This article was originally published on 23rd March, 2013.
An elusive quality at the best of times, a little mystery is more welcome than ever in our over-informed, media-saturated lives. It’s a trick that has certainly worked for 16-year-old star-in-the-making Ella Yelich O’Connor, who is already considerably better known as Lorde.
On the strength of just a five-track EP, The Love Club, released last November, with no lead single, the Takapuna Grammar School student has already secured significant record deals worldwide. Although it’s unlikely the end result would have been much different, the ever-increasing social network and online ripples about the free EP from the then unseen teen no doubt added to the phenomenal initial impact of a debut that arrived fully formed and has subsequently gone on to top the iTunes charts on paid release months later.
Resolutely self-aware and confident, thankfully without the precociousness of talent-show youth, O’Connor displays remarkably little of the nervousness you might expect for an artist conducting her first print interview and effectively beginning the process of unmasking herself. And as for that mysterious introduction, that was her decision.
“It was basically all me, that stuff. I’ve always been frustrated with that misalignment, because with a pop star you know everything about them all the time … Here’s what my legs look like, here’s what my body looks like, this is what my face looks like. Whereas you get someone like Burial – you don’t know what he looks like, but it’s awesome his music can be such a big thing but it’s only the music… and it frustrates me that those two can’t mesh at all. It was more like ‘I don’t really want to do a photo shoot yet’, and then everyone made a big deal of it.”
O’Connor was signed as a 12-year-old to Universal on a development deal, the quality of her voice being what initially captured A&R man Scott Maclachlan. However, tentative early moves pairing her with established songwriters and producers fell flat, until she was encouraged to write for herself.
“I started writing songs when I was 13 or 14 because I’ve always been a huge reader. My mum’s a poet and we’ve always had so many books, and that’s always been a big thing for me, arguably more so than music.”
O’Connor gushes out a list of favourite authors, led by Raymond Carver with the likes of Tobias Wolff and JD Salinger close behind, and the more contemporary Wells Tower and Junot Díaz also rating a mention. The sense of short-story form and observational vignettes is evident in her songwriting, which combines unmistakably teenage confusion, curiosity and confidence with word skills beyond her years. Although appearing very knowing and considered on songs like Royals, with its list of rejected designer brands and celebrity extravagances, she also summons a sense of vulnerability and everyday mundanity that has the potential to click with teens of all ages.
“When I wrote Royals, I was listening to a lot of rap, but also a lot of Lana Del Rey, because she’s obviously really hip-hop influenced, but all those references to expensive alcohol, beautiful clothes and beautiful cars – I was thinking, ‘This is so opulent, but it’s also bullshit.’”
I’m curious to know O’Connor’s thoughts on Del Rey, one of the most polarising pop stars of recent times, an artist she will almost inevitably be compared to, on some level.
“I pretty much get compared to every sort of pop girl; I want to get some guys,” she laments. “With her, it’s really manufactured. I never really believe anything she’s talking about, but at the same time I think there’s really a writer there, and I think she could have something really cool, if she stopped and looked at herself. Everything is about a boy … I think we’re past that – it’s 2013. Every song doesn’t have to be ‘I’m absolutely nothing without you, I’m holding onto your leg, don’t let me go!’ It’s tired. Her real story is more interesting than her fantasy.”
For O’Connor, the real story means managing a punishing timetable of two weeks on/two weeks off at school, and homework at weekends, while studying for an International Baccalaureate. However, with the backing she has already, the fantasy lifestyle may not be too far off. She has been signed in the US and UK by serious industry heavyweights whose résumés include the likes of Amy Winehouse, Mumford & Sons, Paramore and Jessie J, as well as the highly prestigious live Windish Agency, before even playing a gig. The cogs are turning furiously.
Along with co-writer and producer Joel Little, formerly of minor pop-punk act Goodnight Nurse, O’Connor has fallen into a working relationship that seems to suit her. Although the beats they create together may not yet quite match the individuality of her vocals and lyrics – coming across as slightly lightweight, popped-up takes on an amalgamation of her favourite artists such as James Blake, Burial and Animal Collective – it’s a highly promising start, and there’s genuine development in forthcoming material.
With her career moving at a pace even a 16-year-old may have difficulty with, there should be no shortage of subject matter.
“I’m not thinking when I’m writing, but with my lyrics everything is personal. Everything has happened to me and all those things help to build up this kind of fabric that people can hopefully relate to.
“You’ve got to be honest for it to lock with me, it’s got to have real things – a night I’ve had or an experience you look back on and go, ‘I’m glad I put this somewhere.’”
If the cards continue to fall as they already have, that somewhere might end up pretty much everywhere.
THE LOVE CLUB, Lorde (Universal).