“Shut up,” hisses a patron to the bartenders talking at the back of the Metro. This is no time for idle chatter. Aldous Harding is close-picking her way through The World Is Looking For You, one of only two selections from her breakthrough album from 2017, Party – five minutes of spidery folk that Harding performs alone, seated, with just an acoustic guitar.
In a mid-sized venue, most artists would get away with something like this towards the end of their set. Not the beginning. But Harding’s set is more like a high-wire act. She walks slowly onstage, without fanfare, seats herself, and just waits, as though psyching her audience out. The entire room is full and still. Not a soul lingers at the bar. Not a phone is raised.
When it’s over, there’s an exhalation, then an ovation. Harding rises as her four-piece band arrives. She’s wearing a loose-fitting, burnt-orange trouser suit and black porkpie hat. Another close-picked triad of notes opens Designer, the title track of her brilliant third album, before the song opens up to reveal a surprising palette of instrumental colour, including a flugelhorn.
And then she breaks the spell. She walks off stage to speak to the sound engineer, then back. “Hi,” she says. “So, having a bit of a ’mare up here … How’s that? It doesn’t sound like anything to me.” Suddenly, the audience is unsettled. Harding’s New Zealand brogue is reassurance, at least, that she hasn’t dropped in from some distant planet.
But it’s the sheer otherness of Harding that captivates the audience, which spans sexualities, colour and at least three generations. There is something about what she is doing that is not just fresh but new. Nothing about her songs is obvious – trying to unpack the metaphors in her lyrics is like wrestling with a Rubik’s cube – yet the language seems oddly universal.
Still, she’s wobbling, up there on the wire. “I apologise, I like to provide a drama-free service,” she says. Zoo Eyes hangs in the air with its impenetrable central question: “What am I doing in Dubai?” But Harding composes herself, then floors everyone with Treasure, a song that sucks all the air from the room.
She thanks everyone for “standing by while I’m trying to claw my way back to some kind of normality”, and the band sidles into The Barrel, Designer’s lead single. It’s as strange a song as has ever been written but its groove is full of latent energy, its melody insinuating and insistent. The crowd is moving now, and the song’s brief spike of electric guitar brings cheers.
Harding apologises afterwards, and says she’s not feeling herself. By this, I take her to mean that her issues with the onstage sound, whatever they are, are making her self-conscious, and therefore unable to fully inhabit the songs as she’d wish. But, as she gurns and grimaces and rolls her eyes, she is still riveting.
Harding has at times reminded us that her theatricality – including the multitude of voices in which she delivers her songs – is a persona, a show. Those voices, whether on the husky, Nico-like drone of Damn or her falsetto on Gerry Rafferty’s Right Down The Line, are rich in nuance and controlled to perfection.
But as alien as she appears (at times, in both her androgyny and otherworldliness, she’s reminiscent of Hunky Dory-era Bowie), watching Harding perform is to be touched by something that’s deeply human. What’s moving is her vulnerability, her willingness to take risks and to fail. Her bravery is underlined by her ending the night with a new song, Old Peel.
Blend is the only other song from Party, and Harding dances, her movements as lithe and elegant and perfectly timed as the music. Her band stands and takes in yet another ovation before Harding returns, solo again, to play Heaven Is Empty. It’s a death rattle of a song, Harding’s voice suspended in mid-air over a couple of wide-spaced chords.
And outside the room, at the empty bar, a staff member can be heard firing up a vacuum cleaner.
I was driving alongside the Brisbane River not far from home, with a Ramones anthology playing at full volume, when it hit me. I was trying to piece myself back together after a difficult couple of years. My mother had been transferred into care with advanced Alzheimer’s disease and my marriage had broken up. Something To Believe In was the song that did it – an almost-forgotten single from the Ramones’ troubled mid-’80s era. It was about losing your grip on yourself, on life, then rediscovering your sense of purpose. I knew I wasn’t going to be the same person but, then again, I didn’t want to be.
