Mythology of Laurel Canyon spurs on Lana
LANA DEL REY’S Ultraviolence was released in June this year, and soon debuted at number one in 12 countries. The album sold 880 000 copies in the first week. Del Rey described this third studio album as being “more stripped down, but still cinematic and dark”. The 2014 MTV Video Music Awards also saw the singer snap up Best Cinematogra-phy for her West Coast track.
After your last album, Born To Die, you announced your retirement from music. Yet here you are again with Ultraviolence.
I can’t start an album if I have no idea of the narrative, the concept. If the songs aren’t perfect for me, what’s the point of forcing myself? That’s why I answered that I had no album planned. But in December and January, everything opened up, after a chance meeting, at a party, with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Some kind of chemistry happened. When we recorded a song like Brooklyn Baby, we looked at each other, we felt something was happening. The album was recorded in a very relaxed atmosphere. What’s very surprising to me was I had always worked with my inner circle, people I know and love; here, I found myself with a total stranger!
What gave the slightly hippie, 1970s tone to Ultraviolence?
The first song of the album, Cruel World, decided everything. It places the album geographically: Dan’s guitar tells about entering California. In the beginning of the text there’s something minimalist, a simplicity that repeats over and over. And then the chorus comes with its big drums, its electric mess. This mixture, this cohabitation between normality and chaos is very symbolic of what I’d just been through in my life.
Did you make a list of concepts that summarised where you wanted to go?
Words actually become the cornerstones. Here, it was “fire”. Dan is rather technical, concrete, while I’m more into the imagination. I said to him, for example, that I wanted the album to suggest the idea of flames, but the blue part, the hottest part... I talked to him about electric blue with red highlights. But we were speaking about exactly the same thing. Words are my craft : I decide on the song titles even before they’re written – like Old Money or Cruel World. These words themselves don’t even appear in the songs.
How do you feel in front of a blank piece of paper ?
These last two or three years, I experienced long periods where I couldn’t write a word. I was constantly on tour and I naively thought I could write on the road, but it didn’t work. Finally, in December last year, I spent a few weeks in New York, at Electric Lady Studios, where I recorded the whole album alone with my guitarist Blake Stranathan and a session drummer. My sound was modelled on the Eagles! That’s when I met Dan; he told me that what I’d done was too “classic rock” and as a result, we redid everything in Nashville, in six weeks, with an ordinary microphone, recording mostly live.
The Eagles’ influence is obvious on Pretty When You Cry – very Hotel California. You’ll bring slow dancing back in vogue!
Nobody makes slow-dance music anymore. I’d really like to try again, it’s been such a long time. Nobody knows this, but I love dancing. During the Nashville sessions, at the end of the day, we’d re-listen to what we did and dance like crazy. Dan had his friends from Brooklyn come down for the recording, we’d invite people we’d just met at the corner shop; Juliette Lewis or Harmony Korine were also there hanging out. I’d never worked like that. It was the first time that I’d met such creative people in a studio. I opened the doors. Now I can isolate myself, to experiment without effort even when there are lots of people in the studio: there’s a vast universe inside my head where I go to find refuge. Maybe I don’t have any luck in my daily life, but in my studio life, I’m lucky. I’m always surrounded by good people. It’s where I’m in a good mood. The simple fact that a guy like Dan Auerbach is interested in me does a lot for my confidence.
Your songs offer a strange mix of luxury, opulence and sadness. A bit like Roy Orbison…
You’re right. I feel like I’m making happy songs, but when I have people listen to them, they tell me how sad they are. I can’t run away from my life, which was pretty tumultuous. Three years after my real debut, I’m still plagued by both doubt and sadness. I just have uncertainty, emptiness in front of me. And I don’t like not knowing where I’m going. My love life, my family life: I’m not sure of anything. That’s why I hate when I can’t write because for 10 years, writing was the only stable thing, reassuring thing in my life.
Ultraviolence is a little reminiscent of the laid-back atmosphere of the 1960s in Los Angeles – especially the community of artists living in Laurel Canyon at that time.
Yes, I’m totally into this mythology, Joni Mitchell especially. My mother adored her. When I lived in New York, that’s what I was looking for, this spirit of community : a bit like what Jeff Buckley had managed to build around him in the 1990s, or Dylan in the 60s. But I never found my gang, my family. And as soon as I arrived in Los Angeles, I finally met people to talk with, play with, musicians who have revived Laurel Canyon, like Father John Misty and Jonathan Wilson, who I started making the album with. Everything I was looking for in New York, I suddenly found on the West Coast. I would drive from one house to another in my old Mercedes; I felt like I was back in high school. Every seven years, the American music industry’s centre of gravity moves from one coast to the other. Now, it’s happening on the West coast.
Do you believe in being gifted?
More than anything else in my life, I feel I have a gift for music. But these last years, there were long periods when I didn’t write a word that I liked; I prayed that my muse would come back… And suddenly it came back this winter. A song like Old Money came to me in one shot... Carmen came to me like this, in the street, I set the rhymes to the rhythm of my footsteps. At the time, I walked a lot, it was my writing ritual. Today, I drive; I’m going swimming in the Pacific. And inspiration is reborn from these new rituals. I record myself driving in the car, singing at the top of my voice.
What part of your work is pleasure or pain?
The pleasure begins and ends with the recording of the album. Then comes the pain. I’m extremely involved in every phase of the album until mixing, mastering. I don’t leave the mixing board until the moment we hand over the tapes, a moment of sadness.
Then the touring begins, painful, or the promotion, difficult. Because even if I’ve told myself, misconceptions or twisted ideas keep swirling around in my head. I feel I have to justify myself, to defend myself, when I don’t even feel the need to: my music is good enough not to have to do that. Deep down, I’d prefer to remain silent.
You mention Lou Reed in Brooklyn Baby...
I dreamed of sharing the song with him. I thought he would have found the lyrics amusing; I’d written them with him in mind. The day I landed in New York to have him listen to the song, he died.
Many of your icons are ghosts: Amy Winehouse, Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain...
I never liked them because they died young, but that seems to be the fate of the people I admire. Fortunately, Leonard Cohen proves otherwise. I don’t like this romanticism for dying young. Artists are more useful alive than dead. – Universal Music