Tagged: U2

Sweet Lorde

I’M told I can call her Ella: Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor is quite a mouthful. The single-syllable name by which she is better known, though, is a nod to old-fashioned aristocracy, with a silent “e” on the end to add a feminine touch. Lorde – the 20-year-old New Zealander whose hands the late David Bowie once took in his as he told her that her music sounded like listening to tomorrow – is not one for airs and graces, except for her impeccable manners.

The only problem has been pinning her down for an interview that’s been scheduled and rescheduled multiple times. On the eve of the release of her second album Melodrama, Lorde, her harried publicist tells me, is being pulled in a thousand different directions. Now, though, she’s relaxed, almost effusive. “It’s truly time for this record to come out,” she says. “I don’t feel like it’s being prised from my hands or anything. I’m just excited for people to get a feel for it and live inside it.”

Yet in February, in the days before the release of the album’s first single Green Light, she had found herself so racked with anxiety she struggled to get out of bed. “I wasn’t sure if everyone was just going to turn on me and be like, this is terrible, we hate it – go back, take it back!” There had been times, she confesses, when had wondered whether she might start baking cakes for a living, or just hone her skills in the garden at home.

Second albums are notoriously difficult; all the more so when they follow successful debuts. Green Light was the first new material from Lorde in nearly four years, after her first album Pure Heroine made her a global superstar at 16. Royals, released as a single from the preceding EP The Love Club, topped the US charts for nine weeks, winning her Song of the Year award at the Grammys; the album sold 1.5 million copies worldwide from its release in September 2013 to the end of that year.

Lorde doesn’t play an instrument, and needs collaborators to help bring her music to life. On the first album, she was paired with New Zealand songwriter and producer Joel Little, and while she started work with him on a follow-up, co-writing Green Light, the creative partnership soon began to run dry. “I don’t want to be as good a writer as I was last time,” she says. “I want to have improved, and to improve across the board takes time, takes practice, it takes messing it up a bunch of times.”

She was subsequently introduced to Jack Antonoff, who had worked with Taylor Swift on her album 1989, and it was with him that Lorde found a new musical direction and energy. He also cracked the whip as Lorde battled a serious case of writer’s block: a memorable text exchange which the singer posted on Twitter features Antonoff telling her to write “beautiful soul crushing lyrics all day. nothing else … happiness is for tourist write you little fucker” [sic].

Lorde has described Pure Heroine as a portrait of the artist in her mid-teens, and she’s equally unabashed about characterising Melodrama, with its self-aware title, as a document of her life on the cusp of her third decade. She aspires to make records like Kanye West and Bowie, artists whom she says “are wonderful at building these universes to live inside, there are whole different species that populate it, and the geography is totally unlike anything in the real world. It’s so vivid and so involved.”

On Green Light, the signature elements from Royals are there – wide open spaces, with Lorde’s voice all but carrying the melody by itself – but, like the singer’s life, it accelerates into something that’s far more extroverted, and rather less innocent. The singer growls about ordering different drinks from the same bar with a lover; she knows “about what you did, and I want to scream the truth”. She says the song tapped into what she calls the “night-time energy” she had been feeding on.

Night-time energy? She laughs: “It’s a nice way of saying just staying out really late and being quite naughty.”

MAKING comparisons between Lorde and the young Kate Bush is both easy and lazy. Both were teenage prodigies (Bush wrote The Man With The Child In His Eyes, from her debut album The Kick Inside, when she was just 13; Wuthering Heights, from the same album, came a few years later), they bear a superficial resemblance to each other at the same age, and both have been the subject of tributes and parodies: “The most Wuthering Heights day ever”, in which thousands of fans around the globe dance in flowing red dresses in homage to Bush’s first worldwide smash, is now an annual event; in a sure sign that Lorde had officially made it, Royals was turned into Foil by career musical satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic in 2014.

But perhaps there are deeper parallels to be made. Asked for a song that never fails to move her, Lorde nominates Bush’s 1985 hit Running Up That Hill. The song, like much of Lorde’s music, is deceptively simple, relying on a tribal beat and heavily stacked vocals for impact. “It’s very minimal, but it sounds huge, cavernous,” she says. She speaks of its “modernity”, saying that if she heard the song drifting across a festival ground, she would be drawn to whatever new artist might be singing it.

