Lana Del Rey never intended to punch in for a quickie Waffle House shift. But after seven days of seeing the same faces during a visit to Florence, Alabama, and a July morning’s worth of shooting the shit with her brother and sister in the same plastic booth, the singer-songwriter found herself wearing the Southern chain’s familiar uniform: a polycotton, working-class blue button-up garnished with a name tag bearing the crudely stickered letters L-A-N-A.
“We were on our third hour, and the servers asked, ‘Do you guys want shirts?’ ” she says. “Hell yeah! We were thrilled.”
The resulting video didn’t last 10 seconds. But after the restaurant’s manager posted the clip to Facebook and a few fan selfies featuring Del Rey in uniform popped up on the usual platforms, a narrative took hold. Lana Del Rey, Grammy-nominated artist who has sold 12.3 million albums, was working at Waffle House. Music blogs, morning news shows and food magazines all attempted to assign meaning to the bread crumbs — music video? writing expedition? career pivot? — for the better part of a week. In reality, she just has family ties to the small town, makes friends easily and, like anybody with a predilection for breakfast food or Americana, knows that a diner is a great place to kill time.
Listening to her laugh about this two months later, it’s not clear whether Del Rey is more amused by the memory of the experience or the fuss made in its wake. Either way, she happily fills in the gaps: “This guy, a regular, comes in every day and orders two things, so they were like, ‘Just go get it for him!’ I brought him a Coke. No ice. And an empty cup.
“For dip,” she clarifies, miming a spit of chewing tobacco over a Coke of her own (this one a Diet). “I didn’t see anyone take a video of me.”
Del Rey (born Elizabeth Grant) has had a strong hand in cultivating her own mythology since her 2012 major label debut, Born to Die, an album that divided critics at the time with its melancholia and just logged a historic 500th week on the Billboard 200. But The Waffle House Affair demonstrates how the 38-year-old’s story is just as often commandeered by social media, the press and her fans — a particularly zealous crowd that analyzes stray photos as exhaustively as her song lyrics. “The secret to Lana is that she’s exactly who she is,” says Jack Antonoff, who has produced three of her albums. “She’s really one of the greatest songwriters and vocalists who also likes to roll around in her truck and drink gas-station coffee. That can disarm people, but there’s no bit.”
Her deep text — she’s released nine albums and one book of poetry — also has earned Del Rey some high-profile admirers. Bruce Springsteen called her one of the greatest American songwriters. Billie Eilish credits her with changing music for women. Elton John compared her to Prince. And 20-year-old pop juggernaut Olivia Rodrigo pays homage to Del Rey lyrics on her chart-topping sophomore effort. “Lana’s work taught me how effective sentimentality can be in songwriting,” says Rodrigo. “She defies any stereotypes of what a woman writing pop songs should or shouldn’t be. She’s constantly pushing boundaries and making work that is fresh, adventurous and unabashedly feminine.”
If her peers turned on to her early, wider recognition took a while longer. After near-instant commercial success, the native New Yorker turned Angeleno finally tipped the critical scales with Norman Fucking Rockwell! in 2019. Debates over authenticity and performative ennui seemed to subside with her swirling 68-minute opus — as much a lamentation of failed romance as it is of failed American dreams, fires engulfing the California coast on the album’s cover. With the country’s deep divisions laid bare by Trumpism and then the pandemic, Del Rey’s disillusionment suddenly made sense. Three subsequent efforts followed in short order. She’s touring her latest, the March release Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, with a string of U.S. dates this fall.
During a September interview that took place well after midnight in a guest house at the back of a friend’s Hollywood Hills property, Diet Coke in one hand and a turquoise vape in the other, Del Rey spoke about the long road to acceptance, her refusal to publish her lyrics and why, nearly 12 years after a maligned Saturday Night Live appearance, she’d consider performing on TV again.
Are you still surprised when something as innocuous as a few photos at Waffle House generates so much attention?
I wish my album had gone as viral. I woke up to, like, 10,000 texts the next morning — some from folks I had not heard from for 10 years. “Saw your picture at the Waffle House!” (Laughing.) I was like, “Did you hear the new album?”
You’ve released four LPs over the past four years. When you’re writing and recording, how quickly do you know what you’re working on is an album?
If it’s good, right away — once you get your four songs that you love the most. If it’s a struggle, it can go quickly, too. Music is kind of like a little blackbird on my shoulder, always pecking at me — even when I’m not interested in making music. And I really am genuinely interested in doing other things. Music is just relentless.
