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Lorde: How Pop’s Favourite Outsider Wrote Her Next Chapter

She became famous at 16 with an album that changed the mainstream. All she had to do was figure out where to go from there.

It’s not exactly how I thought the day would go, but in the mid-afternoon in a warehouse building somewhere off the 101 freeway, Lorde is stripping down to her skivvies. In all fairness, so am I. We’re at Shareen Downtown, a 6,600-square-foot Los Angeles paradise of secondhand sartorial wonders where there are no dressing rooms and, not coincidentally, there is also a strict rule that there are no boys allowed, as a sign on the front door attests. “Isn’t that great?” asked Lorde earlier. “I found out about it through my old tour manager’s wife, who did the costumes on Mad Men. She was like, ‘I always go to Shareen.’ And so I go to Shareen now as well.”

Today, amid the dust and glamour, Lorde is on a mission to find something fun to wear to Coachella, where in a couple of weeks the 20-year-old New Zealander will give her first concert in close to three years in advance of her second album, Melodrama. “Oh, my God, it’s like my dream,” she says, homing in on a delicate, frothy wedding gown from some bygone era. “Like, at Coachella with a flower crown of these little freakies?” she suggests, running her hand over the dress’s tiny fabric flowers. “It’s so sick. But they don’t put the price tags on them, and they’re always super-expensive.”

She finds a winner, though, in a navy print dress that has a semisweet Nineties-grunge vibe, and in a long, flowy number in what she calls a “tropical melted-ice-cream” print. “I think this is like what Stevie Nicks would wear at her pool,” she pronounces. “I have not met her, but she wraps my heart in soft fabric. Isn’t she just beautiful?” Having gathered a few treasures, we head to a mirror to give them a go. Lorde slips out of her T-shirt. Then she looks at me wryly and grins. “This,” she says, “is my Rolling Stone interview where I’m just getting naked in front of my profiler.”

Which is exactly not the type of career Lorde has heretofore cultivated. Discovered at 12 after a talent-show recording ended up in the hands of a manager at Universal, the artist born Ella Yelich-O’Connor was signed to a development deal that basically entailed waiting it out until she was old enough to convincingly sing songs written for her by adults. That never happened, and was never going to. By the time she was 15 – and paired up with producer Joel Little, who’d once fronted the marginally known pop-punk band Goodnight Nurse – she was insisting on writing her own music, on taking charge.

During a week off from school, she penned “Royals,” the track that would go on to be the smash hit of the EP she’d soon offer for free on Soundcloud (while simultaneously declining to release any images that showed what she looked like). Meanwhile, she’d intuited enough of what was about to unfold that she gave herself a moniker that was both aristocratically grand and decidedly feminine (with that tacked-on “e”) – a move that would have been pretentious to the extreme had it not ended up being spot-on prescient. “I don’t know, it’s a bit boring: Ella Yelich-O’Connor,” she says now. “Can you imagine them shouting it at a festival?” She shrugs. “It just made sense to me to elevate it.”

“It’s like, I can’t be kind of sexy if I want to for a second? Everything I do has to be, like, ‘library girl’?”

Pure Heroine was released in the fall of 2013, and sold more than a million copies in five months. David Bowie clutched her hand and told her that listening to her music “felt like listening to tomorrow.” Lady Gaga called it one of “THE albums of 2013.” It wasn’t just the album’s precocious musicality (its spare electronic beats overlaid with Lorde’s smoky, syncopated vocals, creating a sound that was part pop, part hip-hop, part jazz and entirely hypnotic); it was also the teenage authority with which Lorde’s lyrics took on and then casually dispensed with decades of pop-music tropes and stereotypes (“Everybody’s like, Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece. …  We don’t care”). The album was so self-possessed, so in control, so knowing, that, fairly or not, Lorde was hailed far and wide as pop’s antidote to its own artifice. She was not stage-managed. She dressed like a witch run amok in Goodwill. She wielded influence far beyond her years. She was, in other words, “the real deal” – the counterargument to the prefab, formula-driven model many listeners assumed was almost de rigueur for young women breaking into the profession. At one point in our conversation, she refers to the 2014 Grammys, during which she took home both Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance for “Royals,” as “my Grammys,” then catches herself: “I mean it was my Grammy week, not that I owned the Grammys.” But in a way, she kind of did.

Since then, Lorde’s life has taken a predictable turn toward the surreal. She has filled in for Kurt Cobain when Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, curated the soundtrack for a Hunger Games instalment, inspired a long-running South Park parody, and taken Diplo fishing (“I love fishing! I feel like that’s what you have to do when people are in New Zealand”). All the while, she’s managed to give an impression of authenticity so convincing that people wondered if it was in fact fake, if she was secretly cast by the music industry itself to play its own antiheroine. “Her look, even the fact that she’s from New Zealand and an outsider not just to American pop but also to how important and ubiquitous celebrity is, all that felt relatable,” says Tavi Gevinson, editor-in-chief of Rookie magazine and one of the many young celebrities – including Taylor Swift – Lorde has befriended since joining their ranks.

