On May 17th, the list of TIME’s 2018 Next Generation Leaders have been announced, and it features Ariana Grande herself! Check out the full photoshoot and interview below!
She has a lot of reasons to be happy. At 24, Grande is one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and she’s coming out with new music two years after her last album, the blockbuster Dangerous Woman. Her latest single is called “No Tears Left to Cry.” Going off the title, you’d expect a big torch ballad—she’s run out of tears! Instead, it’s a triumphant, ’90s-house-inflected pop confection, part breathy vocals and part spunky, spoken-word playfulness. She chose it carefully: “The intro is slow, and then it picks up,” she says. “And it’s about picking things up.”
Grande made a song about resilience because she has had to be resilient, in ways that are difficult to imagine, after a terrorist detonated a bomb outside her May 22, 2017, concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people and leaving more than 500 injured. What happened is part of the song, but the song is not about what happened. Instead of being elegiac, it’s joyful and lush, and Grande is proud of it, and of herself. “When I started to take care of myself more, then came balance, and freedom, and joy,” she says. “It poured out into the music.” In the video for the song, she’s upside-down, the way life used to feel. “We’ve messed with the idea of not being able to find the ground again,” she says, “because I feel like I’m finally landing back on my feet now.”
Grande is petite, with Kewpie-doll eyes and a wide, easy smile. She often wears her hair in a big ponytail, but today it is pulled back into an elaborate topknot, with little wisps of hair coming down behind her ears like a halo. When she talks, she is earnest and enthusiastic—you can hear her theater-kid roots.
Grande grew up in South Florida; her mom was the CEO of a communications company and her father a successful graphic designer. As a child, she always wanted to perform. “I loved wearing Halloween masks in June and doing stand-up in my kitchen for my grandparents,” she says. She was precocious and driven. “My friend from preschool found a notebook that we must have written when we were 5 or 6 years old that was like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” she says. “Mine said, ‘I want to be on Nickelodeon and then I want to sing.’”
She performed in local theater, then on Broadway in the musical 13. When she was 16, she was cast on the Nickelodeon show Victorious, which made her a star, though mostly with younger viewers, and she dabbled in bubblegum pop. She signed with Republic Records after the label’s chairman saw videos of her covering Whitney Houston and Adele on YouTube.
Her first official single, “The Way,” was released in 2013. It didn’t sound like the music she had recorded for Nickelodeon; it was breezy, catchy throwback soul, and it showed off her towering voice, which at times sounds almost instrumental. (Even die-hard fans have pointed out that, depending on how Grande sings, it can be hard to make out her lyrics—a critique she clearly takes in stride. At one point during our interview, after finishing a winding thought, she turned to me and asked, “Did I enunciate?” and then flashed a mischievous smile.)
Her first album, Yours Truly, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide, and her follow-ups, My Everything and Dangerous Woman, did even better. She released a string of chart-topping collaborations, including “Problem” (featuring Iggy Azalea), “Love Me Harder” (featuring the Weeknd) and “Side to Side” (featuring Nicki Minaj). She toured the world. Got labeled a diva, as happens to pretty much all women in music. Became the third most followed person on Instagram. It was a lot to handle, even though she had wanted success. “There was an adjustment period, because my life changed drastically,” she says. She has settled into it by now. “If I want to go out, then I’m going to go out as Ariana Grande and be O.K. with it,” she says. “If I’m feeling less O.K., I’ll probably stay in bed and watch Grey’s Anatomy.”
Everything was different, Grande says, when she was making her new album. First off, she took the lead on writing songs, which she had never really done before. “I was just so excited about singing,” she says of her previous efforts. “So I co-wrote, but I was never as involved.” She was also vocal with her producers—namely Max Martin, Savan Kotecha and Pharrell Williams, three of the most reliable hitmakers in music—about experimenting with her sound. “There was nothing I wouldn’t try,” she says. She told Williams she wanted to “make the weirdest thing we can first.” There are several moments on the record—both on the lead single and on an anthemic, sultry banger called “God Is a Woman”—in which Grande’s voice is layered so that it sounds like a choir, but really, it’s only her, multiplied. On another song, “Get Well Soon,” her vocals are interwoven in dense layers of sound, creating an otherworldly effect. “It’s like I’m talking to all of my thoughts in my head,” she says, “and they’re singing back to me.”
