A portrait of Lorde as a teenage pop prodigy
A decade ago The Spinoff founder Duncan Greive spent three months shadowing Lorde as she became a star, a period which started with ‘Royals’ as a local chart topper and ended with her as a global pop phenomenon. He was given unparalleled access across dozens of meetings, shows, studio sessions, photo shoots and even joining the family’s Sunday dinner. To mark the 10th anniversary of the release of Pure Heroine, we’re re-publishing the epic feature, with kind permission from Junkee Media.
In pop music, you learn how to wait around. Venues, airports, hotels. Waiting, waiting, waiting. And photo shoots. In mid-July Ella Yelich-O’Connor, now far better known as Lorde, is wrapped in a black dressing gown while a stylist separates her vast cloud of chestnut curls – “That pet on top of her head,” her mother calls it – into semi-manageable clumps. She teases, divides and piles, attacking it with curling irons and straighteners.
Ella’s face is grim. Later, in a small break before attention is switched to her face, she tells me “I really like that kind of thing”, gesturing to the racks of clothing. “I don’t care about hair and makeup.” That’s unfortunate. Hair and makeup takes three hours.
The only respite comes when her manager, Scott Maclachlan, arrives to check in. Maclachlan is tall and tan, with slicked back hair. He’s old enough to have watched when “the football hooligans came off the terraces and into the clubs and started taking ecstasy” in late-’80s London. Old enough to have signed Basement Jaxx before Ella was born. Old enough to have kids not far off her age. But not so old that he can tell his 16-year-old client what to do. He pulls Ella aside to inform her that EDM star David Guetta wants her on his next album.
“No,” she says sharply. “Fuck no. He’s so gross.”
Gross? Well, yes. But also the most influential and successful producer on the planet over the past five years. Stars like Rihanna, Jessie J and the Black Eyed Peas line up to work with him. He sells a shitload of albums and dominates radio. But Ella isn’t interested in debating the issue, and Maclachlan knows her well enough to move on.
Many pop stars wouldn’t even make the decision themselves. For the rest, it would at the very least require some serious discussion. Lorde is in no way a pop star at this point – ‘Royals’ is just an Antipodean hit with some big dreams attached. Already, though, the project’s momentum feels irresistible. Because Ella is no ordinary 16-year-old, and ‘Royals’ no ordinary hit single.
Its central idea is that pop music’s obsession with luxury disconnects with the reality of its audience’s lives. The trick is that it makes this critique while musically embodying so much of what’s great about contemporary pop and hip-hop – the weight of the drums, the scale of the chorus. Subliminally it says, “While I find this silly, I also adore it.” Bringing intellect and aesthetic ambition to a medium often both celebrated and derided for banality, the song sounded like a major new star kicking in the door, and demanding a place at pop’s table. You can almost feel the incumbents trembling.
In mere months, ‘Royals’ has the world swooning, and Lorde has become the most acclaimed and adored new artist of the year. She’s feted by everyone from MTV to The New Yorker. The first woman to top Billboard’s Alternative Charts since 1996. Triple platinum in Australia. In September she became the first New Zealander to have a number one single on Billboard’s Hot 100 – a feat not even Crowded House managed during their ’80s heyday.
If Neil Finn, with all his talent and those shimmering singles, couldn’t quite make the leap from New Zealand to top the world’s most important chart, how on earth did a 16-year-old kid do it with her debut single? Through the winter I’ve been looking for the answer – talking to Ella, her family and the people at Universal, sitting in on meetings, studio sessions and other events, watching ‘Royals’ take flight, watching this remarkable young woman’s rise to fame.
Late one night, years ago, her mother Sonja was woken by a light going on in the room Ella shared with her sister Jerry. She shook her husband awake. “Oh my God, Vic! Someone’s just gone into the kids’ room!”
“He opens up the door and there’s this 18-month-old, at two or three in the morning, with a pile of books. Just sitting there, reading them.”
A few years later, a relieving teacher at Vauxhall Primary on Auckland’s North Shore took Sonja aside and suggested her six-year-old daughter was gifted. She didn’t want to hear it. “Everyone’s kid’s gifted — it’s sort of a dirty word,” she says. “Gifted — what is that?” Still, she felt obliged to take Ella to an assessor.
For 90 minutes she was interviewed, and then put through the Woodcock Johnson III Test of Cognitive Abilities. The resulting report is couched in restrained academic language, but remains arresting reading.
“[Her] artwork demonstrates not only a high skill level but a mature perception of the world and a highly original perspective… Clearly a busy and highly creative mind at work… demonstrates leadership skills… sets high standards for herself and does not tolerate mistakes… Extremely advanced reading and writing, verbal, reasoning, listening and processing skills.” By some measures, she had the mental age of a 21-year-old. At the age of six. The report strongly suggested enrolling her at a programme for gifted children.
Sonja did so, reluctantly, but couldn’t shake a feeling of unease. After a few weeks she gave in to her gut, and picked her daughter up from school, telling her “get in the car. You’ve got to be in this world with everybody else.”
