Lorde's Growing Pains

May 15, 2017

 

 

It's not exactly how I thought the day would go, but in the mid-afternoon in a warehouse building somewhere off the 101 freeway, Lorde is stripping down to her skivvies. In all fairness, so am I. We're at Shareen Downtown, a 6,600-square-foot Los Angeles paradise of secondhand sartorial wonders where there are no dressing rooms and, not coincidentally, there is also a strict rule that there are no boys allowed, as a sign on the front door attests. "Isn't that great?" asked Lorde earlier. "I found out about it through my old tour manager's wife, who did the costumes on Mad Men. She was like, 'I always go to Shareen.' And so I go to Shareen now as well."

Today, amid the dust and glamour, Lorde is on a mission to find something fun to wear to Coachella, where in a couple of weeks the 20-year-old New Zealander will give her first concert in close to three years in advance of her second album, Melodrama (out June 16th). "Oh, my God, it's like my dream," she says, homing in on a delicate, frothy wedding gown from some bygone era. "Like, at Coachella with a flower crown of these little freakies?" she suggests, running her hand over the dress's tiny fabric flowers. "It's so sick. But they don't put the price tags on them, and they're always super-expensive."

She finds a winner, though, in a navy print dress that has a semisweet Nineties-grunge vibe, and in a long, flowy number in what she calls a "tropical melted-ice-cream" print. "I think this is like what Stevie Nicks would wear at her pool," she pronounces. "I have not met her, but she wraps my heart in soft fabric. Isn't she just beautiful?" Having gathered a few treasures, we head to a mirror to give them a go. Lorde slips out of her T-shirt. Then she looks at me wryly and grins. "This," she says, "is my Rolling Stone interview where I'm just getting naked in front of my profiler."

Which is exactly not the type of career Lorde has heretofore cultivated. Discovered at 12 after a talent-show recording ended up in the hands of a manager at Universal, the artist born Ella Yelich-O'Connor was signed to a development deal that basically entailed waiting it out until she was old enough to convincingly sing songs written for her by adults. That never happened, and was never going to. By the time she was 15 – and paired up with producer Joel Little, who'd once fronted the marginally known pop-punk band Goodnight Nurse – she was insisting on writing her own music, on taking charge.

During a week off from school, she penned "Royals," the track that would go on to be the smash hit of the EP she'd soon offer for free on Soundcloud (while simultaneously declining to release any images that showed what she looked like). Meanwhile, she'd intuited enough of what was about to unfold that she gave herself a moniker that was both aristocratically grand and decidedly feminine (with that tacked-on "e") – a move that would have been pretentious to the extreme had it not ended up being spot-on prescient. "I don't know, it's a bit boring: Ella Yelich-O'Connor," she says now. "Can you imagine them shouting it at a festival?" She shrugs. "It just made sense to me to elevate it."

Pure Heroine was released in the fall of 2013, and sold more than a million copies in five months. David Bowie clutched her hand and told her that listening to her music "felt like listening to tomorrow." Lady Gaga called it one of "THE albums of 2013." It wasn't just the album's precocious musicality (its spare electronic beats overlaid with Lorde's smoky, syncopated vocals, creating a sound that was part pop, part hip-hop, part jazz and entirely hypnotic); it was also the teenage authority with which Lorde's lyrics took on and then casually dispensed with decades of pop-music tropes and stereotypes ("Everybody's like, Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece. ...  We don't care"). The album was so self-possessed, so in control, so knowing, that, fairly or not, Lorde was hailed far and wide as pop's antidote to its own artifice. She was not stage-managed. She dressed like a witch run amok in Goodwill. She wielded influence far beyond her years. She was, in other words, "the real deal" – the counterargument to the prefab, formula-driven model many listeners assumed was almost de rigueur for young women breaking into the profession. At one point in our conversation, she refers to the 2014 Grammys, during which she took home both Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance for "Royals," as "my Grammys," then catches herself: "I mean it was my Grammy week, not that I owned the Grammys." But in a way, she kind of did.

Since then, Lorde's life has taken a predictable turn toward the surreal. She has filled in for Kurt Cobain when Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, curated the soundtrack for a Hunger Games installment, inspired a long-running South Park parody, and taken Diplo fishing ("I love fishing! I feel like that's what you have to do when people are in New Zealand"). All the while, she's managed to give an impression of authenticity so convincing that people wondered if it was in fact fake, if she was secretly cast by the music industry itself to play its own antiheroine. "Her look, even the fact that she's from New Zealand and an outsider not just to American pop but also to how important and ubiquitous celebrity is, all that felt relatable," says Tavi Gevinson, editor-in-chief of Rookie magazine and one of the many young celebrities – including Taylor Swift – Lorde has befriended since joining their ranks.

