When Lana Del Rey announced the track list for Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, the collaborators on it — her longtime friend Jack Antonoff, rapper Tommy Genesis, and classical pianist Riopy, to name a few — immediately made fans curious about what the album would sound like with so many styles and sonic influences.
The final result, which she released last week, is a stirring reflection of Del Rey’s life and musical journey, mixing hip-hop production with jazz, classical, and folk touches. This project revels in the music fandom that makes Del Rey such a genius herself. Her new and (longtime) collaborators describe her as someone who is thoughtful and fearless, and who found sparks of inspiration in their songs or personal stories before turning them into something gorgeous and entirely unique.
Antonoff, Tommy Genesis, SYML, and Riopy spoke with Rolling Stone, sharing what it was like working with Del Rey and how all kinds of things — their wordless EPs, trap songs, and even impending nuptials — inspired collaborations and featured spots on the singer-songwriter’s album.
Tommy Genesis, “Peppers”
Last summer, “fetish rapper” Tommy Genesis was stuck in Canada, waiting for her visa to be renewed so she could return home to Los Angeles. She was losing her mind until one day, her manager called with some news: Lana Del Rey had sampled her 2015 track “Angelina.”
“I just laid down on my floor because I was like ‘What is happening?’ I’m stuck in Canada with my family and Lana Del Rey is hitting me about her album,” she remembers.
The end result is “Peppers,” a trippy trap-pop track featured on Del Rey’s LP. On the song, Genesis raps “Hands on your knees/I’m Angelina Jolie” before Del Rey coos about listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers with a boyfriend who ends up giving her Covid. The original track, “Angelina,” was written with a proud, unapologetic sexual bent that’s common in the rest of Genesis’ music, this time inspired by the “fuck you power” of the actress the song is named for.
Genesis grew up admiring Del Rey’s music. Once Genesis got her visa approved, she came back to her home in Los Angeles and hung out in a park with Del Rey. “I was sweating, shaking, so nervous,” she admits, “Then I met her and it was just so comfortable. It was like we’d been old friends and just hung out. Then she drove me home. It was an amazing day.”
Brian Fennell/SYML, “Paris, Texas”
Del Rey had been trying to reach out to Brian Fennell, who performs under the name SYML, through an Instagram account for his old band Barcelona. “Nobody monitors it,” Fennell says with a laugh. Finally, a demo Del Rey wrote using the track “I Wanted To Leave,” off of Fennell’s wordless EP You Knew It Was Me, made it over to him.
“Nobody told me it was her,” he says. But soon, he connected with her team, and he says Del Rey took a very “careful” and thoughtful approach to asking him if she could use the song in full. She wanted to respect the original intent of his wordless EP, something that meant a lot to Fennell. “She described the song as a ‘diamond necklace,’” he explains. “She felt very protective over it.”
The track become “Paris, Texas.” Fennell was blown away from the first verse: Del Rey channeled exactly what he’d had in mind when he was writing the original in Paris, France. To him, the melody is “very French” as well as “very homesick.” He couldn’t believe she had made a song that was as much about wanting to leave home as it was about returning home. It captured the feeling from his track perfectly. “To have the vessel for that be my melody, my piano, was a very surreal, magical moment,” he says.
The pair finally connected when SYML was in Los Angeles to play a few shows at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. They spoke on the phone for hours the day of one of his shows, talking about music and life, before he invited her to attend that night. She showed up, alone, and they continued to chat after, making for a “whirlwind day.”
Riopy, “Grandfather Please Stand on the Shoulders of My Father While He’s Deep-Sea Fishing”
French pianist Riopy has never meet Del Rey, but Del Rey wrote a song called “Grandfather Please Stand on the Shoulders of My Father While He’s Deep-Sea Fishing,” which samples his piano track “Flo,” off his 2019 album The Tree of Light. She made sure to thank him by leaving him a sweet voice note through his collaborator and mixer Oli Jacobs, who Del Rey ran into at the Grammys.
“You never know what can happen in life,” Riopy says, overwhelmed to see various articles ranking the song as one of their favorites from the album.
