Of the three young, female pop stars fighting for the top spot in both America’s Billboard Hottest 100 and its iTunes download chart in recent weeks, one stands out.
I’m not any different just because a couple of people have viewed my video on YouTube.
It’s not Katy Perry, the woman who once professed to kissing a girl (and liking it) before toning down such perceived edginess to become a relatively wholesome, child-friendly entertainment princess. Nor is it Miley Cyrus, whose professional behaviour has gone in the opposite direction to Perry’s, climaxing in the erstwhile Hannah Montana’s infamous twerkathon at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Pop Royalty … NZ singer/songwriter/teenager Lorde. Photo: Danielle Smith
No, the most interesting and exciting of the trio is the 16-year-old New Zealander sitting next to Spectrum in the Surry Hills meeting room of her publicist, periodically palming away the long reddish-brown curls that keep falling over her striking face.
Her name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor, although pretty much everyone interested in pop music will know her better as Lorde.
On Royals, the single that’s feistier than Perry’s Roar and more potent than Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball, Yelich-O’Connor sings of a world that the average teenager constantly hears about but is too young to have experienced. ”Every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom,” she coos in her rich-beyond-its-years voice, as delicious, minimal R&B beats snap and pulsate in the background. ”We don’t care,” she continues on behalf of her fellow teenagers. ”We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.”
”When I wrote Royals I was kind of telling my friends that I’d written this song about our lives compared to, y’know, the top 40 and the hip-hop,” she says. ”I think a lot of adults in particular thought that I was saying something quite profound but my friends were like, ‘Yeah, we know. What’s new?”’
A mere 6½ months since the single was released, Yelich-O’Connor has plenty ”new” to tell her friends. She more than amply filled in for R&B giant Frank Ocean when he was a late cancellation at the Splendour in the Grass festival in Byron Bay in July. A couple of weeks later the likes of film-cum-emo A- lister Jared Leto and Kick-Ass star Chloe Grace Moretz turned up to her first Los Angeles show.
Understandably, she’s still getting used to her newfound fame, even in comparatively laidback Sydney.
”It’s such a f—ing weird thing, fame. Like, putting other people on pedestals for any reason, I just find it really weird and so I try and keep it a bit real … like even, y’know, my insistence on taking public transport … I’m not anyone different just because a couple of people have viewed my video on YouTube.”
It’s more than ”a couple”, of course. At the time of writing, the original clip had racked up nearly 14 million hits while the similar American version was approaching the 19 million mark.
The daughter of a poet mother and a civil engineer father, Yelich-O’Connor’s career started in suburban Auckland when she was 12 and a video of her in a school talent show was sent to Scott Maclachlan of Universal Music New Zealand.
”Before then I didn’t write songs or anything,” she says. ”It was definitely a hobby for me because I had no idea what I wanted to do – I was 12 or 13. So I was like, well, why not? I’ll just see if I like it, see if it’s fun.
”I’d always written short fiction, which I guess is similar to songwriting in a way. So I just started kind of writing with a bunch of different people in New Zealand and doing singing lessons and trying to figure out what it was that I wanted to do.
”Then when I was – I think I had just turned 15 – I started writing with my co-writer now, Joel Little, who I wrote the EP [The Love Club] with and the record [her debut album Pure Heroine]. From that point, things started to click and I started to figure out how it was I wanted to sound and who I was as an artist.”
Adopting the name Lorde to fulfil her interest in ”aristocratic titles” – ”I liked the word ‘lord’ and so I just put an ‘e’ on the end to make it feminine” – Yelich-O’Connor and the 13-years-her-senior Little got to work creating the five tracks of The Love Club. Little had previously been best-known in New Zealand for fronting pop-punk band Goodnight Nurse but ”just ‘got’ what I wanted to do”, Yelich-O’Connor says. ”I mean, he has definitely got much better at making beats since he started working with me!”
Even once the EP went gangbusters in their homeland and similar success overseas beckoned she has resisted the urge to bring in other producers for Pure Heroine.
”I mean, I’m really interested in potentially collaborating with a bunch of people but I wanted it to feel like something consistent and cohesive. Some of the greatest albums are born out of one band, one engineer, y’know?
”I think it’s nice keeping it close. Like, I feel like a lot of albums recently have been mangled by, y’know, getting 10 of the hottest creators in … I just wanted to do it in the studio that I’d been working in since I was 15 and with the person who I had been working with all that time. And I’m glad we did because it feels like a really nice place to have started, it feels like a continuation from the EP … It just feels like, OK, this is the foundation – and from here I can build.”
Pure Heroine is a startling affair, and not just because of its main creator’s tender years.
Royals is again included but even beyond that blatant standout the album broods with atmosphere while remaining accessible, thanks to its superlative melodies and beats, not to mention Yelich-O’Connor’s exquisitely sung tales of teenage boredom. Not bad for someone who counts her voice as her only instrument.
”I don’t play anything,” she says. ”Joel plays guitar and a little bit of keys but … We make the beats primarily and then start mucking around with a lot of the stuff.
”I can start with a beat or make up a melody – with my voice as the instrument, we’ll record that into our phones – and then fit a lyric
It hasn’t hurt that Lorde has had the backing of a major record label but perhaps the key to her success is that her distinctive sound already feels fully formed. ”My plan was just to keep working away and releasing EPs until I left school and then think about pursuing it more, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be because, like, that small amount of material that I put out – y’know, people took it and made it into something.”
The mention of school offers another reminder of Yelich-O’Connor’s age but it doesn’t bother her that the idea of a teenager making such accomplished music has been an issue for so many people. ”I think you can’t really separate one from the other,” she says. ”My music is written by a 16-year-old for people my age. Anyway, part of me kinda likes being judged for being 16 because it means that people will go easy on me, right? They’ll be like, ‘She’ll get better.’ Ha ha ha!”
Pure Heroine is out now. Lorde’s shows at the Metro Theatre on October 17 and 18 are sold out. She plays St Jerome’s Laneway Festival on February 2.
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