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HALSEY: FEELING
THE POWER

Capitol’s Halsey has earned considerable Grammy buzz with her bold set If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. Aided by producer/ collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Halsey digs deep and explores an array of powerful themes in a fearless and relentlessly inventive way. She chose to answer several of our questions, probably because she mistook us for a reputable publication.

The sound of this album is so striking and such a powerful canvas for the themes you develop here. How did the musical vision evolve?
I think Trent, Atticus and I found an unspoken language here; choose chaos over comfort, choose dissonant over ethereal, choose tension over resolution. I was pregnant when we were finishing the album, and it was really important to me to create a world that felt visceral enough that even those who couldn’t relate to my situation could, in their own way, feel the anxiety and the stakes. We were filming the movie then, too, and it was essential to create a cinematic world that was strong enough in the songs that the film would require little dialogue and no additional scoring. I’m someone who lives through the movies I watch, and I become the character for that two-hour duration. I wanted my fans to feel the same when they listened to the album.

It’s hard to recall motherhood being addressed in such a raw, candid way on an album. What ideas were most essential for you as you crafted this material?
I found throughout my pregnancy that there was a whirlwind of give and take in regard to my bodily autonomy. There were moments I felt powerful, in control and supernatural—creating life and embarking on the painful, ugly, messy, beautiful endeavor it is to bring that life into the world. But there were moments when I felt powerless. Updating my progression to accommodate execs and investors, making sure the arrival of my child was timely enough that it wouldn’t cost anyone money, was dehumanizing. Not to mention the “madonnafication” of myself. I spent my whole career as a symbol of sexuality and tenacity; would I still be that once the world has decided I'm maternal and therefore “unfuckable?” A world to whom I no longer serve useful? Can I have both?

Another thing in my mind was that, because I was writing the album as I was living it, it was imperative to me that all the lyrics and top-line melodies were my own, solely my own conception. The experience was so personal and intimate that nothing could intervene. I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences collaborating on songwriting in the past, but there are moments in life that require your utmost personal attention and dedication, and this was one.

The creative chemistry you have with Trent and Atticus feels like a natural progression of alternative music. Can you say a bit about your process and what they brought to the table?
With the resurgence of Y2K pop-punk, a lot of my fans wanted me to go down that route. And I have definitely dabbled! I grew up in that scene. I’m from New Jersey, which was really a pop-punk focal point in a way because we were smack in the middle of all the best shows in Philly, New York, etc., plus we had Bamboozle, one of the greatest alternative festival shows of all time. But I didn’t find anything compelling about doing something that had already been done perfectly. I wanted to experiment with alt genres in a way that felt unique. It was a real moment of “Do I give them what they’re asking for or do I try something new?”

Trent and Atticus are my heroes. They accessed musicians I couldn’t have dreamed of approaching on my own. They composed the songs in a way I never would have realized could be done. Sometimes other people see us better than we see ourselves, and that was truly the case here. 

Were there particular artists, musical or otherwise, whose work served to inspire you as you developed the songs and sound of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power?
I have always been inspired by Nine Inch Nails, but I wanted to make a Halsey album with Trent and Atticus, not a NIN album with Halsey in a sonic costume. I drew a lot of inspiration from shoe-gaze and dream pop. Wolf Alice, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive. But we also reference D’Angelo on “Lilith” and feature [D'Angelo collaborator] Pino Palladino on bass and [jazz drummer/hip-hop producer] Karriem Riggins on drums on the song. Dave Grohl was an amazing addition to “Honey.” He gave it such lively and chaotic energy. Lindsey Buckingham played on “Darling,” which is basically my interpretation of “Landslide.”

This kind of insane thing happened where the musicians I was referencing were on the phone because they were intrigued by what Trent and Atticus saw in this album and their dedication to it. It was just as much theirs as it was mine, and I think that sign-off brought people into my world in an unexpected way and many of them have become repeat collaborators of mine. 

Some references were more subtle. The call-and-response bridge in “1121” is a nod to Taking Back Sunday. The heady, bratty vocal delivery in “You asked for this” was inspired by No Doubt-era Gwen Stefani. “Ya’aburnee” was a nod to Turkish love songs because my partner is Turkish. “The Tradition” was left vocally pretty raw, à la Fiona Apple

I was thinking a lot about the music my future child would listen to and as a result, reflecting often on my influences.

What role, if any, did the bizarre circumstance of the pandemic play in the conception and unfurling of this record and/or your art in other media?
It was both challenging and liberating. I started this album six months after I released Manic. I had intended to take a long hiatus. I thought I was tired and a bit jaded and it would be a long time before I’d be inspired again. But the unique circumstances gave me perspective and, most importantly, time. I could now dedicate my days to being in the studio immersed in my art without having to make an album while simultaneously doing promotion and flying all over the world. It starts to take a toll, you know?

This time around I had complete freedom to create. And the devastation of the pandemic coupled with the rapid self-maturation of becoming pregnant made me realize I only have to make art for myself, because nothing really matters. The charts, the press... The world has bigger fish to fry and the only thing I have to do is make music that is true to me and touches people in a way where they can say, “Hey, I see myself in here.” That’s our responsibility as creatives. To give people a chance to explore their own feelings through ours. And we have to be brave enough to tell the entire story with no omission because the fans deserve exactly that.

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