“Flo” was actually a last-minute addition to The Tree of Light. Riopy had already finished the album when he sat down and noodled away at a little melody, almost constructed as his own thank you to the piano for what it had given him. A year ago, his manager let him know that Del Rey had reached out to ask for permission to use his song, after having written her own lyrics to it.
“I was a bit worried at first,” Riopy admits. “What I do is not in the pop world. It’s not commercial. Even though Lana is respected and I have a lot of respect for her, when it comes to your own world of music, it’s my babies. It was flattering but I was worried. Then I heard the song and was like ‘Wow, she has done something beautiful.’ It’s very elegant and mystical as well.”
Riopy is big on numerology and is very attached to the numbers 11 and 22. “Grandfather” is the eleventh track on the album, which touched him, as if some cosmic force had created this moment. “In my work, a lot of my songs could be sung. I’ve always been told that,” he says. “It’s funny that Lana was the first to hear it and make something super beautiful out of it. I don’t know anyone who would have done a better job. She took care of the original and then added some of her own world to it. I’m very impressed.”
Jack Antonoff/Bleachers, “Margaret” (and production)
Though Antonoff began working with Del Rey on 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, Ocean Blvd is the first Del Rey album where he appears as a featured artist. It’s on the song “Margaret,” named after his fiancée Margaret Qualley.
“Lana and I have known each other through a great deal of relationships at this point,” Antonoff says. “She’s seen shifts in me.” One day, they were chatting about relationships when Del Rey announced she wanted to write a song with Antonoff that he could play at his wedding.
“That song was born the same way a lot of her songs are born, which is her and I singing at each other,” Antonoff explains. “Except this time she said ‘No, you have to sing the second verse.’ I would say that song is the closest thing that I’ve heard to what it’s like to just be in a room chatting with her on a friend level.”
Antonoff notes that he and Del Rey chat almost every single day just as friends, then create when the mood strikes. “A great conversation” often leads to a song. In the studio they are constantly trying to “one-up” each other to make the lyrics and production weirder and more fun. “If I had to boil it down to the most clinical sense, I feel really, really understood by her. I think that’s a mutual feeling,” he says. “She’s just so outside of any trends and doesn’t give a fuck about what anyone else is doing. We do a lot of things that just make us laugh.”
He produced several other songs on the album, including “A&W,” which he has called “my favorite we’ve ever done.” The concept of “American whore” is one that Del Rey had been tossing around for some time, and together, they turned it into a “sinister” folk song. Then, in the spirit of one-upping each other, Antonoff suggested that they finally find a home for a twisted, trap-beat freak-out, called “Jimmy,” that they had created a while back. He sewed the two parts together with some modular synths and synthetic drums, to his engineer Laura Sisk’s absolute delight: “I remember Laura clenched her fists and was really excited about it and said ‘Jimmy’s gonna live.’”
That type of improvisational moment also inspired Norman track “Venice Bitch,” the original version of which appears at the end of “Taco Truck” on Ocean Blvd. They made it during one of their first sessions together, where they encouraged each other to “keep going” and take the song further.
“It opened a door for us to do things like this,” Antonoff says. “Whenever I’m in a room with Lana, there’s always a moment where the two of us are like ‘Should we do one of our things?’ Which means we just say ‘fuck it’ to any standards of time or rules.”
Other references to Norman thread their way through the album (like a sample from the title track on “A&W” as well). It perfectly complements Del Rey’s own storytelling style, which Antonoff says reminds him of Joni Mitchell’s “chords of inquiry,” reminders that life itself is full of question marks. “It feels like on the album, Lana is vacillating quite quickly from past, present, future. In the span of a verse to a pre-chorus, she might mention something from a while ago, might mention herself, how she sees herself deep in the future. She might mention a totally different realm, someone who’s dead, something she had for lunch.”
It’s one of the things that continues to excite him about working with Del Rey. “Every once in a while, I get in a creative relationship where it just feels like you can’t miss,” he says. “And I don’t mean in any sort of gross way, like with numbers or with critical reception. I just mean personally, in the room, you’re really excited with what you’re making. I’ve felt that way since I met Lana. I’m thankful for those relationships because who knows how long they last?”
From Rolling Stone US