Do you think a “guilty pleasure” is a real thing? Yes, but I don’t have many of them musically. I have tons of them in life.
Do tell. Well, smoking is one of them. Sugar, coffee. I must have 13 cups a day. It’s a shame about the health consequences because a lot of great things happen over coffee and a cigarette. A lot of great songs were written.
Why did you choose to cover Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman” on Ultraviolence? [Sings, “The other woman has time to manicure her nails, the other woman is perfect where her rival fails.”] I relate to being the person who people come to for “such a change from the old routine,” but not being the main thing. I had a long-term relationship for seven years with someone who was the head of a label and I felt like I was that change of routine. I was always waiting to become the person who his kids came home to, and it never happened. Obviously I had to seek other relationships, and I felt like that became a pattern. I was younger—24, 25 at the time. I had known what I wanted to do for a long time. I had been serious about music since high school, and I stopped drinking when I was 18. By 24, I was a pretty serious person. I thought I was a writer, and I was a singer. I thought I knew what I wanted my path to be. The people I was drawn to were already established, but they were probably looking for someone more on their level, age-wise. But I love the idea of wrapping up the record with a reference.
Many artists use obscure references to try to prove individuality and originality. Why do you go for icons like Marilyn, Elvis, and Jesus? When I had put out only “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games,” I caught a lot of grief from journalists asking me why I was being so literal and obvious. I referenced things like Marilyn without trying to be accessible. I have a personal relationship with my perception of who Marilyn was. She was the kind of female who was really warm and giving. I like that type of girl who’s friendly and easy. I was always looking for girls like that as friends. I felt like I knew her in that way. And Jesus—I mean, being raised Catholic, it was just a way of life. Spirituality and religion were strong. I was in Catholic school until I was 13. Like a lot of other people, I think foundationally I was hymn inspired—musical hymns, not Him, Jesus. [Laughs.]
How did you meet Dan? I met Dan at The Riviera strip club in Queens. He was with Tom Elmhirst, who’s an amazing mixer, and I was with Emile Haynie. Emile asked if I wanted to go hang out with them and I had a lot of fun for the first time in a long time. Dan had been mixing Ray Lamontagne’s record with Tom down at Electric Lady studios. And he left by the time I was there—Lee Foster gave me Electric Lady all by myself for three weeks.
Wow. It was incredible. By the end of the three weeks I thought I was done. Then I met Dan and he said, “Why don’t we just go to Nashville and see what happens?” I went because it sounded like a good time. I didn’t want the party to end. I flew there with Lee and we rented a farm for six weeks. We drove to Dan’s studio on 8th Street every day and I loved it. He was what I was looking for, because he was a facilitator. He said “yes” a lot. If I was like, “I only want to sing this through once,” that was normal to him. It was natural that someone would like what they got on the first try. He was cool like that. [Lights a Parliament with her plastic purple lighter.]
You’ve been smoking cigarettes on stage a lot. Dude, I have to. I can’t get through it.
Is it an addiction? Yeah. I’m a chain-smoker.
How long have you been smoking? Since I was 17. It’s crazy. That’s why I try to play mostly outdoor festivals. [Laughs.] Because 45 minutes into the set, when you’ve still got 45 more minutes to go, you need to smoke.
That’s a long time to be standing in front of people. It’s a long time. If people come and see you at a show for 80 minutes they literally know everything about you. With 5,000 people coming, they film you so the people in the back can see you on the screens. There isn’t a moment when you can turn around and gather yourself. Everything you feel, everything you’re emoting, is just there. I have toured so much more than I thought I would; I thought I would be more of a studio singer. But I toured Europe for two years.
There was a time after Paradise came out when you said you weren’t sure that you were going to make any more music. What changed? A year after Born to Die was released, a lot of people asked me what the new record would sound like and when it was going to come out. I said, “I don’t know if there will be another record.” I didn’t have songs that I felt were good or personal enough. Dan Auerbach changed things for me, and I have no idea why. He was just interested in me. That made me feel like maybe what I was doing was interesting. He gave me some confidence back. He listened to songs that were folk songs at the time, and he thought that maybe, with some revision, they could be more dynamic. I started to see a bigger picture. For me, if I don’t have a concept it’s not worth writing a whole album. I don’t like it if there’s no story.
