I don’t really want to start off by talking about Ariana Grande’s ponytail, but I can’t help it. Today, her silver hair has been built up with multiple extensions by her Grecian god of a hairdresser, Chris Appleton; as Ariana shuffles around a cavernous photo studio in slides she designed for Reebok, it bobs behind her like a loyal Pokémon. There’s detailed braiding going on in the front and pounds and pounds tied up in the back, with some pieces dyed a pleasing shade of lilac. When I first spot her across the room — alongside her mom, Joan, who is in full Calabasas momager drag — I release a long “yaaaas” under my breath.
The 24-year-old singer has worn variations of the high and tight hairstyle since 2013 and has rarely appeared in public without it. In 2014, after some people online started to beg for a new style, she explained in a Facebook note that it’s the only look she was comfortable wearing: years of bleaching and dying her hair red, when she was a teen actor on Nickelodeon, damaged it severely.
On the cover art for this spring’s “No Tears Left To Cry,” the lead single from Sweetener, her fourth album, out this August, she left her fans proverbially bald by being photographed with a ponytail that was 45 degrees lower than normal. As one viral tweet put it: “Ariana lowered her ponytail, it’s over for you bitches.”
Since releasing her first single at 19, Ariana has managed to defy the pop star convention of reinventing her look for each musical era. At the end of our interview, I ask if she considered going totally nuclear for this album cycle, like if she ever thought of shaving her head. After the year she’s had, she could certainly play the reinvention card.
She wraps her hair around her hand and gives it a comb and affectionate toss. “The pony has also gone through an evolution, and I’m proud of that,” she says with a heaping tablespoon of self-awareness. “Old pony? I don’t know if she’s that girl. But new pony? I like her. I mean, it’s like a Victoria Secret angel without angel wings. It’s still her without them, but when she’s with them it’s like, Ohh, I get it, she’s an angel.”
During the cover shoot for this story, she’s just like the Ariana I’ve seen in concert and followed on social media: absurdly warm, a theatre kid through and through. When the stereo malfunctions on set, she sings throaty Christmas carols to everyone’s delight. Every day, she sends her best friends good-morning voice notes in a cartoonishly demonic tone. She’s the kind of person who finds out her song is the No. 1 single in 80 countries and the only words she shares with her followers are an emoji-filled “Holy ass titty, thank you so much, what??????”
At the end of our day, her team carefully coordinates her exit. A Range Rover backs all the way into the massive studio and security leads her inside as if they’re escorting a head of state. It seems like this will be the new normal for the rest of her life.
In May of 2017, Ariana performed to a sold-out crowd at a Manchester, U.K. stop on her Dangerous Woman world tour, which was originally planned to take her to six continents over eight months. Shortly after the show was over, a bomber set off an explosion in the arena’s foyer. Her concerts attract a fairly young crowd, so the area was bustling with parents waiting to pick up their kids. The explosion killed 23 people and injured over 500. It was the deadliest terror attack in the U.K. in over a decade.
Ariana and her crew were still backstage when it happened, and no one on her team was hurt. Hours after they’d been cleared out of the arena safely, she tweeted, “broken. from the bottom of my heart, i am so so sorry. i don’t have words.”
Even almost a year later, she still can’t talk that much about it. She hasn’t sat down for an interview in months, and pretty much has cut off all communication from the outside world. At the first mention of the word Manchester during our chat, she begins to tear up and at several points breaks down into sobbing. As she explains to me, “I guess I thought with time, and therapy, and writing, and pouring my heart out, and talking to my friends and family that it would be easier to talk about, but it’s still so hard to find the words. When you’re so close to something so tragic and terrifying and opposite of what music and concerts are supposed to be, it kind of leaves you without any ground beneath your feet.”
In the hours after the attack, Lloyd’s of London, the bank that insured her tour, called her manager, Scooter Braun, and said they’d cover Ariana’s full pay for the rest of the schedule dates. Because she would have avoided the cost of putting on the shows, she actually stood to make more by canceling. But as Scooter later tells me, “It wasn’t about the money for her. It was about showing her fans and the world that she is who she says she is and being strong for them.”
They suspended the tour for seven dates, but Ariana wanted to go back on the road. Scooter suggested they play Manchester again, and they quickly organized what became One Love Manchester, a benefit concert that raised over $23 million for the victims and their families. On June 3, a day before the event was set to take place, a terrorist attack hit London: a van driver on London Bridge ran into a crowd and killed eight people. Ariana and other key artists on the bill — Chris Martin, Katy Perry, and Marcus Mumford — all stressed that they needed to play now more than ever.
