This article was originally published on December 12, 2013.
You can call her Queen Bee. For the purposes of this story, I fret about how to refer to the fierce chart-storming force of nature named one of Time magazine’s most influential teens of 2013. “Yelich-O’Connor” seems too slow for a girl on fast-forward, “Lorde” too pop for someone with whom I’ll discuss short-story writing and rape. She’s a feminist, so we could go for Yelich (her mother is poet Sonja Yelich). Go, the matriarchy.
“Ella” certainly sounds overly familiar for one who performed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) last month, holding her own in the hipness stakes with, for goodness’ sake, Tilda Swinton and David Bowie. “Oh my God,” breathes Yelich-O’Connor. “That was just one of those moments in your life which was like, ‘What am I doing here? How am I on this path?’ It was so incredible I was jealous of myself.”
A nice line. And a characteristically dexterous way of expressing her life right now, toggling furiously between Ella-from-the-block (well, the North Shore) and the global pop construct that is Lorde. It’s a situation that might induce the odd out-of-body experience. “Totally.”
She won’t say more about MoMA. “’Cos I’m like, ‘It’s mine.’ I want to keep that for me, you know?” Endearingly, she actually hugs herself.
Keeping something in reserve – those instincts should serve her well. Though these days even personal moments instantly splash all over the internet, the medium that launched her into the pop stratosphere. “I like that about social media – you have a level of contact and intimacy with your favourite stars that just wouldn’t have been a possibility 10 years ago,” she says. “You have to obviously manage that because you can overshare and it gets grating.”
But as she sings in arguably her best song, “I was raised up/To be admired, to be noticed.” I’m from her part of town – no postcode envy – and have seen her grow up – winning things – in the Devonport Flagstaff newspaper. She stood out. “Yeah. Physically I look different.” Yes: her strong, elliptical beauty. And her self-possession. “I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not.” I just mean she’s very … certain. “It’s weird, because I’m not really a confident person, day to day. I find little interactions really difficult. Like going over to a neighbour’s house.” Getting up in front of 15,000 people, not so much. “Yeah, see that’s okay. You can’t see people’s faces.” As she sings in Tennis Court, “We’re so happy even when we’re smiling out of fear.”
On her Tumblr she wrote about Lorde’s MoMA moment: New York, her 17th birthday, riding that out-of-body experience. A girl beside herself. “I wouldn’t have traded last night for anything. I felt so warm in the arms of these legends who are good enough to have faith in me, weird little screwball that I am.”
IT’S POP, BUT NOT AS SHE KNEW IT
“I didn’t really realise it was pop music,” she muses, of the songs she launched a year ago. She was picturing a different kind of buzz. The image she chose to accompany her Love Club EP was a drawing of a spooky garlanded girl, a snake around her neck, cuddling a rat. More Game of Thrones than Wrecking Ball. “I just thought, ‘I’ll be the mysterious one.’”
Now look what’s happened. Rolling Stone is calling. Everyone is calling – Jools Holland, Ellen, Letterman – plus tweets from Perez Hilton, Miley Cyrus, Caitlin Moran, Lena Dunham … if Stephen Hawking hasn’t been in touch it can only be a matter of time.
Rolling Stone is the immediate problem. The record company minder pops her head in the door of the spartan room at Universal to remind her. “So, when’s the interview?” Ten minutes. “Oh. Wow.”
It’s almost a relief to see a flicker of panic in her eyes. She’s lovely, sharp as a tack, preternaturally composed. “Do your homework, Kim,” she joked when she was still 16. To Kim Hill. John Pilger tried that once. It didn’t end well. Hill seemed utterly charmed.
I find out later why she seemed spooked by Rolling Stone. It was one of those “What’s your favourite movie?” interviews. She wanted to do her research.
Lorde: she’s talked of choosing a name that’s a bit masculine, a bit aristocratic. It’s a name you might put on like armour. At our meeting she surges into the Universal offices – jeans, T-shirt, scrubbed face – and takes over the introductions. Handshake firm, eye contact steady.
“It definitely hasn’t been about being famous,” she says, of her vertiginous rise. “I know a lot of people crave that but it seems interesting to me that one would do so. Because I would call that a side effect of making the music that you love, rather than the end goal.”
Well, she’s been marching towards something since she was 12 and a recording of her singing Duffy’s Warwick Avenue at Belmont Intermediate School found its way to Universal’s Scott MacLachlan. “I can tell you,” she sings in Bravado, “that when the lights come on I’ll be ready for this.”
Did she always feel destined for – something? “Before I wanted to do this, I was really interested in writing short fiction. You don’t really hear about the stars of short fiction so much. It’s faceless, whereas I couldn’t be doing anything more public than the thing I am doing.”
She is a short-story writer; it’s just that her words won’t stay pinned to the page. “This sounds so pleb, but words and music together, when everything locks and everything is perfect and that particular melody makes that particular sentence just fly – that, for me, is everything.” And Lorde is a sort of fiction. “When I’m on stage I’m definitely in a different zone. I kind of slip into that persona. I’m putting on a show.”
