Halsey recently released her highly anticipated sophomore album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Radio.com caught up with the singer to discuss the project.
In the wide-ranging conversation, Halsey discusses the cinematic video for “Now or Never,” working with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui and being surprised when people like her music.
You took the situation in your life and you turned it into, not only a song but an amazing cinematic production with the video for “Now or Never.”
I was going through this really prolonged, drawn-out, toxic breakup, and I realized that it was a really normal thing, a normal human experience. Going through a breakup is something a lot of people go through, but in that time to me, it felt like the end of the world. It felt paranormal. It felt like a parallel universe. So what I did was I took that experience and turned it into this concept record, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. It’s kind of like when you’re a little kid and you climb a tree, smash cut to a daydream of you on top of a mountain, above the clouds, and you’re on top of the world, then smash cut to you back in a tree, and you’re like, “Oh, I’m just in a tree.”
And that’s kind of what it was like for me going through this breakup, where I felt like we were these two dueling, from different worlds, hero-heroine situation, and then I’d wake up and realize I just had a bad boyfriend. But I wanted to translate that into this world where love conquers all, this afterlife, this Romeo and Juliet story. So I wrote a record that is confident, it’s vibrant, it’s visceral; most importantly, it’s not about him, it’s about me. And I called it Hopeless Mountain Kingdom.
Do all of your videos take place in the same universe?
So I think that the Halsey Universe in some way stops at the Hopeless Fountain Kingdom because my EP, Room 93, was about this couple that was forced to repeat this perpetually awful relationship in a hotel room. You know this kind of thing where they open the door and try to walk out and leave and come out through the closet and they’re back in the room, this perpetual parallel universe. And Badlands was about this post-apocalyptic society and this young heroine living there, and both of them were metaphors. Room 93 was a metaphor for feeling stuck, feeling like I was finding the same traits in a lot of partners like I was repeating the same bad relationship over and over again. Badlands is a metaphor for a mental state, feeling like I was stuck somewhere toxic and I needed to escape.
But it’s interesting, because it’s almost like Room 93 was in a hotel within the Badlands, and the Badlands is kind of like the mortal world above the Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. If I could explain where geographically the Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is, I’d say it’s like a purgatory. So it’s kind of where you go if you’re not good enough to go to heaven, but you’re not really bad enough to go to hell. So if you’re somewhere in between you get stuck in the Hopeless Fountain Kingdom.
You say the Halsey Universe ends with this album, but is there more than just this video? Because you put so much work into this video and the newspaper, there’s a whole narrative in that feels like you can continue with it, at least with the next few singles, even if it ends with this album.
So “Now or Never” is the first video from the album, and it was my directorial debut. I’ve always been really heavily involved in my music videos for the album. I always wrote the treatments and was very opinionated. But I was never brave enough to ask if I could co-direct. But this time around I put my foot down and I said I wanna direct this video. And it was such a crazy experience for me as I was learning frame rates and picking an AD, and working with a production company and doing all these things that are generally outside of my job description as a singer.
I fell in love with the process though. Having that kind of control over my vision and getting to feel like I could bring this to life for my fans in a way that I never could before really, really excited me, so there’s going to be a lot of music videos coming out. They are coming out in a non-linear fashion though, so “Now or Never” is kind of the middle of the story, so I have to give you the beginning, and I have to give you the end. Then maybe we’ll put it all together and put out some crazy mega Halsey movie. Who knows?
That’s very Quentin [Tarantino] of you.
Yes, who I obviously adore. Adore him!
It’s hard to imagine anybody thinks of you as just a singer at this point. Everyone knows that you write your own music, you play guitar, you oversee every last aspect of the visuals. You’re not really just a singer; that just seems to be more an aspect of what you are as an artist.
I think it’s hard sometimes. I think the female stereotype is so very real in music. I was having this discussion with this friend at Coachella, and we were talking about how a male artist of any genre can put out a pop-leaning record and still maintain their genre, or still maintain their artistry. Kendrick Lamar can get on a Maroon 5 song, and he’s still a niche urban rapper. His artistry is intact. Drake can follow the formula of a pop artist and still maintain that he’s an urban artist, he’s a rapper. Kings of Leon could have a smash hit at Top 40 radio and still be a rock band. But as soon as a female artist does anything pop-leaning or anything in the mainstream, it’s like it consumes her, and any sort of artistry or dignity or anything niche or alternative about her gets completely eradicated by the fact that she was on “E News” once.