That huge sound hints at something Lorde also aspired to in the making of Melodrama: maximum volume. “Jack [Antonoff] said to me once, ‘My favourite music is just all the stuff that you would want to play really, really loud,’” she says. The point is not to blast the listener into submission as much as it is to draw them into a song’s vortex. “You wouldn’t hear Running Up That Hill in the background and be content with it down low. It grabs you and it holds you for five minutes.”

She is an earnest student of pop, with a hunger for new sounds and classics alike. Right now, she’s enthralled by Paul Simon, for entirely different reasons to Kate Bush: Simon makes quiet music. Listening to him taught Lorde a new lesson: “He’s always existing between about a 4 and a 7 [out of 10] in terms of how much energy he’s expending. The lyrics are almost spoken – there’s such a delicacy to how he sings. He’s able to impart such joy or pain without ever really breaking a sweat.”

Like most adults three times her age, though, she is convinced her own formative years were a golden era for music. “Futuresex Lovesounds by Justin Timberlake had just come out, the first Lady Gaga record was out, Tik Tok by Ke$ha was the biggest song in the world.” Lorde perceived what few saw below pop’s shiny surface. “I think I really understood how to infer with it. It was like, oh – there’s a lot they’re not saying, but I can hear it, and I can sort of interpret it, and that’s the special stuff.”

Pure Heroine appeared at a time when many pundits were proclaiming the album dead as an artistic format in an age of downloads. Around her childhood home, though, Lorde grew up on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. “It really taught me what an album was, and drew me to that medium. A lot of my peers don’t really place a lot of value in that, but I do. That’s such a great example of building a universe to live inside.”

WHO KNOWS what Lorde is like when stays out late and gets a bit naughty, but the answer is probably like most 20-year-olds. In conversation, she’s sweet and often startlingly wise. She speaks of dealing with sudden fame “probably like being a parent, you go in blind and do the best that you can”. She remains grounded by the same things that keep most of us tethered to the planet: family, friends, and home, which remains Auckland, though she spends much of her time in New York.

Pop stars don’t have to be swept away by the current of charts and tabloids. Lorde simply gets on with her life, living as anonymously as she can without being a hermit. She mentions Frank Ocean, the R&B singer “who’s totally not a public figure at all and hasn’t played a show for this record [last year’s Blonde] and has done, like, one interview.” Her audience, she says, are more likely to be interested in what drum sounds she’s into than what she had for breakfast.

A recent New York Times article noted that when she did become aware of being noticed, she would defuse attention by raising her finger to her lips with a soft “shh” and a small, conspiratorial smile. “I still feel like so much of my personal life is mine. At the end of the day people don’t really know what I do every day, apart from when I’m going around working. I think there is an element of, ‘oh, she goes to New Zealand and we don’t really know what happens’, and I do find that really precious.”

The same Times profile, though, related a story of Lorde being kicked out of a Greenwich Village recording studio she had been commuting to after it was booked by U2. She is part of Taylor Swift’s squadron of girlfriends, along with Antonoff’s partner Lena Dunham, creator of Girls. The most surreal moments, she says, are the awards nights: “You know, the Grammys or Brits or Golden Globes, and everyone is so stupidly famous – like, ‘oh, that person was on TV when I was growing up’.”

Does she ever feel like she doesn’t belong in their company? “I don’t feel imposter syndrome because no one is under any impression I belong,” she deflects. “It’s like, ‘Who let her in here?’ Or, ‘She’s very lucky to get to be around us.’ I feel ridiculous being there, for sure, but I do feel like myself.” Like Ella.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 16 June 2017

10 of the best: Flying Nun Records

ONE of the world’s great independent labels, Flying Nun Records was founded in 1981 by Christchurch-based Roger Shepherd. But the locus of the emerging New Zealand punk and post-punk scene and many of its key players were further south, in Dunedin: all bar one of the following bands, Christchurch’s JPS Experience, hail from the university town in the region of Otago. At its peak, the label was home to dozens of bands and 10 of the best is exactly that (with apologies to Bailter Space, Alastair Galbraith and Peter Gutteridge, all storied figures in the New Zealand pop history). Shepherd walked away from the label in 1999, selling it to Warner; in 2010, Crowded House’s Neil Finn, who owns a quarter-share, helped him buy it back again. Large chunks of the label’s catalogue are being reissued by Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks, with the Clean, the Chills and the Bats – who release their seventh album, The Deep Set, today – remaining active to this day.