It was March 2018. I’d written a few pieces that began to sketch out a story of a life on the margins of music but from the perspective of a fan, a wannabe, rather than a player. Over the next two months, a music memoir poured out: the first 30,000 words in three weeks. It was finished by Mother’s Day. Something To Believe In was the obvious title, music being that something that had kept me sane, kept me going and, at times, kept me alive.
What follows is a playlist of 10 songs – most sublime, at least one ridiculous – that signposted that journey.
1. The Ramones – Something To Believe In (1986)
For whatever reason, the title track of Something To Believe In isn’t on Spotify, so you’ll have to go to YouTube for it. It’s a Dee Dee Ramone song; he wrote most of the band’s really dark stuff. This is one of his saddest but it’s also uplifting. Joey’s vocal will put a lump in your throat. In the first half, he wishes he was someone else. After Johnny’s solo – one of very few solos by the guitarist – there’s a bridge where he grabs life by the throat: he decides he’s going to accept himself instead.
2. The Velvet Underground – Rock & Roll (1970)
In the liner notes for the Velvets’ Live 1969 album, singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy wrote: “The difference between the movies and rock & roll is that rock & roll doesn’t lie. It never promises a happy ending.” I used those words as an epigraph. Murphy wrote them when rock was still young, the Velvets were still a cult, and he predicted that in 100 years kids would be writing school reports about the band as “classical rock & roll”. It’s a pretty far-sighted piece of early rock criticism. For anyone whose life was saved by rock & roll (or pop, or hip-hop, or whatever your thing is), this book doesn’t promise a happy ending, but hopefully it offers a shot at redemption.
3. Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power (original mix, 1973)
To me, this is the greatest song about the power and the glory of rock’n’roll ever written. The chorus – “Don’t you try, don’t you try to tell me what to do” – is what it’s all about. So is this lyric: “Raw power’s got a healing hand / Raw power can destroy a man.” Who knows how Iggy is one of the last true originals left standing but you only have to count the bodies to know he’s right, and his next stop after recording this album was a psych ward. It’s a classic now but, at the time, Raw Power was so far ahead of the curve no one even knew there was one up ahead. David Bowie’s mix buried the rhythm section but it’s still punk as almighty fuck.
4. Do Re Mi – Man Overboard (1985)
This came out when I was 14 years old. At that time I knew nothing about women, let alone feminism, and I didn’t really understand this song but connected with it anyway. I was a tiny kid and got bullied a fair bit in the playground, and I think I just related to Deborah Conway’s rage and hurt more than anything. It’s a post-punk song and a lot of punk spoke to people who had been marginalised in some way. These days I identify more with the object of Conway’s disdain in ways I’d rather not – I know I’m addicted to attention and, as a music writer, I’ve been wallowing in a swamp of trivia for most of my adult life.
5. Patti Smith – Free Money (1975)
Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith group and compiler of the great ’60s anthology Nuggets, once said garage music reminded people of why they wanted to rock & roll in the first place, which was pure desire. And we always want what we can’t have. Another key concept of rock & roll is transcendence, the conceit that it can take us outside ourselves and so set us free. Smith embodied both in this song about escaping the prison of poverty. What really gets it over is the intensity of her performance. She sounds as though she’s clawing out of your speakers. It starts slow, with just Smith and Richard Sohl on piano, then the band shifts through the gears until they’re at maximum horsepower.
6. Kate Bush – The Big Sky (1985)
This is similar to Free Money in that what makes it leap out is Bush’s wild performance. Hounds Of Love, the album that it’s from, is really special to me; it seems to keep reappearing at key times. This song is about moving on – the idea is that we’re all just specks in the cosmos. It’s all big tribal drumming and stacked vocals, arranged for maximum impact. It gets louder the longer it goes as more elements are added to the mix but at the centre of it is Bush’s voice. From about the three-minute mark she completely loses it – she sounds as though she’s talking in tongues, then from 3.45 she unleashes a series of heart-stopping shrieks. She was possessed.
