“You can’t tell me that girl is only 16! She sounds incredible.”
How many times have you heard that line this month? It’s the typical reaction of the uninitiated upon hearing the smoky, attention-demanding and wholly captivating voice of one Ella Yelich- O’Connor, now known throughout the dizzying realms of western global pop culture as Lorde.
The Lorde story begins in New Zealand, on Auckland’s North Shore. Born in 1996, Yelich-O’Connor was spotted by a Universal Music talent scout – an A&R (artist and repertoire) staffer named Scott McLachlan – while singing in a school talent show at the age of 12. Swiftly signing her to a development deal, Yelich-O’Connor avoided the ‘X-Factor model’, instead being allowed to develop in very much her own way.
Ok, we know you just smiled cynically. Think we’re recycling tired record industry clichés? One glance at Lorde’s lyrics for Royals reflects a distinct lack of ‘svengali’. “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh/I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies/and I’m not proud of my address/in the torn up town, no postcode envy.” This, dear reader, is not the expression of someone who’s been ‘leant on’ to create a pop hit and then leave us alone again. And the world is noticing. Royals spent six weeks at the top of Billboard’s Alternative Chart, breaking a record held by Alanis Morrisette for You Oughta Know – a song released a year before Lorde was even born.
The upcoming album Pure Heroine – containing the already ubiquitous Tennis Courts and her new single Team – promises more of the formula-breaking sound that charted the success of her Love Club EP; slow and dirty beats, with nothing as gauche as auto-tune or giddily rapturous choruses.
“I’ve always had a firm idea of what I liked sonically,” Lorde candidly informs STACK via email from Paris, “and while we were making pop music, we both listen to a lot of electronic, a lot of hip hop. So … more diverse production influences came out on the EP. We didn’t think we were doing anything particularly groundbreaking – just making music we liked.”
‘We’ refers to Lorde and co-writer/producer Joel Little, a creative relationship that came about after his success with Kids of 88. After breaking the ice with shared YouTube sessions, during which Lorde discovered Little had “sweet, funny video taste”, they got around to creating some music together; Little creating beats, Lorde the lyrics, and melody composition a shared creative role.
“It just worked,” Lorde says. “In a studio situation, Joel is the one at the computer; I don’t really have much technical knowledge. We like to map out a song and tackle it section by section, but every song is different and some of them take us forever to crack!”
Indeed, instinct – rather than reams of technical ability – is the fuel of the Lorde fire. She can’t read music, but says the singing lessons she took as part of her development deal at age 14 were invaluable. “I didn’t realise before I took lessons that your singing voice is made up of a bunch of sounds you’ve heard and chosen to unconsciously imitate” she says. “Lessons helped me pick and choose what I wanted in my voice.”
While her voice, lyrical world, attitude and general worldliness belie her age, the fact remains that Lorde is yet to finish secondary school. She is an everyday teenager – except she’s rapidly becoming a global star, and one that looks set to stay that way. Is that, in layman’s terms, a bit of a trip? “It’s weird sometimes, I have a good handle on it,” she says. “The good thing about living in New Zealand is no one really cares who I am; I can be exactly the same as always, which is cool.”
No ‘postcode envy’ then. And while she might be spot-on about down-to-earth Antipodean attitudes, the fact remains that the European and American music markets are opening doors, and very quickly. And it’s these cultural portals that create the surreal air of celebrity above and beyond others.
The success of Lorde is indicative of figures like Gotye and Kimbra before her; smart, talented, in command of their art, social media literate and highly charismatic. It seems to be a combination that makes aspiring music stars global celebrities, not just well-known musicians.
So where does Ella end and Lorde begin? “It’s not that black and white,” she says. “Definitely when I perform I’m not Ella – except in between songs when I just clam up and get bad at talking – because I don’t have the security of music behind me. It’s weird. I like to think that Lorde is, for the most part, a pretty real and honest project; an extension of me. You just have to fake it sometimes, to do stuff.”
The first introduction to the Lorde phenomenon for many Australians was her surprise last minute appearance at the Splendour in the Grass festival in July, as an ailing Frank Ocean pulled the plug on his slot at the last minute (after struggling though pre-festival sideshows).
“I got a call from my manager asking if I wanted to play it, and I just said ‘yes’. I didn’t have much planned that weekend. I didn’t know anything about Splendour. And then all the news sites were like, ‘She’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime’, and I started wondering what it was I’d gotten myself into! But it was so amazing. I played on the Sunday evening, just as the sun was going down, and there were so many people and the crowd buzz was so lovely.”
After seducing Australia so soon after conquering New Zealand – something that has often taken other acts several years – the rollercoaster ride is getting faster, more dizzying and no doubt bumpier. But Lorde appears to take it all in her stride.
“I haven’t released any music before and haven’t had anyone else’s career, so this to me is normal. I’m adjusting all the time.”
So has she stopped to take it all in, and try to enjoy it? “I think my ‘stop and breathe’ moment probably happens on planes, just before we’re about to land,” she says. “That’s quite a contemplative time.”
With an Australian tour later this month, and live work lined up for some time, plane windows and contemplation may become part of Lorde’s life for some time. But she’s still focused on the future. When asked where she sees herself in five years, she simply answers: “A buzzcut, a lot of animals, a beautiful city and hopefully, good music.”
In September, Auckland public transport patrons found a little extra diversion added to their daily commute. Lyrics from Lorde’s upcoming album began to appear on the city’s buses; a grassroots marketing idea for which Lorde is only too happy to give her record label the credit.
“I think the label came up with that one, which I think is awesome as it’s a really innovative marketing thing which usually major labels aren’t that great at. I think after years of working with me, trying to test boundaries and do crazy shit, the label in New Zealand have really started to think in a cool way, which is lovely. I’d be flipping out if I saw a musician I liked had their lyrics all over town.”
This article was published courtesy of Stack.