“I BREAK A LOT OF RULES"
LORDE’S LANDMARK DEBUT TOOK THE PRECOCIOUS NEW ZEALAND TEENAGER TO THE HEIGHT OF GLOBAL FAME. BUT FIGURING OUT WHAT TO DO NEXT BROUGHT HER BACK DOWN TO EARTH
Photography HANNAH SCOTT-STEVENSON Styling KELLY HUME Creative Direction ALEKSANDRA BEARE Words KATHY MCCABE
Lorde is a witch. She says so, many people think so. The 20-year-old pop shapeshifter has entranced followers of music, fashion and Instagram since making her entrance four years ago. Googling “Lorde witch” will yield nearly half a million results, variously describing her as the “celebrity avatar of pop culture’s witch obsession”, the first of “20 spellbinding singers who might be witches” and the “Queen of Darkness” because of her style evolution.
Ella Yelich-o’connor materialised from the ether – actually, the suburbs of Auckland – with her generation-defining, genre-defying debut album Pure Heroine in 2013. Along with her 2012 EP The Love Club, it was a clarion call to millennials who did not identify with the prevailing wisdoms of a music industry still hell-bent on putting artists in neat boxes. It mashed hip-hop, R’N’B and pop with off-kilter phrasing, minimalist beats and lyrics that elevated teenage mundanities into well-crafted songs that could top the charts.
“So much of the record was songs about quite domestic situations, hanging out in the suburbs, mucking around with friends and making that sound transcendent,” Lorde tells Stellar. “The most vivid experiences for me, the most technicolour situations, can happen when I go for a walk or a car ride somewhere. Or in the 10 words I hear someone say on the subway. And then I found myself in crazy situations. Emotionally crazy situations.”
Such as meeting David Bowie. Just days before she turned 17 (and not long after Pure Heroine came out), Lorde was at a Museum of Modern Art affair in New York to honour actor Tilda Swinton. Bowie was there, too. He held her hands, looked into her eyes and declared her music was “like listening to tomorrow”. After his death last year, Lorde was asked to honour Bowie at the BRIT Awards, where she sang “Life On Mars” with his band.
That performance was a break in the arduous creative gestation of her upcoming second album Melodrama. For two years, Lorde would suffer the freak outs which come with writing the soundtrack to the day after tomorrow. It is a common curse for any artist whose debut hit No.1 in Australia and New Zealand and sold more than five million copies around the world.
As she fashioned the skeleton of Melodrama, Lorde could feel the ghost of Bowie lurking – in the studio, on the subway. “I feel so connected to him as an artist,” she says. “I have always felt connected to him, even though I spent only about five minutes in [his] company. He was such an auteur and had an all-encompassing vision for his work.”
Living in New York while she recorded her new album, Lorde says, “I felt he was watching over me in a way. It would be no surprise to anyone I am not weirded out by ghosts or spirits.” After all, she reminds us, “I am basically a witch.”
AS SHE ENTERS the countdown to Melodrama’s release this month, Lorde is casting a spell over the Stellar team with her easy laugh and no-nonsense professionalism. After her bodyguard checks out the toilets, she sweeps into a photo studio with her mother, poet Sonja Yelich, grabs a plate of food and – still wearing her backpack – plonks down at the table to fuel up for our shoot.
Her witchy curled locks are tamed and smooth, her effervescent girlish demeanour dropping away as she naturally strikes poses and assumes a model’s visage for the camera. She can look intense in a Wednesday Addams way, staring down the lens with eyes that are sharp, focused and determined.
Lorde adores fashion as both an art form and personal expression. When she hits red carpets – at home, here in Australia, in America or England – she relishes the opportunity to wear Dior or Gucci, sequins or crystals, the flights of fashion fancy afforded to a stylish young pop star. A day after the shoot, she was back in New Zealand, finishing off more recording sessions. Across the globe in New York, almost every other pop star of her generation was vamping at the Met Gala, celebrating the avant-garde style of Commes des Garçons. Lorde was crushed to miss it, tweeting that it “deeply breaks my heart not to be there. This is a custom theme for yours truly, biggest Commes-head in all of pop.”
All of this happened because of “Royals”. Her debut single was one of those rare unions of rhythm and melody that sound like nothing else on the radio when they hit. It was a phenomenon everywhere it was played, its success with millennials drawing comparisons to the arrival of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at Gen X’s grunge apex. It earned Lorde her first two Grammys, and lowered the velvet rope to pop’s inner sanctum.
As well as Bowie, she was suddenly embraced by everybody from Dave Grohl to Ed Sheeran to Taylor Swift. Lorde was inducted into the latter’s powerful posse of fellow pop stars, models and actors. It was perfectly natural for Swift and Lorde to be chummy. Each came with a fabled backstory about a girlhood spent transcending their gawkiness to follow their dreams, the ones formed singing into hairbrushes and practising award-acceptance speeches into the mirror. “I was lucky to be surrounded by these artists I had been listening to,” she says. “It’s so exciting to be in conversation with [them]. It’s very cool.”