The Clean Anything Could Happen

Formed in 1978 in Dunedin, the Clean’s first single Tally Ho!, released a few years later, put the fledgling Flying Nun Records label on the map, reaching the top 20 with its nagging keyboard riff. (Disclaimer: it probably wouldn’t have taken a huge number of sales to reach the New Zealand top 20.) From there the band, formed by brothers David and Hamish Kilgour and future Bats leader Robert Scott, carved a reputation as probably the most influential band on the label with a sound heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground. But their best song, Anything Could Happen, would do Bob Dylan proud with its folk-rock chord changes and dry, deadpan lyrics.

The Verlaines Death And The Maiden

Another key figure in Flying Nun’s early history, Dr Graham Downes – he heads the department of music at the University of Otago – would bring classical influences to the Flying Nun sound on their 1987 album Bird-Dog. You wouldn’t have seen that coming on their first single four years earlier, which had Downes ecstatically chanting the name of the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, from whom they took their name (not, as is sometimes thought, Television’s Tom Verlaine). Features the immortal lines “You shouldn’t talk to me / Find better company / There’s better things to know / You’ll only end up like Rimbaud.”

The Chills Pink Frost

It was Martin Phillipps that played that nagging riff in Tally Ho!, but he already had the Chills who, over well over a dozen line-up changes, became the greatest singles band New Zealand produced after Split Enz, achieving enduring success with a sound that was alternately pitch dark and lighter than air. Released in 1984, Pink Frost combined both in the same song, shifting abruptly from a spry opening guitar hook to a haunting, bass-driven pulse, as Phillipps tells a deeply unsettling story of loss and survivor’s guilt.

Look Blue Go Purple Cactus Cat

It’s tiresome to point to Look Blue Go Purple’s gender – something that followed the five-piece wherever they went, much to their justified irritation. But the fact remains there weren’t too many women on Flying Nun, and the band’s three EPs are a critical and often unsung part of its legacy. Cactus Cat is from the second of them, released in 1986. This joyously nonsensical paean to Denise Roughan’s moggy rides along on a couple of chords, punctuated by two backwards guitar solos played by former Chill Terry Moore.

The Bats Made Up In Blue

After four years in the Clean, bass player Robert Scott realised he needed a new vehicle for his own prolific songwriting. With the Bats, he has explored endless variations on an instantly identifiable sound. They nailed that sound on this ebullient 1986 single: bright, mid-tempo guitar pop, with the stinging lead work of Kaye Woodward and Paul Kean’s rumbling bass over the top giving a harder edge to Scott’s nasal, wistful vocals.

Jean-Paul Sartre Experience Inside And Out

There were more critical bands in Flying Nun discography than the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, but I can’t ignore the hypnotic opening cut from this often overlooked band’s excellent second album The Size Of Food, from 1990. Incredibly, soon after a lawsuit was served by the estate of Jean-Paul Sartre, forcing them to change their name to the JPS Experience and, while it almost certainly had nothing to do with it, they were never quite the same again.

Straitjacket Fits Down In Splendour

By the turn of the 1990s, the Chills and the Straitjacket Fits looked like the bands most likely to cross over to major success, with American record deals and more polished – dare one say cleaner-sounding – studio recordings. It didn’t hurt that the Straitjacket Fits were the best-looking band on the label, either. Written by Andrew Brough, the breathtaking Down In Splendour, from the band’s second and best album Melt, shows off the band’s exquisite vocal harmonies and twin-guitar interplay without losing any of the tension that would ultimately destroy the group.

Straitjacket Fits APS

The Straitjacket Fits are privileged with two entries on account of them being blessed with two very different songwriters. The prettiness of Down In Splendour was the jewel in a crown of thorns: the Fits’ spikier side was dominated by brooding leader Shayne Carter. This live recording of APS (also from Melt) demonstrates their explosive power on stage; at its conclusion Carter checks: “are everyone’s strings intact?” But in barely the next breath, he cattily introduces Down In Splendour “for all you grandmas out there”; soon after Brough was unceremoniously ejected from the band, announced with a gleeful press release: “No more slow songs!” Unfortunately, it destroyed the band’s delicate balance; their final album Blow was a disappointment.

