Sands Point, the tip of a peninsula on the North Shore of Long Island, was the inspiration for East Egg, the fictional Gold Coast setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Once a rural retreat for robber barons, it’s now a nature preserve that abuts a New York City suburb. But a few Gilded Age mansions still remain along the shore, among them Castle Gould, an imposing stone pile modeled after an Irish manor. These days, from the beach, instead of a mysterious green light, one sees the high-rise buildings of downtown New Rochelle. Where champagne-fueled lawn parties might once have taken place, there’s now a dog run with a chain-link fence.
A castle in the suburbs feels like a very Lana Del Rey sort of place. Throughout her career, the 36-year-old musician, born Elizabeth Grant, has turned a hazy but unflinching lens on the concept of Americana, peeling back the sunny veneer of the American dream to reveal what’s really there. On her album covers, she’s a flower child in front of a beat-up pickup truck or a passenger on a sailing yacht, reaching out for help with acid yellow nails as the shoreline burns behind her. Even the titles of her records—Chemtrails Over the Country Club; Norman Fucking Rockwell!—hint at elements of the mundane or even sinister beneath a glamorous ideal.
It’s clear that the world Del Rey builds in her music is the one she inhabits. From the minute she steps out of a wardrobe trailer looking like a modern-day Jackie Kennedy in a black Gucci dress, holding a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, she imbues her surroundings with a certain charge. And she seems to literally radiate warmth: On an unseasonably cold, damp afternoon, as production and hair and makeup teams shiver in fleeces and anoraks, she wades into Long Island Sound in a sheer Valentino gown and emerges from the gray-brown water laughing.
As she prepares to release new music—a still untitled album is in the works—we invited the musician to have a conversation with Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, who, like Del Rey, has an alchemical relationship with nostalgia. Friends and collaborators for years, they both have a talent for twisting and prodding at tropes and historical references, using them as grist for work that feels entirely fresh. Here, they discuss the creative process, finding inspiration in the natural world, and working from the heart. —Andrea Whittle
Celine by Hedi Slimane dress and belt; Albertus Swanepoel bow; Chanel Haute Couture shoes.
Gucci dress; the Row hat; Swarovski earrings and necklace.
Alessandro Michele: We met when we first did the Met Gala together in 2018, I think? I’m not good with dates.
Lana Del Rey: That’s why we’re creatives. I remember talking on the phone years ago. I couldn’t believe it when you told me you had been listening to my record while working on a new collection.
I think that you are going to remain forever in everybody’s mind with that Met Gala outfit—you looked like a goddess, like a saint. When you’re a creative person, it’s beautiful to be in touch with people like you, who are so delicate and sensitive. I’m still listening to your music, and I’m dreaming with your words.
I think delicacy comes out of being in a world where people can be very rough. When someone is quick-minded and smart, it’s rare that they’re also really kind. Working with you, I could finally take a breath and let fashion be fun again, and try on different silk robes and remind myself why I loved it in the beginning. Because when I was younger, I always thought stepping into fashion would be like slipping on a gauze gown. With you, that’s literally what it was like. When we worked on my dress for the Grammys, it was a bold entrance into a bigger world, and I thought, Can I do it? Am I allowed to present myself in a beautiful way? And what I learned through you is that sometimes, stepping into beauty doesn’t provoke criticism; it invites more of an understanding, where your inside does shine out through your outside.
Do you remember the shoot we did for the Gucci Guilty campaign, when Los Angeles was on fire?
Ashes were coming into my car vent on the 405 highway because Bel Air was burning. We were in the Valley shooting a scene, and everyone was in gas masks, and the sky was orange, which somehow seemed perfect.
It was so surreal, as L.A. is surreal.
From that point on, I added fire to the hillsides in my music videos.
I like the way you use elements of nature—not just fire, but water and weather—in your music and your videos.