It’s really frustrating sometimes having to constantly be defending your artistry. I know for me it’s amazing to me how often I’m in an interview or I’m in a meeting and I’m like, “Yes, I write my own music,” and people are like, “You do?” I’m like, “I only talk about it every day.” But it’s just so assumed that I wouldn’t. Or because I talked about makeup once or because I went to a party with Justin Bieber one time, none of that matters. So it is hard feeling like I have to defend that, because I do put a tremendous amount of work into the consistency and the narrative behind my records and wanting to put something out that is a body of work that’s a story, that’s not just 12 pop songs.
“Closer” was an amazing experience. I love the Chainsmokers. Having that record changed my life, it was my biggest radio song of all time. But I think that it would be foolish and I think it would be lazy of me to chase that formula for the rest of my life. So I need to keep trying new ways to keep myself engaged. I get bored really quickly, so if I kept writing the same song over and over again or had someone else writing my songs for me, I would not stand a chance. I would have to pack the whole thing up and be like, “Nah, music’s not for me. I’m bored.” So I have to keep challenging myself.
The people who matter most, they know the real deal though. They know that you write your own stuff.
Yeah. I think I try to be—I’m obviously not a perfect person, and I think that a lot of my project actually really is about admitting my flaws and coming to terms with the fact that I’m an antagonist more often than a protagonist, and I’m usually causing trouble more often than getting into it. I admit that, and being a writer is a very self-aware thing to be, constantly having to manifest yourself into a record and give it to the whole world, and then they get to decide thumbs up or thumbs down, and it’s as simple as that. It’s a very self-aware thing to be.
But in that self-awareness and in the understanding that I am a role model, I hope that if my fans take away anything from me it’s not so much my action as much as my intention, and my intention is to always be authentic, to constantly evolve, and just to be unapologetic about that evolution and about the truth in who I am and what I’m saying, and also sometimes showing up and trying a version of a song that doesn’t work or hitting a wrong note or my makeup not looking great or a stupid costume that I designed that I thought was gonna look better than it did. Making mistakes, art is about making mistakes, and art has become so much about the pursuit of perfection and wanting everything to be Photoshopped and auto-tuned and look perfect, and we obviously have the capabilities in our hands to make our art as best as possible so we’re gonna wanna be perfectionists, but at the same time, those imperfections are what make you an artist.
And so for me, with my fans it’s about, hey, I’m gonna try things sometimes, and it’s not always gonna land. But if you bear with me and you help me figure out this journey and let me express myself, hopefully, that’s how I can be the best role model for you. Here’s me making mistakes, but doing it because I’m doing something I love, and that’s just me.
You said in the Rolling Stone interview, “I’m an alternative artist, but these days alternative is alternative pop, not rock.” You encompass both sides of things, and I think that’s one of the reasons why you resonate so much…
Yeah. Zane Lowe called me “a part-time pop star,” which I think that’s really funny, the mentality of a part-time pop star because I love pop music. Pop music is a science, and it’s an art form. And I paint, I draw, I write, I bake, I sew, I love any sort of medium I can get my hands on. But I also love math. I’m bad at real math, but I love philosophical math. I love the idea of patterns and formulas and synchronicities and relationships and the way people behave in pop music. Because pop music is a direct reflection of culture. It fills a hole. And if you see what pop music is, then you can realize what is missing from the current climate, the current culture.
Pop music has a dual responsibility. Sometimes it distracts people from what’s going on, but also sometimes it has the responsibility to call people’s attention to it. And I love that science, so I think I will always make pop music inherently without meaning to. But it’s leaving those mistakes and doing things that I think are better for me, for my voice, not my singing voice, but for my narrative voice, for my voice in culture, for what I have to say, for what I mean, for who I am. Leaving those mistakes in to better benefit that, rather than compromising them for the sake of a song that I think is gonna be a hit—it’s like anti-pop. We’ve always joked around and called it that from the beginning, but if I could describe myself in any way it’s like the anti-pop, the neo-pop.
Working with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui on “Strangers,” she comes from the pop machine.
