How Lana Del Rey reinvented herself ... and modern-day rock stardom

Lana Del Rey
“She’s a little weird,” said Rock Hall of Famer Stevie Nicks of pal Lana Del Rey, above in Los Angeles, “and she likes being a little weird. She’s a real artist.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Just off Laurel Canyon, up a long, rickety flight of outdoor stairs, Lana Del Rey is puttering around the kitchenette of a rented luxe cabin, while a couple of her musician friends hang out on the porch. It’s exactly the kind of idyllic spot in the cradle of L.A.’s ‘60s and ‘70s folk scene — the onetime home of her hero Joni Mitchell — where you’d expect to find one of the world’s most dedicated California music enthusiasts.

She may have originated in New York as Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, but Lana Del Rey has become the preeminent modern practitioner of the California sound — the dreamy, psychedelic style associated with El Lay acts like the Mamas and the Papas and Fleetwood Mac.

Del Rey, 34, recently released her sixth album, “Norman F— Rockwell,” to nearly unanimous critical acclaim. With a little downtime between appearances promoting the record, including her upcoming concert at the Hollywood Bowl, she’s been taking pleasure in doing mundane things: grocery shopping, arranging flowers, catching up on reality TV. In a white tank top and denim cutoff shorts, makeup-free save for her Bambi lashes, she’s a warm and friendly host, offering a cup of kombucha or a perfect red apple from a bowl on the table, spinning Joni albums to fill the space with sound.

Lana Del Rey photographed in L.A.
Lana Del Rey: “I’ve put a lot of stuff out there on the table. But I’ve been very appropriate in other ways. I’m not throwing everything out there on the table for a reason.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Del Rey occupies a place in the popular music firmament unlike anyone else. “Norman F— Rockwell” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard album chart, quite a feat in 2019 for a confessional singer-songwriter who pointedly evokes the ghosts of both hallowed rock poets like Leonard Cohen and the femme fatales of Hollywood’s golden age. She was tagged as “sadcore” on her earlier albums, but her biggest chart hit was an EDM remix of “Summertime Sadness” and she recently slid in gracefully next to blockbuster pop stars Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande on “Don’t Call Me Angel,” a glossy bit of girl-power branding for the new “Charlie’s Angels” movie. On “Norman F— Rockwell,” she lets the sunshine in more than ever. “There’s room now,” she says. “There’s a little bit of a lightness to some of the stuff.”

Her career has been unusual in many ways. After releasing music under the names Lizzy Grant and May Jailer, she took on the mantle of Lana Del Rey. She quickly played “Saturday Night Live” and was met with fierce criticism for her look, her sound, her lyrics. But that fast rise to fame and chauvinist response from some critics didn’t scare her; she just doubled down on what she does best: writing songs. A decade in, against all odds, Lana Del Rey has established herself as a bonafide rock star in an era in which fewer are minted than ever before.

On Oct. 10, she’ll take the stage at the Hollywood Bowl, a venue whose place in rock history is very meaningful to her. She cites the famous 1968 Jimi Hendrix show at the Bowl where audience members got naked and climbed in fountains (no longer there) as her model for an ideal Bowl show. She has a couple of special guests in mind for next week, and has been mulling an Eagles cover if she can pull it together and it’s up to her standards. “It’d be so fun to do ‘Hotel California,’” she says. “It’s really hard to sing, though. You think you know it and then seven minutes in you’re like, ‘Oh, Jesus!’”

Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey performs during the 2016 Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 2016.
(C. Flanigan / WireImage)

Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, with whom Del Rey collaborated on the 2017 track “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems,” says by phone from Hawaii that she and Del Rey shared an “instant connection. We both love writing songs more than anything: Sitting in a room with some candles and a piano and communing with our own channels that are going up to the spirit world and coming back down through us. She’s a little weird, and she likes being a little weird. She’s a real artist. I think she should direct movies when she’s tired of all this.”

Del Rey speaks thoughtfully, taking time to express herself to ensure she won’t be misunderstood. Lately, she’s been thinking a lot about her voice, how much power it has and how she ought to use it to speak up for herself. She dabbles in California new-age culture, but she’s ultimately a realist. In 2017, she gave her fans instructions on how to cast a spell on Donald Trump. When I asked if it had been effective, she said “No,” then laughed. “It’s slow, I guess. It takes three years to work.”

It feels like you’re being a lot more public during the release of “Norman F— Rockwell” than you were for your previous albums. Was that always your plan for this one?
No. It’s just that people like it. I’m like, “Alright! Let me tell you about the album!” I remember when I made [the 2014 album] “Ultraviolence,” I put so much work into it. I mixed on my own console for months. And then I did extensive interviews and no one cared that I mixed anything. So I stopped promoting after that. I was like, “Honeymoon,” “Lust for Life” ... just take them.

You’re renowned for your lyrics, but you probably had your biggest radio hit since “Summertime Sadness” with your cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” and you also covered Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” for the recent horror film “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Would you like to record more covers?
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’ve been coordinating this concept covers album called “Pacific Blue.” It would be a very low-key thing, like acoustic Beach Boys stuff, Elvis, Chris Isaak. People usually think your career is over when you record a covers album or a Christmas album. But my musician friends and I are always playing covers. We could probably do that album in a week.

Like Linda Ronstadt when the Eagles backed her, before they became the Eagles.
I wanted Don Henley to be a guest at the Bowl show, but I think he’s in Texas. Also, it’s Don Henley.

