There’s a new name in pop music, and it’s not one you’re likely to forget. Halsey (real name Ashley Frangipane) is a 20-year-old artist who signed to Astralwerks a few months ago. She has since toured with The Kooks and released her debut Room 93 EP (now available on iTunes), just this week. With honest lyrics, ethereal vocals and polished production, her sound is captivating. She may change her hair color nearly as often as she changes her clothes, but Halsey’s determination is unwavering. I sat down with her backstage in DC for a chat about her vision, fears and what we can expect from her. We go over a lot, but one thing’s for sure: Halsey is not your typical pop artist.
So, you grew up in Jersey…
I grew up in Jersey, but New York was my playground. In middle school and high school I used to take the train in and go get in a bunch of trouble and come back home before my parents would know I was gone. We lived in like a Friday Night Lights town, so everyone would go to football games on Friday and I’d be in SoHo underage.
How did New York come to influence your music?
It was the juxtaposition for me because New York on its own is a Mecca, which is great, but I don’t think it would have meant as much to me if I wasn’t coming home from New York to this dull, vanilla, white bread town. I think that really made me realize I had ideas and opinions that just weren’t right for where I was. And it also made me not really give a shit what anybody thought of me. I had tattoos in high school, had the sides of my head shaved and I dressed weird…age-old artist story. But for me, it was watching kids lead a really destructive life in such a cinematic way that really affected me. Of course I got into my fair share of trouble but a lot of my songs, while they’re autobiographical, they’re also narratives of what the people around me were up to.
Though your music is distinctly pop, it sounds like your influences come from just about everywhere…
For sure. I’m mixed race. My dad’s black and my mom’s white. So I grew up listening to Tupac, NWA and Wutang and with my mom listening to Nirvana, The Cure, Gin Blossoms and Alanis Morisette. And I love rap music today. All I listen to is rap music. And a lot of that comes from the point in my life that I’m at as well, because when you’re in high school you listen to The Arctic Monkeys and The Kooks because it’s relatable. They sing about driving down highways with the windows down and a cute girl in the back seat. That’s something my friends and I could vibe with. Now I listen to a lot of rap and R&B because it’s like “I haven’t been home in a long ass time and I just spent way too much money at the mall” and I’m like, “SAME.” (Laughs) And so I’ve been listening to a lot of that lately and it’s definitely coming through a little bit stronger.
I was nervous at first about it because I didn’t think it was right. But as soon as I stopped caring…I think it was hard for me in the beginning trying to fit into a genre. Because when we sit down in the studio and we start a track, we reference The Weeknd, then we reference TLC, and then we reference Alanis. And I’m referencing something in them that they may have referenced in someone else, so it’s just like this big spider web of music. A lot of what we’ve been hearing back from industry people lately about the EP is like, “We love this but we don’t know what this is.” And that’s good. That’s what I want. They don’t know whether they should send me to pop radio or to alternative and I’m like, “I don’t fucking care, just let people hear it.” I want people to hear my music. That’s all I really care about.
Is there one current artist or band in particular that really inspires you?
As far as people in my lane and my contemporaries, when I first started writing I was a huge fan of this band called The 1975. I went to see them in concert, bought tickets, met Matty [Matt Healy, lead singer of The 1975]. And in a weird way he’s been influential to me just because of his lack of care. His lyrical content is a lot of dialogue, a lot of places. It’s very descriptive and it creates this honest, authentic image. That’s something that really influenced me for sure. And also theirs was a record that I put on when I was driving, and that’s important to me. That was what I did for fun in that small town when I couldn’t get out for the night. I’d get in the car with a friend, we’d buy a pack of cigarettes, put a record on and just drive to nowhere. Instead of spending $10 on dinner, we’d put $10 in my tank and drive around all night. So he’s been massively helpful and inspiring, as far as making pop music but not caring about if it fits the formula.
You’re touring with The Kooks now. How has the experience been so far?
The guys themselves are great. They take really good care of me. I’m the only girl on the tour and I’m the youngest so it’s kind of nice. My birthday was in Seattle and they got me a bottle of champagne and we all went out to a strip club and it was super weird. But I linked up with Luke in New York a couple of months ago because we’re signed to the same label, Astralwerks, together. We went out for drinks and started talking and kind of were throwing around the idea of me opening on this tour. And for a while I didn’t think I got it. I was like “Damn it, this sucks!” I didn’t want to bring it up. And eventually he hit me with a text and was like, “Hey do you want to open for us on tour?” and I was like, “Yeah!”
