You’ve got to climb the hill behind the Chateau Marmont to get to the office where I’m meeting Lana Del Rey, which feels appropriately on the nose on this early-August day: The hotel is Hollywood’s ultimate nexus of glamour and doom, the keeper of 90 years of celebrity secrets that touch everyone from Bette Davisto Britney Spears. It shows up in the homemade visuals for Del Rey’s breakout single “Video Games” and in the lyrics of songs like “Off to the Races.” She lived here while writing her Paradise EP in 2012. Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski lived here, too, in Room 54, before moving to Cielo Drive where — exactly 50 years ago, as of midnight tonight — the Manson Family arrived.
But these kinds of connections are standard in the Lana Del Rey multiverse, where nods to Bob Dylan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elton John and Henry Miller can coexist in a single chorus and not feel overdone. (No, seriously: Play her 2017 duet with Sean Ono Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Came.”) And if the Lana of five years ago radiated significant Sharon Tate circa Valley of the Dolls energy, the 34-year-old singer-songwriter has more of a Summer of Love thing going on now. The songs she has previewed from her fifth album, the exquisitely titled Norman Fucking Rockwell, are far more Newport Folk Festival than femme fatale — meandering psych-rock jam sessions and slippery piano ballads that shout out Sylvia Plath. The narrative thread throughout all of this can lead listeners down an endless rabbit hole of references, but you can sum it up like so: The music Lana Del Rey makes could only be made by Lana Del Rey.
That means songs like the nearly 10-minute-long “Venice Bitch,” the most psychedelic tune in her catalog, or the title track, a ballad rich with one-liner gems like, “Your poetry’s bad, and you blame the news” — songs that represent the best writing in her career yet have almost zero chance of radio play. Norman Fucking Rockwell, out Aug. 30, is a “mood record,” as Del Rey describes it while perched barefoot on a velvet couch in the new office of her longtime management company, an airy pad way up in the Hollywood Hills with platinum plaques scattered about that no one has gotten around to hanging up yet. There are no big bangers, just songs you can jam out to during beach walks and long drives. This is not exactly a surprise: Del Rey’s only top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 was a raving Cedric Gervais remix of her song “Summertime Sadness.” But in the streaming era, when success often means getting easily digestible singles on the right playlists, making an album that’s meant to be wallowed in for 70 minutes isn’t just inspired — it’s defiant.
Yet it’s an approach that has worked for Del Rey: Her songs, even the long, weird ones, easily rack up tens of millions of streams, and overall they have amassed a solid 3.9 billion on-demand streams in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. Collectively, her catalog of albums has sold 3.2 million copies in the United States, and all of her full-length major-label studio albums have debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 1 or No. 2. The first of those, 2012’s Born to Die, is one of only three titles by a woman to spend over 300 weeks on the Billboard 200. (The other two: Adele’s 21 and Carole King’s Tapestry.) Born to Die also has spent 142 weeks on Billboard’s Vinyl Albums chart — more than Prince’s Purple Rain, tied with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and just behind Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It’s an indication that, as broad as her fan base is, it also runs deep, with a ratio of hardcore devotees to casual ones that even stars with inescapable radio hits might envy.
Del Rey’s instincts are what led Interscope to sign her to an international joint-venture deal with U.K. label Polydor in 2011 and what compelled her managers Ed Millett and Ben Mawson to create their company, TaP Music, with Del Rey as their first client in 2009. “It was at that moment of peak piracy when no one in the music business was making money, so labels just weren’t taking risks,” recalls Millett. “You’d play one of her songs at an A&R meeting, and they’d be like, ‘You know what’s selling at the moment? Kesha.’ But we were lucky with Lana because she knew exactly who she was. Our job was about making sure everybody understood that.”
That battle for understanding has followed Del Rey for much of her career. “People just couldn’t believe she could be so impactful without some svengalis behind her. I still think there’s a tinge of misogyny behind all that,” says Millett, referencing the endless debates about Del Rey’s creative autonomy. “She realized very quickly, being at the center of that storm, you’re not going to win.” So she went deeper into her own weird world, and somewhere between her third and fourth records — the haunted jazz of 2015’s Honeymoon and the new-age folk of 2017’s Lust for Life — it felt like people finally got it. Or, at least, the people who were meant to get it got it. After all, Del Rey never had intended to make popular music, even if she now headlines festivals. It just kind of happened that way: a poet disguised as a pop star.
“I mean, God, I have never taken a shortcut — and I think that’s going to stop now,” she says, feet kicked up on the coffee table. “It hasn’t really served me well to go by every instinct. It’s the longer, more arduous road. But it does get you to the point where, when everyone is just copying each other, you’re like, ‘I know myself well enough that I don’t want to go to that foam rave in a crop top.’ ”
Although that does sound kind of dope, now that she’s thinking about it. “Yeah, never mind,” she says, laughing. “Google ‘nearest foam rave.’ ”
Among those entering Del Rey’s creative fold on Norman Fucking Rockwell is Jack Antonoff, the four-time Grammy Award-winning producer who has become a go-to collaborator on synth-pop heavy hitters for the likes of Lordeand Taylor Swift. Enlisting Big Pop’s most in-demand producer doesn’t seem like a very Lana Del Rey move, and she knows it.
The album title was just something she came up with when she randomly harmonized the name of the American illustrator while recording “Venice Bitch,” though she recognizes that she and Rockwell — an idealist whose cozy depictions of Boy Scouts and Thanksgiving turkeys graced magazine covers for half the 20th century — have both explored big questions about the American dream in their work. And then there’s the artwork she has been using for the record’s singles: bizarrely casual iPhone photos that feel a bit tossed-off because, well, they are.
“Every time my managers write me, ‘Album art?,’ I’m just like, send!” she cackles, pantomiming taking a selfie. “And they just send the middle-finger emoji back to me.”
Her newest songs are some of her most personal, particularly the album closer, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but i have it” (a title only Del Rey could pull off). It also hovers anxiously on the margins of the #MeToo movement, though never in such broad strokes. “It was staggered with references from living in Hollywood and seeing so many things that didn’t look right to me, things that I never thought I’d have permission to talk about, because everyone knew and no one ever said anything,” she says in a tangle of sentences as knotty as the lyrics themselves. “The culture only changed in the last two years as to whether people would believe you. And I’ve been in this business now for 15 years!
“So I was writing a song to myself.” She exhales deeply, sinking back into the sofa. “Hope truly is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have, because I know so much.” Del Rey pauses. “But I have it.”