At the end of the concert, after all the acts came together to sing Ariana’s “One Last Time,” she slowly walked to the front of the stage alone. She started singing “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, backed only by a piano. She crushed the bridge the first time, but then she went back, repeating it with such stunning conviction that it was impossible not to hear the song — one you’ve heard your whole life — in a completely new way. In the footage of this moment, every person is openly sobbing. Ariana finished the song through tears and you could hear her crying in the mic, the first time she broke her tough front all night. She somehow managed to sing the chorus one more time.
When I ask her why she chose to close the concert with that song, she starts to cry again. The song was her grandpa’s favorite, she says, and she would sing it to him at home when she was a little girl with an abnormally powerful voice. “He would always tell me to sing it in my concerts. He would always say, ‘You know what you should end with? “Over the Rainbow.”’ And I never did it until that moment. When I was getting ready to do it, I was thinking about him and I felt his presence so heavily around me. He was the person I was closest to in my life. He was everything I wanted to be: as a businessman, as a gentleman, as a human being, as a friend, everything. He was just perfect to me.”
“Here is my bleeding heart, and here is a trap beat behind it.”
In the days after the Manchester attack, when she was recuperating at her childhood home in Boca Raton, Florida, he was there too. “I found a stack of stationery next to my bed in a Ziploc baggie, and he had written on it, ‘For Ariana.’ I don’t remember seeing it before, and it was next to my bed.” She says she ended the show with that song because it was meant to be: “He tapped me on the shoulder and told me to.”
She says the tears came at that moment because it was when she was truly one with her audience. “The fact that all of those people were able to turn something that represented the most heinous of humanity into something beautiful and unifying and loving is just wild.”
The tour picked back up after One Love Manchester, and Ariana spent June, July, and August on a whirlwind journey across Europe, Latin America, and Asia. “We pushed through and we got home, and once things slowed down, everyone started to really feel it,” she says. “That’s when the process really began. We were riding this adrenaline wave and being strong with each other. Once we got home, we were like, ‘WHEW. Now the real work begins,’ and I’m sobbing.”
Way before any of this, Ariana knew it was time to elevate herself. In 2016, she met with Pharrell and told him: “Take me somewhere completely new — let’s just go.” The pair made “a million” songs together, and she says she enjoyed the freedom to create without a label’s imposed due date. Most importantly, though, as Ariana recalls, he sat her down, pointed at her heart, and told her it was time she show her fans what’s really going on in there. Over email, he explained his producer role with her as “part listener, part therapist, part stenographer.”
Ariana was sick of straightforward song structures and wanted lots of plot twists, which is one of Pharrell’s particular strengths. Take, for example, “The Light Is Coming,” a twitchy new wave track — a far cry from the easily digestible songs of her past. That kind of creative experimentation might make a major label skittish, but as Pharrell told me, the events in Manchester gave a hard reset to the project’s expectations. Half of the tracks that make up the album’s final tracklist are produced by him.
“In all honesty, I feel like [after Manchester] was when different people from the record company actually started to understand what we were trying to do,” Pharrell said. “It’s unfortunate that that situation is what gave it context, but they were able to really see it then. And that’s the truth.”
“The Light” was made with a guest feature in mind, and Ariana auditioned eight rappers for the spot — “I don't mean to sound like a terrible person, but I wasn't in love with any of it” — before turning to her friend Nicki Minaj. She texted Nicki the song and asked if she would be interested in the spot. In Ariana’s words, Nicki was like, “Ho-lee-shit-I-love-this,” and called her on up on a rainy morning at 5:00 a.m. to come hear the verse. “I went in my slippers and pajamas to the studio and she killed it,” she says. “That's what Nicki Minaj does, she elevates a record. If you're going to have a rapper on a song, they need to really really really be there for a reason, and she does that every single time.”
On “Borderline,” another Pharrell production, Missy Elliott makes a guest appearance, an experience that Ariana has been aiming for since she was crazy young, dancing in her room to Missy’s music, and studying her music videos directed by Dave Meyers, who ended up directing the clip for “No Tears Left To Cry.”
The other half of the album was produced by the most trusted and scientific hitmaker in pop, Max Martin. This is a lot of the work that Ariana produced after Manchester, and she says she got the songwriting bug this time around. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that an artist’s new album is their most personal album yet, but for Ariana it’s really true.
