Loyal partnership that launched a pop genius

By Joanna Mathers

As Kiwi pop sensation Lorde tours, performs, records and collects awards, manager Scott Maclachlan is never far from her side. Meet the man who sat up and took notice when he saw a video of a 12-year-old performing at a school talent contest.
Scott Maclachlan at his Queen St headquarters of Saiko Management, which manages global superstar Lorde as well as Sol3 Mio and rising Kiwi talents Mt Eden and Thomston. Photo / Getty Images
Scott Maclachlan at his Queen St headquarters of Saiko Management, which manages global superstar Lorde as well as Sol3 Mio and rising Kiwi talents Mt Eden and Thomston. Photo / Getty Images

Expat Englishman Scott Maclachlan inhabits a workspace that's redolent of a famous television time machine.

Tucked away up the stairs of a Queen St arcade, Saiko Management HQ is accessed by an unprepossessing wooden door that resembles a store cupboard. It opens smoothly and quietly to reveal an airy, New York-loft style space. Wooden floors, chic furnishings, massive windows - the scale is surprising.

"Yep, it is kind of like the Tardis," he says, laughing.

Relaxing on his new Union Jack sofa (and wearing matching socks), the music industry doyen looks every inch the teenage mod softened into middle age. "My older brother was a punk, but I was too young for that at the time," says the 45-year-old.

"But I was a mod - I was heavily into The Jam, The Specials, that whole two-tone thing."

Music is his life-long obsession - his career in the industry spans decades and encompasses divergent roles: DJ, box-packer, record label boss, talent scout and A&R (artist and repertoire) man.

Maclachlan has been based in the United Kingdom for most of his career but moved to New Zealand with his Kiwi-born wife Sandhya and two children six years ago. But it's his most recent industry incarnation that has awarded him the most attention - as Lorde's manager.

His contribution to Lorde's international success, and the success of Samoan opera group Sol3 Mio, earned him the top award at last month's Music Managers Award in Auckland.

"Obviously winning at the MMF was a great experience, and it's great to be recognised as being part of our artists' success, and that's not just me but my whole team. It's an incredibly gratifying feeling that you're building something that is contributing to an industry that you love and artists that you admire."

The Lorde success story has been told so often it's almost folklore. The video of a 12-year-old sent to the record label; the pairing of the uber-talented youngster with former Goodnight Nurse frontman/producer Joel Little; the subsequent world takeover.

Maclachlan was the behind-the-scenes guy who saw that video and nurtured her budding talent over the five years it took for her to write and produce the song that changed everything: Royals.

It was 2008 and Maclachlan was working as an A&R guy for Universal Music when he was sent a video. It featured a young Ella Yelich-O'Connor (aka Lorde) performing Duffy's Warwick Avenue at a Belmont Intermediate talent contest. "What stood out was her voice, incredible texture, incredible interpretation of the covers she was singing," Maclachlan remembers. "For someone that young to be able to interpret songs like that and make them her own, that's very, very rare."

Even at that early stage, he could sense the authenticity in her performance. "You tend to mimic, and Ella never had that mimicry. She was bold enough to already start interpreting in the way that she was going for."

Maclachlan was impressed enough by the student to sign her up with Universal on a development contract. Her partnership with Joel Little came after a number of failed tries with other songwriters; it seems she was always destined to write her own stuff.

Maclachlan knew he had something special on his hands with Yelich-O'Connor and her pairing with Little turned out to be a master stroke. Within a week of being in the studio with Little, Maclachlan was called in to hear three new songs, including Royals.

"While I never thought that Royals would ever become as big as it was, it was definitely magic. What you hear now is what was played to me then. I realised then that we had the perfect partnership."

Fast-forward to this year and Lorde has gone on to sell 14.5 million singles and 2.5 million copies of her album.

The young artist is about to launch into a tour of Australia, and in the past few weeks she has taken home two Billboard awards, launched a new lipstick and eyeliner with makeup company MAC and met former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Not bad for a young singer who, until last year, was still a student at Takapuna Grammar School on Auckland's North Shore.

For the first few years of Lorde's development, Maclachlan juggled his work with Universal and the fledgling management company he started to support the development of production duo Mt Eden, whose remix of Still Alive by Swedish musician Lisa Miskovsky has been viewed more than 40 million times on YouTube.

But the recent demands of managing both Lorde and the other artists in his Saiko Management stable proved too much, and he left Universal to concentrate on full-time management at the end of last year.

Maclachlan was at Lorde's side in Los Angeles on the night she won two Grammy 
Awards. Photo / Wire Image
Maclachlan was at Lorde's side in Los Angeles on the night she won two Grammy Awards. Photo / Wire Image

Lorde's international touring schedule means Maclachlan is out of the country regularly. "I've been out of the country every month for the past year," he says.

As a married man with two children - Scout, 10, and Noah, 7 - the lifestyle can be a challenge. However, there are advantages in having a dad who manages a megastar.

"I missed my daughter's birthday for the second year in a row at Billboard [Music Awards] last weekend. But Ella recorded a special message for her on my phone, which made my daughter's year."

He says this is typical of the young woman. "Ella is always incredibly thoughtful about my kids."

