Oh, Lorde (+playlist)

By Alan Perrott

She's the pop phenomenon of 2013, scoring four Grammy nominations, the top spot on record charts around the world and hanging out with A-list stars. Ella Yelich-O'Connor talks to Alan Perrot about the biggest year of her life and her Kiwi Christmas

Ella Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde, says she’s not resting on the laurels of one hit album. Photo / Phil Knott
Ella Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde, says she’s not resting on the laurels of one hit album. Photo / Phil Knott

All teens suspect someone somewhere is watching them, possibly even judging them.

It's the vulnerability and narcissism of youth and Lorde's probably no different when you get down to it, except for one minor detail. She knows with absolute certainty she's being watched. And that it's constant.

Total strangers in places she's never heard of know both of her names, her face, her art, her fashion choices, the age of her boyfriend and that she supposedly feuds with her fellow pop stars.

You'd need godlike levels of self-confidence to dip into her world.

Sure, there are oodles of adulating fans to listen to should she wish, but we're talking the internet here and that means at least as many people are professing to care neither one way or the other while going to huge lengths to explain just how unimpressed they are.

The rest are horribly vile.

Can you imagine being the subject of the repellent clip that US blogsite TMZ posted on YouTube last week of them discussing paparazzi photographs of Lorde swimming at an Auckland beach with her photographer boyfriend James Lowe, and their eight-year age gap?

To think she'd been looking forward to returning home because we'd be "relaxed, chilled, positive and supportive, and I can be terrifyingly normal".

But then hers is a level of fame we struggle to get our heads around. We've never had one of our own become this big this fast. Especially when, only a few months ago, we didn't know she existed.

Remember how we celebrated Pauly Fuemana when How Bizarre became a radio hit in America? That song has since been Kiwiana'd. And how we celebrated John Rowles when If I Only Had Time got to No3 in the UK? Who couldn't sing along to Cheryl Moana Marie?

Or when we debated ownership of Crowded House with Australia when they began charting everywhere?

Photo / Phil Knott
Photo / Phil Knott

So, how should we respond to Lorde?

Mostly we've gone for slack-jawed amazement. Well, that or cynical disbelief that someone so young could do so well without some shadowy majordomo whispering lines into her ear.

But then it really is rather dizzying when you look at the crazy numbers. Her first single, Royals, spent nine weeks enjoying the view from the top of the US Billboard chart, with around eight million sales (going platinum in mid-October) and who knows how many who stop to listen whenever it comes on the radio.

It was also No1 in Australia, Britain, Belgium, Canada, Ireland and, naturally, here.

It also topped the iTunes chart in 45 countries ranging from Laos to Paraguay and on into Latvia and Qatar.

Her album, Pure Heroine, also was a hit, kicking off at No1 here, then becoming the highest debut for a Kiwi album in the US and reaching four in the UK.

Lumped together, she has sold more music this year than New Zealanders have bought.

Then there were the clips of Lorde vamping her way through the US talk shows, singing for and then (swoon) meeting Bowie and Tilda Swinton, hanging out in Central Park with Taylor Swift, and swapping texts with Cher. Between there were accusations of racism and the occasional spat with starlets like Cyrus, Swift and Gomez.

"I totally walked into it, though," she says. "I mean I'm a normal human being and I was being asked for my opinion, so I say something completely innocently, honestly and from the heart, then I get screwed."

If you're worried her new frenemies will be cold shouldering her from now on, though:

"No, not at all, they know the game."

On the other hand, such exchanges show she's now part of a VIP section most can't get access to, and she's got in on her own terms, fully clothed and without a vocoder in sight.

Yes, that minx Miley Cyrus eventually ended Lorde's hopes of extending her stint as US No1 into double weekly figures, but the disappointment was surely eased when the release of Lorde's Team video broke a fairly reliable part of the internet.

Then, as a kicker, she joined an all-star cast of performers for the announcement of the Grammy nominations, a live telecast with an audience of about 25 million. Who knows what'll happen if and when she wins a Grammy? (She's nominated for four: song of the year, record of the year, best pop solo performance and best pop vocal album.)

When you put all this together the assumption is that real life Ella Yelich-O'Connor and her producer Joel Little are now totally loaded (there's a rumour that her team have taken to calling Royals "Royalties".) Loaded to the extent that if they looked after their money carefully they may never need to work another day in their lives.

"That's just mental, isn't it? It's the craziest thing to think about, the possibilities ... I'm just so lucky that I now have a platform to do whatever I want to do, and it feels good.

I'm so glad I stuck to my guns.

"People kind of get it now. They've worked with me for a fair while and they know I can do my thing and it'll still work out. Sure, there are people who want me to do stuff that I'll never do but, at the end of the day, they can leave work and take off their hat, but I'm wearing my artistry always. It's literally part of me and I have to stand up for that."

Again, she's 17. Just.

Can't even say it's been an amazing year because her career hasn't lasted that long yet.

So, if we find this way too extraordinary, how is she handling it?

"See, this is my life, so it's hard for me to see it how you see it. The Royals video just hit 100 million views on YouTube, which is the kind of thing I would have associated with superstars six months ago. But it's just me, so now I see it as normal. Stuff like that happens a lot these days."

And it's not like she's short of friends who know what she's going through: "Claire Boucher (aka eclectic Canadian multimedia artist, singer-songwriter and producer Grimes) gave me some good advice about not taking it all too seriously; being able to laugh at yourself and the situations you find yourself in. And that if people are talking about your work, it's a good thing.

"At first I had a real problem with reviews and nasty comments from internet people - one mean thing can shoot down 50 nice things and then your whole day is shit.