That was the last the George Parkyn Centre for Gifted Education saw of Ella Yelich-O’Connor. Clearly it worked out fine. “I loved school. I absolutely loved school when I was a kid,” says Ella. She always took it very seriously. “I’m a crazy perfectionist, so it’s important to me that everything I hand in has to be the absolute best thing I can hand in.”
Sonja would regularly take Ella out of school, to spend afternoons at art galleries and bookshops, and encouraged her to dive into extra-curricular activities. She followed a friend to the Devonport Drama Club, and stayed for eight years, under the tutelage of Geoff Allen, who she describes as having “had a real effect on me, and on who I was”.
“She was exceptional in every way,” says Allen. “Not an extrovert by any means, but she couldn’t be thrown.” From drama she learned to interact with adults, and to retain poise on stage, attributes which would prove handy in years to come.
At school, she entered every competition going, and the Devonport Flagstaff regularly reported on her achievements. Third in the BNZ short story competition. First in the 2007 North Shore Primary Schools Speech Competition. Second in the 2009 World Literary Quiz, held in Johannesburg.
And, that same year, winner of Belmont Idol, her intermediate school talent show where the chain of events leading to ‘Royals’ truly began. She sang Duffy’s ‘Warwick Avenue’ in the school hall, while her friend Louis McDonald — now in a folk-pop band named Five Mile Town — played guitar.
The pair were briefly a duo and a part of the fertile, sometimes hokey, Devonport music scene. “Louis and Ella” played covers at cafes around town, the reopening of Devonport’s Vic Theatre and performed on RNZ’s Afternoons with Jim Mora, a magazine-style show on New Zealand’s public broadcaster. The accompanying interview is notable chiefly for Ella’s impatience with her guitarist’s stumbling responses. Even at 12, she had no tolerance for amateurism.
The Belmont Idol performance was filmed. The footage shows a mop-haired boy picking gingerly through the notes, while alongside him sits this tall, thin girl nestling under a pile of brown curls. Her legs are crossed, one hand hangs down at her side; the other holds a microphone. She’s wearing a green T-shirt and pink print skirt, and her demeanour suggests this is just another moment on another stage. Not to be savoured or feared, just taken down.
Then she opens her mouth. This huge, soulful voice rolls out, seemingly without any particular effort. A grown voice, belying her years. For the next two minutes she inhabits the song’s role, of a lover spurned, with a vocal intensity at odds with the nonchalance she projects. She loosens up as the song progresses, running her free hand through her hair and gesturing for emphasis. After a couple of minutes, the song ends abruptly and the audience erupts. She looks surprised, then pleased, flashes a smile, stands and bows. Then it stops.
The footage made its way to Maclachlan, an Englishman who had recently emigrated here with his New Zealand-born wife. He’d had some successes in the UK, signing artists like Groove Armada and Dragonette. He met with Universal New Zealand’s MD Adam Holt, who told him frankly that there wasn’t really room for an A&R in such a small market. But the pair got on well, and agreed to try and find a role for Maclachlan with business development work to supplement the A&R. Maclachlan was taken by the footage, and got in touch. Thus the first, halting steps of Ella’s transformation into Lorde were taken.
For her parents, this was far too soon. “I was really unhappy about it,” says Sonja. “I would never have chosen that. Not at 12. Golly!”
Sonja Yelich and her husband Vic O’Connor have very particular ideas about parenting. Sonja’s father was a first-generation Serbian immigrant – “very hardworking, seven-days-a-week hardworking,” while her mother “struggled, emotionally and mentally”, she says, “so I pretty much did what I wanted to do.”
“As a kid, sometimes I would let myself out at night, and just walk the street, because I loved the world at night,” she says. “Back then, the streetlights were this silver blue colour. They weren’t the garish orange they are now. They were like little stars. And I just loved to look at that. I could go anywhere, as long as I was home for dinner.”
That wandering and sense of wonder made Yelich a poet, one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed. Her love of words, of their power, is easy to see reflected in Ella.Vic O’Connor is the youngest of eight children from a large, staunchly Catholic family in the central North Island. He praises his father’s values and ethics, but says sadly that the admonition “little boys should be seen and not heard” was strictly adhered to in their household. He received a certificate in engineering through the Ministry of Works, and has risen to head a key part of one of the country’s largest engineering consultancies.
When it came time to raise their own children, Vic and Sonja were determined that what they felt they missed growing up wouldn’t be repeated. They would create a home drowning in warmth, in encouragement, in opportunity. The house would be full of books. Before bed, Vic would sing to the children and Sonja would read to them.
Dinner would be an occasion, the family coming together to share stories and debate whatever came to mind. The Irish and Serbian blood comes through. “We’re super-loud and intense,” says Ella. “People come to dinner with my family for the first time and they’re like, ‘Oh god. What have I done to myself?’”