Then, having won over an entire industry, Lorde disappeared. Or rather, she retreated, wanting to know if it was possible to reclaim some version of the suburban girl who had unwittingly created a masterpiece, so that she could try to create another one. At least that’s how she’d described it to me earlier in the day, over lunch at the Beachwood Cafe, a sunny spot just under the Hollywood sign populated mainly by people wearing yoga pants and obsessively healthy glows. “Now I can look back and be like, ‘That was fucked. All of it. Fucked. Insane,’ ” she says of the early flush of fame. “But everyone’s so crazy when they’re 16. I think if you tell a 16-year-old that they’re going to Mars – ‘We’re gonna get on a rocket and go, and that’s going to be your life’ – they’d be like, ‘OK, like, that’s all well and good, but I’m doing this thing by myself right now, and that’s what’s important.’ Everything kind of normalised week to week.”

Not that everything was normal. By the time Lorde turned her attention to a new album, she was, in a sense, stuck on Mars. She found herself in the classic innovator’s dilemma: She had invented a sound that changed the pop landscape. Now, shades of “Lorde” were everywhere – in the breathiness of her singing, in her mix of pop sounds and singer-songwriter candor – which means that to sound like Lorde these days is to sort of sound like a lot of other people. Her singularity had been co-opted, while her horizon had changed. “Her first album was all about being this kid,” says Jack Antonoff, who produced Melodrama. “When your entire life changes, and you’ve built your career on being honest with your perspective, how do you continue to [find ways to relate]? It’s near impossible.”

In short, Lorde had to figure out how to create earthly magic in the rarefied atmosphere of another planet, while also figuring out what she wanted her adult life to be. All she could think of to do, really, was to try to make her way back home.

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Performing a David Bowie tribute at last year’s BRIT Awards.

In late 2014, after wrapping up a North American tour, Lorde headed back to Auckland, New Zealand. She reconnected with old friends – including the kids in the “Royals” video – who weren’t too weirded out by her fame, and started trying to find her footing on a new musical path. “It kind of takes a second, I learned,” she says, “to write your way out of the record you just made.” The initial concept for the new album involved a group of aliens getting an introduction to Earth. “I remember writing about the first step outside,” she says. “These aliens have just lived in this hermetically sealed environment, and so what does the first step outside feel like?”

As always, Lorde tried to let herself be guided by her instincts, the keen perceptions that had served her so well. She has synesthesia – seeing songs not only as colours but also as textures – and grew up in a middle-class way that cultivated this, with a civil-engineer father and poet-laureate mother who taught her through an “overwhelming sensory experience of the world,” she says. “Everything is so vivid to [my mum]. And it’s all kind of governed by the senses in quite a literal way – like, the taste of different fruits can be art.” Despite being a child who was “kind of solitary, dreamy, off in a place,” she grew up with a deep reverence for pop, which she sometimes studied more than her subjects in school. “I have always been super-allergic to anything that feels exclusive in art,” she tells me.

In the fall of 2015, Lorde, who had been working again with Little, decided to branch out. She’d met Lena Dunham (“We just started chatting online, as you do”); and through Lena Dunham, she’d met Dunham’s boyfriend, Antonoff, the lead guitarist of fun. and the frontman of Bleachers, who had produced parts of Swift’s 1989. “We were at a Grimes show, and he was like, ‘I’ll go get you a drink,’ ” Lorde says, “and sort of disappeared into another room and came back with a can of pineapple juice – which is quite a weird thing to bring someone – handed it to me, then whipped it back and rubbed the top of it and said, ‘Rats crawl over them in the factories.’ ” In that moment, she sensed that she “had come home in the nicest possible way, to meet someone like that.”

When Antonoff and Lorde got together, the album was still a fairly nebulous collection of impressions and ideas. “I was like, ‘Let’s just gather around a piano and see how you’re feeling,’ ” Antonoff says, “ ’and see what has happened to you since your last album that’s really worth sharing.’ ” One of the first songs they wrote together was “Liability,” about how toxic her fame can be to those who would want to get close to her. “That was very important,” says Antonoff. “It opened up a big space, which was ‘OK, there’s a way that you can talk about all of these things that have changed, and it’s not going to put you on an island.’  … Everyone feels like a liability to their friends and family sometimes.”

