Candid and in charge, pop newcomer Halsey comes of age

Ashley Frangipane performs under the name Halsey.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Ashley Frangipane performs under the name Halsey.

The photographer has asked nicely a few times, until Ashley Frangipane finally explains to him why she doesn’t want to smile for a portrait.

“Listen, I should tell you something,” she says, matching his politeness with the very smile she has declined to flash for today’s photoshoot. “The bio on my website says, ‘I am Halsey. I will never be anything but honest. I write songs about sex and being sad.’ Cool?”

Cool. The photographer nods, and the shoot continues with no phony smiles. That’s not her vibe. Instead, Frangipane strikes one dramatic, piercing pose after another, tipping her head skyward and sometimes running a hand through her mane of mossy blue hair that’s shaved underneath.


Just like that, Frangipane has articulated why she is one of this year’s rising pop artists. Under the performance name Halsey, Frangipane is direct and fiercely true to herself. Pitched somewhere between industrial R&B and seductive electronic pop — think Drake by way of Lorde — her songs are frank examinations of relationships and coming-of-age loneliness.

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With a Globe reporter and photographer shadowing her, Frangipane is in town this particular day as an opening act for Imagine Dragons at TD Garden. It’s early July and nearly two months before Halsey’s debut album, “Badlands,” will be released. But the 20-year-old singer and songwriter, who grew up in New Jersey, is already primed for the big leagues, as her assured performance later in the night will attest.

Frangipane had a similar star-making moment at May’s edition of the Boston Calling Music Festival. (She has familial ties to the city: Her father grew up here, and her grandmother still lives in Quincy.) Under a blazing sun, she turned her daytime set into one more suited for a dimly lit nightclub.

As Halsey, she oozed attitude onstage, wondering aloud where her cigarettes were and leading the crowd in a singalong of the chorus of “New Americana”:

We are the new Americana/High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana/We are the new Americana
(If you don’t get the Biggie reference, that’s because the song wasn’t written for you. Already in heavy radio rotation, it’s on its way to becoming a generational anthem.)

On Friday, Astralwerks will release “Badlands,” a dynamic debut that delivers on the promise of Halsey’s initial hype. Like that of many modern musicians, her story started on the Internet. In 2014, as a complete unknown beyond her YouTube videos, she posted a song called “Ghost,” which eventually got picked up by SiriusXM radio.


“I put ‘Ghost’ online hoping to make a couple hundred bucks,” Frangipane says, pointing out that the song went live at midnight, “but then the next day, I took meetings with five different record companies.”

She waited to sign a deal, mostly to buy more time to figure out what kind of artist she wanted to be. Even now, her eyes widen in disbelief when she recalls the immediate interest based on a single song.

“To be fair, I did come out of nowhere,” she says between drags on a cigarette outside TD Garden. “ ‘Ghost’ was the first song I ever did in a studio, my first time ever cutting a professional vocal. That’s the one that got on the radio — the first song I ever did! It was horrifying for me, but also exciting, because people loved it. But I just thought: But I can give you better! I have so much more to offer!”

An EP, “Room 93,” soon followed, buoyed by the epic, airy ballad “Hurricane.” The synthetic wash that coats her voice on its chorus is the aural equivalent of a waterfall in slow motion.

Jeremy Vuernick, director of A&R for Astralwerks, an imprint of Capitol Records, was among Halsey’s early admirers right after “Ghost” went online. Because he knew one of Frangipane’s managers, he asked to meet with her right away.


“She’s magnetic, and you get that from the first time you meet her,” says Vuernick, who signed Frangipane to the label, beating out a handful of rival offers. “You can tell she’s an honest artist who knows what she wants and how she’s going to accomplish it.

‘No one really has any expectations of me. So if I fail, I get to put out another record. If I screw this one up? Oh well. I’m 20.’

“When we first started working together, her music didn’t really fit in one particular place,” he says. “It’s dark and brooding and moody, but also has these soaring pop melodies. And it’s coming at a perfect time in the musical landscape, because boundaries between genres are completely torn apart right now. We didn’t set out to create an alternative album or a pop album. In her head, she created the right album for her.”

“Badlands” is unlike any other pop record this year. It is dense and arid, conceived as a concept album about “a booming metropolis surrounded by wasteland, almost like a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, a city full of gluttony and sin,” as Frangipane puts it.

“With this album, I could have gone two ways,” she says. “I could have continued with this ethereal pop, or I could have written a proper pop record. I’m completely capable of doing that. But I wanted to do something interesting and take advantage of the position I’m in. No one really has any expectations of me. So if I fail, I get to put out another record. If I screw this one up? Oh well. I’m 20.”

Stylistically they’re worlds apart, but Frangipane shares an important trait with Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. Along with Lorde, they all write almost exclusively from their perspectives as young women who are in charge. So much of Halsey’s music is about freedom — of the sexual, emotional, and spiritual varieties.

That openness applies to her personal life, too. Frangipane has been candid about being “tri-bi,” her term for identifying as bisexual, bipolar, and biracial (her father is black, her mother white). She is a staunch believer that her music should reflect her own experiences.

“I refer to Halsey as a project,” Frangipane asserts. “It’s a sound, a feeling that applies to who I am right now. It would be foolish of me to think that’s not going to change as I evolve. I’ve already started the second album.”

Boston, MA - 07/01/15 - Sunday Arts cover story: Portrait and performance photos of rising pop star Halsey (stage name of Ashley Frangipane). - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Lifestyle, Reporter: James Reed, Topic: 28halsey, LOID: 8.1.1789644918.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
“No one really has any expectations of me. So if I fail, I get to put out another record. If I screw this one up? Oh well. I’m 20.”

In the meantime, there’s plenty to admire about her debut. It’s flush with evocative ambience — a celestial choir, a creaking swing, a whip of wind — meant to emulate an isolated, alternate reality. She wanted to use sound as a way to see the songs in full dimension, “to create a space.” At one point during “Drive” you hear a car door open, and then the song continues to play as if it’s emanating from the stereo.

“I named the record before I started writing it,” she says. “I like writing about places, about people and environments. When I create a world, it lets me go in and define the details of that world. I made up Badlands; anything I say, goes. I came to realize I was materializing a metaphor for my mental state.”

For someone who speaks so meticulously about her process, it’s surprising to learn she came to music almost as a secondary plan. With dreams of being an art major, she got into a good school but decided she couldn’t afford it. She ended up at a community college instead, where she studied songwriting.

“Yeah, my first album is a little overachieving,” she admits, grinning, “but I wanted to take that risk. If people don’t get it and just like how the songs sound, that’s fine. But for the people who do get it, it means so much more.

“The whole idea was to create a universe,” Frangipane says, “so that my listeners can feel like they’re a part of something greater than just listening to an album.”

Listen to “New Americana”:

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.