When Maclachlan first watched that Belmont Idol performance, he thought he’d find her a song and have her sing it – “that classic A&R equation”. Failing that, she could knock out a set of ’60s-styled covers. He met Ella and Sonja at a cafe and later gave them a CD to serve as a reference. It ended up in a dumpster. “I was just so not interested,” says Ella. This 12-year-old wasn’t content to sing covers. She wanted to write songs.
The chance of any randomly selected child with a fine voice being able to write worthwhile songs approaches nil. But viewed from a certain angle, Ella’s upbringing looks like a training manual for creating the perfect pop singer. While her mother and father are the antithesis of stage parents – they’re riddled with doubt even now about the music career – they could scarcely have prepared her better for this world. Drama classes for poise. Voracious reading for lyrical ability. School band for musicianship. All that was added to the voice, the look, the intellect and drive. And now, the opportunity.
Maclachlan didn’t know any of that yet, but found her intriguing enough to pursue. While he would eventually become her manager, at this point he brought her along gently. In time, she signed a development deal with the label. Universal paid for singing lessons with coach Frances Dickinson, while Maclachlan searched for an appropriate writing partner. She met with locally prominent musicians: ’80s icon Rikki Morris, Supergroove and Drab Doo Riffs mastermind Karl Steven and singer-turned-jewellery designer Boh Runga. Sometimes they wrote songs.
Ella didn’t enjoy the experience. “It was incredibly uncomfortable and stressful,” she says. Worse, she never felt like she was getting anywhere worthwhile. While Maclachlan was very encouraging, his enthusiasm wasn’t penetrating Ella’s psyche. When he’d praise her work she’d think, “that’s bullshit. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She started to get some small degree of traction with Debbie Swann, an established songwriter who recalls their sessions bittersweetly — while “really happy” for Ella, she also feels a little used. “Perhaps you could pay me for my time, Universal.”
Maclachlan is bemused by the statement. “If I paid a fee for every speculative writing session we wouldn’t have any money to run a record company,” he says. In his view, if a song worth releasing came out of the collaboration, the publishing royalties would be the reward.
Ella’s early songwriting and musical partners must now feel like they were one number away from winning the lottery. There are plenty of recordings from her early teens around. If commercially released, they would now be ticking over on iTunes worldwide in the slipstream of ‘Royals’, leaving a trail of publishing money behind. But ‘Royals’ might never have got a shot if she had a track record of lesser material. And besides, that’s not Ella’s style. “I like the cleanliness,” she says.
“I didn’t feel like people needed to be privy to any growing process. We live in New Zealand, and the culture in New Zealand with musicians is to watch everyone kind of fuck it up a few times before they get it right. But I don’t feel like that’s really a thing anywhere else.”
There’s uncomfortable truth in that statement. But it might be changing. Ella compares the internet to electricity. Her generation has always faced the world, and will measure itself against it. That’s certainly the attitude you need to achieve what she has — at any age, let alone 16.
Even in a culture fixated on youth, 16 remains incredibly young. Over the past few years you can count the number of singers who’ve achieved true fame at that age on one hand. Justin Bieber. Chris Brown. Miley Cyrus. Taylor Swift.
That’s about it. Of those artists, only Swift had a major role in the composition of her songs, and she had established Nashville songwriter Liz Rose helping along the way. The rest are products of a pop music machine – and almost as famous for off-stage drama as their music. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Ella’s parents, as they watch their daughter walk into the limelight.
“It’s pretty scary, to be honest with you,” says Vic. “It’s a pretty scary situation. But it’s a talent that Ella’s got that she needs to let out.” That, and they have immense faith in their daughter. “I’m confident she’ll never do a Selena Gomez,” says Sonja.
Cyrus, Bieber and company are products of the way pop chart hits are usually created: you take a pliant, pretty young singer; you give proven songwriters and producers a tonne of cash; occasionally, you get a hit.
It’s easy to spend upwards of a million dollars on a single’s recording and video and, even then, it’ll more than likely fail. For a long time the music business could live with that, because when the hits did come they were so astoundingly lucrative. The industry was like a scheming, hopeless addict through the 80s and 90s, its profligacy and casualties masked by seductive charisma, which attracted talent, and unholy cashflow.
“It’s a pretty scary situation. But it’s a talent that Ella’s got that she needs to let out.”
Then the internet arrived. The music industry peaked in 1999, with inflation-adjusted revenues of US$39 billion. In 2012, after more than 13 years of file-sharing, they were down to US$16.5 billion. But getting cut off from the easy money has prompted something of a moment of clarity. The industry has started to get its shit together. It’s by no means transformed. Ella emailed me a terrible remix of ‘Royals’ which a branch of her record company fought unsuccessfully to release in place of the original in one territory. But the major labels are undeniably showing signs of having learned worthwhile lessons from an awful decade.
More hits now come from the bottom up, driven by the audience, rather than top down, driven by marketing. The upside to this, apart from the obvious financial efficiencies, is in the audience’s relationship with the artist. Lorde, still very much an outlier, is a classic case in point – her fans feel like they have had a role in her rise, and hold her that much tighter as a result. The lyrics, embracing outsiders and ordinariness, help cement that bond. Universal New Zealand MD Adam Holt summed up the value of the approach when asked what the next single would be. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “People are buying into her.”
