The first thing you notice about Indy Yelich is that she seems confident. Not gratingly confident, nor drainingly so; instead, she’s comfortingly confident, the type of charismatic extrovert the anxious populace at a party would both admire and fear.
“This person I used to date came up to me and said “I heard your song at the gas station at BP,” and I was like ‘wow, ok.’ It was great but it’s a strange thing – I’ve noticed people who I went to high school with who were absolute – I shouldn’t swear – twats DMing me. Like paragraphs! And I’m like ‘you were so horrible to me when I was 16 – stop!’ Five people (have done it) at least. It’s crazy. Because I can always remember the way that somebody made me feel, you know? I’m like ‘you do not get to talk to me now!’ Not that I’m anybody now.”
Indy should maybe start getting accustomed to this level of tiresome intrusiveness. She’s telling Rolling Stone Australia/New Zealand all of this – at breakneck speed – just a few days out from the release of her debut EP, Threads, which has been a long time coming: almost four years of extensive writing, intensive reworking, and, finally, myriad recording sessions. She has a lot to talk about, in other words.
Threads acts as a time capsule of the fledgling pop star’s early 20’s: “moving from suburbia to a big city, love and loss, identity,” she says about the EP’s main themes.
The “suburbia” in question is Devonport on Auckland’s North Shore, where the now 24-year-old grew up with her family before first moving to Los Angeles and then settling in New York City’s East Village, where she currently resides in a “tiny little home” alongside her best friend (“I’ve actually been in the same apartment for five years so it’s really nice to be here,” she says while pointing behind her shoulder on the Zoom camera).
“Stuck in the quiet of my hometown / You’re wonderin’ if we’ll go back to bein’ friends / I just stay quiet so you know now / That if I could, you know I’d do it all again,” she sings in the EP’s dreamily nostalgic standout track “Hometown”. And while those last two lines are probably about a former romantic interest, it could easily be about Devonport itself.
“I like to go swimming,” she says with a smile when talk turns to her hometown. “I like to go to the library, because the Devonport Library is really cool, it’s really nice (as far as public libraries go, Devonport Library is, indeed, a towering wood-panelled triumph). I just like that someone recognised me there and I was like ‘I made it.’”
It’s 20 minutes into the interview before Lorde is even mentioned. This is partly due to a conscientious decision to focus on Indy’s own musical merits – her countless other press appearances certainly haven’t hidden the fact that she’s related to Lorde – but the initial mention in conversation of her famous sibling arrives so suddenly, and so sweetly naturally.
“I’ve learned from the best – obviously my older sister is amazing at what she does,” Indy says. “She’s given me great pieces of advice.” For when Indy – real name India Yelich O’Connor – grew up in that Devonport suburb, her youth coincided with the rising stardom of her elder sister, Ella, who first shot to fame with Pure Heroine when Indy was barely a teenager.
It’s difficult to comprehend the emotion she must have felt growing up at the time (note: this writer is an only child for whom sibling rivalries are an altogether alien prospect), watching her sister become a global superstar. Happiness? Envy? Surprise?
A decade later, though, it doesn’t really matter; all that matters now is how Indy feels about her own music. “I’ve been writing these songs for a few years and it took me years to figure out the sounds I think are most important to pay homage to my feelings, and to put a body of work together and just go from there,” she says about her debut release.
It’s why releasing a five-track EP felt better in the moment than a full album. “I guess the main thing was to do whatever I wanted with these songs. It represents my change of moods, my feelings, things like that. It’s never really the same.” After a pause, she adds, “It’s a clean slate – who knows what will come next year. I thought I may as well go in hot!”
“You discover so many lives lived before you… That’s why I love New York City.”
It’s easy to see why Indy believes in this statement. There is some comfort in moving into the buzzing heart of Manhattan in an attempt to make it as an artist, of any kind, but surely especially when you’re already from talented stock; “if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere,” as Sinatra once cloyingly proclaimed.
And no accusation can be made that Indy is simply copying her older sister, because her artistic journey started out in poetry, writing and publishing two books of her own poems before turning towards music.
“I was in the writing scene, released (poetry) with Soho House, did a bunch of performances at the Bowery Poetry Club, things like that,” she says nonchalantly. “This was before I ever pursued being a musician at all. I think in general I’m a writer more than anything else (this echoes a discussion Julia Jacklin had with Rolling Stone AU/NZ last year about the distinctions between being a musician and a writer).”
