Official Lollapalooza Aftershow with Halsey and Oh Wonder
Earlier this year, Halsey—New Jersey-raised singer Ashley Frangipane’s nom du tune—dropped her first single, the haunting, glitchy “Ghost.” She self-released it despite almost universal discouragement. “Everyone I knew in music was like, ‘The song starts with a bridge, and it’s 2 minutes and 34 seconds long. You’re making a mistake,’” she recalls of the track. “‘That’s not a single—that’s not going to get anyone’s attention.” Clearly, her 70,000-plus Twitter followers, who promptly downloaded it, disagreed.
This independently released anomaly—about leaving an emotionally vacant relationship (“I can’t find you in the body sleeping next to me,” she sings)—became Ashley’s calling card, vaulting her up the iTunes’ alternative music chart. That led to label meetings. Which prompted Sirius radio to putting it into rotation. Which begat more iTunes sales. Which inspired Astralwerks to sign her merely one day after hearing “Ghost” in June 2014. (The song appears on her debut EP, the melodically atmospheric Room 93.) Her marketing prowess is actually pretty simple, explains the earnest, intuitive Ashley: “I just felt confident in what I could do.”
That amicable self-assurance has always served her well. Having amassed a robust social following for her unparalleled fashion sense and lively YouTube covers, Ashley eschewed college despite pleas from her parents…who were technically responsible for stoking her musical aspirations. From age 7, “my mom was always taking me to concerts,” she says, name-checking Coldplay as one of the most memorable. “I was kind of ostracized for that at school. Everyone would go to Friday night football games, and I would go to Pittsburg to see a rock band instead.”
“They were alarmed at my nonchalance about not going to college to become a musician,” she says. “But I just knew that I could do it.” There were signs along the way: As a toddler, she learned to play the piano, and as a tween she excelled in musical theater. She also sang incessantly around the house. “I remember being 14, and my little brother slamming the door yelling, ‘SHUT UP! YOU SUCK!” she says, laughing. “Which is ironic, because now, he’s my biggest fan.”
After playing acoustic cover sets at random bars and venues throughout the Northeast Corridor, the high-school graduate finally found her way with “Ghost.” “People say I blew up over night,” she says. “But it took me two years. Sometimes, I’d be in the middle of Boston with no phone at 4 a.m. and would ask someone over Twitter if I could stay at their house. Wanting to be a musician made the romance of it appealing to me.”
Romance oozes through Room 93, both in aesthetics and in storytelling. “It’s all cinematic—not in the sense of grandeur, but I like things to be visual and to provoke a real feeling. I always say that a song’s not ready until it feels like a movie trailer,” she says. To that end, “the EP is called Room 93, because hotels have this creepy intimacy. It’s this ultimate universe where you don’t have to be you.” Fittingly, narratives of sundry trysts underscore the EP’s songs.
“I’m open about talking about certain things that others may keep quiet,” Ashley says. “I want my music to be really authentic, candid, honest. And I really take no prisoners in the way that I write.” Much of her material is unrepentantly autobiographical—with places, names, even dialogue left intact.
Set in Brooklyn, the somnambulant “Hurricane” is a spectral look back at a fling with a drugged-out lover floating away from her. “There’s an odd bit of feminism in it,” she notes. “‘I don’t belong to no city. I don’t belong to no man.’ I twist traditionally negative qualities of a one-night stand into this positivity.” Conversely, the sparse “Trouble” explores a man “who finds sick, sadistic pleasure in making me feel bad.” Though passions may run the gamut, there is a common thread here: The protagonists never stick around to be victimized.
In music and in life, Ashley is persistently in pursuit of empowerment. Once, while trying out for a major music show, producers had no problem nitpicking her textured, ebbing voice. “They said, ‘Yeah, you can’t sing pop music. You have a niche voice that caters to one type of audience. This isn’t the show for you. Sorry,” she says. Yet after hearing “Ghost” months later, one of those producers’ camps approached her about working together. “They said, ‘We think you’re a star.’ That was a really vindicating moment for me.”
Her reply to them was characteristically spirited, but sincere: “No, thanks. Sorry.” You see, it’s hard to beat Ashley down.