3Ds Beautiful Things

The 3Ds – Dominic Stones, Denise Roughan and David Saunders – emerged late in the 1980s, quickly added another D, David Mitchell for good measure and, like the Straitjacket Fits, based their considerable attack on a twin-guitar sound. But where the Fits exuded menace, the 3Ds were as bright, playful and often unhinged as their lurid cover artwork. Beautiful Things (from 1993’s The Venus Trail and sung by Roughan, previously of Look Blue Go Purple) caught them at a rare tranquil moment, with a gliding chord progression and beatific lyrics: “Don’t you see, beautiful things can be / Waiting outside your door, for all to see.” A famous story about the band goes that during a support slot on U2’s ZooTV tour, an associated nicked a bottle of wine from U2’s dressing room, leading the promoter to inform the band they would not be paid. Bono intervened, gave them another bottle of wine and told the promoter they would be paid double.

Chris Knox Not Given Lightly

Talisman, spiritual heartbeat and conscience of New Zealand punk, Chris Knox all but started the movement in Dunedin with his bands the Enemy, then Toy Love. He later maintained a prolific career as one-half of the Tall Dwarfs, as a soloist, and as a newspaper columnist and cartoonist. His best-known tune, released in 1989, was a plain-spoken love song to “John and Liesha’s mother”, and featured just a percussion loop and fuzz guitar. Tragically Knox was cut down by a severe stroke in 2009 that has left him unable to say more than a few words; a tribute album to raise funds for his ongoing rehabilitation featured Yo La Tengo, the late Jay Reatard, Bonnie Prince Billy and Bill Callahan, as well as many of the bands mentioned above.

Originally published in The Guardian28 January 2017

The faith healer

Chris Martin is up for it. Half an hour after soundcheck and a few hours before showtime at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, the Coldplay singer, flanked by guitarist Jonny Buckland, strides into the interview room in the underbelly of the arena. Big smile, big handshake, golden hair, a white badge on his chest. “LOVE”, it says in blue letters.

There’s a heart in the middle of the “O”, and the “V” is rendered as a whale’s tail, or maybe it’s a dove’s wings. It’s a sweltering late afternoon, and Coldplay have just gone through their paces on the outdoor stage, but on a day where most locals are complaining about the heat, Martin merely looks sun-kissed in a way few Londoners are. I wonder if he ever sweats.

Later, he addresses an ecstatic 50,000-strong crowd: “This is gonna be the best night of our lives, and we’re gonna give it all we’ve got, and all we ask in return is for you to do the same,” he shouts. “This is show number 70 on the tour, and as far as we’re concerned the first 69 were rehearsals for Brisbane, Australia!” (Which, presumably, makes Brisbane a rehearsal for Melbourne, which in turn is a rehearsal for Sydney, etc.)

What’s disarming is how easy it is to believe him.

Twenty years into Coldplay’s career – the band formed in 1996 at University College London – and things have never been better, as far as he and Buckland are concerned. Their seventh album, A Head Full Of Dreams, released a year ago, sees their enormous popularity undimmed, with worldwide sales around the 2 million mark and guest appearances from Beyoncé, Noel Gallagher and Martin’s former wife Gwyneth Paltrow, among others.

There’s no jadedness, no cynicism, no pining for the lost innocence that marks any young band’s early years. This is it; this is the golden age. “You’ve got to live in the moment!” Martin insists. (Exclamations become necessary when quoting him.)

A cursory glance at any tabloid headline will tell you that, no matter how extraordinary his life is, Martin has ordinary problems like the rest of us: his divorce from Paltrow, with whom he has two young children, was finalised this year. But while Coldplay albums work like a balm to their legions of fans – soothing, mellifluous, never, ever rocking – their leader has the energy of a faith healer.

Which is exactly why it works. After two decades, perhaps now more than ever, Coldplay, as earnest as ever, offer of reassurance in troubled times. “I think playing big, big shows connects you to an idea of music in its old-fashioned sense of being something that is supposed to just be of service, you know what I mean?” Martin says.

Coldplay – Martin, Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion – emerged from the ashes of Britpop. Like their early Scottish contemporaries Travis, a band from whom they took early inspiration, they took the keening voice and sensitive lyrics of an American, Jeff Buckley, and paired them with the communal spirit of their forebears, Oasis.

But they rejected the excess and manic extroversion of the Gallagher brothers, dialling the music down into something more hymnal. “I see our stadium shows as a way to bring people together for a few hours and sing,” Martin says. “I think we’re all made alive by that feeling of singing with thousands of people at the same time, it’s what makes people feel connected to everyone.”

