In January, after the release of Halsey’s third album Manic, she was slated to hit the road for one of her biggest tours yet. But instead, the pop singer, born Ashley Frangipane, found her plans on pause. Like much of the world, she has spent most of this year at home—and she’s embraced the coziness. In fact, when we speak in the days leading up to the presidential election, Halsey is peak-hygge, flaunting her newly shaved head, wearing a Barbie-esque Biden-Harris sweatshirt, and bundled in a giant, plush blanket. “I look like, I don’t know, a gym teacher or something,” Halsey quips on Zoom from an office in Los Angeles, where she lives.
Yet the multi-hyphenate never gets too comfortable. Halsey has remained quite busy: She has been on the frontlines of the Black Lives Matter protests, landed her first acting gig in the forthcoming Sydney Sweeney-produced series The Players Table, performed alongside Bruce Springsteen for a remote COVID-19 benefit for her home state of New Jersey, and filmed a conversation series with Senator Bernie Sanders. Tomorrow, She releases her debut collection of poems, I Would Leave Me If I Could.
Halsey has never played coy when it comes to the most intimate details of her life, whether that’s talking about sex, miscarriage, or struggles with bipolar disorder, so it’s no surprise that she continues in that vulnerable mode with I Would Leave Me If I Could. In fact, before she signed a record deal, she garnered a massive following on Tumblr for her poems—one breakup poem was even reblogged 820,000 times.
“I’m not treating it like it’s this fucking opus,” says Halsey of her new book. “It’s no different to me than what I used to do on my Tumblr. I used to write poetry and post it on my blog every day.” The book features poems about everything from the stark realities of bipolar disorder to sexual assault.
Below, the singer speaks with Vogue about her New Jersey roots, the director she’s hoping to work with someday, how she’s staying healthy during the pandemic—and shares an exclusive excerpt from her book, the poem “ordinary boys.”
“The poem is about a guy that I knew I wasn’t supposed to be with,” Halsey says, “but I kept trapping myself in the relationship with him. … In moments where I feel powerless, one of the ways that I gain awareness and control over a situation in my life is that I write about it. Once you’ve put someone down on paper, you’ve reduced them to a character, and they no longer have the power that they do in real life.”
Earlier this year you announced that you were going to do a press blackout. Has it ended?
Oh, I’m barely doing interviews again. You’re just special. I’m only doing interviews when I have something very specific to talk about. I’m not doing interviews just purely for the intention of having a larger profile: I don’t want a larger profile. I’m not saying that I don’t want one at all. I love what I do. I can’t control [my profile] sometimes—it grows out of proportion and makes me feel really, really helpless. I gave a lot away in the beginning, and it didn’t help me. So I’ve got to take care of me now. Also, I sound like an asshole in print, and I don’t mean to. All the YouTube comments on my video interviews are like, “Oh my gosh, she’s so nice. I thought she was such an asshole.” I’m like, “It’s because you read something!” That’s probably just the Jersey in me.
You’re about to release your debut poetry collection I Would Leave Me If I Could. How did you come up with its title?
It’s from a really old poem that I wrote when I was 18. The title comes from the idea of feeling trapped with yourself, the idea that most people who are in your life are there because of obligation or convenience, and that everyone will leave eventually. And that reflective moment of, “Yeah, I get it. I’d probably leave me, too, if I could.”
Why release a book of poetry now?
Honestly, there’s two reasons. The first is because I had it. The second reason is because I reached a point in my career where I don’t want there to be any sort of debate on whether or not I write. A lot of people just generally assume I don’t write my own music, even though I’ve said ’til I’m blue in the face that I do. Also, there’s stuff you can say in a book that you can’t say in an album. When I sing, the writing is tainted by whatever I look like at that time, whoever people think I’m dating at that time, and whatever they’ve read about me in the press most recently. They build a composite of who they think I am, and then that’s how they interpret the work. But a book is faceless.
In the book, there are a lot of allusions to sexual misconduct and assault. How difficult was it for you to be able to revisit those experiences? Why did you think it was important to write about them?
Well, I definitely cut a lot of shit out, that’s for sure, because I do have to create boundaries for myself. A lot of this book is about relationships, betrayal, abandonment, and interpersonal communication. When you read a poem about something that happened to me when I was eight, maybe it’ll help you better understand the poem about something that happened to me when I was 24. Also, ever since I did the Women’s March speech, I’m not afraid of talking about sexual assault or misconduct. It’s far more common than any of us realize. So I do think it’s important to include it.
You released your third album Manic in January, which appeared to convert a lot of non-Halsey fans. Do you feel like you were taken more seriously by people that had challenged your talent or career in the past?
I do. Manic rewrote history. When I put out Badlands, I was so young, and because I had just appeared out of nowhere, people weren’t really interested in approaching it with positivity. There was a premeditated idea of what I was like or what it would be like. By the time Manic happened, people were like, “Oh, okay. This is what she does.” Then, after Manic, I saw all these publications that shit on Badlands reporting on Manic and being, “When she put out her debut album Badlands, it was this groundbreaking, taste-making album.” And I’m like, “Now you like Manic, so you’re going back and saying you love Badlands.” I was happy, I wasn’t angry: After they got to know the person that was in Manic, maybe they looked at Badlands a little differently.