How do you engage with the release? Do you read reviews?
Previously? Not at all. (Laughs.) I did for this one.
Do you feel like more people get you now?
Yeah. Maybe they weren’t supposed to back in the day, when I thought that they would. There might’ve been a reason for that.
Might that reason be, at least in part, the world catching up to you? Your music explored some darker themes about American life before that outlook became more of a shared experience in recent years.
One hundred percent. I also feel, maybe spiritually, there was something I needed to learn from having people be so adamantly and vocally against it. There was room for me to look at why. It’s possible there are some things I might not have delved into [in my music] had I not heard the same critical throughline over and over and over again. Possibly, there was a bigger-picture reason for that. I wish it had not lasted for 10 years. That would’ve been helpful. But we’re in a good place now.
I’m trying to find the right term for how you were often regarded earlier in your career …
A loser? (Laughs.)
No, I was thinking of lightning rod.
Yeah, but you know what I’m saying. You do.
Whatever the word, you seem to have gone from one extreme to another with critics. Did you ever sense an in-between?
No. There was no in-between. I give credit to Jack Antonoff. I think that his production style has such an intelligence to it that vocals have a better chance of being read correctly. There’s a little more room to process it. It was that record [Norman Fucking Rockwell!] where all of a sudden things were really different.
Production obviously matters a great deal, but the praise is largely focused on your writing. The label “Great American Songwriter” is thrown around pretty frequently in descriptions of you.
Yeah, I’m reading it! (Laughs.) I like the title. I’ll take it. My whole life, I would’ve settled for Lynchian. “She’s Lynchian,” or, “She’s a little to the left,” or, “We love seeing her play at Largo.” I would have loved just that. But things continue to go well. I can relax a little bit now.
Do you ever look at or engage with platforms like Genius, where your lyrics are reprinted and interpreted?
I don’t. And I’ve never corrected anything. In fact, not for years have I actually submitted my lyrics to anybody. Should they be out there, they’re not from me. I would never. Good God! I don’t even want to think about what I have to say.
A few years back, you said that you started editing yourself because your lyrics were too personal. Are you still doing that?
Only in the past two months! I’ve never had someone make comments on my lyrics before, and then I recently met up with another writer. It’s a little bit of a different process now. For Tunnel, I did not edit myself.
Earlier in your career, you had a lot of invasions of privacy — a home intrusion, car thefts, a hack. Has that cooled down for you?
No. My records get [leaked] five months before they come out. They have for 11 years. I really don’t understand. I’ve gone to every great length to double check everything, but the songs come out. Even if I don’t [digitally] have them. I don’t like it. This is a lot of work. You want things to go well for the album.
When the time comes to tour, if you haven’t performed for a while, are you excited or nervous?
I get nervous. [But] this is a totally different tour. The stage production is bigger. There are more people on that stage with me, so I’m more comfortable. But even if it was just a one-off show and it was just me in the spotlight, I’d be much more equipped now. I have experience. I’ve toured just off of YouTube [music] since before I had an album. But right now, I’m excited. I don’t feel nervous to tour.
Most artists make the rounds when promoting an album, but you’ve done just one TV performance, The Tonight Show, since 2012, when you only played SNL [where she was derided for being vocally uneven] and David Letterman. I’d imagine there are offers.
They’re there. (Laughs.) I think I’ve done two [TV performances]? Maybe that’s something else I’ll grow into more, like touring. And don’t get me wrong. I toured for nine years of my life. It was nonstop. It was tough. But you know in your heart when it’s the right time. And it’s never been the right time. Maybe now, even if I didn’t feel confident, I would do it anyway. But there was a reason not to feel confident.
What was the reason?
I didn’t know if it would be received well. But there’s a lot of weirdos out there now, so, we’re fine. We’re in good company. I started at a time when things were very much one way. Little by little, there’s a lot more room for storytelling and saying different stuff. You’re seeing a lot more good girl songwriters, too. Well, who am I to say that? I like a lot of the singers out right now.
Many artists just one generation behind you, like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, have credited you as inspiration. How do you digest that?