After “Norman” came out to glowing reviews, you took to Twitter to criticize a piece written by NPR Music critic Ann Powers, a longtime champion of female artists. Your fans then trolled her. Why did you choose to go that route?
First of all, and this is very me, there were a million beautiful reviews that I didn’t read. And then I randomly see this one thing. In the piece, she said that I’d overcome something, and the way she said it one can only assume she meant I’d overcome child abuse. I’m like, “Don’t bring kids into it. Even if it’s me.” And I’ve never said anything about that.

Was she writing about your use of Lolita imagery?
One can only assume. I’ve put a lot of stuff out there on the table. But I’ve been very appropriate in other ways. I’m not throwing everything out there on the table for a reason. Mostly because my family is big and they’re here. I don’t go there. So it’s like, “Why do you think that you’re going to be the one to put that out there?”

Did you think about reaching out to Powers instead of clapping back on social media?
No. By the way, I didn’t know she was a big journalist. It probably would have been a good time to exercise some restraint. But I felt that she wasn’t taking me seriously. My album’s not good because I overcame things from my childhood. It’s good because the melodies are great, and because I have a natural-born ability to put words together.

Even so, why do you think her piece stuck with you the way it did?
There’s probably a reason that I’ll understand in time. I think part of my response was showing myself I do have a voice. All I wrote was, “I’m not uncooked and I don’t have a persona.”

You say you don’t have a persona, but you do have a stage name...
True. But I also don’t know anyone who doesn’t. Onstage, I wear the same shoes and dress that I go lunch in. It’s always just a dress off the rack. I’ve never had a costume maker. I do my own makeup. But everyone says I have a “persona.” Just because I wear short dresses doesn’t mean I can’t write my own narrative.

Lana Del Rey showed her support for the Time's Up movement with a white rose corsage on her wrist at the Grammy Awards, Jan. 28, 2018.
(Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images)

People seem to project a lot of strong psychological energy on you, for good and ill.
It was that way when I was younger too. Even when I was a waitress. I definitely took on a lot of other people’s energy because I’m just sensitive in that way.

Do you think about the power you have when you’re onstage?
No. I just really don’t want to mess up!

Do people misjudge your perfectionism as aloofness?
Maybe my privacy as aloofness. I’m not a perfectionist. My live shows are not perfect. They’re not choreographed to a T.

Speaking of not choreographed: Last week, you were photographed by the paparazzi in New York’s Central Park with Sean “Sticks” Larkin, a cop from the reality show “Live PD.”
I didn’t know we were being photographed. I would’ve worn something different.

Were you caught off guard when the pictures came out?
Yeah. It’s funny because I was with someone for years and we never had that problem.

Were you worried about the reaction to you dating a cop?
Well, the thing is, he’s a good cop. He gets it. He sees both sides of things.

Do you feel that your fans shouldn’t care about your personal life?
Hell no. I care about what Bob Dylan is doing right now. I’m curious to know if he’s wearing a hoodie or a blazer. I get it.

Lana Del Rey
Alessandro Michele, Lana Del Rey and Jared Leto at the 2018 Met Gala, where the theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & the Catholic Imagination.”
(Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images )

Criticism of you is often levied at your appearance — the choice to wear makeup and dresses. There’s a theatricality to femininity that gets falsely equated with fakeness.
I agree. But I always think of Amy [Winehouse] with her bouffant and full face of makeup.

There’s something about women like Winehouse and yourself who are very done up and unwilling to smile that scares some people, especially men.
Right. I do smile at my shows, though. My mood will dictate the show, but there are many joyful ones.

But your debut as Lana Del Rey definitely had a strong sense of importance and symbolism.
That was intentional. It was like, “I’m taking this seriously, so you should take this seriously.”

Were you taken less seriously as Lizzy Grant?
No. I just liked the sound of “Lana Del Rey.” And I also knew the music sounded as big as that name. It had a ring to it.

It must be strange to be discussed so intensely by critics who don’t know you.
Freud and Jung say that 30% of what you end up thinking about your own self is based on what other people think of you. I believe that. I make sure I know what my story is. That’s why I get mad if I read something that seems off. Because I’m so sure of my story.

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How do you relax when you’re not being Lana? Do you watch TV?
I watch a lot of reality TV. I’m obsessed with “The Bachelor.”

Your songs can be brutal about romance, just like “The Bachelor.”
It’s brutal out there! Even good guys don’t know what toxic masculinity is. My friends and I didn’t either. We had bad experiences that we didn’t share with each other. We were like, “Oh, that was so stupid that I got myself into that.” Now, we realize, “Oh, you actually didn’t.”

Besides your beloved Joni and Stevie, are there other female public figures who inspire you?
Oh yeah. Lately, I was so inspired by Greta Thunberg. I’m not saying it’s similar to what I’ve experienced, but it’s interesting when people say how “angry” she is. I think one of the reasons that climate-change advocates haven’t made more progress is because they are kindhearted. It’s not the Trumpian way of the iron fist. It’s very interesting to see someone who’s so young come off as so angry, and then see people’s reactions. I’m sure she smiles and is nice to her family, but why should she smile at people who are killing the planet? I really like when she said something to the effect of, “I don’t want to hear you say that we understand and we hear you. Because if that were really true, it would mean you were evil, because you’re not taking any action.” I think that line also sums up the #MeToo movement … and every cultural shift we’ve been experiencing lately.

Once you’re done finally touring behind “Norman,” what do you plan to do? What’s your dream vacation?
Just relaxing. Buying groceries. This here, this is definitely the dream. Just this little spot.

Pop star Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey: “Freud and Jung say that 30% of what you end up thinking about your own self is based on what other people think of you. I believe that. I make sure I know what my story is.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)