Lorde: “I feel like I can see my world and myself a lot clearer now”

How Ella Yelich-O’Connor stripped away the digital noise to find solace in nature, a journey that birthed her bright, blissed-out third album ‘Solar Power’

Lorde has had many out-of-this-world experiences since she began her dizzying ascent to superstardom at the age of 16. Hailed as a teenage icon when she first emerged in the early 2010s, she was ushered into fashion’s elite, celebrated at glitzy award ceremonies such as the Grammys and rapturously received on stages around the world. Between it all, though, a much more humbling moment stands out as one of her most extraordinary.

In February 2019, the Kiwi pop star – whose real name is Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor – took a trip to Antarctica. It was a place that she had been obsessed with since her school years and she felt an urge to see it up close before global warming melted that opportunity away from her. Just over 3,000 miles from her home in Auckland, on a trip she acknowledges she is very privileged to have taken, she learnt about the science that is being used down there to understand our planet and hopefully give us more insight on climate change, and went on helicopter rides to look for whales.

NME Cover 2021 Lorde
Credit: Ashlan

“It was like going to space,” she recalls over Zoom from Los Angeles, her voice still filled with awe two-and-a-half-years on. “It doesn’t feel of our world. I love moments like that – I love feeling like you’ve just parted from The Matrix, and you’re somewhere else.”

Among all that surreal wonder, she decided what the name of her third album would be – ‘Solar Power’ – and cemented its themes. “I came back really sure my focus had to be on the outside and what was happening there,” she explains two days after the stripped-back, radiant record’s release. “It was so, so fascinating to me and so inspiring in a way that my phone had stopped being, celebrity culture had stopped being and popular culture had stopped being.”

While music fans across the globe were busy idolising her and waiting with huge anticipation for her to return, Yelich-O’Connor was feeling the same way about this once-in-a-lifetime, end-of-the-Earth place. “You don’t know when you’re going to be able to fly because you’re landing on the ice down there and the conditions have to be totally perfect at either end,” she notes, helpfully framing that period of waiting and uncertainty in terms she thinks NME will relate to. “I imagine it’s not unlike waiting for a celebrity to arrive to an interview. The room would be filled with your thoughts about this person in a massive way. I felt the same way – I was waiting to meet this big person.”

NME Cover 2021 Lorde
Lorde on the cover of NME

Aside from Lorde herself, the biggest character on ‘Solar Power’ is our planet. The album is a celebration of the natural world, from the musician’s insistence that we should “hope the sun will show us the path” on album opener ‘The Path’ to ‘Fallen Fruit’’s disappointment in past generations leaving today’s youth to deal with the climate crisis. Even the sounds on the record reflect the nature she was so inspired by, her beloved 808 drums and synths – which made 2013 debut ‘Pure Heroine’ and its 2017 follow-up ‘Melodrama’ so compelling – replaced by acoustic guitar and analogue drums.

“There’s some statistics about electronic music being more likely to be made in cities or urban environments and the opposite is more likely to be made in open pastures,” she says. “I think that makes sense based on my experience. ‘Melodrama’ was very much made in a city and also for a different time of day. I think when you’re trying to bust the 808s out to represent the golden hour…” She trails off, laughing at the idea.

NME Cover 2021 Lorde
Credit: Ophelia Mikkelson Jones

‘Solar Power’ is a singular record in 2021’s musical landscape. It has elements of the Laurel Canyon folk influence that you can hear in record’s such as Clairo’s ‘Sling’ (the gen-Z star also provides backing vocals on several tracks) or Birdy’s ‘Young Heart’, but the way Yelich-O’Connor marries that with other influences – referencing Primal Scream, Natalie Imbruglia and, brilliantly, S Club 7 and Robbie Williams on the title track alone – pulls it into its own unique space of sunkissed folk-pop that feels like its sprouted from the soil itself.

“I guess that was part of why I stepped back from consuming the internet in a really consistent way – I wanted to know what I would make when I wasn’t dialled into what everyone else was making,” she theorises. Lorde has gone mostly off-grid – she’s locked out of her social media accounts, has blocked Google on her phone and YouTube on her laptop, and made her phone grayscale to try and pull herself out of a digital addiction. “One of the things that starts to happen when you have any sort of community is you start to move as one, in a way. I honestly don’t think I could have achieved this if I tried four years ago, just because [I was in] the whirlpool.”

“I was like, ‘Is this all I can do? Is this the sum of my parts, being an entertainer?’”

In the past, the 24-year-old says, she would have been drawn into trying to make her own version of what she saw other people doing. “I would even just see someone wear something and I’d be like, ‘I really need to get that, that’s what we’re wearing now’,” she says, laughing. Divorcing herself from being so in touch with the cultural zeitgeist allowed her to put the focus back on herself and follow her instincts.

For each of her albums, Lorde has undergone a big personal transformation. Records, for her, are ways to unpack the events and relationships in her life. In the four years between ‘Melodrama’ and ‘Solar Power’, she says “so much” has changed, particularly in the way she’s reset her relationship with fame and the by-products of it. Rather than view her pop star existence as her “normal” life and her time at home as a holiday, she sees it as being very much the other way around.