Born in 1996 to civil engineer father Vic O’connor and mother Sonja Yelich, the second of four children, Lorde served an adolescent apprenticeship performing in school musicals and touring as an acoustic duo with her friend Louis Mcdonald. Encouraged by her mother, she voraciously devoured books and during a radio interview when she was 12, estimated that by then she had read at least a thousand of them. That same year, Mcdonald’s father sent a recording of the acoustic duo to talent scout Scott Maclachlan, who later became her manager. When he paired her with Kiwi musician Joel Little, the magic happened.
THINGS WEREN’T QUITE the same this time around. After a gruelling two years spent promoting and touring Pure Heroine around the world, Lorde finally went home to regroup. And what transpired was a bunch of melodrama. She split with her long-time boyfriend, Auckland photographer James Lowe. The new record is a musical diary that tracks the emotional journey of the young and broken-hearted. The tracks boast titles such as “Liability”, “Writer In The Dark” and “Hard Feelings/loveless”.
And then there’s a song called “Sober”. Lorde admits she did some drinking as she came of age and negotiated the rites of passage to adulthood. “I probably was [self-medicating],” she says. “There was an element of escapism and exploration and wanting to be myself in strange situations and see what happens. After a break-up, you go to these crazy places. I definitely did.”
Lorde confesses she’s always the girl at the party encouraging everyone to have one more, but struggles to recall her worst experience with alcohol. “I don’t know if I have really had a bad one. I don’t really get a hangover; I am still at that age. I definitely inspire people to keep drinking.” She mimics words of encouragement: “I am like,
‘Come on!’” However, she insists, “I am quite well-behaved these days.”
As she was getting her head around ways to start shaping her heartbreak and those crazy nights out into new songs, Lorde first re-teamed with Little. But like most pop songwriters, particularly those with limited instrumental abilities, she decided to explore other potential collaborators. Unlike her peers whose songs often feature several co-writers, Lorde works best one-on-one.
Her search led to speed dating-style studio sessions with a raft of producers. And it wasn’t working. Soon she was ducking out to text Jack Antonoff, a singer, producer and partner to her new friend, Girls star Lena Dunham. Lorde would ask if he was free; when he was, they’d meet up at the Brooklyn home he shares with Dunham to write. “Jack was really the key that unlocked the whole thing for me,” Lorde says. “I was meeting with a lot of songwriters and having those studio speed dates to see if I had connections with people. I was feeling unmoored by the whole thing. I didn’t have an anchor to what I’d be as a songwriter. And then I got in a room with Jack. Instantly, we were both aware we had something special.”
She jokes it was a “creative affair’’, and that part of her just wanted to spend time with Antonoff and Dunham. “Lena is wonderful,” Lorde tells Stellar. “She was so good about us. I was [often] there until midnight, and she would come in and say goodnight, which was really sweet. She brought bits and pieces of jewellery she wanted me to have. I have a massive bowl of her trinkets.” When it all got too overwhelming, they would encourage Lorde to go home to New Zealand, to the family and friends who knew her best.
All the anxiety about matching the success of Pure Heroine, which helped Lorde’s net worth reach an estimated $12 million, fell away when the first fruit of their endeavours reached the airwaves. New single “Green Light” was unexpected – an electronic dance pop number anchored by pulsing piano stabs which sounded unlike anything she had recorded before. It reached No. 1 in New Zealand and became a Top 5 hit here. And, adds Lorde, “Australia was the first country it went platinum!” She seems floored – but grateful – by the strong response. “I am so aware how long three years is in pop culture and yet people are already invested in an album they haven’t heard yet.”
These early indicators of another successful album underscore Lorde’s pop prescience. When she was younger, she’d pull apart Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado songs, trying to analyse what made them work. Perhaps she deserves an honorary degree in musical mathematics? The idea makes her laugh. “I like that. I should probably have a PHD in pop at this point. I like to take songs, get all nerdy and draw parallels with other songs. I really think there is such wisdom in pop music. It doesn’t get enough credit for that.”
This mirth belies the fact that Lorde is serious about making music – and is as passionate a listener as she is a creator. She constantly posts shout-outs to songs she loves, including new efforts from contemporaries such as Miley Cyrus and Camila Cabello. “I love pop,” she says, “and have so much respect for and reverence of it. At the same time, I break a lot of rules with my work because to do ‘the right thing’ won’t be the best way to convey what I am feeling.
“For the most part,” she is quick to add, “I still feel like a fan. And I am lucky to still feel that way after seeing how the sausage is made.”
“THERE WAS AN ELEMENT OF ESCAPISM AND EXPLORATION. AFTER A BREAK-UP YOU GO TO CRAZY PLACES. I DEFINITELY DID”
WORLD DOMINATION (clockwise from top) Lorde with her mother at the 2014 Grammy Awards; onstage at this year’s Coachella; with Taylor Swift at the 2016 Vanity Fair Oscar Party; honouring David Bowie at the BRIT Awards.
LORDE WEARS Saint Laurent blazer, and Dolce & Gabbana blouse, both davidjones.com.au; Acne Studios pants, acnestudios.com; Christian Dior boots, (02) 9229 4600
HAIR Jenny Kim using Oribe and Babyliss MAKE-UP Amber Dreadon