It’s poets that Indy relishes discussing in conversation. She tells me about the joy of wondering if she’s walking down the same street as punk poet Patti Smith; she’s very happy to occupy the same neighbourhoods as one of her favourite poets, Alex Dimitrov; Aotearoa’s own Tayi Tibble gets a glowing mention, as does Indy’s own mum (“she’s a really great poet, she’s amazing”).
While poetry was definitely Indy’s first love, she started making music at the tender age of six, and, almost two decades later, her first EP features a delicate combination of the two forms.
“The EP is very lyric-focused,” she says. “I’m obsessed with melodies and harmonies and vocal stacks and making everything sound very specific. But for me, it really is the writing, it’s capturing the feeling. I always try to go into a studio session with a feeling or a lyric or a piano line of what I’m going through. I can only really take from my real life.”
Her songwriting was particularly inspired by the aforementioned Dimitrov, and Indy’s eyes light up when she details his writing style. “I really like the way that he speaks so casually about life,” she says about the proudly queer Bulgarian-born writer. “It doesn’t feel like rhyming, it just feels like a casual conversation, which is what I like.”
And that’s really what she seems to be trying to emulate in her music. The songs on Threads are – not dissimilar to Lorde’s early work, it must be said – hushed contemplations and whispered observations from the songwriter’s own life. Her dark alternative-pop style captures feelings instantly familiar to anyone making their way through their murky 20’s: yearning, confusion, self-doubt, love, loss, and heartbreak.
Sometimes the songwriting almost got too personal. “There’s this one song called “Freeloader” that actually initially had the person’s name and I thought I had to change that,” Indy reveals. “Well, I changed one letter,” she adds hastily. When I suggest that the person in question may eventually realise the song is about them, she interjects: “Then they shouldn’t have wronged me!” she says with a laugh.
The songwriting may be intensely personal, but Indy was never afraid to relinquish control while making Threads when it was necessary. “I really trust the producers and co-writers that I work with. It’s like a group project. There are things I can’t do that the producer can do better. I’m very specific, I’m a little bit pedantic, and I think that’s the best way to be.”
Indy’s introspective tales unwind under layers of atmospheric synths, thanks in no small part to a keen appreciation for ‘80s music. Her favourite of her own songs, “Hero”, utilises a big and bright Juno synth from that period. “It’s driving in the car at night,” is how she describes the sound. “It’s a really sad synth (sound).” She also played to her strengths on this EP, revealing that she didn’t write any song part that “I couldn’t hit the notes” of.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise that Indy talks so confidently at this fledgling stage of her career. “Meet India Yelich-O’Connor, Lorde’s Stylish 16-Year-Old Sister,” Teen Vogue declared all the way back in 2015 (it wasn’t quite as prophetic as when NYT profiled a then-unknown Lena Dunham’s dinner party – a simple dinner party with some rich high school friends – when Dunham was just 16, but prophetic nonetheless).
Then still in high school, Indy discussed fashion, art, music, and even posed for a photoshoot along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has, really, been preparing for her own moment in the spotlight from all this time.
It’s also why she’s not too nervous about touring for the first time, which she tentatively thinks may happen as early as this year. “I’m excited… I feel it comes naturally to me because I like all parts of this job. I’m not very shy, especially from all the years living in New York. I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited to design the set and things like that.”
The longer our conversation goes on, the more Indy asks about home. She compares Pals and Clean Collective, two Kiwi boutique beverage companies, the latter winning the battle due to being from the area she grew up; I ask if she remembers the grand local tradition of Crate Day, to which she retorts, “I have a 21-year-old brother, you don’t think I remember Crate Day?!”
Our conversation comes to a close with a discussion of her favourite Aotearoa artists of the moment, with Muroki and Harper Finn being particularly hailed. She pauses, before leaning into the camera.
“And, confidentially, do you know this musician?” she says, leaning in further. “She’s new – her name’s Lorde.” Maybe it’s a joking reprimand for not mentioning her sister sooner, or maybe it’s not; either way, Indy Yelich’s warm confidence should help her as her career progresses past Threads, wherever that may be.
Indy Yelich’s Threads EP is out now.