Then, having won over an entire industry, Lorde disappeared. Or rather, she retreated, wanting to know if it was possible to reclaim some version of the suburban girl who had unwittingly created a masterpiece, so that she could try to create another one. At least that's how she'd described it to me earlier in the day, over lunch at the Beachwood Cafe, a sunny spot just under the Hollywood sign populated mainly by people wearing yoga pants and obsessively healthy glows. "Now I can look back and be like, 'That was fucked. All of it. Fucked. Insane,' " she says of the early flush of fame. "But everyone's so crazy when they're 16. I think if you tell a 16-year-old that they're going to Mars – 'We're gonna get on a rocket and go, and that's going to be your life' – they'd be like, 'OK, like, that's all well and good, but I'm doing this thing by myself right now, and that's what's important.' Everything kind of normalized week to week."

Not that everything was normal. By the time Lorde turned her attention to a new album, she was, in a sense, stuck on Mars. She found herself in the classic innovator's dilemma: She had invented a sound that changed the pop landscape. Now, shades of "Lorde" were everywhere – in the breathiness of her singing, in her mix of pop sounds and singer-songwriter candor – which means that to sound like Lorde these days is to sort of sound like a lot of other people. Her singularity had been co-opted, while her horizon had changed. "Her first album was all about being this kid," says Jack Antonoff, who produced Melodrama. "When your entire life changes, and you've built your career on being honest with your perspective, how do you continue to [find ways to relate]? It's near impossible."

In short, Lorde had to figure out how to create earthly magic in the rarefied atmosphere of another planet, while also figuring out what she wanted her adult life to be. All she could think of to do, really, was to try to make her way back home.

In late 2014, after wrapping up a North American tour, Lorde headed back to Auckland, New Zealand. She reconnected with old friends – including the kids in the "Royals" video – who weren't too weirded out by her fame, and started trying to find her footing on a new musical path. "It kind of takes a second, I learned," she says, "to write your way out of the record you just made." The initial concept for the new album involved a group of aliens getting an introduction to Earth. "I remember writing about the first step outside," she says. "These aliens have just lived in this hermetically sealed environment, and so what does the first step outside feel like?"

As always, Lorde tried to let herself be guided by her instincts, the keen perceptions that had served her so well. She has synesthesia – seeing songs not only as colors but also as textures – and grew up in a middle-class way that cultivated this, with a civil-engineer father and poet-laureate mother who taught her through an "overwhelming sensory experience of the world," she says. "Everything is so vivid to [my mum]. And it's all kind of governed by the senses in quite a literal way – like, the taste of different fruits can be art." Despite being a child who was "kind of solitary, dreamy, off in a place," she grew up with a deep reverence for pop, which she sometimes studied more than her subjects in school. "I have always been super-allergic to anything that feels exclusive in art," she tells me.

In the fall of 2015, Lorde, who had been working again with Little, decided to branch out. She'd met Lena Dunham ("We just started chatting online, as you do"); and through Lena Dunham, she'd met Dunham's boyfriend, Antonoff, the lead guitarist of fun. and the frontman of Bleachers, who had produced parts of Swift's 1989. "We were at a Grimes show, and he was like, 'I'll go get you a drink,' " Lorde says, "and sort of disappeared into another room and came back with a can of pineapple juice – which is quite a weird thing to bring someone – handed it to me, then whipped it back and rubbed the top of it and said, 'Rats crawl over them in the factories.' " In that moment, she sensed that she "had come home in the nicest possible way, to meet someone like that."

When Antonoff and Lorde got together, the album was still a fairly nebulous collection of impressions and ideas. "I was like, 'Let's just gather around a piano and see how you're feeling,' " Antonoff says, " 'and see what has happened to you since your last album that's really worth sharing.' " One of the first songs they wrote together was "Liability," about how toxic her fame can be to those who would want to get close to her. "That was very important," says Antonoff. "It opened up a big space, which was 'OK, there's a way that you can talk about all of these things that have changed, and it's not going to put you on an island.'  ... Everyone feels like a liability to their friends and family sometimes."

From then on, Lorde relied on her experiences, as they currently were. "Everything written about on the album, give or take a couple of lines, all took place in New Zealand, is about me and my friends," she explains. A few months after beginning to work with Antonoff, she moved out of her parents' house, buying one not far away that looks, in the cellphone photos she proudly shows me, like the sort of retro midcentury space where a Lorde video might be shot. She hung a "big, weird, very beautiful, quite saucy" painting by Celia Hempton in her bedroom ("It's definitely a vagina") and hand-painted de Gournay jungle wallpaper in her living room ("It's like a bizarre dream"). She described her perfect day as: "It's summer and everyone's off work, and we drive to the beach and then everyone comes back to my backyard, and we'll all be sitting around on the grass and listening to something and someone's made whiskey sours and the day turns into evening, it just sort of evolves, and all of a sudden it's two in the morning and everyone's dancing. That's a nice day for me."

When she'd stocked up on enough of those days, she would head back to Antonoff and the studio to try to decipher them. "I would go [to New Zealand] and do everything that I end up writing about, and then I'd fly 10,000 miles and write about it," she says. "I felt having the distance was really important for me. I really needed the freedom to be like, 'This is what I'm gonna say about this person.' "

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