Interview: Lorde

August 08, 2013

Lorde is Ella Yelich-O’Connor, the almost-17 New Zealander made famous at home by 2012's The Love Club EP. Over the past eight months, its languid, eye-rolling single "Royals" has gone global, attracting over a million Soundcloud clicks; in the US, it's climbed quickly through the barrens of rock radio. Ahead of her proper album, to be released on September 30th by Lava/Republic, she traveled to the US for the first time, playing shows in New York and LA. Working toward a pop career since age 12, she's so far managed to protect her sound, private life and public image. Sprouting tall atop chunky platform sandals, twirling the fray of her glorious mountain of hair in a calm before what may soon become a chaotic storm, she spoke before that New York show in carefully chosen soundbites about money, subtweets and whether or not she'll get to go back to school this fall.

You've said that Lorde is a character. What are that character's qualities? I don’t think it’s so much a character. It’s more like when I perform I have to switch something on, because I’m a very reserved person in general. I’ve acted in plays and stuff my whole life, and there’s definitely an aspect of faking a little bit. Stepping into a kind of role. Obviously, entertaining a huge crowd is not the best thing for a shy person to be doing. Confidence is weird. I’m not a super confident person. So I just switch on a little bit of that. People are coming to see you perform material that you love, so you’ve got to put it into another dimension.

"Royals" pokes fun at canned images of luxury. If not gowns and diamonds, what luxuries do you actually crave? A big luxury for me at the moment has been time, because I’ve been so busy always. Just being able to go to a house party or eat dinner at home, those sorts of things I’m definitely understanding the value of. Money has never been like a big thing for me. I haven’t bought anything yet. I’m broke all the time, always have been. But I’m gonna buy a double bed, I’m just gonna do that. Even now spending more than $50 on something I’m like, Ohhh, I don’t know. Money is like, weird.

Teenagers—and adults—change so much. It's easy to feel embarrassed at the person you were just months ago, or to feel preoccupied with becoming better. Do you ever feel that way? Is it intense seeing your teenager-hood documented in public? It’s a little bit stressful. That’s what’s so weird for me about writing my music. I was 15 when I wrote the EP. Now I’m 17 in a couple months and I’m like, uuueghhh–what? Everything is weird. I definitely found that with writing the album. Even stuff I wrote a few months ago feels like, dated. I’ve gotten way better at saying: Okay, I wrote that when I was 15, leave it alone. For myself. Because otherwise I’ll just nitpick it. But I’m also glad that I didn’t decide to release any music until I was really happy, cause I didn’t have any of that, “She had two terrible EPs as a folk singer and now she’s reinvented herself.”

You were signed at 12. Starting then, how did you go about moving toward music you were satisfied with? At first I was learning how to write, when I was 13. When you’re learning how to do something you’re not very good at it. I’ve always been very into cleanliness—there aren’t many photos of me online, and I do all my social networks and everything is very much the way I want it to be seen. And being a little bit clean about how I release the music and just putting those small amounts online is me controlling how people would view it, I guess.

Do you feel like you’ve had to become more guarded than your peers? I’m still like, not very famous and definitely have a very private life. It’s only been six, eight months since I released the EP—since people had any idea who I was. So I’ve been able to have a fairly normal time of things, and not be like the Disney kids who like have no idea what it’s like to grow up at all. I’m not the sort of artist that TMZ can write about like, "She stepped out with no makeup today!" Because 80 percent of the time I’m not wearing any makeup. But I understand that everybody has a smartphone and you’re being crazy if you think that to a degree, your private and public lives aren’t gonna link a bit and mesh over.

What’s the appropriate response to a subtweet? I don’t know man. You should do the sassy, passive aggressive, slightly ambiguous thing. Tweeting is funny—you should just reply, anything. It doesn’t matter what you say, because they’ll know that you know.

