Lauded by Bowie, pals with Taylor Swift, Lorde was the New Zealand dreamer whose debut album changed her life for ever. Now 20, her new record packs new life experiences into an album about that most noble of pursuits: partying. Emily Mackay meets her in London
In June 2013, Lorde released ‘Tennis Court’, the follow-up to her huge global hit ‘Royals’. “Pretty soon, I’ll be getting on my first plane,” she sang. “I’ll see the veins of my city like they do in space”. The thrill of new experiences was a big part of what made her debut album ‘Pure Heroine’ so wonderful. But even then, Ella Yelich-O’Connor, the 16-year-old holding her breath one step down from the top of world, worried what fame might bring her. “My head’s filling up fast with the wicked games, up in flames / How can I f**k with the fun again, when I’m known?”
We meet in London: Lorde’s flown across the Atlantic from the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas to play BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull. In a few days, she’ll flit back across the ocean to play The Governor’s Ball in New York. She’s criss-crossed the world many times over in the past four years, seen many cities with an astronaut’s eye. And fame was, indeed, a massive headf**k.
“When it was happening, I was quite overwhelmed by it,” she says, sitting on a sofa in a Whitehall hotel suite. “But that was a long time ago. If anything, I’ve slowly been getting less famous since ‘Royals’ was really big.” She laughs. “Which is totally cool for me… I suck at being famous. And that’s fine.”
Lorde, as I’ll learn over the short time we spend together, is very self-deprecating. Clad simply in a dark sweatshirt and trousers, she’s also quick to laugh, eloquent and very down to earth. And of course, she’s also massively famous. In the past four years, she went from teenage songwriter to millennial figurehead. She befriended Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham, Karlie Kloss. She curated a soundtrack for one of her generation’s defining film franchises, The Hunger Games. She made Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list of world-shaking young people. She was asked to help induct Nirvana into the Hall of Fame, and then to pay tribute to David Bowie at the BRIT Awards, where Gary Oldman, by way of a no-pressure introduction, announced her as “a young lady who David himself said was the future of music”.
And along the way, she’s effortlessly maintained her integrity, artistry and likeability with a nonchalant New Zealand cool. Despite her demurral, she’s pretty good at fame. Still, it’s not as easy as she makes it look, and being 16 is mad enough at the best of times. “It rocked my foundations and could have f**ked me, you know?” she says. “I remember being made aware of my looks and my body in a way that I had never been.
“I remember all these kids online,” she goes on, smiling. “I think I beat their favourite people to Number One, and they were like, ‘F**k her, she’s got really far-apart eyes.’ I remember being like, ‘Whoa! How did I get all this way without knowing I had far-apart eyes?’ Just weird s**t like that. But I was able to return to my family and shelter against that and get to where I am now. I feel so comfortable in myself.”
From the early days, Lorde went her own way, turning down a big-name guest rap spot on ‘Royals’ and a support slot with Katy Perry, keen to establish her own voice. The past four years have only strengthened that self-possession. In May 2015, she split from her long-term manager Scott Maclachlan, who’d signed her on a development deal at the age of 13 (“Hey, men –do me and yourselves a favour and don’t underestimate my skill,” she tweeted when a Guardian journalist questioned the wisdom of the decision).
Work on her second album was begun with Joel Little, her songwriting partner and producer on ‘Pure Heroine’, but in late 2015 Lorde instead brought in Jack Antonoff – of Bleachers and, formerly, Fun – with whom she’d struck up an instant rapport when they met through his girlfriend Lena Dunham. The changes have audibly done her good: ‘Melodrama’ is a beautifully crafted record that unites a range of styles from the wide-eyed, heart-skippy pop of ‘The Louvre’ to the screwy, sonic dark night of the soul that is ‘Sober II (Melodrama)’. “We laboured over every little sound, every word,” Lorde says. “To a level that I think people would never even pick up on.”
Reflecting her disorientating experiences with fame, one of Lorde’s early ideas was to write the album from the perspective of aliens stepping outside of a hermetically sealed environment for the first time. She ended up drawing inspiration from a more familiar source: her friendship group and their interactions (taking “field notes”, as she puts it). “A lot of being in America was about watching people’s faces and realising I didn’t really know what they were saying,” she says. “I would meet American boys and be like, ‘I don’t even think I’m being an accurate version of myself because I’m so confused by who you are.’ A lot of going back to New Zealand is about knowing how to decode people again.”
Lorde invited her gang round to her new house and, well, things got messy. The idea of a house party ended up forming a narrative thread to link the songs, which jacknife through intense, intoxicated highs and slumping lows, hook-ups and break-ups. ‘Melodrama’ captures the wild, wired energy of being young enough that a night out still feels like anything could happen. “I do believe in the transcendent nature of partying, still,” she says.
