By Kyle MacKinnel; photos by Marc Lemoine on December 13, 2013
Half a world away, nestled cozily in the Hauraki Gulf on the northern isle of New Zealand, lie the verdant suburbs of Auckland. Here, eastward-facing windows yield vistas of the vast Pacific. Behind one of them, a teenage girl equipped with a surging umber mane, an acoustic guitar and a wide-as-the-world stare sits, ruminating. Swarming around her in mounting numbers are the window’s myriad liquid-crystal foils, framing and reframing her every move and opinion with the haste of a data signal. As countless pairs of thumbs eagerly compose 140-character correspondence—sent in her direction via that familiar blue carrier bird—the girl remains unperturbed. Despite the onslaught, her stare doesn’t waver. She is finally back home for the weekend, writing in her room, musing on the edge. She’s also kind of chilling out.
“I’m kind of chilling out,” says Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as Lorde. “I go away to Australia in like three days. I was actually just writing before you called.”
The particular “edginess” of her new effort doesn’t exactly feel like fodder for the next insta-generational anthem, in subject matter at least. “I was writing about the coast,” she says, in a modest Kiwi accent. “I get inspired off one word or a phrase which locks concepts I’ve been toying with into place. I have 1,001 of those little snippets on my iPhone. I’m a weird pop star. I’m flawed, and hopefully people appreciate that.” If by “flawed” Yelich-O’Connor means “different,” then she’s definitely onto something.
Quite the precocious 16-year-old, Yelich-O’Connor sports the composure of someone twice her age. Her mother is a lauded poet (possibly explaining Ella’s knack for internal rhyme). She has an affinity for the short story (namely, the subtle mastery of Raymond Carver). And that stare mentioned earlier? Refer to the Lorde “Tennis Court” video for a tutorial, as it features little else. Think Sinéad, virtually stripped of lip-sync duties. (The surname resemblance is merely coincidence.)
The conversation piece, however, came in the form of Lorde’s ubiquitous second single, “Royals.” While its place in the pecking order of her flush debut LP, Pure Heroine, is happily debatable, the track is a genuine earworm, and its eschewal of the opulent trappings of success are nothing if not a beacon of hope for its youthful constituency. No more miniature giraffes on the golden treadmill. Even the album cover is stark, featuring bold charcoal typeface on a black backdrop. Sings Yelich-O’Connor:
“It don’t run in our blood/That kind of lux just ain’t for us/We crave a different kind of buzz.”
It’s a sentiment that begs the question, Well, then, what exactly do your veins seek? Yelich-O’Connor is among the first wave of human beings actually born into a wireless world, and she seems well aware of her post-Internet coming-of-age party.
“The Internet is a commodity for us; it’s pretty weird,” she says, speaking of her generation. “It’s something that a lot of adults underestimate the craziness of.” Lorde is in a unique position: a spokeswoman for today’s ordinary teenager, living an extraordinary reality. The scope is bigger than New Zealand. Yelich-O’Connor is an international artist, her omnidirectional stage coursing invisibly through the ether, directly into the palms of our hands. And the very tools that have helped to empower her with such impossible rapidity have no clear economic model. Things like Twitter and Instagram may not directly generate revenue, but with every little hashtagged, heart-shaped shot of dopamine, their inelasticity is further entrenched in this world. They are virtual beacons for the anti-lux set: the new buzz. “That’s what’s kind of cool about it!” she says.
Still, Yelich-O’Connor feels no apprehension about the abruptness of her fame, finding solid ground in a record that she worked hard to make, and of which she is rightly proud.
“Writing the album was cool because it was such a period of discovery for me,” she says. “Which is always nice, when you’re trying to make something, you know? To get inspired by that which you wanted to hear but couldn’t quite put your finger on.” She claims such disparate influences as Sleigh Bells, Prince and The Zombies while working on Pure Heroine, and talks about meeting and sharing the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon stage with Kanye West as a particularly surreal experience. Yet, believe it or not, until the widespread attention came, Yelich-O’Connor didn’t think her music sounded like pop.
“Something that I realized once people started paying attention to The Love Club EP was that the music was pop; I was making pop music,” she says, referring to her pre–Pure Heroine effort released earlier this year. “It wasn’t something I was really conscious of until Top 40 radio started playing it. It felt like a bunch of people on the Internet liked it, so they made a decision like, ‘OK, we have to play it, even if we normally wouldn’t.’ It felt very people-driven. It’s the way you want it to go.”
As her own experience continues to distance itself from that of the average teenager, and exponentially so with each new post, Yelich-O’Connor acknowledges that her ability to communicate from that perspective is bound to drift.
“The ways in which my life is changing, you know, the subject matter changes as well,” she says. “I think as long as whatever I’m writing is honest, and is relevant to what I’m doing, and feels like a true story, then hopefully people will be into it. I’m interested to see how my writing evolves now that I’m less in that traditional teenage situation.”
Hang tight. It’s hardly the end of the world. In fact, it’s only just beginning. F
This article is from FILTER Issue 54