Halsey: “I’ve always been driven to reinvent myself and reinvent my genre”
The last time Halsey graced the cover of HiPHOPLEAKS back in 2018, she shared the cover shot with a tongue-in-cheek caveat. “I always wanted to be voted ‘worst band/artist’ at the NME Awards but I guess they have other plans,” she tweeted at the time. Today, they burst out laughing when they’re reminded of that desire but, while the forward-thinking artist notes they’re “very sarcastic on the internet”, that tweet did give a glimpse into how accepted they once presumed they’d be in NME’s world.
“I guess I just thought the only way I would ever get an NME Award was if it was gonna be that,” Halsey explains over the phone from her LA house one crisp autumn morning. “I would be like, ‘Hey, you know, at least I’m being recognised for something’.”
In reality, a ‘Worst Artist’ award was never on the cards for the New Jersey-born singer from the moment she broke through with her debut album ‘Badlands’ in 2015. Ever since, they’ve pushed boundaries and raised bars with their ambitious and creative pop, whether she’s been building dystopian wonderlands (‘Badlands’), crafting their own Shakespearean mythology on a Romeo and Juliet-inspired follow-up (‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’), or unpicking persona and alter-ego (‘Manic’).
In August 2021, she entered a new but equally inventive era with ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’, an album that saw her team up with her heroes, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Together, they went all-in on the industrial rock sounds that had lingered in the background of her music since the start. In a four-star review, HiPHOPLEAKS described it as a “defiant artistic statement of their singular talent”.
And now, the trailblazing musician will be the recipient of the Innovation Award at the BandLab NME Awards at O2 Brixton Academy in March 2022. “I wasn’t expecting [this], I was very surprised,” they say of hearing the news of the honour for the first time. “But it’s really, really awesome – I think you start to get really sad and nervous about how your music connects when you’re not around to bring it to life and to know that it’s still resonating is really, really cool.”
For Halsey, being celebrated as an innovator who constantly reinvents themselves – and, in turn, inspires the music world around them to also evolve – reflects exactly what she was trying to do on ‘If I Can’t Have Love…’.
“It was an opportunity to take advantage of the state of the world, the state that I was in and the state of music, and try something that was going to challenge me and try something that, commercially speaking, a lot of people would have perceived as a bit of a risk,” they explain.
That’s a keyword in her story – risk – and one that she’s never been afraid of. It’s hard to think of many pop artists who would centre their debut album (‘Badlands’) around a dystopian universe meant to reflect their own mental state, particularly at a time when talking openly about mental health wasn’t yet prevalent in the pop sphere. And who else would follow that up with a record that reinterprets male and heteronormative narratives in an inclusive take on one of the most iconic love stories of all time?
“I’ve always been driven to reinvent myself and reinvent my genre,” they say, but point to 2019 as the moment when they really started to embrace a no-holds-barred approach. “I had a record on the Post Malone album [‘Hollywood’s Bleeding’], I had the Bring Me The Horizon collaboration [‘¿’] that was this nu-metal record, and then I was performing [‘Manic’ single] ‘You Should Be Sad’ at the Country Music Awards in the US. It was funny because it was around the album ‘Manic’, and I had this manic moment where I was like, ‘I can do anything!’ It was super liberating.”
“To know that ‘If I Can’t Have Love…’ is still resonating is really, really cool”
It’s not just genre that she has proven she can take any path in, but as the type of artist she is too. Pop stars often end up pushed into two categories: a chart-topper with radio smashes; or an inventive, cult favourite. Halsey has shown that you don’t have to give up the latter to succeed at the former, nor does commercial success have to box you in once you achieve it.
“After ‘Manic’, I had a handful of radio hits and I think people probably would have expected me to – and I would have expected myself actually – to go in that direction and continue wanting to make music that is performing commercially in that same way,” she says. “If I want to sustain myself and give myself longevity, I need to continue to make things that I love and make things that challenge me as a creative. That’s how this album came into fruition.”
When Halsey announced her collaboration with Reznor and Ross in June, the general reaction was one of surprise. Even they concede that they never expected the Oscar-winning film scorers [The Social Network, Soul] and Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame members to accept her offer to work on the record. The duo’s back catalogue has “informed and educated” most of her music taste, and just plucking up the courage to ask them to get involved was “the scariest moment of my life”. Sometimes, though, overcoming fear lets you reap phenomenal rewards, so they penned a letter explaining the premise of the project.
“First of all, I thought I was writing a letter to Santa being like, ‘I’ve been a very good girl’,” she jokes. “I was just really honest and said I was a huge fan and I’ve been plagiarising you guys for years – badly – and I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I have anything new to offer you, but this album is about pregnancy, gender identity, body horror. The most important thing to me is that this album has tension – it needs to be visceral, or I’m doing a disservice to the message.”
If her chosen producers had turned her down, she says, ‘If I Can’t Have Love…’ would likely have never been made. They liken the experience of approaching them to trying to get into Berlin’s notoriously select nightclub, Berghain. “I’ve been to Berlin like 15 times and still won’t go to Berghain because I’m scared they’re gonna turn me away at the door,” Halsey sighs. “If they say no to me, I’m literally never gonna recover, so I just don’t even wanna go. That’s kind of what this felt like – waiting outside Berghain being like, ‘Are they gonna think I’m cool enough?’”
If Reznor and Ross are the bouncers of their own elite space, happily, they deemed Halsey worthy of letting through the door. Together, the trio turned ‘If I Can’t Have Love…’ into an uncompromising and disruptive piece of art. It’s an album that doesn’t always go where you would expect, especially with two Nine Inch Nails members on board – it rides on drum’n’bass breakbeats on the vibrant ‘Girl Is A Gun’, and its centrepiece ‘Darling’ is a Lindsey Buckingham-backed folk lullaby. But when it does, it does so spectacularly, searing, simmering and blazing through grinding industrial riffs as Halsey takes centre stage as the rock icon she’s always shown hints of possessing inside her (see 2019’s ‘Nightmare’).