On “Get Well Soon,” she traces her way through the intimate corners of an anxiety attack. “Girl what’s wrong with you? / Come back down.” Eventually, she sings herself back to stability. She wrote the lyrics right after she experienced one, and her words are backed by piano, some bells, and a thousand refractions of her gorgeous voice. “The thing that makes me feel OK with opening up and finally allowing myself to be vulnerable is that I know [my fans] feel the same feelings,” she says. “I’ve talked to them about it. I have fans that have become friends of mine. I have their numbers, and we talk all the time. I played [the song] for them before I played it for my label. They were like, ‘Thank you,’ when they heard that one. It was so scary to do that, but to see them be like, ‘I get it, I feel that too’…”
These creative risks signal a more thoughtful phase in her career. “I’ve always just been like a shiny, singing, 5-6-7-8, sexy-dance…sexy thing. But now it’s like, ‘OK … issa bop — but issa message. Issa bop but also has chunks of my soul in it. Here you go. Also, I cried 10 hundred times in the session writing it for you. Here is my bleeding heart, and here is a trap beat behind it.’ There’s definitely some crying-on-the-dancefloor stuff on this one.” She balances gravitas with snackable joy on “No Tears,” the garage-inflected anthem that introduced people to this new sonic era. On “God Is A Woman,” a choir backs her over a beat you could probably get excommunicated for dancing the right way to.
A few weeks after our interview, Ariana posted to her Instagram story that she decided to add five tracks to her album, bringing the total tracklist up to 15 songs. We hopped on the phone to talk about the last-minute creative push, and Ariana seems even happier and more energized than before.
After recently reaching an “emotional rock bottom,” she revisited some of the songs she had decided to initially cut. The additions are three more from the Pharrell sessions, one from the Max camp, and one with her close past collaborator producer Tommy Brown. She first worried that these songs were “too emotionally honest” and might make her fans worried, but after some of the fears she was writing about came true, she gave them a second look. “There are parts of my life that they would love to know about,” she says, “and hard times that I have been dealing with for the past year-and-a-half that they deserve to know about because they love me endlessly and care. I don't want to hide any pain from them because I can relate to their pain. Why not be in it together?”
She explains to me she that realized she had still been putting up emotional walls. “I guess I was kind of running on zero and pretending to be at a 10 for about 10 months,” she says. “It took me getting to, I deserve to be at a 10, and fuck it, and let's fucking go, and now I feel so free and happy as fuck. Reaching that feeling made me look at the songs and be like What? What?! I wasn't going to put this on the album? Oh my god, this is a bop! What was I fucking thinking? How did I get in my own head about blah-blah-blah that I would dare take this off the album.”
Recovery is a real process, and fortunately Ariana has taken some time for herself. Lately, she’s been heads-down on her album while enjoying living a serene life in L.A. with her seven dogs. She says she’s been watching an intense amount of Grey’s Anatomy, finishing five seasons — that’s over 100 hours — in just the past month. She swears that she’s a total Christina but also shares Izzie’s emotional side; if there’s a better show about a group of friends managing to process a seemingly endless trail of grief, I can’t think of one.
She says therapy has been helpful for her — she’s actually been in it her whole life and has always been a fan. “It has helped me deal with so much. I think it’s great for everybody. Especially in this regard. Therapy is the best. It really is.”
It’s also the first time she’s lived a home life in maybe forever, and she’s relished it. “I feel like all of a sudden I woke up and I’m an adult. It’s really crazy for me,” she says in disbelief. She likes to wake up at 6:30 in the morning and watch her house get enveloped by the early morning L.A. mist, a “yummy dream cloudland,” she says.
“I’ve never been this vulnerable to myself. I feel like I graduated almost.”
In the year before our interview, Ariana’s only real public appearances were for political causes. Last November, she appeared as the youngest act at A Concert for Charlottesville, a musical benefit in Virginia that was organized by Dave Matthews after Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist when Neo-Nazis stormed the city. In March, she was one of the headliners at the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C., the demonstration of students against gun violence after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “We’re in such a trying time and people have been responding with acceptance, love, inclusion, and passion,” she says. “This generation, they’re standing up and they’re not going to take no for an answer.”