The timing is perfect. It’s unlikely Lorde would have come out of the impatient industry of the 80s or 90s. And even less likely her parents would have allowed their little girl into its clutches.
Towards the end of 2011, still seeking the right writing partner, Maclachlan spoke with Ashley Page, also a music manager, about some commercial work for another of his artists. That didn’t work out, but Ella’s name and dilemma came up. Page suggested she meet with Joel Little, one of his artists.
Little was nearly 30, so twice Ella’s age, but still of a very different generation from the others – he’s boyish in skinny jeans and hoodies, and disarmingly affable. The son of a prominent writer, Paul Little, he’d also had over a decade in the industry. Most of it in a pop-punk band, a fact Ella loves. “Joel has no front,” she says. “Because he was in Goodnight Nurse, he can’t try to be cool.”
Little’s band played high schools the length of the country, but it couldn’t last forever. “We were getting older, but the crowd was staying the same age.” He was getting interested in electronic music, so in his mid-20s bought himself some equipment and started to learn the rudiments of production.
He was a quick study, and found work with everyone from mainstream pop singers like Dane Rumble to Broods, winners of the Rockquest, a nationwide competition for young bands. At the same time, Ella’s own taste was evolving fast; she moved from Grizzly Bear to Animal Collective to James Blake. All the while, though, she remained fascinated by mainstream pop like Justin Timberlake. “It’s magical,” she says. She’d pick apart songs, latching on to production elements and vocal melodies. “Why is it shameful to like this music,” she thought, “or write this music?”
Little was introduced to Ella in December 2011, not long after she’d turned 15. “It was a very strange situation,” he says, “because I hadn’t heard her sing.”
Ella warmed to him immediately. “He’s just so kind and gentle and funny,” she says. “It was the first time I’ve felt comfortable with something which had been just so personal and difficult for me before.”
They weren’t an immediate success. “Our first few songs were so shit,” says Little. A second session, during Ella’s April school holidays, went better. One song in particular stood out. ‘Million Dollar Bills’ was constructed principally from manipulated samples of Ella’s voice – a technique both felt worth exploring.
Ella spent the following term counting down the weeks until the July holidays. They had four days booked; she wanted to make them count. She walked into the studio with the lyrics to ‘Bravado’; ‘Biting Down’ and ‘Royals’. All three are magnificent, rich in imagery and piquant observation. Little constructed beats and the pair came up with melodies together. By the end of the week, all three were largely finished.
“Scott came on a Thursday, and listened to ‘Bravado’ and ‘Royals’. I remember him swearing a lot,” says Ella. “He was pretty happy.”
On November 21 of 2012, two weeks after she had turned 16, Sonja watched her daughter tapping away at her laptop in the lounge. It was exam leave, but Ella’s mind was elsewhere. The Love Club EP had been finished for months, and she and Maclachlan had decided to release it for free online, emulating The Weeknd, an artist they both admired.
“I made a Facebook, a Twitter, a Tumblr and a Soundcloud,” she says. “I made everything live at the same time. And I put it on my personal Facebook, invited friends along. And that was it.” With a few clicks, she became Lorde. Her body coursed with emotion. Anxiety, excitement and ambition with nowhere to go. “I just sat in this horrible La-Z-Boy chair in my house and clicked refresh every 10 seconds,” she says. She didn’t have to wait long for validation. Within hours she had 300 fans. “People aren’t just listening to this out of courtesy,” she thought.
Things didn’t change right away. She kept her job doing filing at her dad’s engineering firm for minimum wage. But the songs, once unleashed, kept running.
Jason Flom is head of Universal Music subsidiary Lava Records. In the 90s he had a serious hot streak: Tori Amos, Counting Crows and Matchbox 20. He was sent a link to the recording early on. “Immediately obsessed”, he became determined to sign Lorde to Lava. “I can’t wait to make you a star,” he wrote in an email not long after the songs went live.
“I was like, ‘Bleurgh’,” says Ella. But she still signed with him. “I did sign with him. Americans are like that.” Concert bookers the Windish Agency felt as strongly. They contracted her before she’d even played a live show as Lorde.
In six months, and after just a few days with Little, Ella had gone from feeling totally lost to writing a single which would echo around the world. They didn’t know it yet, but it would soon make them rich. The irony of an anti-materialistic single doing that is not lost on them, although money is not Ella’s motivation. “If I didn’t tell her the state of her bank account, she’d never know,” says Vic, the trustee of her company.
It’s clear Ella and Little have a great working relationship. Just before the album went for mastering, I went to Little’s Golden Age studio to watch the pair fine tune a few songs. It’s located in a pretty art deco building in an otherwise industrial section of Auckland, with the letters M U S I C emblazoned across the corner. To gain entry you walk through an office which houses much of New Zealand’s music management talent – all of whom have had to watch Ella come and go, knowing they somehow missed out on the biggest prize in New Zealand music history.
