How old is Lorde? If you’re a fan, then you know. If you’ve heard of her career arc, then you likely think she’s older than she is. You could average out the age of her celebrity friends – Taylor Swift (27), Jack Antonoff (33), Karlie Kloss (25) – but you’d still be off. Lorde has been on the world stage for just over four years and rarely is so much noise made about a musician’s age. After the runaway success of her first album, Pure Heroine, a US website asked a New Zealand registry for a copy of her original birth certificate, at the cost of US$17, to silence a group of people online – selfdubbed ‘Lorde Age Truthers’. They didn’t believe she could release a debut album like that at 16. The certificate came back: Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, born November 7, 1996. So, for the record, she’s about to turn 21.
A lot about Lorde defies traditional units of measurement. Her dazzling reappearance into the limelight with her second album, Melodrama, has tested the limits of the traditional record cycle at four years, yet she says in one single evening she can produce five songs. She seems to defy age. Her 2012 debut EP, The Love Club, was released for free on SoundCloud, where she became internet famous before anyone had time to count how many people had copies of her music. A recent Wall Street Journal poll asked readers if they were her manager, would they advise her to a) stick with her ‘edgy down-to-earth’ image or b) ‘promote her into a big dynamic star like Taylor Swift’; categories all trying to be made to stick.
That the age element has actually stuck confused her for a long time. Sitting in a spa chair in her Sydney hotel, the day before her Vogue cover shoot, a month before the release of the album, she’s explaining what navigating the mire of questions on the topic was like. “The hard thing was when people would ask me: ‘Do you feel 16?’ and I’m like: ‘I don’t know, I’ve never been 40.’ It was really confusing.” It’s after dark and the spa is closed, but one corner room is open to get Lorde’s manicure and pedicure done for the shoot, something she’s apologetic about having to do during an interview, perhaps conscious of a physical enacting of the difference between celebrity and everyone else.
Her fame is not brand new, but new enough. Pure Heroine, which was her first full-length album, came out in 2013 and soon after peaked at number three on the Billboard 200. The lead single Royals won her a Grammy in 2014 for Song of the Year where she also took home Best Pop Solo Performance. Her parents, including mum Sonja Yelich, always by her side, watched as she collected the award in front of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. That same year she made Forbes’s ’30 Under 30’ list.
That the album enshrined that formative period of life was in part why the conversation was kept alive. The crux was in the maturity that the record, co-written with record producer Joel Little, beamed out, making it read like it was penned by a more seasoned artist. It didn’t help that for a long time she didn’t put her face to her work; the album cover was black with white text. In Team, the third single, she sings: ‘I’m kind of over being told to put my hands up in the air/So there/I’m kind of older than I was when I revelled without a care.’ It was a mature rebuke, a declaration of self-awareness that a generation didn’t want to be told what to be like.
“It was talking about what it was like to be that age, so I did get it,” she says of the constant link between her and teenagehood since. “I’m not that much older than I was,” she says accidentally mimicking the words of her own song, “but when I do see a 16-year-old or 17-year-old doing interesting work, I’m like: ‘Huh, that’s interesting.’” What caught her was the ‘voice of a generation’ label.
“People decided that I was the teenage perspective. They’d be like: ‘Oh, well, it’s not really, because it’s not covering this sort of thing’ and I was like: ‘Ah, I’m just one kid! I can’t be everybody’s voice, you know,’” she says, speaking more out of respect to the gravitas of such a title. She knew she was in a unique position. “It was an interesting thing, and especially because I felt like my writing was so specific and so personal, and people did really take it to be this much wider thing, which is superflattering,” she qualifies.
When Lorde turned 20 last year, she was in New York, part way through finishing Melodrama, when she posted a goodbye to her teens on Facebook. “Tomorrow I turn 20,” she wrote, “and it’s all I’ve been able to think about for days. I walk around the city, up by the park and by the health food store and down into the subway, this new age hanging in front of my eyes like two of those Mylar balloons that never come down. Can people see it, I wonder, that I’m about to cross over?” The marker was both for herself and for her followers. “I had been obsessed with teenage life since even before I was a teenager, so to cross over felt really poignant and like something I had to address,” she says now. “It was saying goodbye to those years of being 14, 15, 16 and just discovering so much and feeling so invisible and running around getting up to all this weird mischief in your own town. That was sort of the stuff that I was like: ‘Aww, guys!’”
Lorde’s closeness with her fans is a constant. When she was 13, record label executives tried to get her to build her following by going on ‘liking sprees’ after she had signed a developmental record deal. She refused. ‘Authenticity’ is now the gold standard in social media engagement, bandied around in boardrooms. The way she traverses Tumblr, Instagram – posting fan artworks – and sharing insights into her writing process on Twitter is immediate and engaged. Born in a post-internet age of intersectional feminism, she’s nimble and razor sharp. When the media questioned her decision to let go of her original manager who discovered her, she hit back, tweeting: “Hey, men, [sic] – do me and yourselves a favour and don’t underestimate my skill.”
