Songwriter & Producer Rick Nowels Explains How Lana Del Rey’s ‘Lust For Life’ Came Together
Genius: You’ve been working with Lana for a long time now. What’s your songwriting process like, and how has it evolved?
Rick Nowels: Our process has not changed over the years. Lana always comes in with a concept and often, a melody and lyrics on her iPhone. I listen to it acapella, find the exact key she’s singing in and start to create a chord progression around it. We start playing together and define the exact chords and melody. Then she finishes the lyrics. I’m always knocked out by how incredible her lyrics are and how effortlessly she seems to write them. After that, we solidify the verse and chorus. We usually write the middle eight from scratch—that’s the section that comes after the second chorus. It is a construct of classic songwriting sometimes called the bridge. You don’t see a lot of middle eights in songs anymore. I love that we write them because I think they make the songs more timeless and satisfying. Lana usually records her vocals right after the writing process. I play piano or guitar with her and we do live takes. This gives the songs a performance aspect, and I think it contributes to the intimacy in her vocal delivery. I work out my piano or guitar part and accompany her voice. I follow her mood and together we get a feeling in the room. She doesn’t do many takes. She knows when she’s got the master take. After she gets her lead vocal she immediately starts arranging and singing her background vocals. This is a very exciting thing because she’s completely unique in her approach to it and it’s all a part of her songwriting process. When the backing vocals are complete you essentially have a finished Lana Del Rey record. The song speaks with minimal instrumentation and just her vocals. After that, we begin the process of building the backing track, which can take some time and experimenting and inviting some great musicians to contribute.
Many people have said this album feels like a return to Lana’s earlier sound (i.e. the Born to Die era). Do you agree with that assessment and if so, was it an intentional choice on Lana’s part?
Rick Nowels: Not at all. It’s a constant moving forward. Lana is a prolific songwriter. I see every new song as the next Lana Del Rey song. I’m honored to be the first person to hear many of them in their early form and one that she trusts to help construct them. There’s no other thought than to write the best song we can and then to capture it in a recording. For me, it’s song by song, and because she’s so prolific we have a wealth of really strong songs. The big picture emerges and I know she’s always thinking about it.
Genius: You and Lana flipped what was originally the verse of “Lust for Life” into the chorus. What was that process like and how much did the song change from what it sounded like originally?
Rick Nowels: The original “Lust For Life” is a beautiful art song, it’s quite touching. Maybe someday Lana will release it. We did a rewrite a lot of it during the making of the album. It turned out great and It was a thrill to have The Weeknd and Lana singing together.
Genius: What was it like working with A$AP Rocky for “Summer Bummer” and “Groupie Love”? Did Lana always intend to have a rap element on the track, and does that change the way you approach writing a song or handling production?
Rick Nowels: “Groupie Love” was one of the early songs we wrote for the album. Lana had the idea to bring in A$AP Rocky. He’s a great guy; very smart and creative. His producer Hector Delgado came in too and did the beats on the song and co-produced it with us. It was a lot of fun being in the studio with them. They are super creative souls. I wasn’t really involved with “Summer Bummer.” Lana went in the studio with Boi-1da and wrote that one. It’s a great addition to the album. I asked Zac Rae, who is a brilliant keyboard player and musical mind, to do some overdubs on it. We spent a few days with Boi-1da and T-Minus working on it together. I believe Rocky and Playboi Carti recorded their parts with Hector Delgado. That was one of the last songs written for the album.
What are some of your favorite songs on the album?
I would say “Tomorrow Never Came” is a really special record. We asked Sean Lennon to sing on it and when we sent him our track, he got so inspired that he ended up playing all the instruments on it. He recorded it in his studio in upstate New York. It was good talking to him over Face Time during it. He did an amazing job and he and Lana sound great together. I’m assuming he used some of his dad’s vintage instruments on it, but you’d have to ask him. “Change” really touches me. We were mastering the album and had to turn it into the label the next day. Lana called me that afternoon and said that she had one more statement to make for the album and that she wanted to record a new song that night. That song turned out to be “Change”. We started it at 8 P.M and by 2 A.M the record was done. We knew it could only be a voice/piano song because that was all the time we had. I think it’s a gem on the album. “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems” was special because we got to spend time with Stevie Nicks and have a collaboration with two of the great female poets of songwriting. I’ve known Stevie for a long time and I wanted Lana and Stevie to know each other. I love hearing their two iconic voices together. I think a real friendship has formed.
Where do you feel this album fits into Lana’s catalog overall?
Lana is a career artist, a defining artist of her generation. I see her as a link on the chain along with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, and all the great once in a lifetime singer/songwriters. She’s created her own language and her own genre. She’s always inspired and actively creating her body of work. This album is her next offering.