Eve Barlow – The Guardian
The chart-topping singer has put out her most versatile and emotionally raw album yet. She talks about feeling used in relationships, the pain of miscarriage and facing death
Halsey at the 2019 American Music Awards, where her scornful speech about awards drew praise from Taylor Swift. Photograph: John Shearer/AMA2019/Getty Images for dcp
There are two security gates protecting Halsey’s home in the winding hills of Los Angeles. You clear the first, then you wait as the next is released by her team. Halsey is sitting at the kitchen table, dousing a burrito and waffles in hot sauce in front of a towering image of Kurt Cobain playing the Reading festival. It is the day after she put out her third album, Manic, her most exposed and versatile yet. “I was petrified to release it,” she says.
Now 24, she began releasing music on Tumblr when she wast 17. Then, she expressed her pain through dystopian metaphors; now, she is specific and literal. On Manic, she discusses her father (929), her breakup from rapper G-Eazy (Without Me) and her reproductive health (More). Musically, Manic takes in minimal electronica (Ashley), countryfied pop (You Should Be Sad), FM rock (3am). Halsey leaves her emotional gates unlocked, and it is resonating: her three albums have all reached No 1 or 2 in the US; Manic’s lead single, Without Me, spent a year in the US charts; and she has twice topped the singles chart in the UK, where she plays three arena dates next month.
The night before we meet, Halsey debuted Manic in the car park of the Capitol Records building. There was a ferris wheel, a carousel and fireworks, but, as she strapped on a black guitar, the mood was not about celebration, but reclamation. “This album is about me deciding to demand more from myself,” she told her tween superfans. “I spent a lot of time being the most exciting thing in everybody else’s life. When they didn’t need me any more, they would thank me then leave. That is the trope of the manic pixie dream girl. This album is about her. Her traumas don’t exist to benefit some other person.”
Manic is more than a breakup record, then – it is the aftermath of years of feeling beholden to lovers, collaborators and the public. It was made while Halsey, who has bipolar disorder, was in a manic state. (“That’s not a punchline,” she quips.) On Clementine, she sings: “I’m constantly having a breakthrough, or a breakdown.” The song is named after Kate Winslet’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a key example of the manic pixie dream girl movie trope in which a free-spirited woman loosens up an emotionally stunted man. It samples the line: “I’m just a fucked-up girl looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”
Halsey relates to Clementine’s frustrations and is retiring from “changing some boring guy’s life”. She says she has felt used in many relationships. “Here I am – impulsive, spontaneous, kind of damaged, meeting a guy, a girl, whoever, and they’d say: ‘I’ve never met anyone like you, I’m becoming a different person.’ I was scared to be bored, scared to be exhausted. This year, I put my foot down. I don’t care if everybody thinks I’m boring. I’m not gonna fucking kill myself.”
Halsey’s story often exists adjacent to the men in her orbit. Her first album, Badlands, was made with her producer boyfriend, Lido; her second, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom was about their breakup. She started dating G-Eazy in 2017. They made their love official in joint single Him & I, now G-Eazy’s second-most streamed song, but not even in Halsey’s Top 10. After they split the following year, Halsey released Without Me, in which she seems to take the credit for his success – the chorus goes: “You know I’m the one who put you up there.” She says: “As writers, we have this habit of waiting until something doesn’t hurt any more. On Without Me, I ran into a burning building to find whatever I could before I felt too afraid to speak. I’d gone from being a 19-year-old activist, a sexual badass, to this girl who’s someone’s partner.”
After the split, she was vilified. “Everyone’s instinct was: she must have cheated. It’s easy to make me the villain. I’m in a bikini in a music video, so I must be a whore.” She throws up her hands. “It’s so much greater than me – it’s a social perception of women. So fuck it, I’m gonna tell them everything that happened.” For Halsey, airing her dirty laundry is political. “I am financially independent, I have my own team, I have every resource in the world to get out of [misogyny]. I still can’t. How hard must it be for women who don’t have these resources?”
Halsey’s song Closer, with the Chainsmokers, has been streamed 1.6bn times; she has the chameleonic aesthetics and vocal style of the streaming age. It is striking to see her as a blank canvas today, cross-legged on a couch in sweatpants, surrounded by rails of clothes. But despite her celebrity, she is relatable. At the Women’s March in 2018, she delivered a poem about her experience of sexual harassment so compassionate, angry and confessional that “People came up to me in the street. Men. A whole demographic who’d never approached me before.” She concludes: “Art still works! You lose faith in it sometimes.”