7. Liz Phair – Johnny Sunshine (1993)
A lot of these songs are about the self-mythologising of rock & roll, something the Rolling Stones were pretty adept at. Liz Phair was in love with that ideal too – and the Stones – but understandably she had a problem with a lot of the lyrics. So she decided to write a song-by-song feminist response to the Stones’ Exile On Main St. That was her first album, Exile In Guyville, and it upended all those old cliches. I write about Divorce Song in the book (because, well, divorce) but Johnny Sunshine is closer to the theme I’m getting at here. It’s Phair’s response to All Down The Line, where the protagonist takes off with a “sanctified girl”. In Johnny Sunshine, Phair replies from the perspective of the woman he’s left behind. Living in an adolescent fantasy world usually means that someone, somewhere is getting hurt.
8. Jen Cloher – Hold My Hand (2013)
My mother is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease; she has been bedridden and unable to communicate for more than 18 months now. But the years before that were harder for her emotionally, and for her family and friends, as her illness stripped her identity from her, piece by incremental piece. She got it young, too, when she was in her mid-50s (she’s 71 now). When Jen’s song appeared, it reduced me to ash. Her mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s too and the song describes a circular conversation between her parents: her dad explains to her mum how they met but she forgets instantly, so she asks him again. I had lots of conversations with my mum like that. The message of the song is that “love is more than a reward or balm we use to soothe”. It’s an ongoing test of patience and loyalty.
9. Neil Finn – Chameleon Days (2017)
In early September 2017 I was in Auckland for a music conference when I should have been in hospital. I was in a hotel room and had enough tablets on hand, plus booze, to kill a horse. I was in a really serious, unstable condition. But I had one thing left to do: I had to review Neil Finn’s album. It sounds absurd but it was important to me to finish this one task. I listened to Chameleon Days about a dozen times in a row and it stayed my hand. It’s a very gentle song about fate, change and radical acceptance. The next day I was up at Roundhead Studios where Neil had livestreamed cutting the song.
10. Kiss – God Gave Rock & Roll To You II (1991)
It’s worth finishing with something big and dumb and silly, and they don’t get bigger, dumber or sillier than Kiss. Originally this song was a hit for Argent in 1973. Kiss covered it in 1991, long after the face paint had come off. I love it, partly because it’s so ridiculous, but also because it posits rock & roll as a primal life force in and of itself. Paul Stanley’s rave at the end is hilarious: “I know life sometimes can get tough! And I know life sometimes can be a drag. But people! We have been given a gift. We have been given a road. And that road’s name is … rock & roll!” He was a true believer.
“Hey! Turn the lights on, I want to see everybody,” shouts Iggy Pop. And he grins that huge, irrepressible grin. Here he is, on the lip of the Concert Hall stage of a sold-out Sydney Opera House, with thousands of ecstatic fans cheering back at him. And he can’t get enough: he extends his hands, accepting everyone’s love and joy, touching that famously bare, Florida-tanned and now ever so slightly pot-bellied torso, as if to smear it upon himself.
“You’ve made me very happy,” he says, in all sincerity. But he’s no happier than anyone else in the room, after 21 of the greatest songs of all time that were never hits. Well, Lust For Life almost was, after its immortal tom-tom rhythm jump-started the film of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting. But that was in 1996, 19 years after its original release. Nothing else, other than Candy (not played this evening) ever came close.
I’ve started this review at the end of the show for the sake of some context. How could Lust For Life not have been a major hit in 1977, the year punk broke? The answer is that the death of Elvis Presley meant that Iggy’s label at the time, RCA, poured its resources into reissuing the King’s catalogue at the expense of promoting what should have been the biggest success of the World’s Forgotten Boy’s career, just when he thought his Chinese rug was at hand.
