On December 5th, Ariana’s cover story for Billboard’s Woman In Music has been posted!
Ariana Grande is milly rocking in her seat behind the massive mixing console at Los Angeles’ Record Plant studio, a wide grin revealing the single dimple in her left cheek. Her new single, “Thank U, Next,” will not officially become her first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 for another three days, but its explosive success is already making headlines. For Grande, the milestone is especially meaningful. It’s the exact kind of music she has wanted to make all along.
“It’s a Tommy Brown single!” she exclaims, hitting the arm of her chair for emphasis. Brown, a producer and songwriter, has been working with Grande since her 2013 debut, Yours Truly
, and Grande is positively giddy at the prospect of their shared musical breakthrough. “I can’t believe it but, like, so can. It’s me and my besties tipsy off champagne — and me with a broken heart — just letting it out and having fun. I love this more than any other song I’ve ever put out.”
That kind of joy has been tough to come by in the past few months for Billboard’s Woman Of The Year, despite the fact that she has never had more career momentum. Grande’s fourth album, Sweetener, became her third No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in August, breaking streaming records while earning critical acclaim. So far it has produced two top 10 singles on the Hot 100, with a third, “Breathin,” now at No. 13. But while she was in the middle of promoting the project, her dear friend, collaborator and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died from an accidental overdose. Just over a month later, her whirlwind engagement to comedian Pete Davidson ended.
On this November afternoon, it’s still too soon for Grande to talk about what has happened in anything other than broad strokes. “I’m really lucky and really unlucky at the same time,” says the 25-year-old.
To sing about it, though, is another story. Not long after Miller’s death, Grande started spending all of her time with her closest friends and collaborators, including Brown, recording a new album (which she says will also be called Thank U, Next) at a studio across the street from her New York apartment. Though she has been in therapy since she was just a kid coping with her parents’ divorce — and is quick to espouse its benefits — right now the most healing comes when she’s standing behind a mic.
“When I felt myself saying, ‘’Cause her name is Ari,’ I knew it was a special line, but part of me was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s kind of corny,’” says Grande, referring to the “Thank U, Next” lyric, a declaration of self-love. She tucks her bare legs inside a light-blue hoodie that reads “Beau Souci” (French for “beautiful worry”) and wraps her arms around them. “But the other part of me was like, ‘That’s beautiful and I need to keep it in.’ I know that once I put something into a song, then it’s real.”
Fittingly, the control room is decked out like a refuge: a small bouquet of white flowers, a single candle, a light projecting water ripples onto the ceiling. Grande, sporting an extension-less version of her signature ponytail, sips from a Starbucks iced soy latte while animatedly chatting about the music she has been working on — the only thing she’s really interested in discussing, the only thing that matters to her right now. As it turns out, a series of tragedies has given the star two unexpected gifts: the freedom to channel her hurt into the most raw and untempered music of her career, and the audacity to buck the pop music establishment — which, as Grande will note more quickly than anyone, is particularly entrenched when it comes to women.
She had the talent: the four-octave range and effortless vocal agility that led Gloria Estefan, after hearing the 8-year-old Grande sing “My Heart Will Go On” at a cruise-ship karaoke night, to tell her she was gifted. She had the support system: her close-knit family, familiar to anyone who follows the singer on social media. And she had the work ethic, performing in public regularly before the age of 10 and on Broadway by age 15. “When I was 6 years old, I just kind of decided that’s what I’m going to do with my life, period,” says Grande, who grew up in Boca Raton, Fla. “I manifested it. I knew I would. There was never really a doubt in my mind.”
The singer proceeded to do all she could to reach superstardom, and logged time in the teeny-bopper trenches at Nickelodeon. In 2011, she signed with Republic Records; not long after, she met Mac Miller. He was 20 and she was 19, so naturally they first talked on Twitter. The pair became fast friends, and she invited him to do a verse on her first album’s lead single, 2013’s bouncy ’90s throwback “The Way.” Grande told Billboard at the time that Miller was giving her Pro Tools pointers as they recorded. She added, “If you want to motivate Mac Miller to do anything, just bake cookies.”
Now, she looks back on the song as the first time she really captured her own musical style, what she had been searching for while growing up idolizing India.Arie. “When we made ‘The Way,’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m onto something here,’” says Grande. Her face dims slightly; just before this interview, she was working on a new song, which, when she plays it for me later, I realize is about Miller. “It felt like, ‘I should do this forever.’”
“The Way” reached No. 9 on the Hot 100, and like the rest of her debut, it holds up remarkably well. Babyface, one of the album’s producers, helped legitimize Grande’s long-held R&B aspirations. Nevertheless, when she released Yours Truly, Grande was still viewed as a preteen idol, thanks to her history on kiddie TV and diminutive size (she’s exactly 5 feet tall). So on her next two albums, she went even bigger, employing Max Martin and pursuing the kinds of pop hits that would make her undeniable to any listener.