In return, Maclachlan is extremely protective of his client. At the outset of the interview I was told he would not speak on Lorde's behalf and asked me to respect this. Lorde was asked to make a comment on working with Maclachlan for this story but the request was politely declined. "When managing someone so young, their wellbeing is the most important consideration. You need to keep the family close, and I vet anyone who comes to the touring party very stringently.

"But having said this, Ella has a really good sense of who is good and who isn't. But I am always thinking when she is away, 'Have we put things in place to protect her'?"

He says she has some great people around her (her mother, poet Sonja Yelich, and older sister Jerry are always with her, and sometimes her father Vic) and her touring party of 12 people are all handpicked and trustworthy.

But while Maclachlan is committed to protecting Lorde from the excesses and ravages of celebrity life, he is aware of the need to give her space to express herself.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the way she uses Twitter to connect with her fans.

Lorde's openness on social media may be part of the reason she resonates so well with her generation. Although some of her online proclamations may seem provocative, and sometimes sensational, she shoots straight from the hip.

Her recent Tweets about "stalking" by pap photographer Simon Runting are a case in point - she named and shamed him publicly, sharing a link to his Facebook profile and tweeting: "i refuse to stay complicit and i refuse to stay passive about men systematically subjecting me to extreme fear".

Last week, she spearheaded a Twitter "trend" when she posted a picture of herself with acne cream on her face. No airbrushed perfection here.

Maclachlan feels Lorde is very adroit in her use of social media as a tool for connection to her fans. She has 1.6 million followers on Twitter.

"She is incredibly savvy in the way that she uses social media," he says. "But then the whole generation is. We're the luddites - I still sometimes put things up that makes her raise her eyebrows. It's like making mistakes when you speak a second language. She doesn't do that ... well, at least I don't think she does."

Maclachlan is currently best known as "the man who discovered Lorde" but she is far from being the only feather in his cap.

He also represents Sol3 Mio, who beat Lorde for best-selling album in New Zealand last year. Their album recently entered the Australian charts at No 6.

He says although the group may seem a strange fit for a management company that is best-known for its edgy, alternative stable of artists, there is a fit that goes past genre.

"Although impresarios in their own rights in the field of opera, they have a rock-star quality which is seeing their success growing across the globe. We are now targeting the UK, France and Germany this year and the United States next year. They have a DVD coming at the end of the year and a new album next year."

And then there are two new acts, one based in New Zealand and one in the US, who've been signed to the Saiko label and are benefiting from Maclachlan's trademark nurturing.

"There's a young kid we have called Thomston; we've had offers from 11 labels around the world. We haven't signed a deal yet, again because we have this ethos of development."

Thomston, an 18-year-old from Titirangi, has put out one EP on Soundcloud, entitled School Night EP. His next EP will be released tomorrow. The management company will then assess the options for signing.

"Again, it's the youthful, authentic social narrative," says Maclachlan of the singer's lyrical meanderings.

When pressed for a genre classification, Maclachlan hesitates before continuing: "I guess he's kind of that electronic, neo-soul. He'll probably shoot me for that."

Then there's US-based Parson James, who is managed by Tim Youngston, Maclachlan's American management partner.

"A really interesting character, he's an original soul singer with influences like Johnny Cash. There is also has a lot of interest in him."

Maclachlan is keen to point out there is more to him and Saiko Management than Lorde. But the past 18 months have been pretty much focused on New Zealand's new sweetheart, the awkward girl from the North Shore who has taken over the world. And Maclachlan acknowledges it's been a wild journey so far.

"The places we've been, the people we've met - it's been one hell of an experience. The music industry is a young person's game, so you don't expect at 45 to have the biggest experience of your professional career.

"I love every day with all of its challenges."

He says the level of success he has had to deal with has been a huge learning curve. "The key to dealing with it is to not be intimidated by the powers that be - at the record companies and the radio stations, in the press."

He also believes in treating everyone he encounters with respect, calling this characteristic "a Kiwi thing".

"I've definitely softened since I've been here," he says.

When it comes to making predictions about the next big thing in music, Maclachlan is reticent. "I'd need a crystal ball for that," he laughs. But he is sure about what he likes. "Anything that has, in the purest sense, a punk sensibility is always exciting."

He agrees that this describes Lorde. "We used to brainstorm early on about how to be as disruptive as we could. She's like a young punk and I'm like an old punk. To find someone at such a young age to have the arrogance, balls and belief to be so disruptive was amazing."

Lorde's bragging rights

• APRA Silver Scroll 2013 for Royals

• ASCAP Pop Award for Most Performed Song

• Billboard Music Award for Top New Artist and Best Rock Song (Royals)

• Brit Award for International Female Artist

• Grammy Award for Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance (Royals)

• IHEARTRADIO Award for Best New Artist

• MTV Europe Award for Best New Zealand Act

• New Zealand Music Award for Single of the Year (Royals), Breakthrough Artist of the Year (The Love Club EP), People's Choice Award, and Inter-national Achievement Award

• Taite Music Prize for Pure Heroine

Pure Heroine has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide; Lorde's singles have sold 14.5 million units worldwide.

- Herald on Sunday

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