We shared a couple of minutes with Lana del Rey when she was in Barcelona for her performance at Sónar. The artist was sincere and vulnerable, like a young woman thankful for all the love shown, who doesn't understand where many negative opinions about her come from.
10:45 in the morning. I receive a call confirming that in less than an hour, I'll have fifteen minutes to ask Lana del Rey anything I want. With my coffee half-finished and hardly any time to prepare, I make my way to a hotel in the centre of Barcelona, where Elizabeth Woolridge Grant (the woman behind the personality of the year) is resting, just hours before her first performance at Sónar. All kinds of things have been written about her life, and, worse, the truth was often nowhere to be seen. So this is a golden opportunity to get to know the person behind that phenomenon of melodramatic pop for the masses.
Sporting a blue singlet, her trademark headscarf, a crucifix hanging from her neck and some tight jeans that accentuate her fantastic figure, the New Yorker apologises for the smell of cigarette smoke in her room. There is a perfect smile etched on her face. She looks happy, eager to talk and, best of all, charming, not like the femme fatale image of her press shots and the videos from her album “Born To Die” (Universal, 2012). As soon as we start talking, she shows the vulnerability of a 25-year old girl next door who found herself in the spotlight overnight, scrutinised by an often too cruel audience. That's what Lana del Rey is: the alter ego of an artist who wanted her music to be heard, unaware of how cruel this business can be, where women have to battle envy and sensationalistic headlines. Judge for yourself: this is what she said.
"I didn't write “Video Games” thinking it would be a hit. It's almost five minutes long, and it's very soft. Not exactly the paradigm of a successful pop song"
Since you uploaded “Video Games” to your YouTube channel, in August 2011, the Lana del Rey snowball has been growing and growing. Did you expect the repercussions, or were you the first one to be surprised at the madness that unfolded in record time?
I would never have imagined all this a year ago. Although, to be honest, I thought it would be different. I spent a lot of time writing this record in New York, without asking myself if people would like the songs. I suppose that eventually they made an impression, because they were written from the heart, and they're all sincere and dramatic, at least to me.
So many things have been said about you that I don't really know what your life was like when you weren't famous. Were you working? Studying?
I did a lot of things. For ten years I was very much involved with my community in Brooklyn, doing all kinds of voluntary work. I started doing that when I stopped drinking and decided to dedicate myself to helping people in need. And I combined the work with my philosophy studies.
Did you finish those studies?
Yes, I did. From 2008 on, I was also writing my first album with David Kahne [editor's note: “Lana Del Ray a.k.a. Lizzy Grant”, the album so much ink has been spent on], and I moved to New Jersey for a while to work with him. It was a different life. I did what I wanted, you know? I was at peace with myself, surrounded by friends and people I really love.
Since you started out in the music world, have you really been able to take charge of your career?
Without a doubt. But am I truly happy about how things are going? No, not completely. I feel I've done everything right so far: I wrote the songs myself, and I've moved them myself. I'm happy about that. But I'm not so sure about the rest. Do you know what I mean?
"I don't really care about how good a song is, I only want them to reflect what I felt when I was writing them"
People have been extremely cruel with you, and you've had to read some brutal stuff about yourself.
When you've been helping others for the better part of your life, you don't understand why you get all that scorn. Nevertheless, I have faith that things will change.
Didn't you feel under pressure after the sudden success of “Video Games”?
Not a lot, I was worried about other things. I didn't write “Video Games” thinking it would be a hit. It's almost five minutes long, and it's very soft. Not exactly the paradigm of a successful pop song. I never imagined that it would turn me into someone famous.
I was referring more to the pressure regarding the rest of the album. In a way you had to maintain or exceed the level of “Video Games”.
I love “Born To Die” and “Summertime Sadness”. I get why people connected with “Video Games”. It's my favourite, too, no doubt, but I think there are others that are just as good. Although, to be honest, I don't really care about how good a song is, I only want them to reflect what I felt when I was writing them. They should be like a personal diary.
"I've always been surrounded by people who appreciate me and treat me with affection, so all those bad feelings are new to me"
A diary full of moments of heartbreak?
Previously, yes, but now I suffer for other reasons. I have a family, and I worry about them. My heart suffers for the people I love. I don't think too much about my career, but I do about the people from my real life.
Going back to the album, was there any song that affected you while you were working on it?
That only happened with “National Anthem”. I wanted it to be a love song, from the perspective of memory, and for it to sound very sweet at the same time. [She takes the opportunity, all emotional, to get out her computer and show me some scenes from the video that will be premiered soon.] The video is crazy; I'm very pleased with the result.
You're busy with your festival tour right now, but are you thinking about new songs already?
Yes, but I'm taking it slow. [She starts singing one of the pieces she's working on.] There are three that I love right now.
Since you became a public figure, the most curious thing has been seeing how people love you or hate you. There's no middle ground with you.
True. And I've been trying to find an explanation. I've always been surrounded by people who appreciate me and treat me with affection, so all those bad feelings are new to me. Hate has never been part of my behaviour. What do you think about all that?
I'm like you, trying to find a reason. Anyway, the first nasty criticism came after your performance on Saturday Night Live. You seemed very nervous.
"It's hard when your idols fall, or when people you admired as a child publically confess that they don't like how you sing"
But at the same time, on so many other occasions, like on Le Gran Journal on Canal+ France, you were great on stage. Trying to find an explanation, I think people have been harsher with you in the United States than in Europe.
In Europe they understand my true soul better; at least, that's what I feel. I don't want to tread on thin ice here, but many people have written a lot of things about me without knowing me or asking me anything at all. They were probably going by mere prejudice, like most human beings do. Writing stuff like that should be illegal. It all boils down to something as simple as people dealing in things that just aren't true.
It all revolves around the profits you generate.
Basically, yes. Everything is dominated by money, and the copies you sell thanks to a headline. People should be much more careful with other people, because you can really affect their lives. Anyway, you just have to accept the rules of the game and keep doing what's good for you. It's hard when your idols fall, or when people you admired as a child publically confess that they don't like how you sing. At that point you become a different person, because you no longer have the references you had. For instance, you stop watching the TV shows you used to love. It's all very strange.
You have to move to Spain as soon as possible.
[Laughs] That's right! I love Spain. I spent four months in Santander when I was 16. I have great memories from that time.
What really happened with “Lana del Ray a.k.a. Lizzy Grant”, your first cursed album? Tracks like “Kill Kill” and “Queen Of The Gas Station” could have been included in “Born To Die” perfectly well. Is it true that it never came out because you weren't happy with the result?
When I recorded it four years ago, I wanted to release it physically, that was my intention. What happened is that my label at the time didn't want to release it, and I was looking for another one, but unsuccessfully. I set it aside and started focusing on “Born To Die”. However, it's not hard to find. I think it's a good album, it reflects a lot of things from that time of my life.
How are you feeling about your Sónar debut? It's your first big show at a festival.
I'm a bit nervous, but I'm very happy to be in Spain, because I feel a strong connection with the people, and they've always been good to me. Here they care about the music, not about other things, like elsewhere. Playing on a summer night among the stars is perfect.