I think when I was picking collaborators for this record one of the most important things for me was realizing the difference, the different personality that this record has. It’s kind of electronic, it’s kind of pop, it’s kind of R&B, it’s kind of alternative. So I needed four people to represent four different voices on this record. I’m the alternative voice; Lauren Jauregui from Fifth Harmony is the pop voice; Quavo is the urban voice, and Cashmere Cat is the electronic voice.
So I kind of have these ambassadors from every world representing those corners of where I fall as a genre artist on the record, and that’s why I went with those features because Badlands had no features on it. So my choice to put features on Hopeless Fountain Kingdom was very Shakespearean in the sense that they are character voices, they are omniscient, choir, third party members who are telling you a little bit of a different perspective about this relationship. There’s a moment on the record where Quavo says, “Treat her right and she won’t complain,” and it’s almost like he’s speaking to my partner in the song. He’s giving his third party opinion, and I thought that was really cool and definitely very Shakespearean.
Ho was touring with Charli XCX?
She’s brilliant. So I did the same thing with the tours as I kind of did with the album in picking opening acts is I wanted people to represent both worlds, and Charli is kind of this alternative, feminist absolute powerhouse. And then PartyNextDoor is the urban R&B element. But the reason I love both of them so much is because the three of us are not only friends, but we’re all artist songwriters. So we write for ourselves, we write for other people, and it’s a really unique kind of artist, being that kind of artist. When I was getting ready to start the promotion for the Hopeless Fountain Kingdom tour I was really careful about making sure all the imagery fit their brand and fit their aesthetic, because I understand what it’s like to be so in control of your projects. I was really sensitive to that when I was doing things with them, making flyers in their colors, making flyers with their styles so that they could promote them in a way that wouldn’t feel like it was taking their fans out of their narrative.
I’m playing arenas for the first time of my own headline accord. I’ve opened for Imagine Dragons and the Weeknd in arenas before, so I have a little bit of practice, but controlling an arena of my own is definitely a much different monster that I need to tackle. I’ve always been pretty ambitious with my show. I remember getting kind of laughed at a little while ago trying to pack arena-sized production into theaters and having local stagehands and local promoters look at me with their hands in the air like, “What am I supposed to do with all this?”
But I’ve always gone to those lengths, and I’ve always invested my own money and my own ideas and time in making sure that I have the best shows possible because I’m a storyteller. So the most important part of what I do is my live show because that’s when I get to sit everybody down and tell them my story in person, and if I can’t nail that, then I can’t do anything.
You said you were surprised when people told you that they liked your music, and you said, “Maybe that confidence will come at some point. Someone’s gonna say to me, ‘I like your music,’ and I’m gonna go, ‘I know.’” Soon after that, you did a headline show at Madison Square Garden. Are you used to the idea of people loving your music now?
I will never get used to the idea of people liking my music. Even when my own manager or my own mom or something is like, “I love it, it’s amazing,” I’m like, “Really? Really? Really?” It’s so hard to remove yourself from things. It’s so hard to be like, “Do I think this thing is good because it’s special to me? Do I think this thing is nostalgic because it’s nostalgic to me? Do I think this thing is authentic and true because it was real to me?” And when that crosses a boundary and it affects other people, that’s magic, and that will always continue to surprise me. I think I will always have a certain insecurity about my art, but I hope I do because it will keep me wanting to constantly improve. And the day I don’t want to improve anymore is the day that I’m not an artist anymore.
You also once said that your days off are your worst days of the week because you love working. Do you still feel that way?
You know, I think that I need a day off sometimes because I really ran my body into the ground. I toured for 18 months straight, and I loved every second of it, but I got to a point where my body was actually telling me, “You need to chill.” But when I got off tour in September I was home for a couple months, I got really depressed. I missed the routine, I miss having my friends around, I miss being in a new place every day, being stimulated. And honestly, performing is like—I have friends who have gotten addicted to working out, and it’s a really real phenomenon because you’re releasing neurotransmitters. Every night you’re out there flooding—well, when you’re in the gym you’re flooding serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and being onstage is the same thing.
So I get onstage for an hour and a half every night and run around and sweat and jump and get my aggression out, and people would cheer and they’d scream, and I would feel like I helped someone, and I would feel like I did something nice for someone, and I would feel like I had a purpose. So when I was home and my only purpose was deciding what I wanted to order for takeout for dinner, it made me feel kinda worthless a little bit. So I’m just so excited to get back out on tour and feel like all is right in the world again.
Interview by Brian Ives