Rey of Light: Inside the making of Lana Del Rey's brighter, hopeful new album

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The cover of Lana Del Rey’s upcoming LP, Lust for Life, features the singer as she’s rarely been seen: visibly happy, flashing a giant cheek-to-cheek grin. Since breaking out with her major-label debut, 2012’s Born to Die, Del Rey (born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant) has developed a reputation for being pop’s resident sad girl — a singer whose sepia-toned, cinematic ballads fixate on tortured romance, youthful ennui, and Old Hollywood drama. But for Lust for Life, Del Rey decided she just wanted to have (a little more) fun.

“We were looking for something that had that lightness to it,” says her sister, photographer Chuck Grant, who shot the cover. “We knew that we wanted something more upbeat.” Even the new music has gotten brighter: In contrast to the darker, noirish sounds of her previous LPs, “there are a lot of major-key songs and melodies,” says Kieron Menzies, one of Del Rey’s producers and engineers. “Both the production and the songwriting have evolved into this different place.”

Del Rey began sessions for Lust for Life within weeks of finishing 2015’s Honeymoon, and the title track was one of the first songs she wrote for it, according to the singer’s longtime producer and co-writer Rick Nowels. “She is a very, very prolific songwriter,” he says. “We wrote more than enough songs for the record.” “Lust for Life” and its optimistic lyrics — as opposed to the more fatalistic message of songs like “Born to Die” — became a guiding theme for the record. “It was definitely ground zero for this album,” Menzies says. “As she was putting it all together and picking songs, it all kind of tied into this theme of ‘lust for life.'”

Grant also suggests that changes in Del Rey’s personal life, which the singer keeps closely guarded, may have inspired new lyrical ground. “She’s in a great place now personally, and I’m sure that’s had an influence on her,” she says. “The album is more about things that are outside of herself. It’s a commentary on the times.”

Indeed: Del Rey’s collaborators say she was well aware that listeners could use some positivity in 2017. While working on the album, Nowels says, “we were all following the election, just like everybody else.” Rich Lee, who directed the music videos for lead single “Love” and “Lust for Life,” agrees that current events helped set the tone of the project: “Trying to keep this subtle, hopeful vibe given the nature of everything happening right now is definitely something we spoke about.”

The trailer for the album depicts Del Rey as some kind of B-movie witch living in the shadows of the Hollywood sign, but her creative process could hardly have been more different. Much of the album was written and recorded at Nowels’ Santa Monica studio, where Del Rey and her collaborators enjoyed the sun and the breeze from the beach just blocks away. “That’s very inspiring to everybody here,” Menzies says. “She talks up the beaches probably a couple times at least [on this record].”

While Honeymoon was made almost exclusively with Nowels and Menzies, Del Rey expanded her circle of collaborators on Lust for Life to include Sean Ono Lennon, hip-hop producer Boi-1da (Drake, Rihanna), and pop hitmakers Benny Blanco (Ed Sheeran, Major Lazer) and Max Martin (Katy Perry, Ariana Grande), among others. As a result, Del Rey’s creative partners call Lust for Life her most diverse work to date. “There is a ton of hip-hop that’s infused,” Grant says. “But there are some [songs] that go back to her jazz and folk roots.” Says Nowels, “There’s hip-hop, piano songs, acoustic guitar songs, psychedelia.”

Del Rey’s confidants stress that the album isn’t a dramatic reinvention — expect a few sonic throwbacks to her previous releases — but they do think this lighter era will offer both new and longtime listeners another entry point to an artist who prefers to keep her work shrouded in mystery. “It’s great to relate to somebody in their struggles and in sadness,” Grant says, “but it’s even more powerful to relate to someone in a more optimistic way.”

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