The interior of Golden Age is decked out with some 70s furniture and dimly lit by both computer screens and glowing rabbit, duck and squirrel lamps. There’s some technical talk — “I swapped that synth for a slightly dirty one”; “It needs some vocal hits for sure” — but as much time is spent talking shit. The record company has sourced a signed copy of the new LP from Ella’s idol, James Blake. She gazes at it lovingly, then attempts to play it cool. “It’s so stupid to worry about autographs. ‘This person touched the same piece of paper as me!’” says Ella sarcastically.
“Now that you’re giving them,” needles Little. She smiles, and they swap their own autograph stories. They’re delightfully down-home: Joel has sports broadcaster and game show host Phillip Leishman’s; Ella got Matt Gibb’s – then host of a popular kid’s show called Studio 2 – when she was eight.
Later, Ella mentions that Flume – who she loves – has asked her to open for him. In a few weeks she’ll be far too big for such support slots, but she doesn’t know that yet. “I can’t tell if it’s cool or not, ’cause it’ll just be heaps of kids on pills.”
She’s making that kind of call all the time. While her father has an eye on the major business structures (“I’m an engineer,” he told me. “I like things to be organised. I specialise in foundations”), Ella is deeply interested – some might say obsessed – with all the line-by-line stuff.
One August afternoon I sat in on a meeting between Maclachlan, his assistant Amy Goldsmith and Ella, while they ran through the latest in the incessant stream of offers, opportunities and decisions which make up the day-to-day of a pop star in waiting. Individually, each one might be of little consequence, which is why many artists leave them to management. But cumulatively they dictate where, when and with whom they appear and ultimately end up shaping the way an artist is perceived. Maclachlan will advocate for a certain position, but Ella, self-confessed perfectionist, can’t stand to let someone else make decisions for her. So most days, wherever she might be, a quickfire meeting will happen, wherever she happens to be.
I watched this happen at photo shoots, in downtime between interviews and before shows. Today’s is in Maclachlan’s cramped office. On the wall sit four clocks, with the time in New York, London, Sydney and Auckland. When I first saw them I thought they were faintly silly, a parody of the industry exec of days gone by. Recent events render that viewpoint overly cynical.This afternoon’s lengthy agenda starts with her schedule for the remainder of the year – November off (“Yes! I can go back into the studio,” says Ella) and Christmas off (“nothing’s going to get in the way of that,” says Sonja). The rest of the time will be wall-to-wall promotion and touring.
The pace is brutal. In 15 minutes they cover an impending UK release, Ella’s ideas for the next music video, accounting treatments for a remix and a standing invitation to a writing camp for the next Major Lazer album, with Pharrell Williams and Diplo.
Just last year she emailed Maclachlan: “You asked me a while ago who my dream producer would be, and I think these days I’m leaning toward Diplo.” Now things have changed to the point when she can say breezily of the camp, “I thought it’d be cool to swing by for a day.”
It’s not without tetchy moments. Maclachlan mentions a “cover reboot” for the deluxe edition of the album. “That’s very ‘record company’,” says Ella acidly. “I don’t know if we have grounds to completely rehash everything.”
On they plough. Merchandise. “Yes! I’m excited about that. Sweatshirts and short-sleeved T-shirts. Black and grey marl. That’s it.” For advertising, Maclachlan calls in Alistair Cain, Universal New Zealand’s head of marketing, and plays an early cut of the television commercial on his computer. Ella wants to keep the date rendered in Roman numerals. It looks crazy (XXVII.IX.MMXIII). She won’t be moved. After an hour, they’re done.
Afterwards, Cain says that in 20 years in the industry he’s never come across an artist so engaged with the minutiae of their presentation. He points up at a giant poster of Lana Del Rey. “With her, we could do whatever we liked,” he says.
Ella is frequently compared to Del Rey, though it infuriates her. Both are white women making pop music soaked in the rhythm and attitude of hip-hop. But Del Rey has a much more conventional narrative — she had an image makeover prior to her breakout Born To Die album, and co-writes her songs with some of the biggest producers and writers in the industry.
Ella’s songs, meanwhile, are very much her vision, and hers alone. That meant there was no one to deflect attention to when a blogger writing on the website feministing.com decried ‘Royals’ as racist. Months earlier, over burgers and cokes on a sunny winter’s day, Ella and I had discussed the potential for the song to be misinterpreted. Even though “gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom” – a set of black music clichés – is immediately followed by the rock’n’roll excess of “trashin’ the hotel room”, it’s the nature of contemporary commentary to intentionally misconstrue in the endless quest for clicks.
“I mean, I was 15 when I wrote that song,” says Ella, a little sadly. “I wasn’t thinking about anyone’s cultural aspirations. I was being a bit silly. I don’t know. I can understand [the response] now, and it’s probably not my place to even comment on it. It’s just one of those kind of uncomfortable grey areas.”
