Saturday, July 19, 2014

And The Music Phenomenon Of The Year Award Goes To...


Lorde: The Music Phenomenon of the Year

The music phenomenon of the year, seventeen-year-old Lorde has gone from the suburbs of Auckland to the top of the global charts.
Pop songs traditionally rest on pronouns: you and me, the two of us together. One of the most startling things about Ella Yelich-O’Connor, the seventeen-year-old singer-songwriter who records as Lorde, is that although those words make the expected showings, their meaning, like a lot about her work, comes refreshed and entirely turned around. Since Lorde’s single “Royals” went to number one in the United States this past fall, making her the youngest artist to top the charts in more than 25 years, her unadorned, descriptively precise songs have defined a novel point of view in mainstream vocals. Lorde’s I is disembodied; her you is coyly attentive. (“You haven’t stopped smoking all night,” she sings in “A World Alone,” on her debut album, Pure Heroine.) The crucial pronoun in her lyrics, though, is we. Writing from the vantage of kids joined by their experience—“We’ll never be royals”—Lorde traces a path of transforming identity and burgeoning ambition. It’s the voice of youth, but also of striking sophistication, and in recent months it’s made her one of the most promising talents in global pop.
For Lorde, a New Zealander who grew up in the Auckland suburbs, the rush of international attention has been welcome for its ever-changing challenges more than its wash of glamour. “It’s nice to be using lots of my brain all the time,” she confesses one autumn afternoon over lunch in Manhattan, at a Chelsea photographer’s loft. Dressed casually, in knitted gray pants and a striped T-shirt, she pauses pensively between bites. “I feel like I’m not yet sitting comfortably in what I’m doing, and I definitely feel a hunger for branching out,” she says in her lilting accent. Since being discovered at a school talent show and signed to a recording-and-development deal at twelve, she’s followed a quick and precipitous path to fame. But unlike many fresh-faced singers racing up the charts, Lorde retains an active hand in her musical craft.
It’s a couple of days before her birthday (“I’ll probably just listen to ‘Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl,’ ” she deadpans; “I’ll have, like, a self-reflection moment”), which she will celebrate outside New Zealand for the first time. Meanwhile, there’s work to be done: a special concert for the Museum of Modern Art Film Benefit that evening, during which she’ll meet David Bowie, one of several illustrious fans; some filming for her next music video in a couple of days; the demands of a rapid urban schedule. “It feels like coming home, in a sense, because every film is set here, and every TV show,” she says of New York. “But also like another planet.”
Industrious, imaginative, and intellectually precocious, Lorde holds an equally exotic appeal for her audience. Offstage, she is arresting, with cutting blue eyes and a mane of curly brown hair. In her videos and photos, she often wears a mask of catlike makeup, giving her features a defamiliarized, almost otherworldly eccentricity. She says her style icons are “people like Grace Jones and David Bowie, who have such a sense of themselves.” With a look that moves easily from sleek austerity to fantastical whimsy, she counts Comme des Garçons, Miu Miu, Moschino, and Simone Rocha among her favorite labels. (She wore Chanel to the MoMA event.) “The kind of clothes that I’ve found I like to wear over the past year and six months have all been things that make me feel powerful and strong,” she says. “I wear a lot of pants. I wear a lot of long, structured dresses.”