From then on, Lorde relied on her experiences, as they currently were. “Everything written about on the album, give or take a couple of lines, all took place in New Zealand, is about me and my friends,” she explains. A few months after beginning to work with Antonoff, she moved out of her parents’ house, buying one not far away that looks, in the cellphone photos she proudly shows me, like the sort of retro midcentury space where a Lorde video might be shot. She hung a “big, weird, very beautiful, quite saucy” painting by Celia Hempton in her bedroom (“It’s definitely a vagina”) and hand-painted de Gournay jungle wallpaper in her living room (“It’s like a bizarre dream”). She described her perfect day as: “It’s summer and everyone’s off work, and we drive to the beach and then everyone comes back to my backyard, and we’ll all be sitting around on the grass and listening to something and someone’s made whiskey sours and the day turns into evening, it just sort of evolves, and all of a sudden it’s two in the morning and everyone’s dancing. That’s a nice day for me.”

When she’d stocked up on enough of those days, she would head back to Antonoff and the studio to try to decipher them. “I would go [to New Zealand] and do everything that I end up writing about, and then I’d fly 10,000 miles and write about it,” she says. “I felt having the distance was really important for me. I really needed the freedom to be like, ‘This is what I’m gonna say about this person.'”

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With her friend Taylor Swift, February 2016 (left); and with Jack Antonoff in February.

The process worked, slowly. “It was a hard album to make,” Antonoff admits. “If you change a breath on a vocal take, she’ll notice, and she’ll like it or she’ll hate it. It’s a meticulous process with her, and this particular album was an intense journey. I think that’s what it had to be.”

There were dark nights of the soul, moments when she felt like Pure Heroine might be the only album she’d get. “There was a real hit of, like, ‘I just don’t have another one,’ ” Lorde tells me. “ ’It could never be good enough.’ ” One “freakout” was bad enough that Antonoff sent her home. “Everyone was like, ‘Get out of here,’ ” she says. “They barreled me out of the studio, and flicked me across the globe.” She took a month off to gather her thoughts.

Then, around 2015, she broke up with her longtime boyfriend, photographer James Lowe. Though she’s circumspect about the particulars, she admits she was surprised by the depth of emotion she’s experienced of late. “Five years ago, I thought that was as vivid as it got,” she says from the back of a black Escalade that was hired to take us to and from Shareen. “And then to have this ‘oh, my God’ – it’s like that times 100. I think I’ve had a real emotional renaissance in the last 18 months of just being like, ‘Wow, it hurts,’ and letting myself feel all of those things, which has been kind of transcendent.”

By the spring of 2016, the album had started to coalesce in her mind as not a breakup album, exactly, but as one about the moments that come next, the party where you have the freedom to cry alone in the bathroom or to explore the contours of someone new. One day she woke up and the album had suddenly revealed itself. “It was just ‘melodrama,‘ that’s what it was. It’s like this spooky universe picks the day and gives it to you, and you can’t imagine it being anything else.”

Where Pure Heroine is coolly detached and self-contained, Melodrama is more searching, and, in some ways, more celebratory. It’s also, musically speaking, more expansive. “[On Pure Heroine], Ella had these electronic sensibilities,” says Antonoff. “But there are guitars on this album, there are all these analog-based instruments. It’s not about minimalism anymore; it’s this bigger, broader thing. It’s a very different album in terms of the palette of sounds. I think that started by the fact that we wrote the album sitting around a piano. That style is very new for her.” And Lorde was now painfully open to new things. The first single, “Green Light,” she explains, is “me shouting at the universe, wanting to let go, wanting to go forward, to get the green light from life.” Did she think she got it? “Oh, my God,” she says. “Yes.”

With these mysteries solved, Lorde spent a lot of the rest of 2016 in New York, working out of a studio in the Brooklyn house Antonoff shares with Dunham, who lent emotional, if not material, sustenance. “Lena’s not really an award-winning cook,” Lorde says, laughing. “There were a lot of Postmates. But she would come in and be like, ‘You’re incredible, you’re the greatest people, I love you, goodbye.’ ” Outside the studio, Lorde often kept to herself. She stayed in a “bizarre businessman hotel – just me and conferences,” she says. “In a lot of ways I felt like a little monk, drifting down into the subway, being very solitary and just thinking about the music all the time and not really socialising very much. Every once in a while, a sweet little NYU student would come up to me and say some lovely thing, but really I felt like I was able to lose touch with myself as a person of note, which is a really valuable thing. By the end, this part of my life, this part that we’re doing right now, all of this felt very abstract.”

Today, however, has been relaxed compared to what’s transpired and what’s to come. Jet-lagged from a week of press in Europe, she’d gotten up early and gone for a swim. Now she’s shopping not for stage attire, but for what she’ll wear at Coachella when she’s out fan-girling in the crowd (“I’m excited to see the xx, to see Radiohead. Oh, Kendrick will be amazing!”). She tries, with some difficulty, to slither into a lacy peach dress – the sole way in which she actually seems her age is that she hasn’t quite gotten used to her own grace. “OK, so I can already tell that this has deeply got some issues,” she says, swivelling around in front of the mirror to reveal holes located suspiciously in the boob area.