Recently, a University of Kentucky study reviewed lyrics of the top songs from 1980-2007 and found increasing amounts of first-person singular pronouns (‘I’, ‘Me’) than first-person plural pronouns (‘We’, ‘Us’). They drew a link to recent evidence of rises in loneliness and psychopathology. When her hit song Royals was released in 2013, Lorde
was an outsider banding together with other outsiders. ‘My friends and I we’ve cracked the code/We count our dollars on the train to the party,’ she sang. ‘But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.’ She would be at home in Auckland raiding friend’s parents’ cupboards for food listening to A$AP Rocky rapping about couture. ‘We don’t care,’ she reproached. ‘We aren’t caught up in your love affair.’ Those trying to match up with unrealistic standards, or feeling the disenfranchisement of being young and dependent joined the Royals ‘we’. Her fans grew, embracing her intimacy and gloss-free descriptions. ‘Now bring my boys in,’ she sings on Team. ‘Their skin in craters like the moon.’ This new album has more ‘I’, she tells me, adding she felt like “a little astronaut floating around”, but the closeness is still there. “I think the key is to keep making really personal records. That’s kind of always been my thing, to tell my specific story, in all its awkwardness and weirdness and greatness.”
Melodrama peaked at number one in the Billboard 200 – and the ARIA charts – after its June 2017 release. It is being talked about as a departure, the cursory check-off for a second album in a critical sense. In it she’s explicit but never gratuitous. She’s raw but not crude. If Pure Heroine was a teenage dream – listening to Broken Social Scene records, the buzz in the summer air before a house party, watching dawn break in suburban streets – then Melodrama is a lucid dream of being young, party vices and all the inelegance that comes with it. Her lyrics this time around have distance, but there’s a participatory layer. It reflects a gear change in her life.
“I basically turned 19 and the world was like: ‘Alright, we’re going to toss everything up in the air and it’s all going to come down in a really crazy way.’ All of a sudden I moved out of home, I went through a break-up,” she says of splitting with her boyfriend of three years, photographer James Lowe. “It felt like every day and every night I was totally having my mind blown by all these new things. I really felt like a young adult for the first time, kind of socially … That period was so creative I just was like: ‘Oh, my God.’ I just couldn’t write it all down fast enough. So that’s very much what the record centered around.”
Sitting opposite now, Doc Martens shoes with socks scrunched up inside on the floor next to her, in an oversized burgundy Y/Projects sweater with rust-ribbon wrist ties, she is delicate but not diminutive. She smiles a lot of the time as she talks. She looks into the air when she’s thinking and then directs her grey-blue eyes back when she delivers an answer. The room is dim and a candle or two flickers on her pale yet warm skin. Without the darker make-up she used to favour when she was younger, she looks both youthful and older. She is subtly, and serenely, unlike other pop musicians.
For one, she writes her own music. Green Light, the towering success of which is cresting when we meet, doesn’t fit pop parameters. Max Martin, who has writing credits with Taylor Swift, the Weeknd and Katy Perry, has called her work “incorrect songwriting”. The key change that comes in the first quarter of the song pivots unexpectedly. “It’s a super-complicated song. There are a lot of paths to it. It is strange. And everyone I played it to was super-jived by it at first, then a couple of listens in they were pumped.” Boiling into a house-piano riff that blazes away the fog, it has the shout-out-loud energy of Robyn’s Dancing on my Own and the potential to be the same kind of modern hymn.
Lorde wrote it thinking of a girl at a party, drinking to forget a break-up, pleading to fling free the ties that bound one to another. The pivot isn’t unlike the blindsiding of a broken heart, the catalyst for her foray into more adult realms. She met new people, she had to adjust existing friendships, she learnt to do things differently. “Green Light talks about that like all of a sudden you’re at the same bar but you’re not with the same people,” she explains.
But don’t call it a break-up album: when she was writing, thick drums and soaring melodies kept coming to her. “The whole time I was writing it I was going out a lot, I was partying a lot, I was going to a lot of shows,” she reflects. “I wanted to just be dancing all the time. It was almost like I just want to make the stuff that I want to dance to on Saturday or whatever, which was a super-new thing for me,” she says with a kind of current crackling in her voice. “I think as you do grow up, you go through a break-up and be like: ‘I just don’t want to think about it and I want to drink tequila and dance to Nelly Furtado.’”
