to talk to various other people that walk past, proclaiming her love for them. She flutters her eyelids, which are thick with eyeliner and falsies, and twiddles with the tassels on her purple slippers.
Lana (born Lizzie Grant) started to make music when she was 18. “I was always writing little songs, but nothing I liked then. When I left school I wanted to do music because I thought I was good at it and I wanted to do something that I loved. So my uncle taught me to play guitar and I did these little shows, just me and my guitar, singing and playing the five chords that I knew.”
I mention how that’s quite punk, that Patti Smith famously only knows three chords, and she laughs, “I’ve got two up on you, Patti!” That might not be the only similarity either – Patti famously plugged away until the world sat up and took notice of her. “Yeah, there were so many times when I didn’t think ‘it’ would happen. I just carried on living my life, you know?”
Raised in Lake Placid, upstate New York, Lana listened to Eminem as a kid (“Everyone listened to him, it was the 90s”) until she discovered Bob Dylan, Nirvana and Frank Sinatra, “the masters of all genres. Does their music inspire mine? They inspire me in life and my life inspires my music, so I sort of think they have influenced my music.”
I’m trying to imagine how the Dylan/Cobain/Old Blue Eyes triumvirate permeates her life on a day-to-day basis – her hair is perfect, her face is perfect, she’s not wearing a suit or a holey old sweater: she looks like an escapee from Valley of the Dolls meshed with, as one blogger put it, a blow-up doll version of Natalie Portman.
Maybe it’s in her old-fashioned Hollywood pizzazz that so many aspire to and even more fail at. And this in turn might be the crux of some of the Del Rey backlash that has surfaced online – that her lips are fake and that she originally recorded under her own name. Neither things are new or surprising with many other pop stars, but with Lana it has caused a Marmite reaction.
“Yeah,” she sighs, “my mood changes about it depending on the day. In general, you don’t want anyone to say anything bad about you. I think when anything gets popular quickly there is always scepticism, but I don’t think that’s grounds for being rude or cruel. I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened if I were a man. I personally don’t believe in expressing a negative opinion, just because I’m not interested in it. Life is so short in general – the more negative energy you put into the world is just time-wasting.” She takes a long draw on her cigarette and adds, fixedly, “What other people think of me is none of my business, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt my feelings.”
The dilapidated glamour of Del Rey’s aesthetics is part of the reason we love her. Her DIY videos, made with her sister holding the laptop to film her, and spliced in with old clips from YouTube, are part of what has gotten her to this point. No marketing man or video director could have faked the naivety and enthusiasm she’s poured into them.
“Yeah,” she bursts, “I’ve made all the videos so far – it’s expensive and I had no budget to ask anyone else. I think when you really want to make your own world around you, you just do what you can with what you have. And I didn’t have that much. Building my visual world was something that I transitioned to because I had done everything I wanted to do sonically – I’d finished my first record and I needed to get the pictures around it and, again, I was just guided by my own intuition, for whatever that was worth.”
We shoot the breeze for a while, talking about boarding school (she went, she was an outsider, although she wouldn’t want to put it like that), stylists (she has one, it’s more of a gay-best-friend-who-helps-her-find-the-right-frock-for-events scenario), where to get the best manicures (she has huge acrylic nails) and where she’d like to call home (“New York. Or Paris. I don’t know.”).
Listening to Del Rey’s music, it seems incongruous that someone so chirpy could make such sad songs. “I’ve been happy and sad; I’m not sad anymore. It doesn’t have anything to do with the music; it has to do with enjoying life, on life’s terms, and finding peace with yourself. I’ve been happy for a real long time – seven or eight years.” Is she happy because she makes the music she wants to? “Yeah,” she beams before saying, dogmatically, that she believes “it’s important to walk along a path towards something that makes you happy career-wise. And if you’re not happy, you can’t tell yourself that you are.”
Has having four million hits and counting on ‘Video Games’ made her happy? “I am happy with the way things are,” she says, “but I was happy with the way things were. I could be doing anything but I am doing what I love, and not doing things I hate.” There must be parts she doesn’t favour? She grins. “When I thought it was never going to happen, I stopped doing it and just lived my life. I haven’t been on stage for two years… so I’m not too sure how that is going to work – I’m not a natural exhibitionist.”
This much was evident during Del Rey’s recent appearance on Later… With Jools Holland. Dressed all in white, with huge hoop earrings, she shuffled uneasily from side to side, her eyes cast down and her voice perhaps even more fragile than usual. But somehow it ended up being all part of the charm – the rapt silence in the room was palpable.
She lights another cigarette and stirs at the gravel with her toe, hands neatly folded in her lap. What will happen next to the girl who reminded us that pop can be crafted and beautiful, whose favourite records are Lil’ Wayne and the American Beauty soundtrack? Whose big hit that was made at home on her laptop went viral quicker than you can say “Bieber”? “This afternoon I’m off to work with Bobby Womack,” she laughs. So, she’s right. There’s something to be said for gentle persistence.
Words: Hanna Hanra
Images: AJ Numan
Styling: Julia Sarr-Jamois