You’ve written a song for the album called “Ribs,” and said it’s about getting older. How do you feel about getting older? I wrote the song about—we went out this one night, this huge party, I think I wrote it at like 4AM. I was hazy. Obviously I’m in an industry where a lot of importance is placed on how old I am, which has always seemed crazy to me. When I put my music out I didn’t say how old I was because I didn’t want that to overtake what I was making. Even now, people are like, “Holy shit, I didn’t know you were that age!” Maybe I’m just really neurotic. But soon I’m gonna be 20, and soon I’m gonna be 30. Being in an industry that’s about youth, there’s always another cool thing in front of you. I kind of always think about it. But I think I’ll be fine.

As a young woman, have you felt it necessary to call attention to the control you’ve taken over things? Or to remind people that you’re both a writer and singer? Absolutely. I think a lot of women in this industry maybe aren’t doing so well for the girls. I’ve read interviews where certain big female stars are like, “I’m not a feminist.” I’m like, That’s not what it’s about. She’s great, but I listened to that Lana Del Rey record and the whole time I was just thinking it’s so unhealthy for young girls to be listening to, you know: "I’m nothing without you." This sort of shirt-tugging, desperate, don’t leave me stuff. That’s not a good thing for young girls, even young people, to hear. I don’t really have any girls songs [for the new record]. I should have. But I think the way in which I assert myself as not being about that stuff is by writing about it in a way that’s a bit less obvious and less cloying. There are a couple songs on the record about relationship-y stuff, but I make sure to write about it in a way that you don’t know if it’s a friend or a relationship, because that’s something that’s personal to me.

Your mother is a poet. Did she put a lot of importance on writing well? I’ve always written short fiction and read short fiction. Short fiction is like the most difficult thing to do, because everything’s got to be short and clear and potent because you’ve got like 15 pages to create this amazing thing that people will remember. So I guess that stuck with me in writing songs. I guess in general, if you can say something in five words rather than 20, and it’s still cool, you should.

Do you write with singing in mind? When I record a song, I don’t tend to sing the whole song through. Just the way which I write melodies, sometimes would make that a bit difficult. So learning to sing something live, that’s a real process for me, cause I didn’t write a melody with the intention of it being sung live half of the time. Generally I like to do things in a short space of time—I like to record over a day or a couple of days. I’m not the sort of person who’s like, three takes and she’s done. It takes me some time. I like to experiment with a bunch of different tones to hit on something that’s right.

Are teenagers often misunderstood by pop songs, or pop culture in general? There are a lot of TV shows about kids, that are not maybe as accurate as they could be. As well, half the stuff that is written about being young is written by 40-year-old songwriters who’ve been doing it for 20 years. I guess I just sometimes I just wanna be a little more straight up about the nature of being a young person. I have this song on the record, and it has two lines on it which were very important for me to put on there. One of them was: We live in cities you never see onscreen. Because I like in Auckland, which is definitely not New York. It just felt important for me to be speaking for the minority. Coming from a small city, somewhere that feels unimportant, you just wanna get out of there. You’re whole teenage life The other line is: I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air. Because, there’s been so much of that in pop music, and I’m like, this is the stupidest thing. Being told to put your hands in the air? That’s the last thing I wanna do right now. I just wanted to be a bit more realistic. I don’t if that’s relating to young people in general, or just people who listen to pop.

Has the internet made New Zealand less secluded from pop culture; closer to New York? Coming from New Zealand, all the music I listen to is not made by New Zealanders. People never come to New Zealand to play a show because it’s in the middle of nowhere. I think it would be impossible not to be an internet kid coming from New Zealand, because culturally it’s a little barren. I have a Tumblr–I’m always on Tumblr, on TMZ or whatever.

What are you favorite Tumblrs? I really like this one called Dry Heave, which is this art one I guess. And then there’s one called H R Studio Plus, which is just like, a designer or something but they post every week, it’s almost like a playlist but it’s all images.

Will you return to school in the fall? I have this year and one more [of school left]. I’ve been taking some time off, but I hope to go back in the fall. School’s okay.

Interview: Lorde