Later, concert-goers are handed LED wristbands, which glow yellow when the band play the breakthrough hit from their first album, Parachutes. “It’s not really about the band, it’s about everyone at the same time,” Martin says. “Since we got our wristbands that’s been easier and more enjoyable – you can see everyone literally light up! We just feel like we’re the house band, facilitating this big singalong.”

This is Coldplay’s brilliance, creating the illusion of intimacy in a stadium setting. It wins them few critical plaudits, but it’s harder than it looks, especially when the size of your fan base limits you to playing arenas. “A song arrives and you just follow it,” Martin says. “And of course we sometimes sit down and have discussions, can we do this song, can we do that song, and occasionally it doesn’t fit with the remit.”

What’s the remit? “Well sometimes you might get sent a reggae song that’s amazing, but if we did it as Coldplay, it would not serve the song and it would not serve us either, it would just look stupid.” (For proof, see YouTube footage of Martin dancing alongside Beyoncé and Bruno Mars at this year’s Super Bowl.) It’s not, he says, a matter of trying to give fans what they want, “but what we think might make people feel something. We never want to be wilfully obtuse.”

The word “sent” is important here. “When the song Yellow came through, something in my body was like – oh, there’s something different about this,” he says. “Occasionally you get a song where you think, oh, this is here for a reason, it’s not just crafted, it’s arrived. But that initial thing comes from a place you don’t really understand.

“It’s like if you’re running a hot springs and taking credit for the hot springs. You can’t. My point is music kind of gets sent through, from wherever it comes from, and sometimes you know when something is really going to connect.” So do the songs belong to you, or the fans? “That’s my point. They never belong to any of us. Only the shitty ones belong to us!”

Cynics will offer their own rejoinders to Martin’s cheerful self-deprecation. A quick straw-poll of friends – what would you like to ask Chris Martin? – presents the following: “Is it still all yellow? And have you seen a doctor about that?”; another suggests the terse, more existential “Why are you?” Among them, a meek voice: “I don’t mind Coldplay. I know that’s not cool, but they have some lovely songs.”

“Often the things people criticise us for are the same things other people like,” Martin says. “Everything in life is how you look at it, isn’t it? It’s about trying to see the value and beauty of everybody, and the joy of togetherness, but at the same time the accepting of differences of opinion. So I take it, if people are still able to say Coldplay are shit, well, there can’t be too big a problem going on in their lives.”

Buckland, who offers thoughtful rejoinders in between cracking up at his band mate’s woolly philosophising, doesn’t sweat the small stuff, either. “I think we just feel incredibly lucky for everything we’ve had. I mean, honestly, we’d be arseholes for wanting this to be even better.”

“You can’t go around the world playing stadiums and complain that something’s awful. It just doesn’t work,” Martin says. “You can’t say, it’s great we sold this many [records], and all these people seemed to have a nice time, but we didn’t make the end-of-year poll on that thing.

“It’s OK, we’re OK. And we stand for what we stand for and we’re true to ourselves and so we’re not pretending anything, that’s the key thing. It’s not like someone’s going to discover something about us that we’re trying to hide.”

Since their early days, Coldplay have been frequently compared to U2, and more and more – in their longevity; their staggering success (80 million records and counting: surely, as someone once said of Elvis, all those fans can’t be wrong); their unflagging belief in the ability of music to solve the world’s ills and their frequent forays into activism, it appears true.

I ask Martin and Buckland about the mood in post-Brexit Britain. (The band had vocally endorsed a vote to remain within the European Union.) “It’s very hard to not sound like a knob when you say that really, borders and all that stuff shouldn’t need to exist, should they, in an ideal world,” Martin says. “If you’re an alien and you landed on earth and you come from somewhere else in the galaxy and you saw the fractiousness of everything, I think you’d be surprised.”

Come again?

“We imagine when we land on another planet that all the aliens there get along just great, do you see what I mean?” he expands, Buckland hooting with mirth beside him. “No one ever thinks about, like, the election on planet Cybertron, you know what I mean – ‘Oh, these guys hate those people and these people want to leave that bit…’ So I personally am all for…”

He doesn’t finish that bit, but rolls on. “And we in our job get to go around the world, seeing how people respond the same way to certain music. I don’t know. My personal feeling is that this is the storm before the calm.”

You really are an incurable optimist, aren’t you?

“Yeah, I really am. Otherwise I’d just go and jump off a bridge. But even then I’d have a parachute and make it great fun!”

And with the interview done – thinking, perhaps, I’m in need of some love – he plucks the badge off his shirt, and presses it into my palm.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December 2016