More than zeros
It is four years since Ella Yelich-O’Connor last wrote for Sunday. Back then she was 16 and riding the crest of a huge swell of stardom. Your garden variety teen sensation would probably express that experience in words along the lines of: “I’m so grateful to my fans! You guys humble me with your awesomeness every day. I’m just an ordinary girl who had a big dream. Never stop believing...”
Sixteen-year-old Ella wrote: “Songwriting is selfish – I make music for myself... yet the rewards of deciding to write something can keep an artist going for a lifetime, can whip me across datelines, throw me under lights... You could say it’s all a bit of a whirlwind, but I hate those stupid clichés so I’ll just tell you a bit about what I do, and what it’s like, and if you want to use the word whirlwind, or rollercoaster, that’s up to you.”
She relayed performing a gig in New York and a New Yorker journalist telling her afterwards how he’d witnessed a silver-haired man from a record company pointing to her and saying slowly to his friend, “lots of zeros”. The journalist had added, “nothing but a spreadsheet with hair”.
There’s no doubt that over the past four years, the small, pale-faced teenager from Devonport would have been circled by many such sharks. Back in New Zealand, we all felt a kind of ownership of Ella, or Lorde as she is known. We were all experts. “What’s she doing?” I remember yelling, when she was pictured arm-in-arm with her reported BFF Taylor Swift. “It’s wrong for her brand!”
But Lorde years are kind of like dog years. Even back then Ella seemed spookily and precociously aware of the pitfalls of instant fame. “If I’d granted every sandwich chain and skincare brand and coming-of-age blockbuster use of my songs, I’d probably be a millionaire,” she wrote. “But I’m extremely fussy.
“Every step I’ve taken since I signed my development deal has been to ensure I’m exactly who I want to be, perceived how I’d like to be perceived. Like I said, this isn’t the easiest thing in the world.”
Ella is 20 now and about to release her second album, Melodrama. It’s a fabled challenge – the second album and, as she writes frankly on page 10, she’s had some terrifying moments anticipating its release and the world’s reaction.
But it’s also clear that the past four years haven’t chipped away at or damaged the self-contained, wise kid she was in 2013, when she predicted: “I’m not a spreadsheet with hair; will never be.”