There are things, though, that she regrets sharing, she says, such as her miscarriage with G-Eazy. New song More is about her desire for a child and she was scared to release it given the online abuse she received after her miscarriage. “It’s the most inadequate I’ve ever felt,” she explains. “Here I am achieving this out-of-control life, and I can’t do the one thing I’m biologically put on this earth to do. Then I have to go onstage and be this sex symbol of femininity and empowerment? It is demoralising.” She has endometriosis, but her latest prognosis is positive, and motherhood is “looking like something that’s gonna happen for me. That’s a miracle.”
Despite the bullying, Halsey is unafraid to keep provoking people. She is bisexual and inspired a homophobic backlash when she danced with another woman on The Voice in 2018. She threw scorn on the “trophies that were supposed to be some kind of validation for the soul-crushing and heartache-inducing work that they put in to writing a song” while receiving her first American Music Award in November; Taylor Swift, who scored the final award of the evening, said: “Speech of the whole night goes to Halsey.”
She worries that being a firebrand pushes people away. “It’s hard to figure out when being an activist deflects attention from my art,” she frets. “Sometimes when you’re the centre of ‘having something to say’ you start losing your agency. People don’t wanna hear it.”
She reckons her lack of Grammy nominations this year is because she spoke out against former president Neil Portnow’s comments two years ago, when he said it was women’s responsibility to “step up” if they wanted to excel in the music industry. “I had a lot to say about that, and I am nowhere to be seen on any of those acknowledgments.” Post #MeToo, she has been disappointed by the lack of camaraderie between female pop stars. “Nobody wants to be my friend. They’re scared I’m gonna pop off about something. I’m drama by association. I put myself out there with my peers; I don’t know if people really ever wanted to do the same with me. So I stopped wasting my energy.”
She isn’t coming from the same place as many of those peers. Halsey grew up Ashley Nicolette Frangipane in New Jersey to a white Italian family on her mother’s side and an African-American family on her father’s. Her parents were teenagers when she was conceived. She addresses her dad on Manic’s final song 929 – “the most uncensored song I’ve ever written” – about a lonely night on tour when her dad promised to call and didn’t. After she wrote it, she called him. “We need to make more of an effort to connect,” she says. “It’s hard to have a traditional relationship with your parents when you’re …” The parent? She nods reluctantly. “Kinda. I don’t mean to discredit my parents. I was five when they were my age.”
These days, instead of being angry, she is empathetic. “My parents were great at making sure I didn’t know we were poor. They got me a secondhand violin and put it on the payment plan. I changed my mind and wanted a viola – they got me the viola. Every holiday, I got an art kit. I’d wreck the carpets and walls. They’d lose their security deposit. All because I wanted to paint my bedroom.”
Two of Halsey’s biggest allies have been similar outliers but are no longer alive. The rapper Juice WRLD died last December from an accidental overdose; Mac Miller, whose posthumous album was released the same day as Manic, suffered the same fate a year earlier. “It’s terrifying seeing your friends put out posthumous records,” Halsey says. “Should I be prepared? Do I need to tell my team what to do if anything happened to me, what I wouldn’t want to go out? I used to say music immortalises you – then it got real. Hopefully, it’s a good thing that we’re talking about it because artists need to take better care of themselves.”
Seven years ago, Halsey tried to take her own life. She is committed to a path of self-betterment, but worries about her health. “There’s been a lot of times where I’ve thought: ‘If I keep doing this I’m gonna die.’ Other times I think: ‘But if I’m alive and I’m not doing this I might as well be dead.’ This is all I’ve known for the past five years. I hope the world gets more sensitive to that. I don’t think it will.”
Her team and her mother are the people she calls in a crisis. “My life is tremendously non-conducive to nurturing personal relationships,” she says. She is taking stock of a new support system: reviews of Manic have been resoundingly positive. “Peculiar,” she says. “I’ve always been a ‘fuck the critics’ girl. It’s part of my brand. They say: ‘We always loved her.’ I say: ‘Fuck you, no you haven’t!’” Just as she is done with pleasing people, they are coming around to her anyway.
- Manic is out now on Capitol Records. Halsey’s UK tour begins on Saturday 7 March at SSE Hydro, Glasgow.