When the kids from Parkland came to Los Angeles, Scooter arranged for them to meet her before their protest took place. They sat around the floor of his living room in a circle and talked about theatre, their shared experiences, and she opened up about Manchester, specifically about what happens when time passes after a tragic event and things quiet down. They became fast friends and hugged and cried a lot.
“That sums up who she is,” Scooter told me. “That’s when you see the best of her: when the cameras aren’t on. Because a lot of people know how to turn it on for the cameras. She is who she is all of the time.”
A weird thing to think about is that Ariana Grande almost didn’t make it as a singer — she wasn’t always seen as an easily relatable person with superhuman talents. On Nickelodeon, she played the always-oblivious sidekick Cat Valentine in the performing arts school comedy Victorious, which was a star vehicle for Victoria Justice. Eventually, that role translated into a goofy spin-off called Sam & Cat, which had a successful first season but ended after 36 episodes. She recorded a few songs for the show’s bubblegum soundtracks and made guest appearances on a couple of Nick stars’ projects, but nothing really made a dent beyond her young TV audience. Sony had passed on her, and Nickelodeon didn’t think of her as more than a secondary character. So she pursued music on her own terms on YouTube, under her very early ’00s username “osnapitzari.”
In one clip she uploaded in 2007, when she was 14, she stands in front of a loop pedal machine and uses different recordings of her voice to create a multi-layered track with herself as every instrument as well as the lead vocalist. It’s super cute and psychotically impressive. A couple of years later, in 2012 — with peak “old pony” — she recorded a cover of Justin Bieber’s “Die In Your Arms.” That got the attention of Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, who signed her shortly after. Her 2013 debut, Yours Truly, a poppy R&B album mostly produced by Babyface, debuted at No. 1, and so did its 2014 follow up, My Everything, which made Ariana a fixture of the Billboard top 10.
Ariana’s four-octave range, which is stronger than pretty much any of the current pop singers in her lane, made her a star. She’s got an especially light head voice, which makes her high notes sound like glitter cannons shooting through rainbows, especially when her vocal tracks are layered on top of each other. In a now-iconic 2016 Twitter thread, it was determined that she does in fact “Have The Range.”
For an example of her skill, consider the slightly underperforming but beloved 2016 single “Into You.” It’s an intense love song that kicks off with a lyric that Lorde remarked on Twitter was maybe the closest thing to “pop perfection” she’s ever heard: “I’m so into you / I can barely breathe.” Near the song’s end, after the epic bridge, the chorus repeats a few times with a swirl of harmonies and ad-libs.
“Those moments to me are when a song comes together,” Ariana says. “When you get to the chorus, you do a couple of ad lib takes and you do all the harmonies in the world. My favorite things are vocal production, harmonies, and vocal arrangement. That’s when a song has its legs.”
For me, as a gay man — and I’m a little embarrassed to say this — those transcendent musical moments and the way I react to them let me know that being gay is not a choice and I was in fact born this way. Although queer fandom is a given for most pop stars, Ariana’s seems especially deserved. “I grew up singing in gay bars,” she says. “I grew up with a gay brother, who is my best friend. Boys taught me how to do my makeup. This is an authentic love.” The second verse of “No Tears Left To Cry,” she tells me, is about “the sweet cuties” in her tour meet-and-greets who have come out to her.
Here’s how she says their interactions go:
Fan: Hi mom.
Ariana: Hi babe.
Fan: I’m gay.
Ariana: Work! Really?
Fan: That was my first time saying that to anyone.
Ariana: WHAT!? NO FUCKING WAY, COME HERE!
It’s moments like this that have her excited to share this album and get back out on tour, despite everything she’s gone through over the past year. If the Ariana Doctrine is to go around the world spreading love and positivity in the face of hate, she’s making music that matches the ambitions of those grown-up goals. “I’ve never been this vulnerable to myself,” she says. “I feel like I graduated almost. I feel like for a long time the songs were great, but they weren’t songs that made me feel something the way these songs do.”
Towards the end of our time together, she tells me the story of a day that summed up what her life has been like lately. It takes place on a foggy, rainy day — her favorite kind. “I was driving home from work and I just felt an overwhelming peace wash over me,” she remembers. “I just started tearing up — tears of gratitude because of perspective, because of growth, opening up and finding the ground again because of music, friends, and love. I was just overwhelmed by how simple it can be if you let it.”
Set design by Lauren Nikrooz, photo assistance by Kyle Cook, hair by Chris Appleton, makeup by Patrick Ta, nails by Natalie Martins.