Ella Yelich-O’Connor is living a fantasy. At the start of 2013 she was on Twitter, quoting Modest Mouse lyrics—“oh the dashboard melted but we still have the radio”and complaining about the start of a new school year: “#grrr #school #grrr.” On October 3, a month and three days before she turned 17, the girl from Devonport, an affluent, waterfront suburb on Auckland’s North Shore, tweeted this: “get the fkouttahere. royals is NUMBER 1 on BILLBOARD in the USAAA.” By the end of January 2014, she had won two Grammy Awards—including the biggie, Song of the Year—for “Royals.”
“The whole thing has been surreal,” says Scott Maclachlan, her manager at Universal Music. In 2009, Maclachlan was sent a clip of a 12-year-old girl singing at a school talent show. When she made it clear to him that she wanted to be a songwriter as well, and that she would be called Lorde, pronounced “lord” because she liked royalty, he signed her to a development deal, introduced her to producers and songwriters and gave her time and space to find her sound. She didn’t click with any of them until she started working with producer Joel Little in his Auckland studio at the end of 2011.
“We talked about music a lot,” says Little, a fresh-faced 30-year-old, who spent nine years as the frontman for New Zealand pop-punk band Goodnight Nurse before he moved behind the mixing desk. “I’d give Ella some homework, some songs to listen to. For example, she’d never listened to Prince or Snoop Dogg. She knew Snoop Dogg as the guy from that Katy Perry song, but she didn’t know he made some cool gangster rap back in the 1990s. She thought he was just some lame dude. In turn she introduced me to stuff that she was into. We listened to The Weeknd and James Blake and we played each other cheesy pop songs.”
Their early songwriting efforts were more miss than hit. In July 2012, Ella came into the studio with the lyrics to “Royals.” Little came up with a beat, and together they found the right melody to match the words.
“I liked it, but I didn’t know if anyone else would,” says Lorde. “I think Joel had more of an idea of the impact the song would have than I did.”
“I didn’t think it would get played on radio, but I thought it was a great song,” Little says. “But no one could have guessed that song would do what it did.”
When “Royals” replaced Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” at the top of the Billboard charts at the start of October 2013, Lorde became the youngest solo artist in 26 years to reach No. 1. Her age is one subject she’s fed up talking about. “I get this weird question asked in a variety of ways,” she says. “People are like, ‘So you’re only 16, how do you have subject matter to write about?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean? a) I’ve never been older than I am, and b) I’m 16, not a one-year-old.”
Lorde is a typical teenager in many ways. She peppers her conversation with the word “like,” tweets selfies from concerts (“the weirdest lil goth at the One Direction concert is meeeee”), and suffers from acne. “I’m a regular person,” she says. “I’m in high school, I get the bus everywhere. I’m a loser and my room is dirty, you know.”
The teenage experience has been exploited by songwriters since forever, but part of Lorde’s success has been her ability to write about it honestly. “Ella is incredibly accurate in her portrayal of the way she lives and kids can identify with her because that is their life,” says Maclachlan. “She’s the antithesis to someone like Miley Cyrus who is very brash, very L.A., very aspirational, but in a faux way. The greatness of Ella’s music is that it resonates with so many other people. I’m 44 and I remember when I first heard “Going Underground” and “A Town Called Malice” by The Jam. I felt like Paul Weller was writing about my life and that’s incredibly powerful. Somehow, with every single line in every single song, she says something that resonates.”
The author of those lines has a simpler explanation for her appeal: “Maybe because I’m not singing about dropping your booty in the club, more people get it and can relate to it.”
Instead of writing bland platitudes about partying and finding/losing the love of your life, Lorde explores the emotions and real concerns of her peers, painting vivid pictures with her words. Lines like “This dream isn’t feeling sweet/we’re reeling through the midnight streets/and I’ve never felt more alone/it feels so scary getting old” from “Ribs,” and “I’ll let you in on something big/I am not a white teeth teen/I tried to join but never did” from “White Teeth Teens” are short stories. From “A World Alone,” the line “Maybe the Internet raised us/or maybe people are jerks?” is seething commentary.
Lorde explains: “I’m not trying to preach to anyone, which is something teenagers get all the time and hate. I’m just commenting on what I see and writing about how it applies to teenagers’ lives. I think we are portrayed pretty weirdly in music and movies and TV shows. Adults forget what it is like to be my age. I’m living it, so I have a more realistic viewpoint on it.
“That line [about the Internet] was something my friend said. We were at a party after spending too much time on the Internet. Sometimes after you’ve been on Tumblr for three hours and you try and talk to people it is impossible. And my friend was like, ‘Why can’t we talk to anyone at this party?’ ”
Are your friends excited or annoyed when they see themselves in your songs?
“I have a lot of friends, so everyone assumes it’s about someone else. I’d like to think I’m quite subtle.”
How has success affected friendships?
“Obviously it’s difficult, because I’m in New York and they’re in history class or whatever, but your friends are your friends for who you are. I’d like to think the people I’ve known since I was really young like me for me and not because of my music.”
While Lorde’s lyrics are intelligent and thought provoking, her music is clever in its own right: A clean, modern, minimal sound that subtly references other musical genres. “I’m a magpie, I’m a child of the Internet,” she says, “and so I’ve picked the things I like from electronic music, hip-hop, and pop music.”
Most of the beats and sound effects were made by Little on Pro Tools audio software. Only one of the songs on Lorde’s debut album, Pure Heroine, features a guitar—a three-chord trick on “A World Alone.” Little also played some keyboards. “I can’t shred on the keyboards,” he says. “I just mess around and sometimes when I do that I stumble on something that sounds really cool. Fake it ’til you make it, I guess.”
Then there’s Lorde’s powerful voice, of which Little took full advantage. “Her voice is so cool and interesting, and when you layer it up it’s like a really unique instrument in itself. We often use layered vocals, where there might usually be a guitar or a synth, it creates quite an intense atmosphere. The melodies are good, so that makes it accessible, and there are interesting things going on musically, but it’s not trying to grab you in the first five seconds. It’s a slow build.
“I think people were ready for something that sounded a bit fresher. She makes music that doesn’t treat listeners like idiots. People were craving something that doesn’t sound exactly like the last song they heard on the radio.”
Little recalls very clearly the first time Lorde sang for him in the studio.
“It was like, ‘Jackpot baby!’ The dream is to work with somebody as talented as her. When she’s singing, it’s like she’s talking about something mysterious, but something you can relate to at the same time. She’s got such a sweet voice, but she also sounds like she’d totally f*ck you up if you said something that she didn’t agree with. Sweet, but scary at the same time.”
What’s scary is how much bigger the Lorde experience could be. “Coachella and Lollapalooza have been confirmed,” says Maclachlan. “She could work every day in 2014 if she wanted to.”
“Every trip we book and every show we do, I choose to do it,” Lorde says. “I still have normal Saturday nights and hang out with my school friends and go to house parties. That’s the good thing about New Zealand, there’s very little difference to my life. I’m conscious of the fact that I have to work and miss some stuff, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. Everything has been positive and fun.”
That’s a very different buzz compared to most teenagers. It sounds too good to be true. It sounds like a fantasy, except for Lorde, it’s not.
Check out the April 2014 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands March 11) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.