Hidden away from the sweltering heat and frenetic energy of the fans waiting outside in downtown Toronto, singer-songwriter Halsey, 20, sits backstage at The HMV Underground. The “Ghost” performer’s signature teal hair (recently cut into a close crop) glows against her all-black outfit, a combination of whimsy and darkness that’s also reflected on the New Jersey native’s first full-length album Badlands (astralwerks, Aug. 28). Before taking the stage and signing autographs, music’s newest one-to-watch fills us in on making her own statement amid the rise of left-of-centre pop artists and how she’s dressing the part.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing Badlands?
When I started, I was really obsessive about this city and the desert landscape around it. I wrote a song called “Drive,” it represents the point when I leave the city and venture out into the desert. That’s when it struck me that this whole thing is a metaphor for my mental state. [The song is about] me escaping this booming metropolis filled with materialism and commercialism and venturing out into a desert. I don’t know what lies outside of it but I’m hopeful and optimistic. It’s about shifting my mental state.
Tell me about your stage look.
I shifted my stage aesthetic pretty recently. I was doing the skirts and glitter kind of thing. When I started performing songs from Badlands on stage in dresses with this long, mermaid hair I thought, “Something does not feel right here.” So I cut off all my hair and started wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a leather jacket on stage and moving a little more freely. I care less about looking pretty and more about movement.
What are your go-to pieces for performing?
I love a classic pair of tight black jeans, I’ve been wearing them since I was 15 so it’s hard to escape. I love a good leather jacket, mine’s from AllSaints. There are a couple other brands that make good ones like Rag & Bone and Acne. I wear a lot of vintage t-shirts. I have one with the Looney Toons on it and one with the Rugrats on it. It’s very Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Full House. I like throwing on those t-shirts because it gives me an old school hip-hop vibe.
Do you have a style icon, or is that always changing?
I’ve been really into Rihanna lately. Since I cut my hair, a lot of the people I used to look to for fashion inspiration [wear outfits] I can’t really pull off because of shape and balance. With a lot of the stuff I used to wear, my shoulders get really wide-looking because I don’t have hair to balance it out. Rihanna’s really cool. She’s kind of like me in the way that she’s a little urban and a little not. I’ve been looking to her a lot for inspiration.
On “Colors,” you describe yourself as “blue.” What does blue mean to you?
I think it’s my creative colour. I talk about music with weird words: We’ll be in the studio and I’ll say, “I need this to sound more blue.” Or, “I need this to sound more like water.” When we were working on the EP, I crafted this idea of a blue sound. When I dyed my hair blue, it was just like, game over. It makes me feel electric on stage. I’ve gotten so used to it that I forget people don’t have blue hair. I had brown hair for a photo shoot the other day and it felt so weird.
When did you first realize that you had a huge fanbase?
When I sold out my U.S. tour. I had no idea. I have a lot of followers online, but that doesn’t always translate into fans. When I put my U.S. tour up for sale it was the smallest venues, 200-person capacity venues, and the whole thing sold out in 10 seconds. I called my booking agency screaming, “The links are broken!” and they said, “No, you sold it out.” We upgraded the venues and they sold out again. I did a sold-out U.S. tour to 1,000-person capacity venues and realized that people want to come be part of what I’m doing in real life, which means so much more than an Instagram like.
You’ve been inspired by Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love. Have voices like theirs been missing from pop music in recent years?
Absolutely. I’ve been misquoted on this so many times. There’s a misquote going around saying that I said I wrote an “angry feminist record.” But really what I said to my record label was that I wrote an “angry female record.” I think there’s a big difference. Listen, I’m another alternative pop artist that’s a female. There are so many. I think a lot of them are falling into this sad, dream pop world, which I love. I f-cking love Lana del Rey. I love Banks. But I felt that that wasn’t really my place. I couldn’t find myself writing music that was so forlorn. My music needed to have a little bit more angst behind it. Jagged Little Pill came out 20 years ago. That’s a problem.
Why is it important to you to express yourself that way?
Right now girls are angry, and they should be. Someone needs to be pissed off and represent that instead of just being passive about it. Instead of just saying [quietly], “I think that feminism is great and I really want equality for women.” Do something about it. Be angry. Be loud. That’s why I love Courtney Love. I met her a couple of months ago and she gave me some of the best advice of my life. She said, “Do it for the girls who are too afraid to be as loud as they want to be.”
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