Because Billie and Olivia are such good people, it’s fucking awesome. I love them and their music. It’s not like you have to be nice to be good [in music]. But, if you happen to be nice and a great singer, it makes me happy for the culture. I always had girls telling me [things like] that. Maybe not the critics or anybody else — but singers I knew, no matter how big or small, would write me letters. I always felt like the older sister to pretty much everyone I ever met.
Are you still thinking about doing a cover album?
Yeah, I want to. I’ve collected my cover songs for seven years. And I’ve said so much that I wanted to say, so it’s an awesome time to think about that. The standards.
If music is a nagging bird on your shoulder, what’s it keeping you from doing?
I have a lot of interests. I’d like working in other fields to the best of my ability.
Does other fields mean acting or, like, engineering?
Oh, no. Neither! It’s not necessarily creative. I’m somewhere in the middle, I would say. I’d just like something grounding, where your time is orderly. I think that’s really important because I have a lot of days on the fly.
Stevie Nicks said you should be a director.
Of films? I would be very bossy.
You recently recorded with your father, Rob Grant, who released his first major label album at 69. What was that like?
It was just sweet. He’s a funny guy. Deep sea fishing still takes up the majority of his time, but he makes a lot of music now. He’s riffing. I think music has made him happy.
What makes you happy?
Everything! I like getting all the props together [for projects]. I bought this fucking couch for this photo shoot. It’s fire. I like getting a bagel, down at Western Bagel, with a hot coffee and just sitting on the street — checking in with myself. If nothing’s going wrong, I feel great. At this point, I’m really happy.
Does it bother you when people still assign this “Sad Girl” identity on you, which sort of took hold with that track off of Ultraviolence?
No. I’m sad, too. And I’m so in touch with that. There was a lot to be sad about [back then]. What’s funny to me is that there wasn’t as much room for me to write about that as other people who did. By the grace of God, things have cooled down a little. But it’s been challenging for sure.
In reading a lot of old articles about you, both with or without your participation, you seemed to have a lot of ideas projected onto you without a lot of room to respond. Was that your experience?
That made there be no room. I wonder if that’s why I’m allowed to have my moment. But I’ve heard some good stories about some of the writers that I did not like. One of them ran up their company card on prostitutes. I love that. It just goes to show you that it’s not personal. Sometimes, the things you read, there’s a little bit of projection there. That’s the only guy who I’ve ever remembered his full name, but I’m not going to say it.
Has anyone who was part of that pile-on since apologized to you?
No. And I don’t think people speak about others in the same way they did back in 2011. The thing that I always thought was fucking stupid is that you learn more about somebody when you just let them talk. I never really felt like anyone was in it for the info. And talking about this [now] is appropriate because it is a huge part of [my] story. And new people who I meet have no idea. I’ll meet someone and they’ll think I’ve always been popular. (Laughs.) I have to correct them.
As a fan of Old Hollywood, what are your thoughts on the Marilyn Monroe house potentially being up for demolition?
Helena Drive. (Sighs.) I love that house. It’s historic.
You dressed like her twice this year — in the “Candy Necklace” video and at a concert in Brazil. Any reason behind the timing of the homage?
Oh, it’s every year. Well, there is a very specific impulse. I don’t think I would say it, though. From when I was younger, seeing her in pictures and movies, I just got that she was sweet. And she could be fucking funny. It’s just like, that’s my girl. But I guess everyone who likes that kind of thing probably feels that. She might have, you know, the most recognizable face — third to Jesus and who else?
Maybe the Mona Lisa.
Yeah, a painting! (Laughs.) She’s ever present. I wonder if she knew she would have been. I have a feeling she did.
Creatively, do you see yourself on a course right now?
The music took a huge turn from Norman, and it’s been going down that path aggressively. I’m going to continue going where I feel the only next stop is, but I think it’ll be in an Americana vein. The hard thing, in your personal life or in public, is that you can lose the idea that passion should be your true North. And, instead, safety should be. That’s the biggest pitfall. Being scared into making safe choices. Having a little bit of a cool-off period from the heat that might have been in a bad way, I got to reevaluate things. When there’s a little space, you get to choose. Then things get good.
I’m glad to hear things are good.
They are. You never have any idea how things are going to turn out, and I’ve recently had this clear feeling that I’m not supposed to know — as much as I’d like to see the next step on the staircase. I want to do so much, but there’s just so many left turns an individual can take … and I appear to like to learn the hard way. (Laughs.) Also, the world has an interesting sense of humor. So, what to do they say? To be determined. TBD.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.