One thing Ella doesn’t often sing about directly is love or lust – the subject matter of the vast majority of hit singles. She quotes Del Rey’s ‘Blue Jeans’ with disgust: “I will love you till the end of time/I will wait a million years”, and recently decried the sentiment of Selena Gomez’s ‘Come and Get It’. Suffice to say, she’s a feminist.
“Absolutely. Wholeheartedly,” she says. “I think women who say, ‘No, I’m not a feminist — I love men,’ I think that is just… You don’t know what it means. You think it means that, ‘I don’t shave under my arms, I burn my bras. Fuck men!’ How could you be so uneducated, and so unwilling to learn about something which is so important to you?”
She’s also conscious of the influence she has on other young women. “Taylor Swift is so flawless, and so unattainable, and I don’t think it’s breeding anything good in young girls. ‘I’m never going to be like Taylor Swift, why can’t I be as pretty as Lorde?’ That’s fucking bullshit,” she says, straining forward for emphasis, her huge eyes burning. Later she reflects on her tendency to be so outspoken. “You’re never going to appeal to everyone. You might as well have some sort of belief system.”
She’s a strange person to spend time with. At times she can just disappear. During a studio session to playback her debut album Pure Heroine one last time before mastering, she closed her eyes, lay down and let the sound wash over her for long periods of time. More often, she’s looking you dead in the eye, waiting intently for a reaction to what she’s saying or scrutinising your every word. If you step out of line or display muddled thinking, she’ll pounce. When I forgot myself and issued an opinion on a production effect at the studio, she turned and said “So you’re Rick Rubin now?” quick as a cat. It’s pretty disconcerting being reprimanded by a teenager when you’re in your thirties.
You soon forget her age. “I never really treated her like a kid,” says Little. Speechwriter and satirist David Slack is a family friend, and believes her prolific reading – over 1,000 books by 12 – helped prepare her for this moment. “What lies at the heart of this is a love of language, and a fascination with it,” he says. That, and seemingly unshakeable self-confidence. “There’s a steadiness in the way she looks at the world.”
Her youth, far from a handicap overcome, seems a source of strength. With adulthood comes doubt, second-guessing. But when your debut single is a worldwide smash, why worry?
In mid-July, with ‘Royals’ just beginning its run in the US, there was already an aura around Lorde far stronger than that of any New Zealand artist in recent memory. She’d had two number one singles in a matter of months, and her debut album was nearly complete. I pick her up from a weatherboard villa the family’s renting in Bayswater, Auckland – their own is being renovated – ahead of her album cover shoot. Out of the front door bounds Ella. Tall, slightly gawky, limbs flailing. That might be her age, or the platform shoes I barely see her without. We drive toward the venue in Mt Eden, and talk about TV.
Thanks to all that reading, she came to the current golden age of television late, but fell hard. She adores The Sopranos, and one of the best lines in the statement of intent ‘Bravado’ — “I was raised up/ To be admired, to be noticed” — is paraphrased from Mad Men’s Joan Holloway. Most of her cultural references she tosses out are similarly adult — author Michael Chabon, essayist Laura Mulvey.
Early on she implores I read a profile of the porn star James Deen written by Wells Tower, a favourite short story writer of hers. It’s magnificent, but also deeply, savagely sexual. I don’t know how to talk to a kid about something like that, so I leave it. With Ella, you’ll always blink first.
We pull in to White Studios, a cavernous series of rooms on the city fringe, and she commences that interminable hair and makeup session. I chat to Karen Inderbitzen-Waller who’s styling the shoot, and has “half the Zambesi archive” there, along with a bunch of younger designers’ work. “Everyone wants to put their clothes on her back.” The discussions about wardrobe are two-way. “I’ve worked with a lot of other young musicians,” says Inderbitzen-Waller, “and they don’t know what they want.” That’s never a problem with Ella.
It would be easy to see her controlling tendencies as the excessive demands of a pampered child had they not proven so valuable. Her instincts told her not to release anything until it was perfect, to feed her imagery out slowly, to value artistic integrity over commercial considerations in her music videos.
Joel Kefali, who shot her first two clips, is art directing today, and points out how good she is at balancing “pop values versus indie values”. There’s always a lot of pressure to have the pop side win out; thus far she’s trusted her instincts and resisted.
The shoot moves to a chilly garage next door. In the midst of the warmest winter on record, we’ve struck the coldest day of the year. It’s four degrees celsius at 10 in the morning. The onlookers rug up and grumble; Ella ignores it. The crew are in for a long day and stay well after the scheduled finish. By all accounts it was her driving the late night.
On a Sunday night in late August, I join the Yelich-O’Connors for dinner, at the invitation of Sonja, who wants me to meet the family. The volume and activity level in the house is near-overwhelming. I perch next to Ella at a small island benchtop, while Vic preps potatoes and eggplant and Sonja fine-tunes a pair of salads. Ella’s wearing fluorescent orange trackpants and a grey marl sweatshirt and is uncharacteristically subdued.