At the Opera House, Iggy pulls out this eternal opener or showstopper (it’s not really an in-between sort of song) fourth in the set, right after The Passenger. Most of the remainder is drawn from the deep well drilled by the Stooges, whose three pre-punk albums between 1969 and 1973 sold bugger all, except to those who had their minds so blown that they formed their own bands, who duly passed the torch to the next generation, et cetera. And so, here we are.
There are so many layers of improbability about this – Iggy Pop at the Opera House – that it almost defies belief. The first, of course, is that Iggy is still alive, having outlived not only his closest peers and mentors, David Bowie and Lou Reed, but all but one core member of the two original Stooges line-ups (James Williamson). Not to mention countless less fortunate musicians who shuffled off this mortal coil after sustaining seemingly far less damage.
This Sunday, the man born James Osterberg celebrates his 72nd birthday. He looks as healthy as a horse, an obvious limp from a bad hip notwithstanding, meaning that supple physique of his can’t move quite like it used to. Iggy’s voice, however, is in unbelievably good shape, whether he’s deploying his rich baritone on the sleazy dancefloor crawl of Nightclubbing or summoning the terminally bored teenage whine of No Fun.
That song sees Iggy invite dozens of fans on stage with him, in scenes reminiscent of a similar crowd invasion at a Royal Headache gig in 2015. This time, though, no cops are called to break up the party. And here, some scepticism is understandable. Has the man who wrote Gimme Danger lost his edge, now his songs have reached a level of mass acceptance that allows him to perform at a venue such as this?
One promotional poster for this gig features a famous image of the youthful Iggy Stooge photoshopped standing atop the sails of the Opera House. The Opera House is intimate enough that, had he chosen, Iggy could have stepped straight off the stage and had the crowd hold him aloft by his ankles, in a recreation of the iconic scene from the Cincinatti pop festival in 1970 (before he started smearing himself with peanut butter).
Really, as he sings on a cover of Bowie’s Jean Genie, he just “loves to be loved”. So much so that it’s easy to forget how deeply shunned Iggy Pop once was, decades before he became an object of adulation. Now, he can open with I Wanna Be Your Dog and close the set with Real Cool Time – two songs that defined the fine line between stupid and clever long before Spinal Tap – and, well, it’s like hypnotising chickens.
For the encore, Real Wild Child is a clear nod to his Australian audience (both for its debt to Johnny O’Keefe, and the Generation Xers who have grown up with it as the theme from Rage), followed by a much bigger surprise, as Iggy’s band bulldozes their way through Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand. Everyone is beaming, none more so than the superhuman on stage. It’s totally life affirming. Call it hip-replacement rock if you want: he’s Iggy Pop, and you’re not.
“If music be the food of love, play on!”I remember the first time I heard those words. It wasn’t in high school or university, but in a song from 1987 called Eat The Rich, a song written by the British heavy metal band Motörhead specifically for the film of the same name.
The song was full of double entendres and cheap innuendo. “They say music is the food of love / Let’s see if you’re hungry enough!” were the opening lines, gargled by the late Lemmy Kilmister, whose lyrics deftly trod Spinal Tap’s famous fine line between clever and stupid.
I’m not sure how I have managed to almost entirely avoid Shakespeare, despite a life devoted to words and music. The sum total of my experience was a reading (not a performance) of Hamlet, in year 11. It is, frankly, an embarrassing gap for a writer.
When Queensland Theatre invited me to respond to their production of Twelfth Night, I was intimidated, and my instinctive response was ‘no’. Then I realised I was being offered a challenge and a belated opportunity to engage with something beautiful.
The other selling point was musical: Tim Finn, whose early work as a member of Split Enz had been forever imprinted on my brain, would supply the food of love for the play, composing music for Shakespeare’s old verses as well as a suite of original new songs.
These songs draw mainly on two musical forms: English folk and, in the play’s second half, stomping glam rock – particularly its most androgynous purveyors, David Bowie and Roxy Music, both clear influences on the work of Split Enz.