There are a few different ways to take your song “Fucked My Way Up to the Top.” Is it about people not wanting to give you credit for your success? Or is it about fucking people to get to the top? It’s commentary, like, “I know what you think of me,” and I’m alluding to that. You know, I have slept with a lot of guys in the industry, but none of them helped me get my record deals. Which is annoying.
What’s the worst relationship advice you’ve received? That love doesn’t come easily and that relationships are supposed to be a struggle. Everything else is so hard; hopefully love is the one thing that is actually fun.
That reminds me of an Eartha Kitt interview clip you once posted. Asked about love and compromise, she says, “What is there to compromise? I fall in love with myself and I want someone to share it with me.” She was so right-on with that. It’s nice to have a fiery relationship that enhances everything you do, that doesn’t feel like part of it is not what you want.
What is the most valuable thing that you’ve destroyed in life? In terms of money?
It doesn’t have to be, but that works. I don’t know. I don’t think money has had an influence on things I’ve sabotaged. But there are things.
What’s something you’ve destroyed that’s actually valuable to you? Probably the relationship I’ve been in for the last three years. Definitely demolished that through tons of depression and insecurity. Now it’s just an untenable relationship, impossible because of my emotional instability.
Sometimes people do their best writing when fucked up. And I am a little fucked up. This whole experience has fucked me up.
Fucked you up how? I don’t know. It’s been hard. I was in a good place when I wrote my first record because I wrote it for fun, but then, I felt like everything that went with the record was heavy. I was also trying to deal with stuff with my family. The world was heavy for a couple years. That’s why I liked Dan: He was casual. It didn’t have to be so serious.
Speaking of non-serious, what restaurant has the best red sauce in the world? That’s a good question. I go to the same place in Los Angeles all the time, Ago on Melrose. I order the same thing every time, penne alla vodka.
What were you listening to when you were writing? I love jazz. I love Chet Baker’s documentary Let’s Get Lost, which influenced my video for “West Coast,” which Bruce Weber shot. I love Nina Simone and Billie Holiday like everybody else. I have a ’70s playlist that I listen to daily. A lot of Bob Seger, who I love. He’s probably the main person I listen to, and also the Eagles and Chris Isaak, Dennis Wilson and Brian Wilson. I like Echo and the Bunnymen, “Killing Moon”—just like single tracks.
Do you have a guilty pleasure song on that playlist? No, they’re all pretty good.
You experienced a level of scrutiny that was very personal. How has that affected you? The good thing about catching so much grief from critics is that you literally do not fucking care. It put me in a mind frame where I expect things not to go right, because they generally don’t. But it’s not a pessimistic place. The music is always good, in my opinion. That’s what I expect now from my career, that the music is going to be great and the reaction’s going to be fucked up.
Why do you think they reacted so vehemently to what you were making? If they thought it was supposed to be categorized as pop music, that was the first mistake. It wasn’t made to be popular. It was more of a psychological music endeavor. I wasn’t out to make fun, verse-chorus-verse-chorus songs. I was unraveling my history through music. People were confused as to why I would stand on stage and just sing and not perform. To me, performing is just channeling and emoting through inflection, cadence, phrasing. That’s pretty different from what’s popular, so I think maybe they thought it shouldn’t be popular. What do you think?
It felt like you were being critiqued not as an artist or even a pop musician, but as a celebutante. You presented such a comprehensive, seemingly calculated project—the videos, the styling, the references, etc.—that people felt compelled to pick it apart. It’s funny, because my process was natural. I remember making “Video Games,” and I did my makeup as I did it every day. I put my hair up like I did. I was wearing a dress and filming myself. I didn’t think that the juxtaposition with this found footage that I had taken from people’s honeymoons on Super 8 would get the reaction it did. The reaction to everything six years prior to that, from the day when YouTube was actually born, was a non-reaction. People just didn’t care.
Do you feel vindicated? I feel a sense of relief, but I don’t feel vindicated.
How come? I don’t feel like things have gone well. It’s not the way I would have chosen them to go. So it’s not like I feel everything’s turned around and it’s great.
You’ve got quite a few gold records, and a handful of platinum ones. Yeah, but I still didn’t find that community of people I was looking for, like the way Bob Dylan found his friends, or the respect of being a writer. Because that gold and platinum stuff, it doesn’t mean as much if you’re walking down the street and you can hear people saying things about you. That doesn’t even out.