While all three collaborators have their own brands of innovation that intertwine on the record, working together enlightened Halsey to another similarity between them all. “When we started to unravel a little bit, we saw that underneath all of us are just creatives who just really want to make shit that their friends think is cool,” they say. “At the end of the day, if you take away their Oscars and accolades, all of us are just sitting behind our laptops being like, ‘God, I hope they like this’ when you press send. That was really, really cool for me.”
The experience also let the star get their kicks from befriending musicians they have idolised for years. “I remember the first time I made Trent laugh,” they recall, smiling. “I was like, ‘I just made Trent Reznor laugh – I’m a god. Holy shit!’ And then there was a lot more laughter to come after that.”
“You have to sit down and listen to this album as a journey, because the end is rewarding”
As if making a rule-breaking album wasn’t enough, at the same time, Halsey was also working on an accompanying film of the same name. It’s that project which, after three previous tries, she says made her fourth record feel like the perfect concept album. “I’ve wanted to do a film for an album since ‘Badlands’ but, to be frank, I haven’t had the financial resources to do it,” she says. “This was the thing where it was like, ‘OK, people want to give you money to make art – what are you going to make?’”
Creating the album and the movie simultaneously hugely influenced the former, the artist pulling from her hours on set to flesh out the world she was building on record. “I was almost method acting my album, which I think is super douche-y but is what was happening,” they say. “It was really cool to make a record in tandem that way because you’re not going back and drawing connections that aren’t there and trying to fill in holes to make stuff work. All of it is so cohesive and coherent the entire time.”
While the praise that has been heaped on ‘If I Can’t Have Love…’ is entirely deserved, there is an element to some of it that fails to recognise that Halsey has always been a master innovator; as if the pop star couldn’t possibly be so until they turned to the more ‘authentic’ genre of rock. “That was the craziest part of it for me because nothing has changed about my music except for the people who are producing it,” they say. “I still wrote every word on this album – every song, every lyric, every melody came from me and the same can be said about all my previous records.”
To her, though, having the perceived credibility boost of working with Reznor and Ross was “absolutely essential” for her fourth album. “The last thing people want is a song that feels disruptive,” they say of our current playlist-friendly musical world. “But the first eight minutes of my album has no drums – any record executive would have been like, ‘No, you can’t do that. You’re gonna lose people’. [On this album], you have to sit down and listen because the end is rewarding, but you have to sit through the journey. Trent and Atticus really made a landscape that forced people to listen to what I was saying, I think for the first time ever.”
“From what I’ve seen of the BandLab NME Awards, I’ll definitely need to learn how to hold my liquor…”
If you listen to ‘If I Can’t Have Love…’’s lyrics, you’ll find a record that takes a nuanced look at being pregnant (Halsey was expecting her first child while making the record) and related concerns around identity, image and the expectations society places upon people who can get pregnant. Sometimes she sings in pure devotion to her then-unborn child; others she refutes the Madonna-Whore dichotomy that suggests female-identifying people who have – or, heaven forbid, act on – sexual desires aren’t worthy candidates for parenthood. It’s brilliant and characteristic of her lyrical work throughout her career, upending patriarchal perspectives through her own life experiences.
“I just wouldn’t be able to stand myself otherwise,” they say. “This is my whole entire life. If I have to go out and live the words that I say – I’m faced with them on a daily basis, whether it’s on stage or through interviews – what kind of life would it be to go out there and lie or censor myself? It would be so exhausting.”
Sticking with that honesty is of the utmost importance wherever her journey takes her next. “My records are such cornerstones of my life that I quite literally divide my perception of life based around their eras,” she explains, splitting her memories into ‘Badlands’, ‘HFK’ and ‘Manic’ periods.
“There’s a sense of being true to the moment that I’ve really come to appreciate with this record, too,” she continues. “It’s fulfilled me so much creatively that, truth be told, it’s probably going to be a while until I put out an album again. I don’t know that I have the energy to jump back in and make a whole other project for a while now – I made a perfect human baby and a perfect album baby and I’m really proud of both of them. Now I want to sit back and watch them grow.”
“Approaching Trent and Atticus was like writing a letter to Santa: ‘I’ve been a very good girl…’”
That’s not to say Halsey is about to do a complete disappearing act. They promise that they’ll still release singles and collaborations “to keep my creative muscles sharp” and, of course, they’ll be picking up their Innovation Award at the BandLab NME Awards in March.
“From what I’ve seen, I’ll definitely need to learn how to hold my liquor,” she laughs when talking about what will be her first time at the big bash. “The last thing I want to do is be the American lightweight who has two pints and is on the fucking floor.”
Although they’ve yet to enter the chaotic world of the BandLab NME Awards, the usually “anti-awards show” star is looking forward to that moment. “It seems more about a celebration of a bunch of people who are contemporaries rooting each other on,” she says. “I don’t get many opportunities to celebrate with my peers and look around and be like, ‘Wow, this was a great year for music’ and that’s why we do this – we love it, y’know?”
Come March 2, 2022, that love will be directed Halsey’s way as they officially claim a title they’ve more than earned over the last seven years. Innovator; trailblazer; pop visionary – whatever you want to call her, the time to celebrate this formidable talent is now.
Halsey will be at the BandLab NME Awards 2022 at O2 Brixton Academy on March 2. Get your tickets now.