People expect things of Ella Yelich-O’Connor. The 20-year-old behind the Lorde moniker is the kind of musician that critics tend to call the voice of a generation – which is only a way of saying that Yelich-O’Connor puts to words the things that so many people don’t, and maybe the things people can’t.
She sings songs about loving yourself; about falling in and out of friendships; about that messy, broken kind of love we sometimes confuse for grace. She sings about emerging through the other side of adolescence, but she sings about more than that too – she sings about the things that never leave us; the wounds that scar up and stay put.
Not that she is entirely happy with the idea of being a mouthpiece. Lorde doesn’t want to be one of those pop musicians who get treated like politicians, called upon to explain away the thoughts and desires of their listeners.
“Young people have never needed a specialised spokesperson – one young voice – less than right now,” Lorde told NME this month. “‘I’ve always known that it’s bullshit when people would say ‘voice of a generation’. I’d be like, ‘I’m gonna nip it in the bud now … This is not what this is, and it will never be that.’”
Still, it’s not hard to see why people flock to Lorde, searching so desperately for the soothing, impossibly wise quality to her words. Her new record Melodrama is a break-up album, but it’s also a retrenchment of Yelich-O’Connor’s personhood; a thrilling song of the self. It is the loud, crashing sound of a pop musician putting their life into words, and although it is at least tangentially concerned with Lorde’s publicised split from photographer James Lowe, the album is mostly about Yelich-O’Connor; about the faith she finds within herself.
The ‘Royals’ singer knows herself now – she understands what she wants from her world and who she wants in it. “I’m always gonna have myself, so I have to really nurture this relationship and feel good about hanging out with myself and loving myself,” she explained to Beats Radio’s Zane Lowe.
That said, achieving the self-confidence that defines Melodrama did require a certain kind of sacrifice. Business could not go on as usual; Yelich-O’Connor couldn’t draw on the forces that had shaped Pure Heroine, her 2013 debut. In order to write Melodrama, she had to embrace isolation, eventually becoming so hermetic that she now uses the metaphor of the self-sustaining house in Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains to describe the recording process.
“We were just holing up in my house, drinking and making a concerted effort to block out the rest of the world, as if there’d been some sort of nuclear fallout,” Lorde told NME. “When there’ve been two years that have been so turbulent and traumatic, and the climate is so tangible when you walk outside … There was definitely an element of, ‘If we just make our own little universe inside and no one looks at their phones, then none of it’s really happening.’”
Melodrama was produced by Jack Antonoff, an in-demand producer who also helped co-write all but one of the record’s 11 tracks. Yelich-O’Connor flew to Los Angeles from her home in New Zealand to be with Antonoff, and the pair would hole up and pummel the songs into shape together.
“Jack would always say: ‘Every time you come back from New Zealand, you just have all this stuff in your head,’” Lorde said in an interview with The Guardian. “We would always write a few real good songs as soon as I got in from the airport.”
The result is one of the most profound pop records of the year – one defined by raw honesty and Lorde’s unique turns of phrase. She has a poet’s eye for detail – the kind of unblinking, unsentimental gaze that defines the work of Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor. When she says she makes people wild and makes them leave, as on the rubbed raw ‘Liability’, you believe her; you understand that she means every word.
“I think what makes her most special to me is the way she tells her stories,” explains a young fan named Zalan Orban to the BRAG. “There is a rejection of pop glamorisation in her music that I love so much. She tells the truth without ever having material motivations to do so – her music is stripped bare. It’s so special to hear something on the radio that I can finally relate to for once. That’s so important for me as a teen, being so heavily reliant on music for influence and inspiration.”
“She’s like a weird famous person who isn’t lost in the celeb life and has a pure soul,” adds Walter Nelson, another Lorde devotee. “Her writing [is] special, her personality glows, and her love for music makes me love her even more.”
But as open and honest as her music might be, it’s not always obvious how Yelich-O’Connor became the person she is today – how she transformed from a young New Zealand teen to a global influencer whose every move is covered by a critical establishment desperate to understand her.
There are parts of her that all the profiles and the press have neglected to cover: a side of her story that can only be understood if one goes back to the beginning, and to the shows that introduced a young woman making music that sounded like tomorrow.
Early Mysteries: Goodgod Small Club, May 2013
“And as [Lorde] finished her set with lead single, ‘Royals’, it was clear we were watching more than just a star in the making; we were witnessing the coronation of new music royalty.” – Timothy Scarfe, The Music
She was dressed in red, her long hair splayed out over her shoulders. Occasionally, she’d take great handfuls of her brown locks and throw them over her back – a move somehow both studied and effortless, dropped at the end of songs with all the finality of a full stop.