POISED LIKE A PRO
Whatever the original end goal, she and co-writer Joel Little have constructed some exceptional tunes. Stats at time of writing: over 7.5 million singles sold worldwide. Nine weeks at No 1 for Royals on Billboard. The album called, with gentle provocation, Pure Heroine entered the charts at No 3.
Last month she signed a song-publishing deal reportedly worth $3 million. According to rough calculations by Time magazine, she has earned between $470,000 and $660,000 in royalties from music-streaming service Spotify alone.
Watch her at the music awards. Her three speeches were poised and paced like a pro. Like a warrior princess, triumphant but already bloodied, she acknowledged friend and mortal foe. “Everyone who has bought a song, or illegally downloaded a song, or posted a lovely review or posted a nasty review, you’ve all helped me get to where I am.”
Her on-stage body language suggests a mystical seizure: St Teresa in ecstasy. It fits with the name and austere stage clobber, counterpoints the chilled electronica-inflected sound.
People don’t always know what to make of her. Take the New Yorker. Yelich-O’Connor falls upon a copy I’ve brought along. “Oh, wow.” She hasn’t seen it in the flesh. In it is an article that seems to assume she inhabits some Antipodean version of Detroit. The story talks of “familiarity with privation” and “the difficulties of lower-middle-class life”.
The writer has clearly not visited Devonport. “Yeah, I think that was kind of a misconception. I’ve said from the beginning I’m not poor. I’m extremely lucky. I haven’t had times in my life when I’ve been hungry or anything like that. But I don’t have a Rolex and I don’t have a credit card to use with abandon.”
That sort of cultural misunderstanding has provoked some minor international incidents. Royals racist? Apparently. Its chorus – “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece” – references hip-hop bling culture. It was actually about the irrelevance here of that top shelf of American celebrity culture, she says. “The kind of lifestyle I was talking about was one that no one in Auckland knows, I don’t know if anyone in New Zealand knows.”
Backlash happens closer to home. There was music blogger Simon Sweetman’s odd review of the Love Club EP, full of rage and bizarre references to the fires of Hell and solitary sexual practices with Farmers catalogues. “This is a scam,” he railed. “We’re all being played.”
Would anything like that be written about, say, a talented young rugby player who hasn’t put a foot wrong? “Everyone has their opinion and it’s not something I even want to get involved in,” she says briskly. Does she read these things? “Not really, no. Not when it’s … ridiculous. It would just make me frustrated.”
She’s been attacked for not being real. She’s been attacked for being too real. She has spoken her mind about the unattainability of Taylor Swift, critiqued the lyrics of Selena Gomez’s Come and Get It. “‘When you’re ready come and get it from me.’ I’m sick of women being portrayed this way,” she told Rolling Stone. Gomez called such criticism “not feminist”. “I don’t think what I said was particularly sensational. I thought it was common sense. I felt the media is very good at pitting females against each other and turning things into catfights, which doesn’t really happen with male celebrities.”
Seventeen. People have trouble believing she can possibly wield as much control as legend has it over her global enterprise. “Yeah. People have trouble thinking that teenagers can do anything.” One charmingly youthful thing about her is her laugh – “hee-hee-hee” – deployed a little nervously, sometimes at her own audacity.
She certainly appears to have an iron grip on – awful concept – her brand. She’s fine with the word. “No, it’s so true. Even before I started making music, I knew about making a good name for yourself, about not doing things that you didn’t feel represented you or, as I later discovered, what your brand means.”
She started as a child. Perhaps she was allowed to have her head. “Right, so they had to kid-glove me a little bit? Yeah. And that definitely worked to my advantage. If I had just started working with a label now, I wouldn’t know how to assert myself.”
She’s used to calling the shots. “I can say, ‘This is exactly how it needs to go.’ What you don’t realise, working with a big label or working with a publisher, is they don’t always know what’s right.” Pause for nervous laugh at her own audacity. “They don’t always have the recipe for complete success.”
Well, if it was easy, everyone would be Lorde. “That’s the thing. So many people are like, ‘Oh, she’s with a major label. It can’t be her. And it’s like, well, where are the rest?”
ONE OF A NEW BREED
Hang out with her at a photo shoot and doubts about who is running this show blow away in the Devonport breeze. We follow the Lorde to her chosen land, on North Head, heaven and earth spread out behind her. In flouncy Southern belle gown, trainers, mismatched socks, she radiates a mutinous glamour. Bette Davis in Jezebel updated. Davis’s characters took flak for their ferocity.
The photographer wants to get some beach in. “I know you don’t like the beach,” he says. “I do like the beach,” she explains. What she doesn’t want is “girl on beach”.
Such certainty. People have used phrases like “voice of her generation”. Or at least, as Hannah Horvath says in Girls, “A voice. Of a generation.” Royals: “My friends and I have cracked the code.”
There does seem to be a new breed of women – Eleanor Catton, Lydia Ko, Lena Dunham, Yelich-O’Connor – making their marks early and decisively. Some sort of generational shift is going on, judging by the feathers the more vocal have ruffled.
