What It Means to Be Halsey

Halsey has an idea. In fact, she’s practically swarming with them, because it’s one of those days when the artist born Ashley Frangipane has been unkindly referred to as “extra.” Since this is the part of the story that she often feels irritated by, perhaps it’s best to get it out of the way: Halsey has bipolar disorder. She doesn’t regret sharing this information two years ago with a publication but, consequently, it has continued to be pitched as something she “opens up” about, which she finds absurd. It’s not a plot twist. Halsey is an open book.

At the moment, on a breezy L.A. afternoon, she’s in the backyard of an activist-filmmaker’s house, shooting a public service announcement. The 22-year-old singer has a little more than a week to go until the release of her sophomore album, hopeless fountain kingdom. It marks her first major output since the outrageous success of the Chainsmokers’ song “Closer,” for which she supplied guest verses (and some virility). She has spent the better part of a year joining the EDM duo for performances and various award ceremonies in support of that inescapable pop nugget, so much so that the window for working on her own album shrank from six months to six weeks. “If anything, [“Closer”] forced me into a corner of wanting to prove my own creative dignity,” she says.

But for the next few minutes she is revved up about something that has nothing to do with music: Planned Parenthood. In January, she donated $100,000 to the nonprofit and recently followed Hillary Clinton as a speaker at their anniversary gala. Today, she is telling her publicist that she wants to talk to president Cecile Richards about improving engagement on their Snapchat channel. “Cecile’s been updating a fact about the organization every day on Twitter and it’s getting lost,” she says. “Kids digest information in video, in comics, in photo slides. That’s why BuzzFeed is so fucking popular.”

Another idea occurs to her. “Take a male musician,” she says. “Take Nick Jonas and sit him down in front of a camera and do a bit where he locates the female reproductive organs. They need to engage in a way that is not defensive — that’s not about the war on Planned Parenthood.” Her thoughts tumble out rapidly; as a child, she would try to explain to frustrated teachers, “My brain is like a teleprompter and if I don’t speak fast enough the words are going to go away.”

The PSA is for the Center for Health and Gender Equity, to raise awareness of the Global HER Act, a bill that would permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule, which bans federal funding to foreign organizations that so much as provide information pertaining to abortion. She chose patriotic colors for the occasion, but added a touch of résistance. With her shaved head peeking out from under a red beret and wearing a blue-and-white striped tee, she looks a little like Jean Seberg in Breathless, albeit in short, tattoo-baring denim cutoffs.

While taping in the stuffy garage, she worried whether her voice dripped with venom at the first mention of Trump, who reinstated the Global Gag Rule just three days into his presidency. It did not, the directors promised her. They encouraged her to gesticulate; the New Jersey native assured them she couldn’t speak without using her hands if she tried.

“I want to be in politics,” she says afterward, invigorated. She launches into a discussion of women’s health care, which leads to the Snapchat idea, and finally into a conversation about her own battle with endometriosis, a chronic condition that results in severe pelvic pain and which, she says, probably caused her to miscarry at 20, just hours before a show for Vevo. Miserable, she played the gig anyway, a moment that now assumes a harsh poignance. “I had a guy at my label say to me, ‘You have to bleed for this, Ashley,’” she recalls. She grits her teeth: “You have no idea how much I’ve bled for this.”

We head to dinner at an outdoor eatery serving comfort fare. She apologizes for ordering healthy, but she’s nutritionally atoning for an earlier Shake Shack run. Over a grain bowl and chicken noodle soup, she explains that hopeless fountain kingdom is a breakup album, in part prompted by all the little modifications she made in service to a partner, like eating Indian food all the time just because he preferred it. “You never used to get your nails done?” she says, waggling her fingers, which are painted a gray-and-black ombré. “Now you get your nails done.”

It’s about the big things, too. Before undergoing surgery in January, Halsey’s endometriosis was even more debilitating. “There was a good six months where I couldn’t have sex,” she says. “It’s hard to have relationships. It makes you feel like so much less of a woman because you’re at war with the very part of you that you’re supposed to embrace. Here I am, I’m like an international sex symbol, I’m onstage wearing these tiny little outfits, and I feel useless and stupid and ugly and gross.”