Have you started working on a follow-up to Manic, or do you plan to release a new body of work next year?
I’m kind of just taking some time. This is the longest I’ve ever spent at home, so I’m always making stuff. With albums, it’s like I wake up one day and all of a sudden, I know 16 songs I want to write. Then I start them, and it’s done. I’m doing what I do before I make an album—I call it “collecting.” I’m watching movies, reading books, and collecting inspiration.
You’ve been very vocal over the years about your love of punk rock, and we’ve seen echoes of that in your singles “Nightmare” and “Experiment on Me,” as well as your collaborations with Machine Gun Kelly and Bring Me The Horizon. You’ve previously mentioned wanting to start a punk side project. Would you, as Halsey, ever release a punk rock album?
I do really want to, but it needs to come naturally. I’ve never sat down before and been like, “Okay, I want to make this type of album.” The album kind of makes itself. When that time comes, it’ll happen on its own. I definitely need to do it eventually though, because I’m starting to age out of being angsty and punk.
You’ve worked with a ton of musicians at this point. Who do you dream of collaborating with?
I really want to work with Grimes, because I love her, and I have always loved her. I’m also everyone’s biggest fan. I’m such a fangirl. I want to work with Harry Styles. I loved his last record. I’m so proud of him just as a fan and as a peer. He’s a real one. I think we could make something really cool together.
You had a cameo in A Star Is Born, and you’ve hosted Saturday Night Live a handful of times. Now, you’re planning to add acting to your resume with your role in the forthcoming TV series The Players Table with actress Sydney Sweeney. Was being an actor always a part of your plan?
Yes. I wanted to act before I fell in love with music. I started doing musical theater when I was a kid, which is how I fell in love with music. Acting comes really naturally to me because so much of my work up until this point has been studying humans: the way they think, the way they act, and being able to convey a specific type of emotion even when I’m not feeling that emotion. Sydney and I are really looking forward to making The Players Table very realistic, maybe in a way that’s hard for some people to stomach.
In terms of acting, have you thought about the people you’d want to work with?
I definitely want to work with Ari Aster. I love horror. I don’t really have a specific dream role. I just want to play characters who are meaningful and complex. I’m not trying to get casted as “a casual hot girl,” because I’m a pop star, and people are like, “Oh, we should put Halsey in this.”
Given your friendship with Sydney, would you ever guest star on Euphoria?
I would love to, provided it’s the right role. I would never want to just go on just so it’s like, “Oh, Halsey was in an episode.” I would want to do something really cool and meaningful. I love working with Sydney. She’s one of my best friends.
You’ve always been candid about your mental health. How have you been able to cope during the pandemic and in 2020?
Routine is the big thing. I need to have structure in my life. I also need to be unafraid of taking care of myself. I think sometimes creatives are like, “Oh no, if I fix my mental health, I won’t be as creative anymore.” And that’s just simply not true. I’m making far better art in every medium when I’m taking care of my mental health than I am when I’m not.
You participated in the Black Lives Matter protests this year. Why was it important for you, as a white-passing, biracial woman, to help?
Some people [in my position] would be like, “Oh, I can’t go because I’m famous,” or “People are going to notice me,” or “I can’t get hurt.” It’s no different if I get shot or gassed than it is for any other person. My life isn’t more precious than somebody else’s because I sell records. Self-preservation is one thing, but considering your life more precious than somebody else’s is where privilege really starts to become a disease, a poison. There were thousands of people in this country who were far braver than me and did far more than me who didn’t get nearly as much attention. I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I just hope I don’t have to.
My race is often a topic of conversation because I’m white-passing, but at the end of the day, my dad’s Black, my brothers are Black, and I love them more than anything in the world. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to fight for them.
Why is it important for you, at this point, to be more than solely a musician?
I have a huge thing about injustice. I’m just not built to ignore it. I come from nothing, dude, and I’m so lucky to be where I am. But I haven’t forgotten where I came from. That’s the most important thing. When I’m talking to my friends, we’ll be talking about politics, and I’ll be like, “Yeah, and for people like us who are lower-middle class,” and they’ll be like, “Ashley? You’re not lower-middle class.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, but I used to be.” So I still wake up every day and feel like I am. I have that survival instinct.
There are ordinary boys.
And then there are boys
who stick an arm down your throat
and grasp your heart.
Digging through your entrails
while your teeth rub
against the socket of their elbow.
You drool and it pools around your lips
to their armpits,
tickling down to their ribs.
There are boys
who you will write poetry for
as an offering
an insecure gesture, to say
“Please like me,
for I have gilded you in gold,
you should love me
for the sheer fact
that I love you.”
Then there are boys
who demand poetry.
Who keep you awake
at all hours of the night,
purging your brain
of their details.
you can capture them on a page
and then capture them in the world.
You are choking
with his hand in your neck
and his fist around your heart.
Your aorta pulses.
And so does your aching pussy.
You write to calm the craving.
To corner them in fiction
I have conquered you.
Excerpt from I WOULD LEAVE ME IF I COULD by Halsey. Copyright © 2020 by Halsey. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.