She’s just back from her first trip to the US and has the slightly dazed look of someone caught between timezones. “Dad told me it was Sunday on Friday, and I believed him,” she says.Her younger sister India brings out the latest issue of celebrity magazine Woman’s Day. It features long-lens images of Ella with her boyfriend, photographer James Lowe, at Auckland Airport, captured a few days earlier. It’s a window into the future – her first paparazzi shots. The feature gushes about “a secret love club with just two members”. Sonja and Ella’s sisters are dismayed, but Ella seems more resigned. She knew this was coming.
A plate of thinly sliced pears with feta and crackers is placed in front of me. After I’ve taken one, it’s game on for the kids – the plate shrinks to nothing with a pace and intensity that recalls kill scenes in nature documentaries. But behind the chaos and the volume, there’s a logic to proceedings. The table is laid, candles lit, food assembled. And water brought: “Ella! What? You’re doing water! You never do water!” At various points the evening will resemble an elaborate game, wherein Yelich-O’Connor’s siblings try to frame her as behaving more civilly than usual due to my presence.
We move to the dining table. Along with the immediate family a favourite aunt, Jules, is up for the weekend from Turangi, in the central North Island, where Vic attended high school and most of his family still live. In the early part of the night Vic is mostly silent, letting the women – mostly his children – dominate the conversation. It roams ceaselessly, and can feel like competitive sport, with attention seized by one player before being wrestled away and advanced by another.
At one point Ella and India hold hands and sing a recent single by Drake. “Ella actually does this thing where she sings a line 700 times,” says Sonja. “We’d yell at her to shut up, throwing shoes against the wall,” continues elder sister Jerry, 19. “I’ll have read the same line about commercial law five times.”
Jerry is as academically driven as Ella, who topped Takapuna Grammar in English last year. “A-plusses look so pretty,” says Jerry. She’s in the midst of a quadruple major, including commerce papers, so she stays abreast of the business of Lorde and accompanied her sister on her first trip to America.
India, 14, is deeply involved in theatre, and has this way of commanding your attention even among a group more than adept on that front. It would be easy to mistake her for the family celebrity. She implores me to see Katy Perry’s Part Of Me documentary, and teases her father about exposing too much chest hair. Angelo, the youngest, just tries to keep up – he knows that to get attention from his parents or sisters in this situation he needs to compete on volume and pace. He holds his own.
The meal is cleared away, and replaced with a pavlova. The children heckle Sonja for making dessert, claiming it’s purely for show. Sonja – blonde, loud, quick-witted – defends herself briefly, before demurring. Her children vanish to tag-team the washing up the same way they did the pears. Vic, Sonja, Jules and I drink herbal tea and talk about Radio New Zealand. Ella returns and rolls her eyes at the conversation. “AM radio,” she says, sounding every inch the intended insult.
The whole family clearly loves these dinners, but know this period, with them all living under one roof, is coming to an end. ‘Royals’ has started its march up the US charts and Ella and Sonja depart shortly to spend two months overseas promoting the album. Jerry is off soon as well, on a scholarship to Germany.
“Sometimes I wish it wasn’t like this,” Sonja had said wistfully to me a few weeks earlier. Two parental imperatives are at war in Ella’s success: the desire to let your child’s talent out versus the desire to protect them. “It’s a parent/16-year-old relationship,” says Vic defiantly. “That doesn’t change.”
“Sometimes I have to go and take her iPhone off her. I can still do that,” says Sonja. “But for how much longer?”
I notice it’s well after 10, and rise to leave. The time has evaporated in this slightly manic, very entertaining family’s company. Sonja instructs Ella to walk me to the door; her daughter complies without a word.
Driving home I reflect on the night: how contented Vic; how proud Sonja; how boisterous the kids. And how quiet Ella. She complained to me once about my interest in her family, just as she has frequently about other media’s obsession with her age. But when you’re 16, family is almost all you’ve ever known – the years to come are when you start sloughing it off and building your own world. The one Ella has grown up in, with sisterly codes and odd hierarchies, seems to have its own language and is so buoyant, so interested, so intellectually engaged that it’s impossible not to ascribe it a tremendous role in preparing Ella for her unveiling as Lorde.
A few weeks later she sits backstage in a vast black Miss Crabb dress, perched on her boyfriend’s knee and playing Candy Crush on her iPhone. A media launch gig starts in a few minutes. Her eyes are glazed, a half-smile plays on her face, and she seems barely aware of her surroundings — it’s the “trance-like state” her mother has observed in her before performances. Soon she stands, picks out some jewellery, and disappears into a darkened anteroom, walking in circles and singing to herself.
Rake-thin keyboardist Jimmy MacDonald sips on a beer — one of two backstage; Lowe has the other. The backstage rider consists of Pam’s Choc-Honey Muesli Bars and water. Maclachlan, Vic and Sonja are determined to keep her clean as a whistle, particularly around shows. So far it’s working.