That androgynous element is important, for Twelfth Night is especially resonant today. It’s a romantic farce, full of suggestion and double entendre, and its comedy rests on multiple mistaken identities and cross-dressing, as well as delicious wordplay.
Beneath the laughter lies deep melancholy. The shipwreck that separates twins Viola and Sebastian, and the loss of Olivia’s father and brother, creates a sense of mourning: Viola (as Cesario) warns Orsino that Olivia is “so abandoned to her sorrow” that she fears she will not be admitted into her court. Orsino is insistent, telling Cesario to “be clamorous and leap all civil bounds, rather than make unprofited return.”
In one of Tim’s songs written to complement the original text, he compares their love to an abandoned building: “No one lives there anymore”. Yet Orsino, Viola and Olivia are all stricken with unrequited longing for those whose hearts are set on others. In Viola’s words, they love “with adoration, fertile tears, with groans that thunder.”
The heart wants what it wants, and “love is love” are words we have heard many times in these last 12 months. As we have grappled with the concept that gender and sexuality might not be fixed identities, but exist somewhere on a spectrum, so Twelfth Night was ripe for reinterpretation.
On this theme, Tim makes one of his finest contributions, Keeping Up – a song sung by Feste, Olivia’s resident court jester, after he may, or may not have identified the male Cesario as the female Viola:
Once upon a time it was clear
Who I was and how I got here
Now I’m not so sure anymore
The new normal
Seems a bit queer
The song acknowledges the temporary social seasickness caused by rapidly changing social mores. I found myself wondering if some of our most conservative commentators have ever asked themselves Feste’s question: “Am I confused, or simply annoyed?”
Feste himself is not quite the fool he appears: he understands that ch-ch-changes could end up leaving men like him behind. Mostly, though, he is too busy enjoying himself to be annoyed by anything – unlike Malvolio, Olivia’s insufferably pompous steward.
Here lies this production’s most provocative twist: Malvolio is re-cast as Malvolia. Her pursuit of Olivia gives Twelfth Night another layer, not just of same-sex attraction but also tension and, ultimately, betrayal: “she hath been notoriously abused,” Olivia says.
Her star turn, singing Lady Ho Ho, is the play’s most outrageous moment. Quivering with pent-up desire in her yellow cross-gartered stockings, her over-the-top attempt to seduce Olivia is doomed by Olivia’s disinterest as well as by Maria’s cruel device.
Tracy Grant Lord’s set design depicts the fictitious land of Illyria as an island under a celestial night sky, revolving through different exterior and interior landscapes that are like chambers in the hearts of the island’s occupants.
Australia is an island, too: “Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we’ve boundless plains to share” – or so our anthem says. Our debates can be petty and mean-spirited. As a people, though, I don’t believe we are, at least not when given the chance to be our best selves.
Australia’s LGBTIQ community made clear they felt deeply betrayed by last year’s postal survey on marriage equality.
Having long been victims of notorious abuse themselves, they were subjected to a national vote that struck at their core as human beings. They saw it as another cruel device to prevent them from loving who they pleased as equals under the law.
Yet, presented with no alternative, Australians rallied behind them, resulting in marriage equality being signed into law before Christmas of 2017. It was a significant moment in our polity which showed the public to be far ahead of party-political games.
In the process, leaders and heroes emerged on our national stage. Some, you might say, were born great; some achieved greatness; while others duly had greatness thrust upon them.
Twelfth Night is a joyous play. Everyone is searching and longing for love and companionship. Even Malvolia, after vowing vengeance “on the whole pack of you”, is entreated to a peace. And music, being the food of love, ultimately binds them all together.
Between his work as a guitarist and songwriter with the Easybeats and as a producer (along with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda) for AC/DC, there is a very strong case to be made that George Young was the original sonic architect of Australian rock & roll. Other than Vanda – and with no disrespect to anyone who came before them, or followed after – the legacy of Young, who died yesterday aged 70, arguably outstrips anyone’s.