Over the past year, Lorde has developed an adoring fan base among young listeners, something that she is still adjusting to. “It’s a fine line between being a role model and preaching to people. I never want to tell anyone how they should be, especially not someone my age,” she says. “But, that being said, I’m conscious of the fact that people my age are reading what I say and listening to what I say, and that’s cool—particularly for the girls who are into what I do.”
What people of all ages love most, of course, is the music. As a songwriter, Lorde is exacting and understated, leaning away from the usual sweet nothings of international pop and toward lyrics that are experientially evocative and quietly anthemic. Her music is cool, rhythmic, and pared-down, combining the beats of the European dance floor with haunting synth overlays and pure-voice melody. Despite her youth, her style emerged almost fully formed, borne by her smoky vocal tones—a timbre that recalls Adele or Amy Winehouse without resembling either. “It wasn’t until I had vocal lessons, when I was thirteen or fourteen, that singing really became kind of a tool, and something I could use to get across what I was feeling,” she says. “Before then, the things that I had taught myself to do with my throat were instinctive, and stuff that I was mimicking from things that I had heard. I had quite a nasal, twangy voice.” Early on, Lorde would bring her producer and writing partner, Joel Little, a set of finished lyrics, and they’d invent music to match: She quickly wrote “Royals”—“that old chestnut,” she calls it—after stumbling on a vintage National Geographic photo of Kansas City Royals player George Brett. She originally conceived of the song as “a big, blown-out soul jam.” (“I still have videos on my Photo Booth of me just vocal-freestyling the lyrics. Which is crazy to watch—no one’s ever going to see that.”) She released the song on SoundCloud, a music-posting Web service, which helped propel its rise.
Little realized Lorde had gotten to a new level when they were working on “Tennis Court”: “I was making the beat and she sat in the back of the studio silently for a few hours, putting together the chorus melody in her head. She wouldn’t sing it to me or show me the lyrics or anything. Eventually she was like, ‘OK, I think I’ve got it,’ and sang me pretty much the chorus you hear now, and I was just like, ‘Holy shit, I love you, but I kind of hate you.’ ”
Lorde’s mother is Sonja Yelich, a distinguished New Zealand poet. (Her father is an engineer.) But the singer says she feels most at home in the creative register of prose. “I’ve never written poetry, but I’ve written short fiction for a long time, and that’s the thing that I read, pretty much exclusively,” she says. “It’s much more similar to songwriting for me—having to make something big and get it into a small space.” She’s been a close reader of newer American writers (such as Wells Tower and Claire Vaye Watkins) as well as the old masters (Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Kurt Vonnegut, Tobias Wolff). These days, her composition takes another approach: “Now when I have an idea and I write it, it comes out in the form of a song.” Yet she still writes prolifically and elegantly on her blog (“last night, i played to a room of people whose names i worship, breathe like fine gold smoke, reverent,” she mused after a recent performance) and has an active Twitter presence. “A lot of the writers that I like aren’t really about narrative; they’re just about perfectly formed sentences,” she says. “That’s always been something I’ve been drawn to—one word or five words that sit perfectly.”
Lorde’s life in Auckland, where she grew up the second of four children, stands in contrast to her fast-paced international career. She has two dogs, Jimmy Choo and Boss—one’s big, the other small—and thinks of them a lot. “Dogs have this weird thing where you leave and they just think you’re dead,” she says. “When we go out of the room now, they get super stressed out, because they’re like, ‘Are they going to go away again?’ ” (She tends to be the dogs’ favorite.) The fraught pull toward home has shown up in her work. “I had a strange kind of tussle writing the record, in that I had been in this place my whole life that I had ached to get out of,” she explains. “I had wanted to live in a city. And then I had this experience of traveling and being in the biggest cities in the world. Coming back home, I realized that (a) where I live is beautiful and (b) did I want to grow up? Did I want to leave the suburbs? It was sort of a weird coming-of-age thing or something.”
In “400 Lux,” she describes an aimless cruise around the suburbs through a stream-of-consciousness reverie (“Dreams of clean teeth/I can tell that you’re tired”). Little describes most of Lorde’s lyrics as “references to specific moments and experiences she’s had, so the listener is let in on something really personal . . . but only up to a point, because she doesn’t spell everything out, so they retain a sense of mystery, too.” The “400 Lux” chorus shifts in meaning across a line break—“I’m glad that we stopped kissing/the tar on the highway”—a pivot that changes the song from a teen ballad based on a limited store of experience into a rangy, restless dream.

Lorde’s sensibility is full of such swerves and trapdoors, each pulling away from mainstream-pop conventions. So is her stage presence. In an industry that rewards glamour, sex, and high jinks, Lorde performs shows with quirky restraint, dancing “like Gollum,” as she’s put it, with a small repertoire of twitchy movements. Creating a provocative stage persona is a gesture she can appreciate in others but doesn’t feel compelled to emulate. In making music videos, she combines scenes from suburban New Zealand and lush, surreal fantasies; at times, as in the video for “Tennis Court,” which appeared last summer, she seems to be drawing less from pop conventions than from performance art.
“I definitely love writing pop music, but in terms of structure and formula—you know it, and then you know it,” she explains. “I’m probably always going to return to that kind of structure, but it’s nice to branch out a bit.” Recently, in beginning to think about material for a second album, she’s been focusing more intensely on her instrumental lines. “I’ve been writing traditional pop songs, and recording them, and then making the instrumental equivalent—I’m just mucking around with stuff,” she says, melting into teenage insouciance.
Something will have to change by the time Lorde’s second album arrives, if only because her life, these days, is not the same. Much of Pure Heroine chronicles the experience of being young and obscure on the edges of the First World. (“We live in cities/You’ll never see on-screen,” Lorde sings in “Team.” “Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things.”) Now she is one of the most in-demand performers on the globe, with four Grammy nominations and a nearly sold-out North American tour this spring.
“Obviously, if I were to come out with a record about living in my town and doing the things that we always did, that wouldn’t be accurate,” she says. “I’ve always wanted someone in my position to write about what it’s like to be in my position”—but how to do it without becoming tiresome? Songs like “Royals” lampoon the bling culture of rock and hip-hop from the point of view of an outsider, an approach that provoked its own controversy. (Some thought it was caricaturing African-American rap culture.) If Lorde, now very much inside, tries to report from fame’s front lines, she’ll have to do it with finesse. “Hopefully I don’t write the record which is like, ‘I’m sitting in my spa, and I’m very sad,’ ” she jokes.
Yet for a young artist who aspires not just to success but to a full career (her heroes are musicians, such as Bowie and Radiohead, who have reinvented themselves repeatedly), it seems a worthy challenge. Gimlet-eyed but far from cynical, her songs look toward a future when today’s urbane, interconnected kids will run the world. And her precocious confidence makes that outcome irresistible. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air,” she sings elsewhere in “Team.” “So there.” — Nathan Heller |

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