"But different opinions start conversations and change the way things are thought about, so I just remember that I'm lucky to be here, lucky that my work has affected people enough for them to spend time talking about it and that if people are brainstorming methods of killing you on your Facebook page, they're not just opinionated, they're psychopaths."

It's a given that her stories are going to be hard to beat when the family gathers in Devonport for Christmas. And they will be gathering - her mother, Sonja Yelich, has issued a stern decree to her daughter's handlers that Christmas is family time.

It'd be interesting to know whether her sisters and brother notice any change. Because she certainly has.

"I've learned about compromise. About being in the public eye. About packing. About the production line between what you say and what the media wants people to hear you saying. About how to interpret what people are asking of you. About the importance of having time off and just lying in the sun. And about how famous people are just normal people who happen to have this crazy blend of drive, talent and luck. That sounds like the kind of thing only a famous person would say, but you can take my word for it."

Hopefully, somewhere in the middle of all that, she's also learned how to relax when she can. Because demand for her time has become so heavy that our telephone conversation had to be squeezed between a New York magazine photoshoot and heading to the airport to fly home. She was crashed out on a couch, exhausted, and the cellphone connection was rubbish, but she was a trouper, patiently replying to the questions every journalist has to ask until her road manager called time.

But she doesn't have much choice in it as no one knows how long Lorde will embody the zeitgeist. Remember Somebody I Used to Know? You must remember, it was that smart, cool, arch pop song with the clever video by that Australian guy who sang with Kimbra; it was huge everywhere. What was his name again?

The release last week of Lorde's video for new hit, 'Team', was so popular it crashed the vevo website. Photo / Phil Knott
The release last week of Lorde's video for new hit, 'Team', was so popular it crashed the vevo website. Photo / Phil Knott

There is one guy who'll never forget Ella's name.

Leon Jacobs teaches at Belmont Intermediate and he put the then 12-year-old Yelich-O'Connor through her first audition in 2009.

A notice about the school's new rock band, Extreme, had been read out in morning assembly. "She was a stand-out," says Jacobs, "the first vocalist we'd had in the band who didn't just stand behind the mic and sing; she performed. She just seemed really mature, never full of herself, and you could tell she just loved doing it ... and nobody ever called her the leader and I certainly didn't make her one, but she was very much a person who spoke first and who people approached first.

"Lorde and all the quirky movements were certainly in her already."

The band's pokey, light blue practice space had previously been the principal's old office, right next door to the staffroom.

"We used to get a lot of complaints about noise."

As you do when your set consists of Black Sabbath, Dio and the Cult.

He points to the spot where she always sang with her back to the only window "doing that same flicky thing with her hair. The last time I saw her, she came in to give me a message that her sister (India, who also sings) wasn't coming to practice.

"She told me she had a record deal. That was two years ago, and I was 'oh fantastic, that's great' and didn't think much more about it. I know how hard it is to make it in music.

Then I was at the filling station and this song's playing and my daughter says, 'Hey Dad, that's Ella.'

"I'd heard it before but hadn't realised then, suddenly, I was 'of course it is; you can hear her'. I still get a huge kick out of hearing her. She's just being herself and that helps her stand out from all the others."

His only regret is in all the hours of practising he never recorded them or took videos.

"I could've been a YouTube zillionaire."

The only remnant is a clip now on YouTube of Extreme opening the final of the intermediate school's band competition.

And how did they do?

"Third. We were robbed. The group that came second was a joke and I can't remember who won. But I was quite annoyed."

Photo / Phil Knott
Photo / Phil Knott

Happily, Yelich-O'Connor's career hasn't shown any lingering impact.

She returns home from her latest triumphant, and brief, stint in the United States today with every intention of getting back into the studio with Joel Little before her mum calls her in for Christmas lunch.

For his part, Little seems to have become something of a wandering minstrel since Royals blew up. His Twitter feed features a running meme of studio interior shots as he's taken up a series of songwriting invitations.

In an interview with Billboard magazine last month he talks about the making of her new single, Team, and gives some insight into how the pair work.

"That song was one where we had everything except the chorus. She was sitting in the back of the room while I was working on the music and she was saying, 'I think I've got a chorus idea'. I asked, 'Can I hear it?' and she said, 'No, no, no.'

"She wouldn't sing it to me and then once she had it, she basically sang the entire chorus as you hear it now. I was like, 'Holy shit, this is seriously good'. It was like, 'This girl is going to be an amazing songwriter, or has turned into one in a really short amount of time'."

Which suggests, fingers crossed, that the pair may have plenty of hits left in them yet.

Still, creating art isn't quite like making sausages, regardless of your opinion of bog standard chart fodder, and Lorde's first album has lifted expectations maddeningly high while her manager has quit his day job to hitch his wagon to hers fulltime.

She wouldn't be human if a few self-doubts weren't nagging her.

"Yeah definitely," she says. "I'm super conscious of not resting on the success of one song and one album, though I feel so inspired, what with all the travelling and learning I've done in the last six months. I've been writing down a lot of stuff. It's good to keep writing and getting ideas down.

"On top of that, I'm writing a lot for other people at the moment (don't ask, she won't tell), which is a nice challenge and a fun way of still making music without having to agonise or make my hair turn grey. I found one the other day!"

Other than that, her biggest challenge is meeting some heightened family expectations when it comes to Christmas presents.

"Oh, I've got that covered. I'm going to do well, I think. I've got some really good ones."

And you just know that regardless of everything else she's done this year, she's totally going to be judged on them.

Listen to Lorde's album Pure Heroine (+ other great tracks from the kiwi star)

Follow nzherald_ent on Spotify for more playlists.

- NZ Herald

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