Those are big claims to make, so let’s start at the beginning. Young was born in Glasgow in 1946, migrated with his parents and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus to Sydney in 1963, and met Vanda at Villawood migrant hostel (now shamefully a detention centre) the following year – an event Australian Musician magazine selected as the most significant event in this country’s rock music history, in 2007.
That’s another big call, but the Easybeats, Australia’s first and finest response to the British Invasion (and the Beatles in particular) all but justify it by themselves. Their second single She’s So Fine, released in May 1965, launched them to local stardom. Their fifth, Sorry – led by a propulsive, serrated Young riff that prefigured younger brother Malcolm’s rhythm work with AC/DC – took them to the top of the Australian charts.
That was in October 1966, by which point the Easybeats had relocated to England. Until then, Young had written music for singer Stevie Wright, who contributed lyrics. It was the year of Revolver and Blonde On Blonde, and there were murmurs that the wild, colonial Easybeats lacked polish by comparison. Young was subsequently teamed with the Dutch-born Vanda, who was still learning English. Their first recording was Friday On My Mind.
The Easybeats’ joyous paean to the end of the working week was a worldwide smash, covered in years to come by everyone from Blue Öyster Cult to Bruce Springsteen, as well as David Bowie, who recorded it for his album Pin Ups. In 2001, the Australian Performing Rights Association voted it the best Australian song of all time; it was added to the National Film and Sound Archives registry in 2007.
If that had been all, Young’s legacy would have been secure. But it was his ongoing work as a songwriter and producer for other artists that turned he and Vanda into giants. As house producers for Albert Productions, they started out by rescuing the doomed Wright’s career with the magnificent three-part opus Evie in late 1974. Around the same time, another Scottish immigrant, Bon Scott, joined AC/DC.
A few stories sum up George Young’s contribution to that band. First, as Clinton Walker has pointed out in his biography of Scott, Highway To Hell, Young insisted that AC/DC should never deviate from straight, hard rock & roll: following trends, he believed, had been the Easybeats’ undoing. He also identified the silence and space in Malcolm Young’s stop-start riffs as crucial to their early sound: “It’s the stops what rocks,” he said.
The most famous story is of smoke billowing from Angus Young’s amplifier as he laid down the climactic solo for Let There Be Rock. From the control booth, George gesticulated and screamed at the guitarist to keep going, with Angus just managing to finish before his Marshall melted. “There was no way we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up!” George said later.
The work Vanda and Young produced for AC/DC – Let There Be Rock, especially – had a tougher edge than the sound Robert “Mutt” Lange gave the band for their international breakthroughs Highway To Hell and Back In Black, recorded after Scott’s death. Vanda and Young were by then also working with the likes of the Angels and Rose Tattoo, who would go on to influence a new generation of hard rockers, notably Guns n’ Roses.
And yet again, there was still more to the story. For as much as Vanda and Young can be credited for birthing the sound of what we now know – sometimes somewhat derisively – as “Oz rock”, they were also writing and cutting huge pop, and even disco hits: Can’t Stop Myself From Loving You, performed by glam rocker William Shakespeare, followed by a string of songs including Love Is In The Air for John Paul Young (no relation).
Vanda and Young even formed their own studio project, Flash & The Pan, whose first single Hey St Peter, released in September 1976, prefigured new wave just as punk was breaking worldwide. The song’s B-side, Walking In The Rain, was covered in 1981 by Grace Jones on her iconic album Nightclubbing. The mesmerising synth-pop of Waiting For A Train, released in 1983, featured Wright on vocals and hit No. 7 in the UK.
The story of Australian rock & roll, from the Easybeats to the Saints to the Hard-Ons and beyond, is of migrant kids. We should all be forever grateful for the day George Young met Harry Vanda at Villawood. And if it sounds like too much of a stretch to say Young defined the sound of Australian rock, listen to that manic, choppy riff from Sorry again – then try to imagine it without him.
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