Here’s what Scooter Braun, Grande’s manager, tells me about what happened last summer, after the terrorist attack in Manchester. Grande had flown home to stay at her grand-mother’s house in Boca Raton, Fla., and Braun met her there, where he asked her to do something that, he says, he knew at the time was unfair. “I said, ‘We need to get a concert and get back out there.’ She looked at me like I was insane. She said, ‘I can never sing these songs again. I can’t put on these outfits. Don’t put me in this position.’” They decided to cancel the rest of the tour.
Two days later, Braun was on a flight, and he landed to find 16 text messages from Grande saying, “Call me. I need to speak to you.” When they finally spoke, she said, “If I don’t do something, these people died in vain.” They decided to put on a concert in Manchester to benefit the families that were affected.
The minute they arrived, just days after the bombing, they set out to help. They went to the hospital and sat with survivors. They met with families of the deceased. As the concert loomed, they began to worry that people would be too afraid to show up.
But more than 50,000 people turned out. A dozen other artists—including Justin Bieber, Coldplay and Katy Perry—flew in to perform. Grande closed the night with a performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” with tears streaming down her face. The show, called One Love Manchester, was broadcast live on British TV and streamed all over the world, alongside information about how to donate; it helped raise over $12 million for victims of the bombing and their families. The city of Manchester named Grande an honorary citizen, citing her “great many selfless acts and demonstrations of community spirit.”
“We put a lot on her shoulders,” Braun says. “And she took over. You know, for the rest of her life, she can say that she is exactly who she claims to be.”
So that’s what happened. After the Manchester show, Grande finished the tour. And then she went dark for a while.
Grande had built a career on the fizzy, ebullient joy of music as escape: the spine-tingling voice, the thrilling live shows, the polished music videos. Now, even though she had nothing to do with the attack, she had become central to the narrative in a way that made it inexorable. And yet what had she really lost, compared with so many others? People had lost children, parents, partners, friends. To make art that was explicitly about it would look exploitative. But to ignore it would be disingenuous.
She knows I am going to ask her about this before I have even said the words. She can see it in my eyes, and I can see it in hers, and she begins to cry—not graceful tears, but deep, choking sobs. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’ll do my best.”
Slowly, she starts to elaborate: “There are so many people who have suffered such loss and pain.” Her own grief feels both enormous and insignificant. “The processing part is going to take forever,” she says, and sobs again. She doesn’t want to talk about the attack. “I don’t want to give it that much power,” she says. “Something so negative. It’s the absolute worst of humanity. That’s why I did my best to react the way I did. The last thing I would ever want is for my fans to see something like that happen and think it won.”
“Music is supposed to be the safest thing in the world,” she continues. “I think that’s why it’s still so heavy on my heart every single day.” She takes a deep breath. “I wish there was more that I could fix. You think with time it’ll become easier to talk about. Or you’ll make peace with it. But every day I wait for that peace to come and it’s still very painful.” There is no tidy resolution. There is no why. It just happened. Grande looks up at the sky. “I’m sorry,” she says again. “What was the question?”
The bee has been a symbol of Manchester for years; it’s a nod to the city’s hardworking citizens, the worker bees who built up the region during the Industrial Revolution. After the attack, thousands of people in Manchester got bee tattoos. So did Grande and members of her crew. Now she sees bees everywhere. There’s one at the very end of the video for “No Tears Left to Cry,” in the final frame, buzzing away.
It’s part of how she carries what happened in Manchester with her. She performed at the Charlottesville, Va., unity concert as well as the March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., and she met with some of the survivors of the Parkland, Fla., shooting. “They’re so young but so brilliant and so strong,” she says. “We had a lot to talk about with what we’ve both been through.”
Her new album, Grande says, is called Sweetener. She decided to call it that because that’s the message she wanted to give to her fans: that you can take a bad situation and make it better. “When you’re handed a challenge,” she says, “instead of sitting there and complaining about it, why not try to make something beautiful?”
That sentiment hits home for Grande as well. “I’m happy,” she says, and tears spill out of her eyes again. She wipes them away. “I’m crying,” she says, “but I’m happy.”