The rest of the album centres on a party, less an actual situation than the party as motif. It became a backdrop to the things she was experiencing. “It’s such a different experience to be single and 20 and suddenly every party means something different. It’s like a crazy game, like playing Risk; there’s so much to it and the moves people make, and the coded messages that everyone leaves for each other. Figuring all of that out was so interesting to me.” The other punch in Melodrama is her drollness at the heightened emotions and bacchanalian recklessness that already appears ridiculous to her even as she does it. ‘I’d get your friend to drive but he can hardly see’ comes the sardonic drawl on Homemade Dynamite. ‘We’ll end up painted on the road/red and chrome/all the broken glass sparkling/I guess we’re partying …’ The self-deprecation is a thread that makes Melodrama both measured and emotive. ‘Got to wonder why we bother,’ she asks on Sober II. ‘And the glamour, and the trauma, and the fucking melodrama.’
Her collaborators recognise deftness with a life phase that is daily bread for musicians. “Ella is undeniably brilliant,” Grant Singer, director and creator of Lorde’s videos for Green Light and Perfect Places, writes over email. “She’s not only a genius but she’s also unbelievably kind and thoughtful and sincere and poetic. That’s a very rare combination. I’m amazed by her talent, but I’m not surprised by it.” When they first met over dinner in New York, he “immediately realised I was with someone truly special and incredible and unlike anyone I had ever met”.
Ella Yelich-O’Connor grew up in Devonport, New Zealand, a finger of land jutting into Auckland’s Shoal Bay. She was writing songs at 13, and short fiction before that. Her mother is a poet, her father is an engineer, and both encouraged a love of reading and drama. Some of her favourite authors are Alice Munro, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff – all masters of the short story. She grew up listening to Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac and Radiohead. She admired the leanness and the lyricism of bands like Arcade Fire and their ability to narrate through song with superb word economy, and the understatement and social realism of Carver.
She aspires to write music that stands the test of time. “Some of my favourite records of all time – you think about Rumours by Fleetwood Mac – and I think about how strong a record that is and how that doesn’t feel like something someone just thought: ‘Oh, well, we can just blast it out,’” she says, also by way of explanation at the four-year gap between albums, the beginning of which was a deliberate creative breather.
Jack Antonoff, who has worked with Taylor Swift and Sia, was a new link on the album. They met at a Grimes concert and clicked. “I think I’ve never felt so close on a personal level,” she says. “We would kind of write a song and then leave the studio and go to his apartment and get the dog and, you know, walk the dog down by the waterfront and talk about each other’s relationships.” Famously friends, it was a connection that was both a step outside her realm in New Zealand and a line back to it. “Jack … he’s a freak and we were raised similarly,” she says as she laughs, explaining their mums spend time together. “Oh, they hang out all the time. They hang out probably more than Jack and I. We’re like: ‘Okay, I guess this is just a thing that’s happening now.’”
Antonoff and Lorde would spend days and nights in the studio, before Lorde would head back to her hotel room. The process had its downs, and at one point Antonoff sent her home to New Zealand. There were periods of quiet reflection, inactivity, countering the intensity of the studio. “I was just walking around the city like a ghost; everyone’s got their own life and their own place to be and I really liked feeling inconspicuous there,” she says. “I feel like the city kind of chooses when it’s going to show itself to you. For me it was when I started to figure out the public transport system. I started taking the subway and suddenly the city had a face.”
Lorde has in common with David Hockney, Pharrell Williams and Duke Ellington the perceptual phenomenon of synaesthesia, where one sense leads to another cognitive pathway. It can take many forms, but Lorde sees colours and textures when she hears sounds or says certain words. Thus a song can be a colour. “I have that when I’m saying someone’s name or ordering at a restaurant. That’s something that’s in my life every day,” she explains. “Music can put your brain in sort of the best possible state for synaesthesia I think. Brain’s like: ‘Okay, here we go!’ It’s just a good medium for it to go psycho.”
Songs sometimes come together in pieces from notes she takes. “I’ll notice something and write it down and I’m definitely doing that all the time,” joking that her friends must find it annoying. “I do it constantly: my notes are just full of my observations.” When a common thread emerges, she joins the dots. She’s done it for so long, she doesn’t let it get in the way of experiences. “People close to me definitely realise me pulling my phone out and writing down something they’ve said … but I don’t try to chase the story too much,” she says. “I just sort of let it happen.”
Sometimes this process exhausts her. “All the time. It can be so crazy,” she says. “I have just always been the kind of person who … life just stops me in my tracks. I just find such glory in people and things that people do. When you are sort of moved by everything … I have to crystallise it.” Though the seduction of nights out is strong right now, she’s a self-proclaimed introvert. “I’d much rather stay in for the most part, because my experience of going through the world is so intense,” she says emphatically. “At the same time, I recharge very quickly. Give me an hour in my room and then I’m ready to go and party.”