“For someone like me, there’s a lot of fractals,” she begins. “There’s me in my house with my loved ones; my neighbours who know me to be a famous person; people in my country who know me to be a famous person; people in other countries who know me to be a famous person. It takes a second to figure out what your relationship is going to be.” To work that out for herself, she says, she needed to tap out and sink into a more domestic life at home – one where she gives herself weeks at a time off work, living in a very “luxuriously unstructured” way until she feels the itch to get back in the studio.

NME Cover 2021 Lorde
Credit: Ophelia Mikkelson Jones

Part of that for her is not reading any of the media’s responses – which have been surprisingly mixed for such a lionised artist – to her new album for at least a week. “I can only look at food websites because I don’t want to see myself anywhere,” she laughs. Lorde wouldn’t always have had that self-restraint, and compares her past behaviour around a release to binging sweets: “Baby me would have just eaten the sugar and gotten the headache, whereas now I’m gonna take care of myself. I feel like I can see my world and myself a lot clearer now. Everyone has that experience in their early to mid-20s – you can’t see yourself that well for a while and then it starts to sharpen.”

On ‘Solar Power’, you can hear her going on a journey to get to that stage. “Now if you’re looking for a saviour, that’s not me,” she tells us on ‘The Path’, while on the soft haze of ‘Stoned At The Nail Salon’, she makes it clear her fans aren’t beholden to be with her forever: “All the music you loved at 16, you’ll grow out of,” she notes wisely. Both are examples of her showing a lack of concern at keeping a tight grip on her status as a pop queen. “It’s kind of a crazy relationship,” she says of her connection with her fans, who she refers to as her “kids”. “I’ll be like, ‘Once every four years you’re going to hear from me in a massive way, and then not at all’. So I understand if people decide to tap out.”

“My younger self was a tough bitch! She was just doing exactly what she wanted to do”

‘Stoned At The Nail Salon’ also finds Lorde accepting the process of ageing and the passing of time. “Well, my hot blood’s been burning for so many summers now,” she sings. “It’s time to cool it down.” Society’s coveting of youth can be oppressive for female artists and especially for those, like Lorde, who get their big breakthroughs in their early adolescence. “I was young when I first started making music and that was a big part of the story,” she acknowledges now. “To force myself to move on, to get out of that honey trap thing of being ‘the golden youth’, I feel like I probably made myself older in my head. I was a middle-aged woman in this way that was very helpful to me.”

Doing so made it easy for her to be at peace with the years flying by on the calendar and younger people taking the place that was once hers. “Being like, ‘Look bitch, you’re going to get old – you’ll get wrinkles, your greys are coming in and there’s another hot 17-year-old coming up’ gave me a good relationship with it,” she says happily. “I love being a bit more of an elder statesman now – I don’t know if anybody else thinks of me like that, but I think of myself as last-gen, which is a really nice, cosy spot to be in.”

NME Cover 2021 Lorde
Credit: Ophelia Mikkelson Jones

While ‘Solar Power’ may find Lorde looking forward, there are also moments that see her look back. Take ‘Secrets From A Girl (Who’s Seen It All)’, which is written to Yelich-O’Connor’s 15-year-old self. In a neat nod to that time of her life, the musician takes two chords from the crisp, future-focused ‘Ribs’, which appeared on ‘Pure Heroine’ and was written at 15, and reverses them. In its lyrics, she speaks to her younger self with kindness and soothing generosity, imparting wisdom like: “Your dreams and inner visions, all your mystical ambitions / They won’t let you down.” It’s a message to trust her instincts – something she says she definitely did at that time.

“She was a tough bitch!” present-day Lorde laughs of her younger self. “She was just doing exactly what she wanted to do, and she was kind of ruthless. I would sit in these boardrooms and just tell these men things: ‘You don’t actually know anything about this; here’s how it’s going to go’.”

Indeed, that headstrong, determined spirit was obvious when the artist was interviewed for the Radar section of NME back in 2013, just as her classic debut single ‘Royals’ was blowing up. She told us at the time: “Everything that’s put out with my name on it should be representative of me and what I want to do as an artist, as opposed to what some dudes in a room think is going to make a lot of money.”

“The truth is my job is pretty bad for the environment”

From the very start of her career, Yelich-O’Connor – who is, of course, ferociously smart – was widely characterised as being ‘wise beyond her years’. This was largely thanks to the searching songs that defined ‘Pure Heroine’, which questioned pop culture’s obsessions with luxury trappings and fancy places (as with ‘Royals’ and ‘Team’), and the way she captured feeling isolated in a world of two-faced fakers (‘A World Alone’). In a line on the ‘Solar Power’ track ‘The Man With The Axe’ – one of the record’s most subtly humorous songs – she hints that she’s learned she knew less than she thought: “I thought I was a genius, but now I’m 22.”

When Lorde first started making colossal waves in the music industry, she was celebrated by pop heroes Taylor Swift and David Bowie, the latter of whom accurately called her “the future of music”. Today she admits: “When you say, ‘Is this how it is?’, and you get rewarded with two Grammys, massive amounts of critical acclaim and money, and all the people you were a fan of as a kid calling you on the phone, you do kind of feel like you might be a genius. It’s a very tangible cause-and-effect.”