She tries to extricate herself and ends up with her arms stuck above her head, laughing from inside the layers of dress. “Oh, dear,” she says. “I’ve made a huge mistake.” I rush to her aid, though there’s no doubt that, as with everything, Lorde would have gotten it under control.

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At Coachella in April, her first concert in three years.

A couple of days later, I meet Lorde in the outdoor dining area of the iconic L.A. hotel where she is staying despite its reputation as the sort of place someone like her might stay. She is there, she assures me, for the impressively deep pool. She wanted to do some “dives and shit,” and to immerse herself fully in that silky, muffling blue. “It’s a womb thing,” she says. “Oh, it’s so cozy.”

This is a particularly appealing sensation in the present moment. “I’m fucking nervous,” she says, wearing the navy grunge dress she’d bought at Shareen. “I haven’t performed in three years, and so it’s like forced extroversion for a true introvert.” In a rehearsal for the Coachella set a few nights before, it had been clear that much of the show was still coming together (“How do I not get electrocuted?” she’d asked of one stage stunt, to which a producer had replied, “And where does the water go without electrocuting everybody else?”). Now she all but holds her head in her hands. “I just got a prescription for some beta blockers. I was like, ‘Let’s do this. Give it to me, give it to me.’ ”

Her anticipation of how the album itself will be received seems less fraught, though whether that’s some sort of Zen mastery or simply a calm akin to the eye of the storm remains unclear. Lorde realizes the magic of Pure Heroine may be impossible to recreate. “We reinvented the wheel by accident,” she tells me. “It’s sort of a miracle, really.” She’s now had four years to come to terms with the fact that her first album may have been a fluke, that not every popularity contest is so easily won. “That’s not the thing I was put on this Earth to do – to push things forward every time,” she says. “Obviously I would want people to like the music, but in terms of being like Drake, how he’s always pushing the culture forward musically? I know what my strengths are, and I think that would have given me a hernia or something.”

That’s not to say Melodrama retreads old ground. It puts forward a new version of its maker. Lorde’s 16-year-old self may have been deemed pop’s antiheroine – the queen of the misfit teens – but she never really was that goth girl, and she certainly isn’t now: “It’s like, ‘Oh, shit, I can’t be kind of sexy if I want to for a second? Everything I do has to be, like, ‘library girl’?” She no longer listens to Pure Heroine. “That felt like a kid,” she’d said on the way back from Shareen, wiggling her fingers in the breeze outside the open car window. “This feels like a young woman. I can hear the difference.”

While making Melodrama, she found herself cranking up Graceland, Don Henley and Phil Collins – music that might be considered uncool but, to her, had a timeless quality. And also a deep, timeworn wisdom. Part of music’s appeal, she believes, is that it’s constantly reaching for an unattainable ideal; and while there’s a good deal of angst in that, there’s also ample forgiveness. “I don’t think you can sing about love or about breakups in such a sort of full way at 20,” Lorde says. “To pose a question” – and now she’s quoting Henley – “ ’What are these voices outside love’s open door that make us throw off our contentment and beg for something more?’ It’s the most incredible fucking question of the universe. I don’t think I can do that. Even when I try really hard to not see things in very simple ways, those confines do still exist because I’m just so new to living. I’m excited to get older and get better and be able to do it like they can do it.”

Lorde recently participated in the birth of her best friend’s child, which, she says, “blew my mind. It’s literally life-changing.” She knows she wants to have kids. She wants to finally get her driver’s license. She wants to go back to school one day (“I think that moment’s going to come,” she says, “where I’m like, ‘OK, let’s listen to someone else talk about what it means to be a human being’ ”). For now, though, she’s on board to ride this all out and see what comes of it. “I don’t know if I’m a pop star for a reason, but I do think that I should be here, I think that I should be doing this,” she tells me, her stare unwavering, just before we part.

In two weeks’ time, and despite her nerves, her Coachella show will come off as a success. No one will get electrocuted, and she’ll be hailed in some corners as the festival’s brightest star. Then, just before the album is released, Lorde will have a few weeks of just being Ella. She’ll return to New Zealand to be surrounded by family and friends who knew her in her talent-show days. Maybe she’ll walk along the beach. Maybe she’ll float in some pool, slip into water like a womb and drift there with her eyes closed and the gentle sounds blooming behind her eyes. Time will go both fast and slow, as it always does. Then the album will hit. Then she’ll get on the rocket ship headed for Mars. Then Lorde will return.

This is our cover-story for issue #788 (July 2017), available now.