Months later, Lorde performs an intimate gig on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, just weeks after Melodrama comes out. In a sequined Temperley jumpsuit, she is energetic and open on stage, a marked contrast to the girl in black dresses, folded inwards, who used to not venture far from the microphone. “Performing is kind of not my number-one discipline,” she tells me later over the phone. “It would make me cripplingly nervous.” She performs the song Perfect Places and at the chorus she melts back into a paroxysm of dance before creeping back up to the microphone to deliver another hit. “I have kind of experienced a really amazing, sort of rekindled passion with performing and it’s such an amazing feeling,” she says. “[It] has really surprised me. I feel like I’m like: ‘Oh, I’m booking it across the stage’ or ‘Oh, now I’m in the crowd grabbing things from people’ and I’m like: ‘How did I get here?’”
With a gruelling tour schedule stretching into 2018 – her Australian leg, including a concert on the Sydney Opera House forecourt, commences in November – she is now focused on details to keep her feeling creative at every performance. “I’ve got flowers and arranged them in a little way before I go on stage, or a few times I covered my hands in glitter using my hands like little energy conductors. So I’ve been doing weird witchy things.” She thinks of it as transference of energy from her to the crowd, knowing it sounds kooky. “Everyone on my tour is like: ‘You’re a full-on witch, there’s no bones about it, that’s who you are now.’”
For fans it will be a reminder she hasn’t changed, and that the fame factor hasn’t altered her outsider status as much as people feared. Liability dealt with this in her personal life, when she felt like people were ‘dancing in my storm’. “Even though now I can take my friends to a fancy restaurant if I want to, I still want to do right by them,” she says. “I try to just relate to them on the levels that I can. Because, you know, I still feel so deeply human and ordinary in a lot of ways.”
She can now access designers like Valentino for the Met Gala or Dior on stage, but she reminds me that “stuff you wear on a red carpet, I don’t own that”. In her own life, she loves Marques Almeida, Simone Rocha and Comme des Garçons. The new question that’s begun to follow her around: is she becoming the same type in Royals that she poked fun at? “I think if I avoided every hallmark of that song forever, it would kind of be beside the point. Some of it is just a side effect of what I do, but I’m still …” she trails off, before beginning again purposefully. “I think if emotionally you’re in the right place, who cares what your handbag is?”
On the cold winter’s day of the Vogue shoot, Lorde is on the platform of a disused but well-kept train station in Sydney. The neo-Gothic arches of Mortuary Station rise behind her. In the late 19th to mid-20th century, twice-daily trains would carry some passengers who would never return: mourners and their departed loved ones to be buried at Rookwood Cemetery. A smoke machine is misting up from the tracks creating an eerie backdrop to the wooden bench she’s shifting her weight on. Her hands are shaking with the effort of holding herself off the seat in weighty bead-laden Gucci. Dead leaves scud by in a breeze that ruffles her hair. She could be one of Carver’s protagonists, Gucci gown aside, on her way somewhere – leaving or returning – in an unspecified era.
Back in the hotel, she recognises her world is expanding, her circles growing bigger. She feels closeness in her work and in her life is more crucial, given the state of affairs in the world right now. “A lot about making work is being like: ‘I’m scared, are you scared?’, ‘I’m happy, are you feeling this too?’ And the fact we’re all feeling a lot of the same things, even with the year we’ve just had which has obviously been so turbulent politically and socially,” she says. “Everyone’s seen such dramatic change. Nobody is immune to feeling such complex feelings, feeling so overwhelmed and so traumatised and so hurt. Obviously, I’m very privileged and lucky, but a year like the year we’ve had shakes everyone.”
As a songwriter she feels like she still has a lot to learn. “I keep saying I feel like a newborn baby … I feel like I can barely write a song. I’ve only been doing it for five years.” The album continues to rocket skywards and her tour is selling out. “I just want to keep spinning away from the thing I last did. So I feel like I just ricochet outwards and make something very different but also with similar bones to what I will always make and I really look forward to that part of it.” She hopes that in a couple of years she will spin in another direction.
With our time finished, she picks up her shoes and, after giving me a warm hug, walks to the lifts where a minder joins us. The three of us get in before she realises her mistake – it is going down to the lobby. The minder shoots a look. I leave her there, nearly alone, shoeless and make-up free. The occupants of the bar on ground level aren’t quick enough to glance into the lift and catch sight of the barefoot young superstar. Then just as suddenly the doors slide closed and the lift glides to the floors above. Up and up.
Words: Alice Birrell
Photographer: Nicole Bentley
Stylist: Kate Darvill
Nails: Jocelyn Petroni for CHANEL
Words by Alice Birrell for VOGUE Australia