If it seems like Halsey came out of nowhere, that's because—with all due respect to Clark, New Jersey, which is no doubt a fantastic place to be born—she pretty much did. For the singer and songwriter, born Ashley Frangipane, things have moved at a mercurial pace, career-wise. She signed a contract with Astralwerks on the strength of a single song ("Ghost") she uploaded to SoundCloud; she was on tours opening for the likes of the Kooks and Imagine Dragons before she even had an album out; and now, less than three years into her career, Halsey is headlining hockey rinks herself. If that makes it sound as if Halsey has lived a charmed life, consider that her back story includes such drama as a psychiatric-hospital stay at 17 and a relationship with a heroin-addict boyfriend. All of which adds up to make Halsey, who plays Rogers Arena on Saturday night, a somewhat edgier and more complex proposition than the average pop star.
PUNK POP. One of the founding tenets of punk rock was that anyone could pick up a microphone, a guitar, or a set of drumsticks and then jump on-stage. Who cared if you weren’t as accomplished as Jimmy Page or Keith Moon? It was raw spirit and emotion that counted far more than technical proficiency. Halsey has never been shy about expressing her love for punk rock–indebted acts in interviews, citing the likes of Brand New and Blink-182 as seminimal influences. To drive home the point that she’s more punk than Katy Perry or Taylor Swift will ever be, she also namechecked the band that finally broke punk around the world in her 2015 hit “New Americana”; remember the lines “High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana/We are the new Americana”? Given her affection for punk rock, it should surprise no one that Halsey sees herself as an artist who is getting by on attitude rather than a God-given ability to hit more notes that Axl Rose and Christina Aguilera combined. Halsey told Radio.com in 2015:
You know, when I first started singing I didn’t have a good voice. I didn’t. I had a unique voice. I had a voice that had emotion and unique elements to it. To this day I still don’t really think I’m a very strong singer. I think my live performances are convincing, but I’m definitely not a “sports singer”; I’m no Mariah Carey. So the appeal for me my entire life has always been people who sang because they felt like they had to, not ’cause they were just good at it. Like “I’m good at this, I might as well do this.” They’re singing because they had something they needed to say so desperately they didn’t care if they didn’t sound good. Artists like Bob Dylan, artists like Janis Joplin, artists like Patti Smith, Conor Oberst.
IN SYNC. Believe it or not, you don’t have to write a massive hit or spend 11.5 months in a tour van each year to carve out a career in the music business these days. There’s also something called sync licensing, in which songwriters write songs not because they have something to say to their generation, but more because they need a paycheque. The goal is to produce songs that are as generic as possible so they might be licensed by a television show or for a commercial. General guidelines include things like “use vague lyrics”, “focus on common themes”, and “don’t swear”. (Click here for tips on your ticket to the big time.) Right when she was coming out of her often-homeless mid-teens, and thinking about something other than partying her brains out, Halsey wondered if she might be good at writing such songs. After attending a hotel party in New York she met her future manager, Anthony Li, who was playing in the Warped Tour pop-punk band Anthony Li Action Item. He’d seen a YouTube video of Halsey (then known as Ashley Frangipane) doing a Taylor Swift/Harry Styles–focused acoustic number called “SOS” (not to be mistaken for the similarly themed "The Haylor Song"; see below), and suggested she hit a friend’s studio to lay down some tracks. “He was like, ‘You can write some songs for sync,’ ” she recalls. “I just wanted to make a quick couple of hundred dollars writing yogurt commercials.” Instead she’d eventually show up and write “Ghost”.
FUNNY GIRL. She’s probably not out to dethrone “Weird Al” Yankovic as the reigning monarch of satirical songcraft, but Halsey has been known to knock out a parody tune on occasion. Most famously, back when she was a teenage YouTuber still going by her birth name, she rewrote Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” as “The Haylor Song”. An avowed One Direction fan, Halsey used the song to express her dismay over Swift’s then-current relationship with Harry Styles. “We knew she was trouble when she got Styles,” she sang. “This fandom's getting kind of hostile/She's gonna put him in her ex-boy pile.” More recently, in a session recorded for Australian radio network triple j, Halsey recorded Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” as “Fuck Yourself”. “Love Yourself” writer Ed Sheeran probably wasn’t offended; he admitted on The Howard Stern Show that he originally conceived of the lyrics as “go ahead and fuck yourself” before swapping the F-bombs out for more radio-friendly language.
TATTOOED LADY. Known as a bit of a badass, Halsey has amassed 20 tattoos—the first, true to her image, inked when she was just 15. A sentimental individual, each has a personal meaning. One of her favourites is an outline of the numbers 511, which she commissioned in honour of her brother’s birthday. Another along her right forearm reads “These violent delights have violent ends,” a line from Romeo and Juliet that reminds her to keep her vices in check, and prompts her to think about her friends’ overdoses. Perhaps the most symbolic, though, is the picture of a matchstick on her left forearm, which she reportedly plans to touch up with a fire around it when she believes that she’s reached her full potential. Of her collection, eight match with her friends, which, she told Billboard, is “a huge reflection of my inability to do anything alone”. Except, of course, sell hundreds of thousands of records.
NO LABELS. Sure, she's biracial (her mom is white and her dad is black) and bisexual and was diagnosed bipolar in her teens, but don't you dare describe Halsey as "tri-bi". A New York Times profile attributed the coining of that label to the singer herself, but she denies ever having said such a thing. She told Rolling Stone:
I fucking hate it, the idea that something like that would be trivialized down to a fucking hashtag.... The funniest thing is that the biggest battle that I've had to overcome in my career was not being bisexual, was not being biracial, was not being bipolar. It was everybody thinking that I was exploiting those things.