Later, much later, she’d describe her own stop-start dance moves as “kind of broken”, and it’s true there was a kind of stylised stiffness to the way her limbs shot out and then froze in mid-air, as though Lorde was reaching out for something she didn’t quite have the nerve to touch.
She might sing about royals, but she is not one, and her sympathies have always settled with society’s undervalued.
Lorde’s 2013 performance at Sydney’s Goodgod Small Club was only her third live show, so perhaps it was unsurprising that she seemed a little shy. “She was this gangly, trembling girl,” explains a long-time fan named Faith who managed to score a ticket to the sold-out gig. It set her back $10. “You could tell she was nervous,” she says. “She found it hard to make eye contact with the crowd.”
Whether she could look at them or not, the fans were so close that the then-16-year-old Lorde had no chance of ignoring them; no way to make them fade into the blurred space just beyond the bright stage lights. Goodgod was like that – it was a tight, dark venue, the kind of space critics fall over themselves to describe as intimate. The crowd could have reached out and touched her if they wanted to.
They didn’t, of course. They were quiet, painfully respecting of the figure onstage. And there were a lot of them. The venue was heaving – and, perhaps unusually – with punters rather than industry types. People were there to see Lorde because they loved her, not because they’d been given the nod by a fellow bigwig.
“Pretty much every new act with a label push is thrown at you as: ‘Going to be huge, guaranteed sellout, get on this’,” explained the booker of the show, Adam Lewis, to FasterLouder in an excellent article about that low-key first show. “Usually [the reality] is nothing close. But I got sent The Love Club EP and it was pretty incredible. It stood out so far from everything else coming through that it was something I was really excited to work on.”
Most of the crowd, if not all of it, was there because of ‘Royals’. The song had become an overnight success after being picked up by Australia’s national broadcaster triple j and added to heavy rotation. For so many at the show that night, ‘Royals’ had provided their entrance into Lorde’s sound. It was a glimpse at a self-contained world populated by spun-out stars and determined heroines, all of them of Yelich-O’Connor’s own making; a tapestry of unique characters and tones.
“I got into Lorde because I was leaving the hospital after surgery and I turned on the radio and ‘Royals’ was playing,” explains Nelson. “I didn’t know who had sung it, but I loved it.”
At that point, there was no debut record to speak of: Pure Heroine was still months off. Instead, Lorde was making her name with The Love Club EP, a five-song release she had dropped on SoundCloud. Written with friend and collaborator Joel Little, the work combined glassy synth sounds with some raw, biting lyrics, as Yelich-O’Connor smokily sang about deception, love, heartbreak and all the things that hurt when you are 16 years old.
“I first encountered Lorde’s music on SoundCloud,” says April Atteridge, one of Yelich-O’Connor’s earliest fans. “One of my best friends is from New Zealand and she got me hooked on Lorde. The [Love Club EP] SoundCloud stream barely had 1,000 listens. I remember listening to it and thinking it sounded like a new type of mainstream music I’d never heard before. I was hooked instantly.”
“I heard it driving home from school when I was in high school,” says Lauren Bailey. “The radio announced they were going to play this song from an ‘up-and-coming Kiwi artist’ and then they played ‘The Love Club’. I’ll never forget that moment. I got home, found the EP online and then five years later, here we are.”
Although the kind of warm electropop that dominates The Love Club was very much the flavour of the month at the time, Lorde set herself apart from the crowd thanks to the varied nature of her influences – both sonic and otherwise. She is, and always has been, a voracious listener and reader – the kind of musician who soaks up sounds and tones like a sponge, magpieing together a nest of artistic touchpoints all of her own.
There is a reason, for example, that the expanded edition of The Love Club included a Replacements cover, a shuffling, enjoyable jumbled version of ‘Swingin’ Party’. Lorde has always had a punk sensibility to her; a kind of anti-establishment flair that drives a loping, shuffling tune like ‘Bravado’.
She might sing about royals, but she is not one, and her sympathies have always settled with society’s undervalued – with people feeling lost, and hurt, and maybe a little forgotten.
“When I first heard Lorde I was 18 and still in school,” says Gabriella McLennan. “I went to a tiny conservative all girls’ school in the middle of suburbia. One day in science class, this girl snuck in her iPhone to listen to music at the back of the room and she played us The Love Club EP. She introduced us to a few of her friends and it spread like wildfire throughout the year level and bonded everyone.
“It was a pretty huge moment. She was a young girl like us, from a normal suburb and family – but there was something about her that was so captivating. And she didn’t try to hide it and pretend to be something she wasn’t. She writes your standard pop music, but she does so with soul and poetry, which is an unusual and beautiful combination. She possesses a range of influences, yet still manages to somehow sound completely original. And she writes about the teenage experience in a way that isn’t patronising or unrealistic – which I don’t think anyone nails quite like her.”
