Ever since she made her splashing entrance into the music scene a few years ago, Halsey made a point of building up these concept albums. Her inaugural record, Badlands, depicted a Mad Max-esque dystopian universe whereas her second one, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, was pretty much her own take on the Shakespearean doomed love story of Romeo and Juliet. Completely immersing herself in these made-up worlds, the singer crafted alter egos and ultimately hid her true feelings behind them. “It’s cool because the metaphor is almost like a cheat code when you’re a writer because you don’t have to put your money where your mouth is,” she admits. But that was before.
At the beginning of last October, something changed in Halsey’s music. That’s when she surprised her eager fanbase with a brand new stand-alone single, ‘Without Me’. She recalls, “I kept telling my fans I was taking a break and then, of course, I put the song out and it was just pandemonium.” Her music video has now reached more than 40 million views and her song gained even more traction when she performed it live at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. For the singer, it’s a defining point in her career since this is the first time she’s being so vulnerable, speaking of her own experiences without the need to dress them up in metaphors. Through ‘Without Me’, Halsey explores the throes of a toxic relationship she found herself in and even though she’s not naming names, hardcore fans know better.
She explains, “I haven’t really gotten into specifics about the song out of respect for everyone’s privacy. But the thing is that I was writing a song about this relationship I had been in, this very high profile, very public relationship. And there was no movie that was as dramatic or as intense as what was happening in my real life. The relationship I was living already was that. It already was that cinematic on its own.” If that one particular song feels rawer, that’s probably because Halsey’s writing process was also entirely different. It all went down this summer while she was touring in South America. “Usually, I sit down and make an album. I’m very particular,” she says. “I sit down, I block out six weeks, have all the sessions set up, I know exactly what I want to write, who I want to work with.” This time, the singer tried something new and got more spontaneous than ever before, getting into the nearest recording studio in the middle of her tour to work on that single.
This past year, Halsey piqued many tabloids’ interest thanks to her relationship with the 29-year-old rapper that shall not be named. It the bat of an eye, she went from rising alternative pop artist to gossip-worthy celebrity. So if ‘Without Me’ was a way for her to finally free herself from the corrosive relationship she used to be in, it was also cathartic to take her narrative back from media and fans alike. “So many people were writing about what they felt was going on in my life,” she admits. “So I was like no, hold on. If you want me to tell you, I’ll tell you. But I’m gonna do it the only way that I know how, which is in my art. I’m not gonna jump on Instagram, go on Twitter, sit in front of my phone… because that’s not me. That’s why I just had to put it into this song.”
We’re both sitting in a hotel in Central London when Halsey tells me all this. She’s incredibly well-spoken and rarely pauses when she speaks. But for a moment, she did, as if to do a quick introspection. She goes on, “I’m not a celebrity, I’m an artist and I think I lost sight of that for a while. This song reminded me that I make art, I don’t make headlines. And it came at the perfect time for me, because now I can make this next album with that mentality of saying what I want to say instead of answering the questions people want answers to.” At the end of the day, it’s obvious that ‘Without Me’ was a way for her to figuratively strip herself naked and just get real. That’s why this song can easily be considered a shifting point in Halsey’s music since it has opened new doors for her.
“I’m a painter, I painted before I made music,” she details. “And I always painted faces, that’s what I loved painting the most. I’m the same way when I write. I think that the one thing my records have in common is that, in a way, they kind of comment on the human condition. So I think the next album will be a further exploration of that.” One thing that could also be drastically different from now on is her habit of making concept albums. Halsey says, “Now that I’ve found this new freedom in saying things for how they are, I don’t know if I’ll keep hiding behind characters. I think I’m braver now that I was before, so this record is gonna be a bit more brave for me.” It almost feels like Halsey is taking a step back to let Ashley – the singer’s actual name and everyday persona – do the work and shine on her own.
While this newfound transparency may scare her a little bit, Halsey can always find solace in the one place she always feels at ease: the stage. When she walks into the spotlight in front of hundreds of people, she seems instantaneously more confident and, frankly, unstoppable. “I surprise myself every time,” she concedes. “Sometimes I do shit on stage and I walk off, and I had no idea who that person was or why I did that. I almost surrender myself to someone else’s control.” Halsey proved that last September when she came to perform in Paris, surprising everyone by doing a cover of Canadian artist Cœur de Pirate and singing in French. “I would never do something like that unless I was on stage because that’s where I become bolder. In real life, I’m like tripping and spilling things and being clumsy and awkward.” The stage is ultimately an outlet, a way for her to let go of her doubts and insecurities to just get creative and let herself loose.
That outward sense of confidence can also be noticed on social media, where Halsey frequently takes a stand against several forms of discrimination whether it’s racism or transphobia. And although her beliefs seem unshakeable, her way of expressing them wasn’t always clear to her. “I’ve learned to pick my battles wisely and to utilize my voice in a more positive manner,” she says. “I think when I first started out, I didn’t understand the impact on my platform and I had to learn my lesson. What’s activism if you’re just calling something out without offering a solution? You’re just a hater, you’re not an activist.”
For now, Halsey is going back to her roots and focusing on her music. “I think it’s going to be a bit more alternative,” she says regarding her upcoming third album. “I think people thought I was going to go in a more urban direction because of the way my last album was, but it will probably the complete opposite.” After collaborating with promising artists such as Quavo and Lauren Jauregui on the Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, she’s open to doing more features but on one condition: “I would really like to work with instrumentalists. I really want to do some guitar with the XX. I’d like to do some piano with Bon Iver. I really want to work people who are musicians, like hands-on artists in the studio, instead of people being like ‘hey I just sent you an email of a song and there’s a timeline’. It’s all so contrived.” Her next record may not have a name yet, but one thing’s certain: Halsey is braver now and is more than ready for whatever comes next.