The rest of that line on ‘The Man With The Axe’ also alludes to an ensuing identity crisis: “And it’s starting to feel like all I know how to do / Is put on a suit and take it away.” The track samples applause from a YouTube video of her last performance on the ‘Melodrama’ world tour at Mexico’s Corona Capital in November 2018.

“I was like, ‘Is this all I can do?’” she says. “‘Is this the sum of my parts, being an entertainer?’ I know that not to be true, obviously, but it’s a funny thing to be successful at that age and think about your worth, you know?” In such a public role, too, it must be difficult to separate your self-worth and identity from your job. “Totally,” she agrees. “That took a lot of focus to sort out.”

NME Cover 2021 Lorde
Credit: Ophelia Mikkelson Jones

If ‘Solar Power’ depicts Yelich–O’Connor relaxing into herself, then it also finds her opening up her creative world a little too. This album, which like its predecessor was co-produced and co-written by BleachersJack Antonoff, represents the first time a Lorde project has featured anyone else’s voice but hers. As well as backing vocals from a sublime gang of Clairo, alt-folk hero Phoebe Bridgers, New Zealand singer-songwriter Marlon Williams and indie-popper Lawrence Arabia, ‘Secrets From A Girl’ ends with a spoken-word verse from Swedish pop icon Robyn, who plays a flight attendant on a trip to sadness. The musician, whom NME crowned Songwriter of the Decade at the 2020 NME Awards, has been something of a mentor for the New Zealander, letting her in on what being a young woman would be like.

“I think there’s just so much room in Robyn’s world for being a hot mess or being this sort of ball of emotions shooting out in every direction,” she says. “I think about a song like ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ – she’s not in a traditional hero’s role; she’s telling someone to break up with their girlfriend so they can be with her. But she’s also having a huge amount of empathy for that other woman – that is some really big, complex adult shit to be tackling in a dancefloor banger!”

 “I love feeling like you’ve parted from The Matrix, and you’re somewhere else”

Given the way in which Lorde talks about Robyn, you might think that the Swedish star holds the same elevated position for her that Yelich-O’Connor encompasses for so many. Yet Lorde says: “I’ve never actually had that relationship with a famous person, I don’t think. There were authors that I loved but I’ve never really done that [hero worship]. I don’t know why.”

Later, when she’s talking about her home country’s effect in keeping her grounded, she finds the missing piece of the puzzle. “New Zealanders aren’t particularly dazzled by fame,” she shrugs. “That’s not the way culturally – people love sports players and, fair enough, they’re amazing. But they’re not trying to put me on a pedestal.”

If Lorde is keen to point out that she’s not a saviour – even if she does liken herself to “kinda like a prettier Jesus” on ‘Solar Power’’s title track – in our lives, she also wants to make it known she’s not the one who’s going to save us when it comes to the planet. For this album, she’s released an eco-friendly ‘Music Box’ version – which serves as an alternative to a traditional CD, is plastic-free and offers collectible goodies like photocards and handwritten notes instead of a disc – and she says she thinks about ways to make her job less of a burden on Earth all the time.

NME Cover 2021 Lorde
Credit: Ophelia Mikkelson Jones

“The truth is my job is pretty bad for the environment,” she acknowledges. “I definitely am under no illusion that in choosing to be a touring artist, I’m contributing [to climate change]. But I’m also under no illusion that someone like me is gonna fix the climate crisis. It’s gonna have to come from our lawmakers – I didn’t go to university!”

The musician might not be an expert in environmental studies but, as she’s proved over her first three albums, she’s a master at big, intelligent, emotional pop. There are plenty who would love to see her do this forever, but she has designs for putting a Quentin Tarantino-style limit on the amount of work she releases (the director has famously resolved to only make 10 movies in his career). What that number will be, though, she’s keeping close to her chest.

“I would just sort of decide it internally,” she teases. “But I do think there’s something to that. I can’t even really name an artist who’s made 10 incredible vital records that I adore. It might be nice to try and do it in a finite amount of time. Maybe when I reach that point I’ll be like, ‘I just had this really interesting thing happen to me – I want to unpack it in a pop song’, though.” If she doesn’t publicly announce her end point, NME suggests, she could just keep pushing it back in her own mind. She cackles at the suggestion: “The moment you start lying to yourself, [it’s] a slippery slope.”

What kind of legacy she’ll leave behind when she does eventually call time on her career is something Lorde used to think about a lot. “It was important to me not to fuck it up in that way,” she reflects. What’s important to her when she thinks about it in 2021? “I think if people still have a huge amount of respect for [my music] in the way that I still think David Byrne is cool as hell or Stevie [Nicks] – these people that just are still doing it and are as cool and relevant as they have you ever been; that is super inspiring to me.

“Bowie was like that. But also I do want to be able to push this medium as far as I can and make works that keep just containing a lot and asking a lot. I think if I can look back and be like, ‘Oh, you fit a lot of big ideas into that pop record’, that’ll make me happy.”

Lorde’s ‘Solar Power’ is out now.