It’s funny because I think a lot of the time when people find out that a female pop artist is opening for The Kooks there’s an immediate poor taste in the mouth. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have swayed a lot of people’s opinions on this tour, which has been really good because it’s my first tour. Having people come up to me at the end of the night and say “I had no idea who you were until I came, but I’m a fan now and I’m going to go home and look you up.” That means a lot to me. I think the main thing that keeps our show consistent and keeps the continuity there, even though we’re different spectrums of the same genre, is that there’s a really strong vibe to both of our sets. And they’re very different but they complement each other well. Because there’s something heavily sexual about both of our sets. There’s a heavy lack of care and also a real commitment to the craft…in theirs anyway, because I think they’re amazing. I watch them every night.
Which is also cool.
That I get to be on tour with a band that I would’ve bought tickets to go see anyway? Yeah, absolutely. So that’s been really cool but all in all it’s been an amazing experience. Looking back, there’s no better first tour for me than this one, just in terms of length and them being supportive. I’m learning so much from them as musicians and they’ve given me tons of tips. What’s important to me too is that they like my music.
They wouldn’t put you on their tour if they didn’t.
Exactly. But it’s so refreshing to have artists that I’ve been listening to since I was a freshman in high school say, “We dig your stuff.”
What do you think is going to be your biggest struggle in trying to be successful?
Honestly, I think it’s just going to be that everything needs to be so digestible. My biggest fear is being misinterpreted because I’m very particular about the way that I come across, and I have been since day one in the industry. Every label meeting I’ve ever taken, I’ve been extremely particular about making sure that I’m not misinterpreted and that my intentions aren’t misunderstood…that people really understand what my vision is and that what I say is authentic. I want people to give me a chance to explain myself, or to prove myself so they can understand me. That’s going to be my biggest obstacle because this industry is full of premeditated judgments. I want to make sure that the authenticity of what I do is undeniable so that no one can challenge what I say or how I act.
Your Room 93 EP is finally out. What message or feeling do you want people to take away from it?
The EP is called Room 93 because I’ve lived my life in hotel rooms the past year. I’ve formed romantic relationships and business relationships and friendships out of hotel rooms. What’s weird about them is it’s like a stage setting, a fake place. It’s not a real environment. The EP is a narrative about how in a hotel room, because of the forced intimacy, you can either really be yourself for a bit or you can really be someone you’re not. So it’s about human relationships under the scope of that lab rat mentality, or security cam mentality. There are also a few undertones and subplots. One of them is crossing gender barriers, because I talk about drugs and sex and things male artists can sing about and they’re edgy and romantic and emotional, but as soon as a female artists talks about it, it’s like “Shut up, that’s unladylike. We don’t want to hear that.” But I don’t care. That’s what my life is like and that’s what I’ve experienced and that’s what I want to talk about.
And I think the final undertone is not playing a victim. Because although a lot of my songs talk about this hopeless romantic situation or a masochistic or sadistic relationship, there is always a point of triumph in every lyric that implies that I can leave if I want to. I am not a victim. No one is taking advantage of me or hurting me or abusing me, no matter how things may come across in the songs. I’m an equal player in this game. And that’s important because a lot of female artists tend to victimize themselves too often and I would never want any young girl who is being influenced by my music to grow up with the mentality that the fault in a relationship is entirely on one person. It’s a partnership. It’s a duel. A hotel room isolates that and so that’s kind of where that narrative comes from.
So the full album is the next thing you’re working on. Have you been doing any writing on the road?
I’m kind of always writing. I’m writing less the past two weeks because I’ve been really trying to focus on putting my live show together. The real writing is going to come from the reflective experience. When I get to go home to New York and sit in an apartment and think about how I felt…the excitement, the loneliness, the confusion, the anxiety, but also the overwhelming vindication in getting to do this and looking out into the crowd and seeing people singing along and stuff. I think that reflective process is going to be where most of my really good stuff comes from.
We go to the UK in November to finish my album because we want it to be out by the spring. Honestly, the EP was kind of a long time coming for me. These are songs that I’m proud of, but that I’m putting out with the intention of wanting people to come see what the album’s about. When we were putting songs together for the EP, I was so frustrated because I was like, “Four or five songs isn’t enough for me to show people what I’ve been doing and what I want to say.” So for me it was just kind of a placeholder until I could put this album out that’s a consistent story and speaks for something, you know? That’s what I want to do.