Joel Little: Doing the Lorde's work

By Lydia Jenkin

Joel Little is the man who has made Lorde's songs sound the way they do. On the eve of the local pop phenomenon's debut album, he talks to Lydia Jenkin about their collaboration.

Joel Little noticed something special about Lorde when they first met.
Joel Little noticed something special about Lorde when they first met.

It's 10am on a Monday, and as TimeOut knocks on the door of Golden Age Studio, producer Joel Little is already working on some musical tidbit. There are no musicians in the booth, or on the couch, but Little (who's actually quite tall) seems to have the kind of work ethic that means he's always beavering away on something.

Plus the 30-year-old has two young daughters, so he's usually up early anyway.

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Golden Age is a relatively humble studio - a few guitars, amps, synths and effects boards, comfy couches, coffee table, and the all-important screen and speakers, in front of the window through to the booth. And unusually, it's sunny and light.

"I like sunlight," he smiles, "I don't like feeling like I'm in a cave the whole time. It's a good spot."

There's also a bit of an animal theme going on, with a deer mask, parrot, and various animal lamps dotted around.

"I'm getting quite a collection. I had that one [a goose], and then someone bought me that one [a squirrel], and then Ella bought me that [a rabbit], and it's just become a thing now where people keep buying me animals for the studio. But I'm ok with that."

The Ella he mentions is 16-year-old Ella Yelich-O'Connor, aka Lorde - she of the massively successful international chart hits Royals and Tennis Court, the hugely popular Love Club EP.

You see, Little is the man behind the music, so to speak. For the past 20 months, he's spent a rather hefty chunk of his time co-writing, recording, and producing all of Lorde's tunes to date, including her much-anticipated debut album Pure Heroine, which is out next week.

"When I met her she'd just turned 15, and I just remember her coming in, and us both probably feeling a bit odd. It's quite a weird situation when you sit down with someone you've never met before to try to write a song. So the first few times, we didn't write a whole lot, we'd just hang out and listen to music, maybe start coming up with an idea."

Lorde had been spotted by A&R man Scott Maclachlan a year or so earlier, having been performing at school and gigging around Auckland's North Shore for a while. She signed a development deal with Universal, and had been testing the waters with various songwriters without much luck, when she was first brought into Golden Age to try things out with Little.

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"We just hit it off," he shrugs. "We started working on trying to figure out what she wanted to do, just playing with different ideas and different styles. There was never any pressure for it to really be anything in particular, it was just write some songs and see what happens. And Universal gave us a lot of freedom there, to just make what we liked. They weren't in a hurry."

Indeed, Little laughs at the suggestions of a grand marketing strategy or music industry conspiracy that have been bandied about.

"Everyone involved is reacting to the response, rather than it being any kind of planned strategy. The plan was just 'let's make some songs, and if people like the songs then that's cool, but it doesn't need to be about anything other than that at this point, because she's such a young artist'. People somehow thought that was a manipulative way of doing things, but it wasn't supposed to be a big deal. How could you guess that that many people would be interested? If nobody had been into it, it would've just been some songs online for free, with no photo."

He finds it hard to believe that just 10 months on, they've finished her debut album, and that Royals is sitting at number three on the Billboard chart (behind Katy Perry and Robin Thicke), and has garnered a Silver Scroll finalist spot, but he admits realising there was something special about the teen when they first met.

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"It was actually her lyrics that got me first. She brought in the lyrics and I thought 'These are ridiculous, how can you be thinking of things like this?' And then when I heard her sing, I was just like 'yussss!'. I knew it was gonna work."

Little agrees it was a slightly intimidating situation, being part of someone's early musical development, before she had developed her own sound or aesthetic, but the material she brought in was so good, that whatever genre they were working in, her voice and lyrics were the key.

"It became pretty clear early on that the focus should be on her voice and what she's saying, because she's got this great combo of youth, but then also seeming like she knows way more about things than you do, so you don't want to hide that. You want the music to accentuate the lyric and the voice, rather than take away from it."

It takes a savvy and open-minded producer to listen to the opinions of a 15-year-old, and set them in their best light, to concoct a sound where her own good tastes are given focus and direction, and reflect both her serious nature, and her youthful views.

So where did Little come from?

Well, he was once a 15-year-old with musical dreams too, picking up the guitar and starting four piece pop-punk outfit Goodnight Nurse with some university friends, where he was lead vocalist.

"It was just us, watching Blink182 or NOFX, and going, man these guys kind of suck live, but they write cool songs, and they look like they're having a good time, touring the world, we wanna do that."

Goodnight Nurse did just that, touring New Zealand and Australia, releasing two albums, and having a handful of singles in the top 20 charts. After eight years they felt like they'd reached the end of their pop-punk phase and wanted to start new things. Guitarist Sam McCarthy began writing songs that would become the material for Kids of 88 with the help of Little (My House was their first song), and Little decided to delve into writing music for ads, or co-writing with other artists, and started up indie record label Dryden Street with his now manager Ashley Page, and fellow Goodnight Nurse bandmate Jaden Parkes.

"[Getting into commercial projects] was really just me trying to find a way to make a living out of music really, because otherwise I was doing things like playing acoustic covers at bars on a Sunday afternoon, just to help pay the rent. And I hated it, I tried to tell myself that I liked it, you know, it's a bit of fun, but I would get home, and I wouldn't want to work on music at all after having done that. It was sapping all my desire for music.

"So when the ad thing came along, because you're making music to a brief for someone else, it's not your heart and soul, and I found a bit of a knack for separating it from my personal music, so I could just knock them out without too much trouble."

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The ad work also gave him a chance to really build up a studio, school himself up on recording techniques, and practice writing in a wide variety of genres. And it worked - he's won multiple awards for his ad work, and also managed to continue working with Kids of 88, who also won multiple music awards.

Of course, now his name is really up in lights (he's finally taken his email address off his Twitter account), he's fielding requests and interest from all over the globe. He's been writing with Silverchair's Daniel Johns ("he's got a new album coming, which is quite different from what people might expect from him"), had a meeting with star pop producer Dr Luke (who publicly congratulated Little and Lorde on their "great songs!"), and after the Silver Scroll awards in October, will be heading back to London and LA to test out new songwriting partnerships.

It's certainly been quite a year, and it's far from over - you can almost guarantee the accolades will keep coming once Pure Heroine is released. But Little remains one of the nicest, most affable, easy-going chaps you're likely to meet in the music industry - one who clearly appreciates the excitement of it all, while remaining family-oriented, and remarkably ego-free.

"I guess it will change my life, but everything is pretty normal so far. Every day there's some new ridiculous thing happening, and I guess you just kind of get used to the days being ridiculous. I'm sure it'll cool off too," he smiles, "but I just walk around smiling and shaking my head every day at the moment."

Who: Joel Little, Lorde's producer and songwriter
What: Lorde's debut album Pure Heroine, out September 27

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