Seeing Lorde that night in 2013 at Goodgod only highlighted her myriad of skills. Despite the wafty, somewhat ephemeral tone of the pre-show promotional material – most notably a spiel posted to the venue website that emphasised Lorde’s status as an “enigma” – when all was said and done, Yelich-O’Connor stood behind the microphone unadorned. She had no grand theatrical lights, no carefully choreographed stage manoeuvres – and sure, maybe that was because she wasn’t able to afford those things yet, or because they wouldn’t fit onto the crowded basement stage.
But there was some deeper level to her normality too – that kind of beautiful mundanity that comes to inflect music we love enough to make it an everyday part of our lives. Yelich-O’Connor stood there under those hot lights not as a pop star, but as a person; as a singer making music because she couldn’t imagine anything else she might want to do.
“I just think what makes her special is that she isn’t really special,” McLennan says. “She’s down-to-earth, yet still has this magic about her. She sings about normal things, yet has a voice that is anything but boring. I don’t know. She’s like the girl next door that just happens to be a musical genius on the down-low – but then we all found out about it.”
Happy Accidents: Splendour In The Grass, July 2013
“There was an element of reaching out. ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? I’m over here.’” – Lorde on Pure Heroine
There are rules to the music industry. Nobody likes to admit it, but there are: the business’ players are bound to a collection of invisible, universally agreed upon guidelines that all those looking for fame must follow.
So strict are these rules, in fact, that they could almost be considered commandments: Thou Must Always Be Touring; Thou Must Set triple j In Thy Sights; Thou Must Always Be Releasing Content.
But these are rules, not guarantees. Just because you play the game, there is no assurance you are going to win, and the world is full of hurt, bitter musicians who slaved away for years without ever receiving the dividends that were owed to them. But if you don’t do as you’re told, you are setting yourself up for failure – working actively towards defeat, jamming yourself voluntarily between a rock and a hard place.
And then there are the exceptions. Every few years, an artist is allowed to skip some of these steps. A combination of luck, circumstance and sheer raw talent gives them a boost, and musicians who would otherwise have had to graduate from Goodgod to Newtown Social Club to Oxford Art Factory to the Metro to the Enmore are allowed to jump to the front of the queue. They pass “Go” and they collect their $200.
Lorde is one of these artists. Within two months of that Goodgod show, Yelich-O’Connor was playing Splendour In The Grass, one of Australia’s most prestigious and popular music festivals. And although it would be wrong to ascribe the holding share of her success to anything like luck, certainly it’s true that her appearance at that 2013 event was never planned. It came about thanks to fate – or whatever version of fate it is that guides the careers of pop stars – and the unpredictability of one Frank Ocean.
Ocean, the US hip hop star, was in the country for a highly anticipated Australian tour when he was laid low by an abrupt illness. He managed to play but one show, a sold-out Melbourne gig, before he was forced to can the rest of the dates – including, notably, his set at Splendour In The Grass.
With only days to go, the organisers turned to Lorde. She was a sensible choice. The Love Club EP, bolstered by the success of ‘Royals’, was climbing the UK and Australian album charts. Yelich-O’Connor might have still been an unknown entity in the States, but here her profile was on the ascent, driven by a sold-out national tour at venues of about Goodgod’s size.
“Someone called me about it, my manager, and I didn’t even know what Splendour was,” Yelich-O’Connor recalled for Pedestrian. “I was like, ‘OK. Alright. That’s cool. Why not?’ I’m so glad I didn’t know what it was because it turns out it’s a really big deal and, yeah, I was definitely the underdog. You know, filling in for Frank Ocean. I don’t know. The whole thing was crazy.”
Lorde was booked for 5:30pm on the Sunday … the timing could have spelt disaster.
Lorde was booked for 5:30pm on the Sunday, one of the very last slots of the weekend-long festival. As she was undoubtedly aware, the timing could have spelt disaster. Not because of her music, but because of the crowd – by the Sunday, punters were tired, hungover, ready to go home. There’s a reason that most festival promoters book the biggest act for the last day: an acclaimed act can survive the bad disposition of a crowd packing its bags, and can weather the audience grumpiness that might otherwise be able to decimate a smaller artist.
Clearly, the odds were stacked against Lorde. But as time has shown us, that’s when she works best; when the resilience of her music makes itself most clear. Nobody needed to have heard of Lorde, ‘Royals’ or The Love Club EP to see what made her Splendour slot special. She didn’t require anything of her audience, or ask anything of them. She was there to play. That was all.