At the same time, things in the outside world were fast heading south: the refugee crisis, Syria, environmental catastrophe, Trump… An interesting time to be the official voice of the youth. “Oh boy,” says Lorde, rolling her eyes and laughing. “And young people have never needed a specialised spokesperson – one young voice – less than right now… I’ve always known that it’s bulls**t when people would say ‘voice of a generation’. I’d be like, ‘I’m gonna nip it in the bud now… This is not what this is, and it will never be that.’”
‘Melodrama’ is very much a personal statement. “The first record was ‘we’ and ‘us’. And this record is ‘I’,” she says. “The focus does close in. I think that was necessary to get to the level of frankness that’s in there.” And yet the world’s horrors seep in, mixing with the fevered feelings. “I hate the headlines and the weather,” she sings on ‘Perfect Places’. “But when we’re dancing I’m alright.” Recurrent words in the lyrics are “party”, “rush” and “violence”. “It’s about contrast: really big and grand, and really tiny and intimate. Going from the personal, emotional stuff to the headlines and the web. It goes from the world to my bedroom. You’re talking about literal, out-there violence and, like, heart violence.”
Although she ditched the “aliens step out of their bubble” idea, Lorde did end up drawing on a sci-fi source: a short story called There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury, a favourite back when she was young. “It’s about this self-operating house and how it continues to run every day after some sort of nuclear event,” she explains. “I was very aware of the fact that we were just holing up in my house, drinking and making a concerted effort to block out the rest of the world, as if there’d been some sort of nuclear fallout. When there’ve been two years that have been so turbulent and traumatic, and the climate is so tangible when you walk outside… There was definitely an element of, ‘If we just make our own little universe inside and no one looks at their phones, then none of it’s really happening.’”
But you can’t hide away forever and reality comes crashing in to burst the bubble – nuclear holocaust in Bradbury’s story, a s**tty break-up in Lorde’s, who split with her long-term boyfriend, photographer James Lowe. While many songs on ‘Melodrama’ buzz with lust, there’s a mascara-stained flipside on ‘Liability’ (“Says he made the big mistake of dancing in my storm / Says it was poison”). Troubles come to a head on the spare, dramatic piano ballad ‘Writer In The Dark’, in which Lorde lets go of guilt. “Stood on my chest and kept me down / Hated hearing my name on the lips of a crowd,” she croons. It’s a song that revels in the power of songwriting: “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark”.
“I think that when you do this, you have to find a way to live with yourself, because it’s not making no one feel anything. A handful of people will listen to this album and have it sort of get them there,” she says, pointing to her gut. “But it was important for me to say. And I don’t think that song is apologising for it. It’s more like, what did you think was going to happen? I was doing this before I met you and I’ll be doing this after you’re gone… I felt quite empowered. It was weird, I woke up in the middle of the night and was lying next to someone. And I wrote it down on my phone and I was like, ‘Oh God, I feel so naughty writing this!’” She laughs. “While somebody’s sleeping, like an evil witch. But I really love that song. I feel like it’s such a cool, painful moment in the record.”
It’s that real, genuine feeling that makes the escapist aspects of ‘Melodrama’ so powerful: the shadow of heartbreak hell that makes the bright lights of pop heaven sparkle even brighter. And pop paradises have been playing on her mind. Tweeting recently about Miley Cyrus’s new single ‘Malibu’, she wrote: “Enjoying Miley’s idea of Malibu as utopia, or the answer, similar to how Paul Simon talked about Graceland – as somewhere we hope we’re headed. How lovely that first love is Malibu, and Graceland is enlightenment after love lost.”
Simon’s 1986 album ‘Graceland’ was a great inspiration to Lorde in making ‘Melodrama’ – much of which was written at the piano – along with other ’70s and ’80s singer-songwriters including Don Henley, Tom Petty, Phil Collins and Joni Mitchell. They’re surprising inspirations for an artist known for her cutting-edge taste. “I’ve been so dialled into youth culture and pop culture,” says Lorde. “I needed to be challenged in a different way. I know what modern sounds like. That’s something every young person is all over. What I found so revelatory about someone like Paul Simon or Don Henley is it’s really nice for me to sit down with my headphones and be schooled in the art of writing a perfect song.”
It’s often said of Lorde’s generation that they’re musically omnivorous, seeing no boundaries between dance pop or art rock, old or new, Paul Simon or Kanye. “I’m a believer in that for sure,” she says. “When I’m making work, I don’t think about staying in my genre lane… I feel like that’s the cool thing about this record. We finished it… and I said to Jack, ‘You realise, I can go anywhere I want now.’”
In the short term, she’ll be going to Glastonbury for the first time. A world tour is loosely planned and after that it’ll be back to New Zealand to write more records. “It’s cool to have gone all over the world and to know that’s where I want to be,” she says. There might not be any utopias, apart from in the pop dreams Lorde will keep chasing, but there’s always home, something you appreciate a lot more when you’ve been away. Or, as the final line of ‘Melodrama’ puts it: “What the f**k are perfect places anyway?”