“We started at home base — me,” Grande says of Yours Truly, “and then we went in this place where I kind of played the game for a little bit, and did the big, big, big pop records. Then we slowly started incorporating my soul back into it — and that’s where we’ve landed again with ‘Thank U, Next.’”
Grande has put in the work, done everything that was asked of her — all the tiny compromises that went along with playing the game — and kept her nose clean (with the exception of a little doughnut glaze, which she erased from the public’s memory with a cleverly self-deprecating sketch on one of the best Saturday Night Live hosting debuts in recent memory). She has hit songs and high Pitchfork ratings, to say nothing of her devoted fans, the Arianators. Grande’s late-night TV appearances — routine promotional stops for most stars — are events, thanks to her natural sense of comic timing and gift for impressions both sung and spoken (Google her doing Jennifer Coolidge). She followed all the rules, and arrived at what seemed like the top.
The singer has no regrets. “I got myself to a place where I would be able to do things like drop a surprise record and have it be the biggest single I’ve ever had,” she says now. But five years into her career, she hadn’t yet had a No. 1 Hot 100 song, and hadn’t found the ubiquity that she knew deep down she deserved.
Then, on May 22, 2017, a suicide bomber killed 23 people and injured 139 outside the arena in Manchester, England, where Grande had just finished performing as part of her Dangerous Woman Tour. Many of the victims were children.
Within weeks Grande was back, not just onstage but in Manchester, visiting survivors in the hospital and hosting the One Love Manchester benefit, which helped raise 23 million pounds (about $29 million) for the victims. She released her live rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the benefit, during which she broke down in tears — though she still finished the performance — and donated the proceeds to the Red Cross. “Our response to this violence must be to come closer together, to help each other, to love more, to sing louder and to live more kindly and generously than we did before,” she wrote at the time.
She did exactly that with the album that followed, this summer’s Sweetener, an optimistic paean to her own healing; there was no dwelling on tragedy, only gentleness and positivity. The first single was titled “No Tears Left to Cry,” and the album concluded with the tender “Get Well Soon,” a five-minute, 22-second tribute to the Manchester victims. Meanwhile, she had found new contentment outside the studio with SNL star Davidson, in a relationship that she happily flaunted despite the tabloid frenzy that enveloped them both.
In a tweet a month ago, Grande summed up her feelings on what has happened since: “Remember when i was like hey i have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA bitch u thought.”
This afternoon, Grande is often near tears, a fact she readily acknowledges. “I just hope you’re OK with me crying, because that’s not going to not happen,” she says, laughing even as she’s tearing up in the midst of talking about how she has coped with so much tragedy in such a short span of time. “I can’t even say ‘Good morning’ to anyone without crying.” The blessing, for both the singer and her fans, is the music. “I guess there’s not much I’m afraid of anymore,” she says, her normally silky voice tightening. “When life tries you with such serious shit so many times, your priorities change. I don’t give a shit. I just want to be happy and healthy — one day — and make music.”
Where she’s currently sitting — behind the mixing console — is just about the only place Grande feels like she has control. And she is, in her own words, a control freak. Though she won’t say that she has perfect pitch (“People tell me I do, but I’m not going to sit here and be like, ‘Yes, I do’”), when talking about her music, Grande betrays a craftsman’s obsession with arrangements and vocal harmonies. “I’ll hear something that’s on one track out of, like, a thousand in a session and be emailing the engineer about it,” she says. Martin and Pharrell Williams both let her “steer,” which is one of the reasons she has worked with them repeatedly. But not every man she has shared a studio with has been as willing to cede the reins.
“I’ve politely walked out of sessions before,” says Grande. “It has happened. I’m a small girl. People tend to underestimate that. And then I sit down and comp my own vocals and can produce my own session, and they’re like” — here she adopts an excellent impersonation of a dopey man — “‘Oh, I didn’t know you could do that.’ I’m like, ‘Believe it or not, there are plenty of tiny women that can do this.’” This is the Grande who digs for deep cuts, covering songs by eclectic bassist Thundercat and exchanging Instagram DMs with legendary jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval (the pair did a track together alongside Williams).
This is also the Grande who has been vocal about fighting sexism. Her recent single “God Is a Woman” might be the most obvious example, but even in 2015, in a Notes app manifesto that quoted Gloria Steinem, she was critiquing the media’s habit of defining famous women by their relationship status.
“I would just love to see a chart with as many women on top as men,” she says. “It’s just so male-dominated. It’s so easy for them. There are so many unbelievable female artists out there that try so much harder.”