The musical prodigy returns
t’s the first Monday in May and Lorde — having just performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival alongside music legends Stevie Wonder and Tom Petty — is eating beignets in her hotel room and lamenting the fact that she’s missing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute Gala. It’s a scenario that perfectly encapsulates the paradox of our most famous millennial export. Midnight snacks versus the Met Ball. Accessible everywoman versus A-list superstar. The thing is, the world loves a down-to-earth celebrity. Jennifer Lawrence tripping over her dress at the Oscars. Emma Stone talking about her “embarrassing” Pinterest board. Chrissy Teigen saying what all of us are thinking all-the-freakin’ time. Relatability is a new kind of currency in showbusiness, which is why Lorde’s refusal to play the girl next door 24/7 is so intriguing, especially given that, until four years ago, that’s exactly what she was — catching the same public transport and using the same cellphone network as the rest of us.
Not that Lorde has forgotten where she came from. Quite the opposite is true — and more on that later. But as far as being ‘our Ella’ (as in, Ella Marija Lani Yelich-o’connor, her full name)? TBH, it feels a little blasphemous.
Don’t blame us. Since her debut album Pure Heroine catapulted her to fame in 2013, Lorde has gone from an anonymous(ish) Devonport school kid to an international superstar with a combined social following of nearly 17 million. A former Belmont Intermediate School talent show winner, she’s now a David Bowie-endorsed, two-time Grammy Award winner who has filled in for Kurt Cobain during a Nirvana reunion performance, been nominated for a Golden Globe, attended the Academy Awards with BFF, Taylor Swift, been evicted from her recording studio by none other than U2, and performed at Coachella music festival three times — most recently on the main stage as a headline act.
Through all of this, though, she has stayed true to her Kiwi roots. From her DGAF attitude in accessorising her Valentino couture gown at the 2016 Met Gala with a plaster cast on her arm, to the work ethic she showed in taking a hands-on role in producing every aspect of her 2017 Coachella set, to a recent Instagram post of a distinctly unstaged, half-eaten slice of tomato on toast accompanied by a caption about her appreciation of “domestic bullshit” in a life spent “thumbing through room service menus”.
Weeks out from the release of Lorde’s second album, Phoebe Watt reflects on the rise, retreat, and return of New Zealand’s musical prodigy
In 2015, Lorde even bought her own slice of New Zealand, purchasing a house in the affluent Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn (she has a young pen-pal on her street who she writes to when she can). And although her intimate, 20th birthday dinner in November was attended by the likes of Karlie Kloss, Tavi Gevinson and, of course, T-swift, there were familiar faces from home at the table, including sister Jerry, who regularly makes the trip to the States along with younger sister India, brother, Angelo, father, Vic, and mother, Sonja.
It’s not a one-way flight-path. In early May, Lorde journeyed home to Auckland to attend Jerry’s graduation. While in town, she spoke to Seven Sharp’s Toni Street about her glamorous life. “Anyone who said it didn’t change them would probably be lying,” she said, adding that she can understand how her meteoric rise and self-confidence might rub some people up the wrong way. But she doesn’t apologise for her success. She simply emphasises that, where it counts, she’s the same person. “I see common threads in all of my friendships, from my friends who are unemployed surfers to my friends who are some of the biggest musicians in the world,” she mentioned by way of example. “I really like to think that I could get all of those people in a room and they’d find something to talk about.”
In this interview, as in countless others, Lorde expressed gratitude for her New Zealand fans. She got the opportunity to thank them in March, inviting them to play a part in her reveal of ‘Green Light’, the first song off her long-awaited sophomore album, Melodrama, out in June. After days of build-up, Lorde tweeted a map of central Auckland with three locations marked — each one leading fans to a different installation built around a different song lyric. The next morning at 8am NZT, ‘Green Light’ dropped.
Lorde immediately became the number one trending topic on Facebook and Twitter, racking up two billion Twitter impressions within 24 hours. One week later, the track had amassed 18 million Youtube views — a relief, one imagines, for the woman who told The New York Times in April that, in the days before its release, she was a total recluse. “I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t want to be out in the world. It was so intense to arrive at this moment of, ‘this is it’,” she said.
Off the tour circuit (and thus, promotion circuit), Lorde was, to be fair, basically off the radar for the majority of 2016, with even paparazzi images scarce. It’s since been confirmed that she was holed up in studios in New York and Los Angeles and at home in New Zealand — the walls of her house papered in a complicated system of colour-coded, lyriccovered post-its which she would arrange and rearrange in an effort to physically ‘see’ the album take shape before her.
A little bit mad, a little bit genius, the post-its relate to Lorde’s synaesthesia — the phenomenon of one sense being experienced as another. In Lorde’s case, sounds appear as colours, and this impacts her work profusely. They’re also evidence of Lorde’s level-11 perfectionism, and her dedication to “pushing past [the] clichés” of pop music — a seriously underappreciated skill, she told Times writer, Jonah Weiner, before describing Katy Perry’s 2010 hit ‘Teenage Dream’ as “holy”.
“I have such reverence for the form,” she continued. “A lot of musicians think they can do pop, and the ones who don’t succeed are the ones who don’t have the reverence — who think
“I have such reverence for the form. A lot of musicians think they can do pop... but you need to be awe-struck”
it’s just a dumb version of other music. You need to be awe-struck.”
In the name of aweing her loyal listeners, Lorde had much of Melodrama produced by Jack Antonoff, long-time partner of Lena Dunham (who, incidentally, has been recommending her favourite books to Lorde for years). It was a somewhat surprising departure from former co-writer and conspirator, fellow Kiwi Joel Little, who Lorde struck gold (or should we say, platinum) with on Pure Heroine. Little has contributed a few tracks to Melodrama but Lorde’s goal was to evolve her sound, and adding someone new in the mix seems to have helped her achieve that. In the aftermath of ‘Green Light’ she dropped another song, the moodier piano-ballad ‘Liability’ which, in a hurried series of tweets, she described to her followers as “a strange piece of myself for a lot of people to look at”.
“Jack truly pushed me to a place i’d never been with this album i couldn’t love him more for it this song freaked & grossed me out at first…& i remember my synesthesia was really blaring in the session, this swirling combo of high school and recent and private and public memories…felt like when i walk down the hall kind of drunk at a party and shut myself in a bedroom to mumble something happy or sad into my phone.”
It is perhaps in this song about growing up — written post-breakup — that Lorde is at her most relatable. We used to relate to her environment — the generic, suburban New Zealand streets that feature in the music video for ‘Royals’ recalling scenes from all of our childhoods. By contrast, we might never find ourselves cruising around Los Angeles like in the music video for ‘Green Light’, but heartbreak is universal. Not to mention, we’re all a little bit melodramatic at times.
TEEN QUEEN Can we just take a minute to talk about this career timeline? While most of us were #outhere juggling studies with part-time jobs and deciding which house party to go to in what outfit, Lorde’s past four years were spent performing to packed...