There was the racist Royals fracas. Lena Dunham was criticised for not having characters of colour in Girls. Twenty-eight-year-old British singer Lily Allen was attacked for having women of colour in her quite feminist video. Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton spoke about what she saw as “bullying” reviews by some male reviewers of a certain age. If they were going to mention her age and gender, well, touché.
Yelich-O’Connor met Catton in New York. “She’s lovely … She’s had kind of similar experiences to me but obviously in a very different world. She gave me an Anne Carson book for my birthday.” If they talked critics, she’s not saying.
We get onto the revelations that emerged while she was away about boys preying on underage girls and bragging about it on Facebook. “Just so disgusting. It made my blood boil from New York.” It infuriates her that responsibility for stopping rape falls on women. “A big thing at the moment has been we have to tell young women to control their drinking … I saw this thing on my Tumblr the other day – an advertisement for rape-proof clothing that you couldn’t tear and you couldn’t stab. I was very angry. Boiling blood.” It’s all on the “lock up your daughters” continuum. “Totally. I just better not go out because I might get raped.”
She’s been hanging out with American Tavi Gevinson, another precocious talent who had a fashion blog at 12 and founded the online journal Rookie Magazine at 15. “She was one of the champions of teaching young girls about feminism, letting them know that it wasn’t this scary thing and it wasn’t something to laugh at. It’s equality,” she says. “I definitely feel that in the last five years there’s been a shift. So yeah, I think it’s a good time.”
Well, it’s her time. In the immediate future: festivals, small tours. “I’m playing Laneway, which will be really fun.” Doesn’t that conflict with the Grammys? “Well, we don’t know yet. I’d rather play Laneway, but …” Really? “Yeah, of course!” But she’s caught up in a show-business whirlwind. Even for one so certain, things don’t always go to plan. She has since played at the Grammy nomination show, where Entertainment Weekly said of her performance, “She’s got a very particular stage presence – nervous, unpredictable, vaguely possessed – that shouldn’t work but absolutely does.” The Grammys have made her an offer she can’t refuse: nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance for Royals and Best Pop Vocal Album for Pure Heroine. She’ll miss Laneway but will do a make-up concert three days later.
There’s also talk of writing songs for others with music royalty such as Dr Luke and Diplo, which might challenge her sense of feminist self-determination. As she says, “I am a bit of an international kid now. It’s crazy. I can go to different cities and feel the community of musicians and of fans and all that sort of stuff.”
So much, so young. “I worry about you!” wailed Kim Hill. You can’t help but recall Hunter S Thompson: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.”
There’s the pressure – that difficult second album. “Oh, that pressure,” she scoffs. “I don’t feel it. In fact, I feel like whatever I make next is going to be so much better than what I’ve made.” She’s learnt so much. “I find myself writing in ways I didn’t even know I was capable of.” Still, she tosses an offering to the gods of success. “It’s all well and good for me to say that now, when the second album’s not out.” But she’ll leave the fretting to others. “I’ll be all right,” she reassures me.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY
There is a lurking anxiety in the lyrics. “How can I f— with the fun again when I’m known,” she wonders in Tennis Court.
“I honestly think, doing this thing, it is what you make of it,” she says now. “Obviously I’m not a superstar so I don’t really know the full brunt of it. I caught the ferry yesterday. I catch the subway in New York. I walk around.” She can always come home to her mum, father – engineer Vic O’Connor – older sister Gerri, younger sister India and the youngest, Angelo. At the New Zealand Music Awards she thanked them “for staying the same in a world for me which is always changing”.
I watched a little video she made about her neighbourhood. Kids can still grow up a little wild there. “Definitely,” she says, nostalgic already. “Jumping off the roof of the ferry building.” These days she has fans to deal with. “But I’d much rather do that than be shuttered away. I think that would not do anything good for your creativity or your mental state in general.”
It’s a jungle out there. “Downside is all these Miley fans telling me they’re gonna stab my rotting corpse,” she tweeted. Her lyrics, with their triumphs, their blazing ambition, their undertow of terror – is this what she had in mind when she wrote them? “Not on this scale. But I was conscious of having to be up in front of people, literally and figuratively, and I’m a shy person.”
Writing songs is her way of whistling in the dark. “Everything has been pretty mental at the moment. A really good way of processing it for me is to write about it,” she says. “Bravado is me giving myself a bit of a pep talk.” It was inspired by a Kanye West song. “‘I found bravery in my bravado.’ It was like he was saying, ‘From this false confidence, this persona that I project, I found something that I can call bravery.’”
That must help with the nasty bloggers. “I’m young and I’m a girl. Those things will always set me back in some ways.” Doing it well is the best revenge. “The only way of disputing people like that is to keep making art, making things that you think are good. To keep killing it, really.”
She probably doesn’t need us to fret about her. “If you see me, and I’m whispering to myself all crazy, don’t worry,” she wrote in her New York post.”It’s just a happy mantra of thanks for the way things are.”