Photo by Nicole Nodland / Universal Music Canada
LANA DEL REY at Virgin Mobile Mod Club (722 College), Wednesday (November 30), 8 pm. Sold out. See listing.
A strange spectre of death stalks the music of Lana del Rey, a preoccupation she's captured quite succinctly in the title of her forthcoming album, Born To Die.
"The thought of dying has always scared me," she explains, "and it influenced the way I felt when I was younger. I've had snapshots of happiness, like when I fell in love - things like that. Born To Die is about honouring true love and enjoying moments of happiness in the midst of mortality."
It's also the title of her next single - her favourite song on the album - an appropriate one given the solemn string arrangements that underscore her graceful, sensuous pop melodies. But despite the shadow of death, the rising star insists that she remains a resolutely happy person.
"I am optimistic in my life. But things haven't always been that easy, and death is a part of that in terms of people I've really loved," she says. "I don't talk about it that much. But when I start to write it comes out."
The song also completes a thematic trilogy that began with sleeper hit single Video Games (and its B-side, Blue Jeans) that launched her out of the Brooklyn underground and into the UK top 10, and top 5 on the U.S. iTunes chart. The haunting, cathartic song depicts a woman lost in domestic bliss as she watches the boyfriend she loves play video games.
Like many of the best pop songs, Video Games renders a complex emotional situation in simple, visceral and hummable terms. When del Rey posted it on YouTube in August, set to a self-directed music video of nostalgic stock footage cut with footage of her pouting and preening, it initially received attention only from the small group that knew her from Brooklyn's music clubs.
Soon, however, it went viral, propelled equally by glowing reviews and catty derision that questioned the veracity of her backstory: a singer from Lake Placid named Lizzie Grant who'd struggled for seven years in New York City before rechristening herself with a cinematic moniker that better reflects the darkly glamorous mood her music and vintage screen siren image evoke.
Many of the attacks were personal, ridiculing her sultry appearance as the work of plastic surgeons, her music as the work of songwriters and her story as the work of spin doctors. How did she deal with it all?
"That's the question, isn't it?" she says enigmatically. "But I'm not really sure yet."
In October, she announced a deal with Interscope and a short club tour of Europe and North America that sold out in minutes.
Speaking over the phone from London, del Rey is articulate and effusive about music, but nervous giggles intrude when the conversation turns personal. She says she's never had it easy as a musician and wrote Video Games 10 months ago at a time when she'd nearly given up on music to focus on other things. Two months after song went wild on the web, she signed her deal.
"I never had huge ambition in terms of being a singer, but I did always hope that I'd be able to tour Europe and have a career making records whose sounds I liked," she says. "It wasn't as easy as I thought, and a lot of people actually want that same thing.
"When I wrote the song, I thought I was gonna keep on playing in New York just for my friends the way I had been," she adds. "I just decided that was gonna be okay and started doing a lot of other things."
Seven years earlier, at 18, she'd moved from Lake Placid to New York City to study metaphysics at Fordham U in the Bronx and make it as a musician. After drifting between places, she moved into a trailer park in New Jersey.
At a songwriters competition, she caught the attention of a rep from 5 Points Records, a tiny label that signed her and sent her demo to several producers. David Kahne, who works with Paul McCartney among other A-list acts, responded minutes later.
They worked together on an album for a year, only to watch the finished product languish for two years as the label tried unsuccessfully to upstream it to a major. The label finally released it online in 2010, but pulled it two and a half months later.
When asked why it was pulled, she becomes a bit defensive.
"It's not because it's a bad record," she says. "We took it down because I was making my second record and [5 Points] didn't have the time or money to support the first one. There's no conspiracy, nothing to hide. I consider it to be a masterpiece."
Discouraged, she put Lana del Rey's career on the back burner to pursue Lizzy Grant's other interests.
"I've been singing in New York since I was 18, but I have a really big life outside of music."
Asked about her interests, she hesitates and then explains that for the past six years she's concentrated on grassroots homeless outreach, helping street people in her New York neighbourhood get their identification and paperwork together to find jobs and transition back to normal life.
"My focus for a long time has just been my service work," she says. "My sister and I have our own homeless outreach thing that we've been doing for the last six years. That's what we do.
"We lived together. We were working from home," she adds. "We have a lot of friends who've been involved in the same thing and they all work out of programs and they all came together."
Philosophy is another interest she's pursued since age 14.
"Like all truth-seekers, I'm looking for answers," she says. "I want to know why we don't talk about where we come from and why we are here. When I found philosophy, I found other thinkers who were asking questions about the origins of the universe. I felt comforted by that."
Right now she's devoted to her music. She's finishing up her second album, a process that began in earnest nearly two years ago after she caught the eye of a music lawyer during the CMJ Music Marathon.
He said her dark sound would go over better in Europe and flew her to London to meet producers. She now spends most of her time there.
She writes her own lyrics and melodies but works with three producers on the rest: British musician Justin Parker, her best friend and orchestral arranger Daniel Heath, and Kid Cudi collaborator Emile Haynie, who's helping her with beats and samples.
Sonically, she says, we can expect lush, filmic strings with sparse, heavier beats underneath.
Hanging around London has also afforded her another collaboration opportunity. A month ago Blur/Gorillaz main man Damon Albarn saw her on TV and invited her to sing on the new Bobby Womack record, which he's producing.
"They wanted me to freestyle a couple of choruses," she enthuses. "It doesn't mean that they're gonna use it. You never know, really, but the boys were nice."
Touring has allayed her fears of performing before larger audiences that, she says, have been "ridiculously nice." It helps that she's still enamoured of Video Games, the song that made her famous.
"Luckily for me, that song actually embodies the spirit of my record, and melodically it fits perfectly with me. It's very much myself in song form," she says. "I'm happy to sing it and I won't get tired of it."