Sometimes stars emerge. Sometimes stars are thrust upon us. And sometimes stars simply slip into the atmosphere as if propelled by something otherworldly. It is into this last category that the astonishing presence, voice, look and feel of Lana Del Rey falls. Musical stardom is not an option with Ms Del Rey. It is her vocation. She calls herself the ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ and defines her genre as ‘Hollywood pop/ sadcore’, a dramatic new loop for pop music. Her look she describes as ‘Lolita got lost in the ‘hood’. Get used to it all. This isn’t just soundbite, it’s Lana’s reality.
Lana Del Rey grew up Lizzy Grant in Lake Placid on the outer edges of New York State. Herein some of her unique musical flavour was incubated. ‘It has an epic, nostalgic feel. It’s in the middle of a National Park that is six hours from New York City. But it’s also a struggle because it’s a town built on tourism that no-one goes to anymore.’
Depositing Lizzy to boarding school in Connecticut at 15 hardly helped matters. It was an experience she describes as being ‘pretty on the outside, a pretty mess on the inside’. She nods her head when it is suggested that boarding schools are a kind of regimented lunacy. ‘That’s why there are so many movies about them, because everything they say about boarding schools is true.’
At 18, she fulfilled her lifelong ambition of decamping to New York City. ‘Since I was little I knew I would end up there,’ she says, ‘Every day is a pleasure there. Every single day I walk out of the door is a good day. I like everything about it. New York totally rewards me for my love of it.’
The process of her astonishing reinvention, fulfilling a natural propensity towards stardom, began on day one. ‘It’s nice to be able to try and build the life you want for yourself. All the things you start off with are given to you by somebody else. You have to be brave and try to start again. It might be a little scary. Not many people say “let’s start life over and do it again the way I want to.”’
Lizzy Grant did, starting with the scrapping of her birth name. Lana Del Rey was born.
Lana opened her musical hand at an open mic night in the hipster New York suburb of Williamsburg. She was 19 years old and terrified. ‘The first open mic was shocking to me. I was wearing jeans and a yellow shirt. It was at the Lilo Lounge. No-one was playing New York anymore then. I had my acoustic guitar. Everybody stopped. It was fucking embarrassing, I couldn’t believe it. It was a rock bar. I didn’t belong there. I sang a ballad, sort of exactly like Video Games that I had written with three chords. The whole room stopped fighting and just went silent. They didn’t even clap at the end. It stayed quiet. I said ‘thank you’, left my jacket at the bar stool and just ran out of the place. It was an interesting dynamic. I thought if I could just stop people, then that might be enough.’
Clearly something special was happening. The interlocking sounds of her mesmerising, hushed voice and the bruised luxury of her music alerted ears; immediately people expressed interest. ‘Somebody ran out after me and said “you should come to a night I’m doing next week and play some songs for me.” I was afraid of everything. If they had laughed at me that night I would have never come back on stage. Ever.’
Her direct influences were visual as well as musical; David Lynch, soundtracks for ‘50s black and white movies, the whirring sound of the Ferris at Coney Island, fame itself. She lived in a New Jersey trailer park and decked her homestead in flags, streamers and seasonally inappropriate Christmas lights. ‘All the things I love,’ she notes. This was Lana’s world now and it needed to sparkle.
After scrapes in and out of the music industry, holding onto the fastidious dreams of the possibilities for Lana Del Rey, a breathtaking musical landscape has emerged. Brittle, emotional, cascading with cinematic reference points, her song writing was starting to turn technicolour. The tainted glamour of Video Games, with its lyrical leanings towards the verbal loquacity of hip hop and its noir-ish melodic feeling for torch singing, was a beginning for her.
‘I had found a sound that thrilled and intrigued me. Shockingly enough, Video Game was a key moment for me. I was chasing hits, fast songs. I would be wondering ‘how am I going to pole-dance in the spotlight to this, then?’ I put up Video Games for myself. It was slow, it was a ballad, it kind of had no chorus. I put it up on Youtube and it worked. Every day there were thousands more views. I just sat there wondering where these people were coming from. I had no idea how they’d heard it but people came and started talking to me because of that song. It was not what I expected. But what a relief. If I could have a shot at singing my Hollywood glam ballads as well as my more upbeat gangsta brother versions of those songs, that would be great. Just not having to try and sing like other people.’
Clearly this was the music of someone who had given herself over and hurt in love, that understood the exquisite, beautiful pain of heartbreak. ‘There’s something beautiful about the fight. About any fight. And I feel the pain of life.’ All the better for sharing it with an audience. ‘I’m talking about epic, knocked-down, dragged-out love stories in song. That’s what I’m heading towards. I want to destroy lives with my music and to understand the glamour of danger. Without Scarface would there be half the gangsters there are out there now? Odd Future, Lil Wayne, Simon Cowell. You cannot take your eyes off these people’s stories, however twisted they become with power. There is a whole new genre that nobody is observing. The American Dream and American Psycho are starting to represent the same thing. Cinema and music and life are starting to merge. Death is art. We’ve played pop music out. That wholesome dream is dead.’
Strong words. But at 24 years old Lana has faced the fear and clocked up strong experiences to back up her magical musical storytelling. ‘I don’t fall in love easily. I’m so particular. But at the same time I do fall in love maybe stupidly. High impact love. I can tell everything I need to know in about one minute. It doesn’t always mean it’s going to end good but it definitely strikes me right away. I want to find someone who’s really magnetic but who isn’t going to do anything bad to me. It’s hard.’
All of these intimacies will coalesce on the debut Lana Del Rey album pencilled tentatively for early 2012. Complementing the lush orchestration of Video Game, there is a mountain of music that she has crafted lovingly in the studio since first facing her fear. From the gorgeous timbres of Hey Lolita Hey to the hip hop influenced National Anthem, Lana Del Rey’s music sounds unique like it has arrived bespoke to the artist.
She intends to work with hip-hop heavyweights, with the future-perfect foot soldiers at the coal face of exciting pop. ‘I know it is going to take a lot of work to get there. But that’s OK when you have people around you who believe in you. The record is going to be gorgeous. That much we know. Whether or not it will work? That much we don’t know.’
As for the inevitable stardom that will come her way? That is something Lana Del Rey does not fear. ‘I know a lot of different people. When they are drunk, in the dark of the night they all want the same thing. They all want to be famous. It’s innately human to want other people to bear witness to your life. It’s important for people to be watched. They don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to be alone.’