My dad is a deep-sea shark fisherman—he has been for 15 years—and he lived on a boat in Providence, Rhode Island, from the age of 15 to 18. He was also a storm chaser. In California, earth, wind, and fire are huge. All the elements are taken into consideration with my art, all the time. Which is funny, because people often ask why I sing about California. But I usually sing about wherever I am, and it just so happens that California is such a storm center right now. I mean, I’m from Lake Placid, the coldest spot in the nation. For me, the California landscape never gets old.
In 2020, you released a book of poetry, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass. When you’re writing poems, is your creative process different from when you’re writing music?
There’s a big difference. First of all, to write poetry, I have to be in a really good mood and have nothing distracting or wrong going on. I almost have to be in a state of non-thought, and it can’t be forced. When a couple of lines come into my head, it’s like they’re completely channeled—I hate when people use that word, but I’ll use it. If I’m driving, I have to pull over and think, Well, where did that come from? I remember one time I had been sitting waiting for some food, and I started thinking:
Violet bent backwards over the grass
Seven years old with dandelions grasped tightly in her hand
Arched like a bridge in a fallen handstand
Grinning wildly like a madman
With the exuberance that only doing nothing can bring…
And I thought, Am I Violet? That is a family name. Is that a little bit of karmic lineage coming in? I definitely think that writing my poetry was the beginning of a more psychic, energetic opening to my family of origin. It’s also a little more nerve-racking, because the last thing you want to end up doing is sounding like Dr. Seuss. And no one can help you with it. The only person who every now and then sparks me to write is my friend Annie, because she’s so damn funny she makes me forget myself. And it’s through that act of self-forgetting that my channel is open again. All of a sudden, the first few lines of a poem will come, and I’m reminded, Oh yeah, you work well when you’re having a good time. You can’t push it. It’s a reminder to stay serene and balanced, which is really my priority: that psychological, spiritual preservation.
Are there any poets who have been important to you?
When I found out that Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl in a few days, and then I saw Lawrence Ferlinghetti reciting Loud Prayer, I realized that I didn’t have to go slowly to have something be good. I could work fast if I wanted to. I also relate to some of the sentiments from Walt Whitman’s work, and Sylvia Plath’s—she wrote with blatant honesty about the experience of being a woman, and the history of hysteria.
Celine by Hedi Slimane dress and belt; Albertus Swanepoel bow; Swarovski necklace.
Dolce & Gabbana dress; Gucci scarf; Swarovski cuffs; Chanel Haute Couture shoes.
In the past, you’ve used colors and certain words to describe your records. Are there words or colors you’re using to describe your new music?
I’ve been practicing meditative automatic singing, where I don’t filter anything. I’ll just sing whatever comes to mind into my Voice Notes app. It’s not perfect, obviously. There are pauses, and I stumble. But I’ve been sending those really raw-sounding files to a composer, Drew Erickson, and he’ll add an orchestra beneath the words, matching each syllable with music and adding reverb to my voice. When I’m automatic singing, I don’t have the time and leisure to think about things in terms of colors. It’s very cerebral. In Honeymoon, there were so many color references: “Sometimes I wake up in the morning to red, blue, and yellow skies. It’s so crazy I could drink it like tequila sunrise.” For this new music, there’s none of that at all. It’s more just like: I’m angry. The songs are very conversational. For the first song, I pressed record and sang, “When I look back, tracing fingertips over plastic bags, I think I wish I could extrapolate some small intention or maybe get your attention for a minute or two.” It’s a very wordy album. So there’s no room for color. It’s almost like I’m typing in my mind.
I remember during the Gucci Guilty shoot when you started to sing. Your voice is so evocative. I would say when I listen to your music, I don’t know why, but I get the color white. It’s like there is no color for me; it’s just light.
I’ve been told that I am a very black and white thinker, and I’m actually working on that, because I think it’s born out of being in survival mode. With Drew, as I send him my songs, I can see that my thought process is either very joyful or very “Look, this is how it is.”
Do you remember your dreams? Do you ever use them in your work?