Drummer Ben Barter taps out an anxious rhythm on the tyre of a road bike. “We worked out, this tour’s going to be two months,” he says later. “And we’ll be nervous for two hours a day. What does that do to you?”
“Ulcers,” replies Maclachlan. “I’ve had two. You piss blood. It’s awful.”
The nerves are always there, buzzing at a low level for all involved. Because, for all her successes, Lorde is a work in progress – and the patchy media showcase proves it. That’s part of her charm, why she feels different to other more micro-managed singers. It’s also partly her and her whole team’s inexperience. While Maclachlan and Universal New Zealand have many years in the industry, none has worked at anything on this scale, attracting this level of scrutiny, with stakes this high.
They’re relishing it. “Everyone involved in this feels that they’re touching something really special,” says Maclachlan. “That’s what we’re all in it for.”
Or is it? There’s a lot of money about to be made. And Scott MacLachan isn’t just her A&R – he’s her manager. How can he be trusted to look out for her when the record label is paying his wages? Vic O’Connor, well versed in contracts as his firm’s MD, isn’t worried.
“What you’ve got to remember is that while there is potentially a conflict of interest in a decision he might make for Universal, as against a decision he might make for Ella as her manager, he also has a vested interest in her management. If things go well for Ella, as they’re looking like they might, he’s got a pretty vested interest in making the right decision for her.”
If Maclachlan does have a conflict, maybe it’s stacked in Ella’s favour. He earns a percentage of her revenues (the figure isn’t disclosed, but 20 per cent is common) and has every incentive to maximise her income, even, if it comes to it, at the expense of his employer.
Maclachlan’s boss, Adam Holt, isn’t worried about that, principally because his branch of the company retains ownership of the project overall. They funded it alone. Unusually, ‘Royals’ was produced without help from New Zealand on Air. They’re a cultural funding agency who have had their name on almost every music video to come out of this country, and many of the albums. When the song started blowing up, NZ on Air staff beseeched Universal to allow them to put it on one of their “Kiwi Hit Disc” radio samplers, only to be met with polite but firm refusals. NZ on Air trumpeted its success in reports to the broadcasting minister anyway.
Maclachlan says the decision to pass up funding was principally because it just wasn’t a hugely expensive exercise. Two people in a small studio, making music. Ella takes a different line: “You know how much negative power that logo has for my generation?” Once again, you’re struck by the bluntness and confidence, not just for one so young, but for anyone.
Her youth might be a newsy hook, but it’s intentionally not front and centre of the campaign. “One of the things that became a mantra for me, to everyone involved in the project, was that her age is nothing to do with it,” says Maclachlan. “There was never any requirement for that. She’s not great for 16 – she’s just really great.”
Perhaps more than Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, English singer Kate Bush, who had her first hit in the late-70s at 19, provides a better comparison. Both have enormous voices, stark visions and incredibly compelling lyrics, and balance impulses toward art and pop music. In time, the art side won out for Bush; many around Ella think she might end up tipping that way too.
In the meantime she’s scaling the charts, which puts a target on you, particularly in New Zealand. A group of mostly male, mostly older music industry veterans have been asking whether this is Lorde’s work, or the machine’s.
Do they have a point? Joel Little has deep roots in the industry. But prior to working with Ella, his biggest hit was Kids of 88’s ‘My House’, which peaked at #3 in the NZ charts and did nothing special overseas. Maclachlan has no time for the “major label” critique. “If your premise is that it was the record company, we’d have a fuckload more hits.”
The sniping seems driven more by incredulity that someone so young – and so female – could be this talented. A prominent critic and blogger named Simon Sweetman gave full voice to the sentiment in his rambling, embittered review of The Love Club EP.
“This is a scam. We’re all being played… extraordinary to think that Lorde has gone on to appear on Billboard covers and play Jools Holland and whatever else. Hey, good on her, if that’s what she wants – and I’m sure she doesn’t even know what she wants… this 16 year old is still being sexualised in the selling of her music – it’s just to dudes that wank over Farmers lingerie catalogues rather than being honest and hiring porn.”
The idea that men should judge the sexuality of female singers’ clothing choices is already pretty vile, but Lorde, with her predilection for floor-length black dresses and vast, enveloping cloaks is a particularly bizarre target for the argument. Suggesting she doesn’t even know what she wants is still less defensible – you’ll be disabused of that notion all of two lines into most interviews.
When Sweetman posted the review Ella was asleep in Paris, having just played ‘Royals’ on French television. She messaged me the following morning. “I read it, and then looked at the Arc de Triomphe from the window of my hotel room, and felt nothing at all.”
Unsurprisingly, her mind was elsewhere. On the tour, the next single, the forthcoming album. And on songs yet unwritten. That’s what excites her and her team most of all. And with good reason. For all she’s achieved, she’s barely scratched the surface of her voice’s emotional range, and worked with only one producer. Her lyrics, already among the best in contemporary pop, will surely improve.
So despite all the formidable noise she’s already made, a tantalising question now hangs over this gathering storm: What if she’s just getting started?