But perhaps the biggest obstacle of all was that the ex in question is Norwegian rapper-producer Lido, who executive-produced Halsey’s 2015 debut album, Badlands. “That contributed so much to my dependency on him,” she says, her voice husky and hyperarticulate, much like on her songs. “To the point where for me it was like, what is my sound? Can I make another album without him? What does it mean to be Halsey?”

Badlands sounded exactly like what it was: a record dreamt up in a teenager’s journal, teeming with vivid references to demons, desecration, the color blue. An accessible mix of alternative R&B and moody pop, it was primarily celebrated for its intimate lyrics, which she is adamant about writing herself. While a few of the songs on that album were intended to immortalize a guy, someone she dropped out of community college and moved to New York to be with, she says her career started as a way to set her poetry to music.

At one point, not too long ago,­­ but before she anagrammed her name based on a Brooklyn subway stop, 18-year-old Ashley Frangipane had a Tumblr where she released Taylor Swift parody tracks (sample lyric: “We knew she was trouble when she snagged Styles”) and teased the idea of the “hopeless fountain kingdom,” or HFK. Back then it was merely an oblique reference between her and the Badlands guy, like a graffiti tag. (This ex also built an actual fountain with the same name near the L train’s Halsey stop.) She estimates her blog earned hundreds of thousands of impressions a week. When she uploaded her first original song, “Ghost,” to SoundCloud, enough people listened to it that it actually charted, and within 24 hours major labels were expressing interest.

At the time, Halsey was couch-surfing or occasionally crashing in homeless shelters around New York, playing acoustic sets of cover songs here and there. After she signed with Astralwerks, Halsey finally had to call her parents, whom she hadn’t spoken to in 18 months. She remembers the conversation well: “My mom was like, Where are you going? California. Why? ’Cause I got a record deal. She was like, hold on — Chris, it’s your daughter. Yeah, she says she’s got a record deal.

Her dad soon flew to L.A. and, to his surprise, witnessed fans shouting his daughter’s lyrics back at her while she opened for the Kooks. Halsey has always had a commanding stage presence — video of one of her earliest performances, at the Wiltern, shows her crouching onstage, bouncing on the balls of her feet, looking like Regan from The Exorcist in a white nightshift, her electric-blue hair cascading over her shoulders, gently touching herself. Her intensity connected with fans. Badlands went platinum despite lacking a proper radio hit; Halsey sold out Madison Square Garden before anyone even heard the first chords of “Closer.”

As visceral as Badlands was, hopeless fountain kingdom is a more mature enterprise. Musically, she is pulling from a variety of influences, from synth pop to Motown, though her trademark rawness remains unfiltered. For the first time, she executive-produced, and she predominantly worked with people other than Lido. In the broody pulse of “Eyes Closed” you can hear the eroticism of the Weeknd, who composed the beat alongside producer Benny Blanco (Justin Bieber, Katy Perry). Blanco helmed a few other songs, including the warbly first single “Now or Never,” with an assist from Rihanna co-writer Starrah (which may explain the overlap with the latter’s “Needed Me”).

“She’s a fucking joy to work with,” says Blanco, who met Halsey through Lido and other mutual friends, prior to Badlands. “We were more so each other’s therapists for the first little bit. We were talking about life, we were deep in it, and we’re like, ‘Oh fuck, man, maybe we should make a song.’ It all happened so quickly. She goes and smokes a cigarette and comes back and there’s a whole fucking song. It’s crazy.”

Greg Kurstin (Pink, the Shins) and Ricky Reed (Twenty One Pilots) also oversaw some of the album’s 16 tracks, but Halsey and Lido continued to collaborate. Listening to their songs — in particular, Halsey’s favorite, “Lie,” with its bilious flow and Quavo’s guest vocals — is like eavesdropping on a couple duking it out next door.

“Making music together [with Lido] is the only way we’ve ever been able to communicate without fighting,” she says. “If he can say it in a beat and I can say it in a song, we can get through it.” They showed up at L.A.’s Capitol Records on a whim, after an argument, and Lido sat down at Nat King Cole’s grand piano, tinkering with different keys, while Halsey spat out the words: “I gave you the messiest head / You give me the messiest head / Oh, you’re turning red / ’Cause I’m tryna give the impression that I get the message you wish I was dead.”