I’ve only recently started having dreams that are not stressful. My dream life is this intense other life. I think that’s why I’m tired during a lot of the daytime, because my dreams are so intricate. They’re obstacle courses, and I never use them in my work. In my work, if anything, I might even be trying to calm myself down from the way my mind is churning 24 hours a day, by just talking it all through. Do your dreams dictate your creations?
Not really, but I think that using creativity in a very dreamy way is something we have in common. I dream a lot every night. Sometimes I try to write what I dream in a book, and I love when I feel myself wild and free, because the unconscious part of us is beautiful. I think that when you use creativity, you are in touch with your unconscious parts.
I’m a big studier of Carl Jung, who says that the only opportunity that the unconscious has to speak to you is through your dreams, or through automatic writing, which is similar to what I do when I’m singing into my phone in the mornings. He even suggests you write with your left hand if you’re right-handed, so you can see what comes up first. Because you have to write so slowly, you might end up writing, “Help!” Whereas with your right hand you might say, “Today went well. I took out the garbage, I did the laundry, I did phone calls,” and then suddenly you say, “And I really miss him. I really, really miss him.” And then you think, Oh, I just got to the heart of it.
In the beginning of your career, you would write lyrics on the subway late at night. Where do you write your songs now?
Well, I probably have the lowest sleep drive of anyone I’ve ever met. I have zero desire to sleep. When I lived in the Bronx, we were about maybe a half mile from a D train stop. It was always running, and you could take it to Coney Island and back. I come from a town of 700 people, and I couldn’t believe that I had the opportunity, when I wasn’t tired, to take a long walk, get a decaf coffee and a banana, whatever I could afford on a college budget, and take that D train. Now there are so many fewer words that come to me when I’m alone. I seem to need to be sitting with someone. It’s a little frustrating, because for so many years I was rich with ideas. Now I need someone to force me into the studio. Ideas don’t even come to me in the car anymore, my favorite place.
One thing we share is a love for Old Hollywood. What is it about that era that inspires you?
Everything. When I was younger, my grandparents would let me watch their old movies, and I related to the subtle nuances of the female characters. Not much needed to be said; a lot was inferred between the lines. When things got bigger for me and my career, I always assumed that just by me speaking and being myself, people would know who I was inherently. I learned that was not true. You had to really spell things out, and that was very hard for me.
When are you happiest?
When I trust my gut and follow through. I’m happiest when I see my brother and sister thriving. One of my goals is to make sure that my siblings and I are always safe. I’m happiest around my three girlfriends, Candy, Jen, and Annie, because they make me feel understood. I’m happiest when I’m lying down in the park, and I look up and I think to myself, Isn’t it beautiful that just lying on the grass and feeling the support of the earth underneath me is enough for today? I spent so much time trying to ask myself, “Why me?” and “Why this?” It’s so nice to be over that. I also love to dance. Joan Baez has a dancing party every Saturday night on Zoom, which I’m so grateful to be invited to—there’s something beautiful about dancing with very down-to-earth people.
Which song makes you cry?
“Swan Song.” It’s on my album Honeymoon. It’s the antithesis of hopefulness. It’s about trying to find beauty in giving up. If I had my way, I would continue to persist in all areas of my life, but it can be quite challenging because I can be too trusting too soon. The burn that can come from that really can incinerate your whole thinking life and your daily processes. At the end of every album, I say goodbye and thank you—very Old Hollywood style—and yet I cannot help but just continue to write.
Hair by Jimmy Paul at Susan Price NYC; makeup by Emi Kaneko for Gucci Beauty at Bryant Artists; manicure by Sonya Meesh for Hermès.
Produced by That One Production; executive producer: Travis Kiewel; production manager: Henna McCafferty; photo assistants: Cecelia Byrne, Tony Escalera; retouching: Simon Thistle; fashion assistants: Julia McClatchy, Tori López; production assistants: Toogi Khurmast, Arthur Majano, Daniel Hanson, Anaury Peña; hair assistant: Jasia Stewart; makeup assistant: Rose Grace; tailor: Lindsay Wright.