Lana Del Rey was never supposed to make it this far.
An early sacrifice to the music-blog gods and a bloodthirsty thing called social media, the singer and songwriter born Elizabeth Grant could have been a footnote after loaded speculation about her artifice and upbringing collided with a shaky ‘Saturday Night Live’ debut in early 2012.
Instead of self-immolating, Del Rey exploded into one of the most consistent album artists and world-builders of this decade, aesthetically presaging pop music’s — and the world’s — turn toward opiates and apocalypse.
‘Norman ____ Rockwell!,’ her fifth major-label album out now, is packed with fiery and profane lyrics (along with an obscene title) that again explore iconographic versions of masculinity and femininity — dismantling one and fortifying the other, beginning with the opening lyric, “Goddamn, man-child.” The aggressively midtempo music is a tribute to Laurel Canyon folk and rock.
Though the album was written and produced with the pop it-man Jack Antonoff, Del Rey, who has not had a Top 40 hit in the last five years, leans into languid ballads and a humorously straight-faced Sublime cover after flirting with contemporary sounds on ‘Lust for Life’ in 2017.
Providing a good idea of where her head is at these days, Del Rey, in song, also references John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, David Bowie and Crosby, Stills & Nash, while maintaining flashes of Fiona Apple and Cat Power, a spiritual forebear and recent collaborator.
[Working with Jack Antonoff] is kind of like a romance in a way, where things work out best when you really are not looking for it.
Over the phone from a friend’s house in California, where she finds it easier to get things done, Del Rey, 34, spoke easily, with sly humour and many giggles, about a range of subjects, from her creative process and Antonoff to Kanye West, Donald Trump and the dearth of protest music. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: You’ve become a pop star without interacting with or sounding much like your contemporaries, but on your last album, you worked with ASAP Rocky, the Weeknd and Max Martin. Did you consciously want to pull back again?
A: No, but honestly, inside the room, with Jack, he’s so much of a large presence that he took up as much of the space as I did. It was very collaborative. The only thing I really thought about, toward the end, was that I’d like to have a woman from the 60s just to add a little good luck magic. But I didn’t even ask.
Q: What did you get out of working with Jack that you haven’t with others?
A: It’s kind of like a romance in a way, where things work out best when you really are not looking for it. I was at a party and I met him and I didn’t even really want to go down to the studio, because it was winter and I was chilling. But then we wrote a song in about 40 minutes — ‘Love Song’ — and I was like, ‘You are so good, would you mind recording me live, to no track, singing this song that I’ve journaled called ‘Hope Is a Dangerous Thing’?’ And I really liked how he captured my voice without instruments. I thought, [expletive] it, let’s make an album.
Q: Do you have a theory as to why so many female artists are drawn to working with him?
A: I think it’s his musicianship. I know a lot of producers who can’t play. He plays the sitar on one of the last things we did! I feel like what I can do in terms of grabbing a melody out of the air, he can do with a very minor chord progression and just like, mmm, magical.
Q: How do you feel about the state of mainstream pop right now? Is that something you keep up with — the radio, Spotify, Billboard?
A: Yeah, I love it. I don’t keep up with the charts, but do I have the radio on? Ehhh. It’s more like on Instagram, I’ll see someone have a clip of a song and then I’ll go on YouTube.
I love Billie Eilish, and I feel like I’ve been waiting for this time in pop-music culture. I personally am very discerning. I can tell if a female pop singer, for instance, has a generosity of spirit or a playful fire in her heart. With Billie, she’s prodigious. I needed to hear one line of one melody and I just know. And then Ariana’s choices of intonation, it might not be traditional, but it’s very good. I also really love hip hop, so seeing such an influx of little mumble rappers coming out and being so sexy and authentic — one of the little dudes wants to wear a dress onstage and everyone’s clapping their hands like, ‘Bravo!’
Q: You have the line ‘Kanye West is blond and gone,’ which is tinged with a similar nostalgia. You performed at his wedding and also called him out for his support of President Trump on Twitter. Have you heard anything in response?
A: No. Gratefully, no. Here’s the thing: I don’t want to elicit a response. You never feel better for having written something like that. But Kanye just means so much to us. And by the way, I’m grateful to be in a country where everyone can have their own political views. I’m really not more of a liberal than I am a Republican — I’m in the middle. But it was more like the mood and the vibe around, Yo, this man is the greatest! Really? The greatest? It hurt me. Did I have to say anything? No. But it’s more just a line that represents a lot of things.
Q: You also recorded and released the song ‘Looking for America’ in response to a recent spate of mass shootings. What felt so urgent about it?
A: The back-to-back shootings, within 24 hours of each other. I’m always upset when I hear about anything remotely violent. But I was extremely upset. Every now and then, like for instance with the Amazon burning, people wake up and they’re like, wow, this is not just a passing phase. There’s something extremely wrong. I like to stay on the periphery, but when you have back-to-back shootings like that — should I say that’s when it’s time to say something? It certainly was for me.
Q: Do you think we’re missing protest music from this moment?
A: I do now. I think there was a great period of not being sure what was going on. I was there when Obama got elected in Union Square. Under that administration, it felt like a dream had come true-ish and we could focus on the arts and it was a time of reprieve and we didn’t have to talk about certain things. But of course there was a lot going on.
One portion of the dots that people are connecting is: ‘Is it possible that this presidency is engendering this idea that it’s OK to be more violent?’ And a lot of people are saying yes. Someone who says ‘grab ’em by the [expletive],’ that does make someone else feel a little bit more entitled to bring his rifle to school. If there wasn’t a time for protest music, there absolutely is now.
Q: At a few points on the album, you seem to be alluding to #MeToo. Do you think it hit the music industry like the rest of culture?
A: Well if it hasn’t, it certainly applies to it. It hit it equally as far as people being able to evaluate where they stood, in terms of being neglected or abused in that way. It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor or a janitor, you know where you fall on the spectrum of ‘Have people totally [expletive] me over?’
Q: Do you allow yourself to think about the dark days of 2012, when you were something of an internet punching bag? Do you ever let yourself feel smug about what you’ve accomplished?
A: I rarely feel feelings like smugness. But of course it’s very fresh in my mind because it was so unusual and unexpected. Mostly with stuff like that I look back on it and think, ‘Well, that was weird!’ I’m just glad it’s better than it was.
I always thought that if you were going to become successful, it would be because things were going very well. I didn’t have a point of reference for things being really, really big, but not necessarily having an overtone of it being good. It’s certainly soul-strengthening because you have to really turn inward and ask, “Do I like what I do?” And it’s like, yeah, very much.