You could tell as much from the moment she took to the stage. There was no fanfare, no theatricality, no stylised artifice. She just walked up to the mic as though she was drawn there by forces she had long ago submitted herself to. She nodded in thanks to the crowd, smiled shyly, and then launched into the set that would change her life.
A Global Force: Hordern Pavilion, July 2014
“[It] could have fucked me, you know?” – Lorde on success, NPR
Lorde got to skip a few steps on the road to success, but she had to make up for it in other ways. After all, even if you buck the system, the system will eventually buck you back: everyone pays penance whether they like it or not, and although Pure Heroine was a massive commercial and critical success when it dropped in September 2013, Yelich-O’Connor soon found she had to face the side of fame we don’t too often talk about.
“I remember being made aware of my looks and my body in a way that I had never been,” Yelich-O’Connor told NME. “I remember all these kids online … and they were like, ‘Fuck her, she’s got really far-apart eyes.’ I remember being like, ‘Whoa! How did I get all this way without knowing I had far-apart eyes?’ Just weird shit like that.”
Maybe such a rapid ascension would have destroyed someone else in Lorde’s position – or at the very least, given them creative whiplash. There is nothing more terrifying than getting everything that you want; nothing more damaging than having your desires sated. And Yelich-O’Connor had that in droves.
In October and November 2013, she toured the US, making an appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show, where she was introduced as a young musician from “the wonderful country of New Zealand”. If she was nervous in front of all those television cameras, she didn’t look it. You could have mistaken her for a performer with decades of experience under their belt – she looked like a musician promoting their fifth album, not their first.
Singing ‘Team’, one of Pure Heroine’s many standout tracks, Lorde danced a little like Kate Bush, the musician she is most frequently compared to, and her voice cut cleanly through the studio space. When it was all over, the audience members screamed and whooped like they had seen something that they had never encountered before. Which maybe they hadn’t.
There were other appearances too: a fiery performance on New Zealand’s own 3rd Degree; a graceful, heartfelt version of ‘Royals’ on Later… With Jools Holland. Slowly but surely, Lorde was becoming a kind of icon – a pariah for all who felt undervalued and forgotten by other pop stars.
Crowds began to flock to her in greater numbers than ever before. Her fans were no longer Australians and Kiwis checking out some local musician on Spotify. They were spread across the globe – devoted, dedicated.
“I got into Lorde because of a project I had to do at school,” explains Laila Strzygowski, a Brazilian fan. “I had to talk about a song that I thought was powerful. I didn’t know what song I was going to do, so I started researching and I found ‘Tennis Court’. I fell in love with her music at very that instant.”
For a lot of the new followers stumbling across Pure Heroine, the attraction lay in Yelich-O’Connor’s youth. She was the same age as those she played for, and innately understood the things they loved and worried about. Her music was somehow of them and for them, and in her songs they encountered lines they could well have written themselves.
“What makes her such a special artist for me is her lyrics,” says Lachlan McPherson, a young devotee. “A lot of her fans, including myself, are the same age and essentially growing up alongside her. She’s able to put a lot of the emotions and experiences we’re having into words. Pure Heroine was so relevant to all the 17-year-olds at the time.”
That inclusive quality was rapidly being reflected in Lorde’s live shows. Even as the venues she played grew larger and larger – even as her audience drifted farther away from the stage – the separation was only physical, never emotional. She played stadiums as though they were clubs; made cavernous spaces feel like living rooms.
When she took to the Hordern Pavilion stage in July 2014 and peered out at the vast crowd, she might have been back in the basement at Goodgod. She seemed just as honest as she had then; just as unhurried and unfettered by fame.
Of course, everything was different. At Goodgod she had been a rising act. At the Hordern, she was risen. She had nothing to prove any more; no need to win anyone over. She was such a global force – such an icon – that she could have easily turned her back to the crowd and played the whole set facing the stage wall.
She didn’t, of course. She was as animated and engaged as ever, her eyes flicking over the dark mass of punters in front of her as though it were one body. She laughed with them; played for them; paced back and forth across the stage, long hair in one hand, the mic in the other.
The fans didn’t want it to end. Neither, seemingly, did Lorde. They could have all stayed there, together, the whole lot of them: Yelich-O’Connor singing songs about hurt, love and salvation, and the audience drinking in every moment of it – both parties giving each other everything.
And when the house lights did eventually come on, nobody moved. Nobody made a sound. They all just sat there, bolted to floor, as the memory of the show settled around them like slow rain.
Melodrama is out now through Universal. Lorde plays the Sydney Opera House Forecourt on Tuesday November 21 and Wednesday November 22.