Back at the restaurant, the mango margaritas arrive, and Halsey takes a sip. The toxic sexual energy in that room sounds like it rivaled Fleetwood Mac circa Rumours. How the hell did that work? “I started to get progressively angry at him, and then he started joining in, and kind of letting me bully him a little bit,” she recalls. “I think he was anticipating this when he got involved with me, because I’m a pretty candid writer. He knew his album would come one day.”

Emotionally, this is the album’s flint, but there’s a conceptual element, too. With her relationship collapsing, Halsey found herself obsessively watching Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet and connecting to the idea of losing oneself for another person. She arranged breakfast with the Australian director at the Chateau Marmont to discuss it and, over the course of three hours, he encouraged her to trust her own interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, which figures into the album like a Technicolor overlay. She borrows the prologue wholesale for the first track, but the connection to the music will largely be explored visually, via videos.

“So it’s these two kids in the underworld,” she begins, and on the table rests her forearm, which is inked with the words these violent delights have violent ends. “The underworld is beneath the badlands, obviously. They’re born into this prophecy that they don’t know about. And there’s a fountain in the center of the city and in it there’s two fish — koi fish actually.” She gestures to the conveniently located pond beside us, where about ten bloated carp are lolling helplessly, nibbling at the surface. “They’ve been swimming around, chasing each other for as long as anyone can remember, and the prophecy goes that as soon as they catch each other, true love will finally be able to exist. But they never caught each other, so it’s called the hopeless fountain. Luna and Solis are born, moon and sun, and it’s believed that they’re supposed to fulfill this prophecy. But the families decide they’re going to keep them apart because it could be too much for the kingdom to handle.”

That’s a condensed version, and it’s actually the second treatment Halsey came up with, after scrapping a sci-fi narrative that she says had too much in common with Netflix’s Stranger Things. (It concerned a young girl dying of cancer who submits to an experimental treatment for which she is cryogenically frozen, but she wakes up too soon and wreaks havoc.) Both concepts offer a small glimpse into the eye of her creative hurricane. “If a typical person can think about five things at once, a bipolar person can think about 50,” she says. “The gift is the curse.” She doesn’t expect everyone to unpack all of this, but unpack it you can. There are Twitter accounts for the dueling houses, and a promotional newspaper was mailed to fans with fake reports of the events that take place in the video for “Now or Never,” which she also co-directed.

“While we’re writing, she always has these stories, but she can twist anything to become her story line,” Blanco explains. “She has such a good way of making everyone feel comfortable about themselves and also meeting her in her world.”

Growing up, Halsey was a huge fan of Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and, later, video games like Skyrim, so world-building became essential to her music. “In a video game, you have two options, you have a quick battle or you can play campaign,” she says, carefully spooning her soup. “A quick battle is like listening to the single. Playing campaign is getting the whole story, the lore, why the characters are there, what’s motivating them.” Thus, the live shows, the promotional material, the scavenger hunt for gun-shaped USB drives that together contained the album cover art — all of it was her idea, and it’s all designed to furnish Halsey fans, a mostly digitally native crowd, with an interactive experience that extends beyond her personal narrative. These multiple access points to her music set it apart from that of peers like Lorde or Lana Del Rey. “It’s like I made a movie and put out the soundtrack first,” she says.

Halsey plans to co-direct all of the forthcoming videos in obvious homage to Luhrmann’s vision, only with the genders swapped: Halsey’s Luna favors the Hawaiian-style outfits of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo, and her Rosalind shows up on the ’80s-inspired “Strangers,” an openly gay song that sounds like mid-period Stevie Nicks serenading the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror. Featuring Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui, “Strangers” is arguably the album’s crown jewel.

“The label was like, ‘What about Katy Perry,’” says Halsey, who is friendly with Perry­­ — the two crossed paths at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. “I was like, I’m not putting an artist on this song unless they’re fucking gay.” (Jauregui and Halsey are both bisexual.) Halsey hands me her phone to show me some promotional images she’s mocked up, and promises, “[The video] is not going to be me and Lauren half-naked in a bed making out with each other, which is exactly what everybody fucking wants.”

Halsey refers to “everybody” with some license. What she really means are her detractors, the ones she has sometimes engaged with on Twitter, and whom she suspects of trolling her on manic days. “Everybody hates me anyway, so they might as well hate me for a reason,” she said earlier, when I asked about her frank politics. This is what she refers to as her “looking-glass self.” “I need to remember that the internet is not a sounding board for my self-worth,” she adds.

