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