But some criticisms get under her skin more than others. Recently, she’s been romantically linked to Machine Gun Kelly, a.k.a. Colson Baker, a rapper from Cleveland whom she met on the set of Cameron Crowe’s Roadies — he called her just half an hour ago. But she resents that her relationships, or a near kiss with Justin Bieber during a performance of “The Feeling,” can be used to deny her sexual identity. “There’s a lot of bisexual rejection in the LGBT community,” she says, and repeats a point she’s made many times before: “When I’m dating a guy, I’m still bisexual.”

Being treated like a fraud is particularly insulting to Halsey, who has also been made to feel uncomfortable for passing as white when her father is black. “When I was little, if someone saw me and my dad walking through, like, a grocery store parking lot, women would come up to us and be like, ‘Sweetie, are you okay?’” she says. “Because they saw a little white girl walking with a black man.” She has two younger, darker-skinned brothers. For this reason, she sometimes refrains from correcting commenters who bring up white privilege. “Maybe people won’t accept that I’m half black,” she says, “but they could be not accepting me because I am, and that’s much worse.”

Two days later, Halsey shows up to breakfast at a diner near her home in East Hollywood looking ghostly pale; an oversize black sweatshirt appears to swallow her whole. Murderous cramps have left her feeling muted, and she has to unbutton the top of her pink pants just to relieve the pain. She’s anxious about the album release. “I made something that I’m outrageously proud of, and I’m going through this weird postpartum where I’m obsessed with the potential of it,” she says. “And the potential is better than the result.”

In fact, hopeless fountain kingdom will debut at number one on the Billboard 200, but today is a low period. Halsey’s at that strange celebrity juncture, where the new house remains unfurnished after nearly three months, and she’s responsible for most of her family, whom she recently moved to L.A. following her parents’ divorce. She’s tried to make friends during her three years here, splurging on group outings to Disneyland and the like, but everybody ignores her. “I’d ask, How’s your mom? Did you get the apartment? And they talk back and then don’t ask me anything,” she says. “Someone just fucking talk to me, please.” Her alienation is captured almost verbatim on “Alone,” a disco-soul number, and “Angel on Fire.” Isolation has led her to dark places in the past. She attempted suicide in high school and has been hospitalized several times since. “People want someone who’s representative of mental illness in culture, but they want someone who’s well-behaved,” she says. “Kanye had a breakdown and everyone made fun of him.”

She suspects her upcoming arena tour, and this summer’s festival dates, will restore her psychic purchase, so to speak. “I love playing live shows more than anything in the world,” she says. “When I’m not on tour, I’m depressed as fuck. I can’t do anything. It’s physical, because it’s serotonin and adrenaline and dopamine. And it’s also emotional because it’s validation. It’s feeling like I matter. It’s feeling like I care about these people and they care about me.” She smiles, and a tiny rhinestone on an incisor catches the light. “It’s also outrageously arrogant. It’s like being a preacher or a dictator or something.”

A week later, when Halsey takes to a flower-bedecked stage for another Vevo showcase, it’s like she’s been resurrected. She is solemn at first, in a blue wig, shorts, a white tee, and sparkling silver arm-warmers, but as soon as the chorus to “Eyes Closed” breaks, she’s totally kinetic, writhing and dancing under the colored lights that she has carefully selected for each set. Fans, some wearing shirts repping one of hopeless fountain kingdom’s fictional houses, feverishly shout the lyrics to old and new songs at her behest. The cathexis spreads to include a friendly 11-girl mosh pit, some rainbow-flag waving, and one fidget spinner. Courtney Love is in the room.

Halsey frequently talks to the crowd, and here too she is unburdening. “I know that people are going to find my confidence angry or arrogant, but the truth is, when I was making this album I was very, very vulnerable and insecure,” she says. “Writing it helped me learn how to love myself.” There’s an eruption of cheers and applause. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” she continues, “it’s that happiness is not a destination. It is an ongoing battle. So I am confident, and you can call it arrogant if you want, but it took me a very long time to get to this place, so I’m staying here.”

*A version of this article appears in the June 26, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

What It Means to Be Halsey