The story of Lorde
Samantha Hayes has New Zealand’s first ever television interview with teenage music sensation Lorde.
Just a few weeks ago, thousands of fans lined up in Auckland to see Lorde play live, the 16-year-old Takapuna Grammar student who has got the whole world talking.
Before the gig, she tells 3rd Degree she is "disgustingly nervous".
"I just like to sit by myself and get in the zone," she says.
- VIDEO: Full interview with Lorde
It may seem like Ella Yelich-O’Connor has catapulted from no one to superstar in a heartbeat, but the truth is she’s spent most of her life working towards this moment.
"It feels like the most natural thing in the world to me because I’ve never had anyone else’s music career," she says. "This feels like normality really. I love it. I get to do these crazy things that a lot of other people wouldn’t necessarily get to do.
In her flowing robe, Yelich-O’Connor looks every bit a lord. She gave herself the stage name because of her fascination with aristocracy, adding an "e" on the end to feminise it.
"Everything about this business is outlandish and extravagant," she says. "I don’t know. This is entertainment; it’s this magical world."
It's a magical world where suddenly everyone’s singing along with you and your song is about to be a number-one hit in the United States – a feat only two other Kiwis have achieved.
But there would be no Lorde, at least not as we know her, without help from one man in particular. Scott McLachlan is an industry A&R guy. Essentially his job is to find new acts, and he found Ella when she was just 12, at her school talent quest.
"She’s a perfect storm of a lot of things – intelligence, charisma, vocals, ability, confidence, humility. Every box that you can tick for an A&R guy, she ticks in spades," he says.
So at 13 he signed her to the world’s largest record company, Universal Music, and became her manager and closest advisor. But then came the question of how to turn her into a viable act. His first idea was to get her to sing other people’s songs.
"My strategy was completely different to what ended up, which really was we have a great voice and one of the traditional routes is you get other people to write songs for someone with a great voice and you put the two together and off you go. That’s not how it turned out."
"At the time I wasn’t really writing, so I guess I didn’t give Scott much to go on, and he just saw me as a voice," says Yelich-O’Connor. "So he said, 'Oh, you could do this cover album.' I think Joss Stone did something similar. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I knew that was not what I was going to be doing, just because I want to do my own thing. I was like, 'No, no, no, give me some time.' I wrote and wrote and wrote."
Yelich-O’Connor spent two years honing her writing skills, penning short stories, and at 15 McLachlan put the terrified teenager into the studio with music producer Joel Little.
"I heard her voice and I was like, 'This is a ridiculously good voice,'" says Little. "She came with the lyrics to 'Royals' and I was like, 'Man, these are so good. You know something special could come out of this.' So we spent a couple of days nutting it out, and then we cracked it and I was like, 'This feels really good.'"
In less than a week they made the hit song 'Royals'. They didn’t know it yet, but it would turn Yelich-O’Connor into an international star.
"When we finished up and I listened back the first time, there’s something about this," says Little. "I wasn’t thinking it would go as crazy as it did, but I knew that there was something magical about this track."
"I put 'Royals' on and I freaked out," says American music executive Jason Flom. "That’s how this whole story began."
Flom has been handpicking stars for three decades, and found 'Royals' 48 hours after it was posted online.
"We have a saying in the music industry: Get to the chorus and don’t bore us," says Flom. "And the fact is with her, with that song, it catches you from the moment it comes on."
Flom immediately signed Lorde to his US label, Lava Records.
"What we do in this crazy business of ours is we market magic, and there’s either magic in a record or there’s not," says Flom. "It’s all subjective, but the fact is the voice, the lyrics, the melody, all were just shocking."
But at this stage, only a handful of people knew who the girl behind the song was. An illustration was the only hint at what she looked like.
"That was 100 percent my decision," says Yelich-O’Connor. "I feel like pop music places a lot of importance on looks. There’s a lot of excess information. I feel like in pop you know everything about everyone, and I don’t know if that’s necessary in music.
"I’d like it if people judge my music on something other than what my face looks like, or what my body looks like. I like that in the beginning people could listen and like it based on nothing except the fact that they like the music."
Yelich-O’Connor’s control extends to everything she puts her name to, even how her songs are consumed. She released all her early material, including 'Royals', online for free. And 60,000 copies were downloaded without a cent being paid for them.
"They [the record company] didn’t like it," says Yelich-O’Connor. "I was like, 'This is what I want to do.' I’m so glad I did. It was a smart move in terms of getting it out there. It’s just a cool way of doing it I think.”
And when it was finally released on iTunes, the single went straight to number one.
But Yelich-O’Connor had yet to translate her songs to the stage. Lorde had never once performed in front of an audience.
"I was nervous," she says. "It was bad. I was very stressed out. There was a lot emotionally invested in me as an artist, and I was thinking I’ve got to deliver.
Yelich-O’Connor arrives for sound check in knee-high socks and a backpack, for her first-ever live performance. It’s four months before her Vector Arena show in Auckland and completely different. There’s no entourage, just a couple of roadies to set up. At her age she shouldn’t even be in a pub, and her pre-gig demands reflect that.
"I can’t have alcohol in my rider obviously, so my rider is super boring. It’s like, water and Red Bull. That’s it – water and Red Bull.
"I’m quite a shy person in general, and [Lorde song] 'Bravado' is putting on a front, false confidence sort of, so it was about me having to come to terms with that, having to be in the limelight and having to have that degree of confidence to get up in front of people and do something like this. It’s pretty appropriate I think [as an opening song]."
There’s no shy teenager from the North Shore when Lorde steps on stage. Yelich-O’Connor proves she can recreate the magic from the studio live.
She’s back in the studio at every opportunity perfecting material for a new album.
"I think it’s daunting trying to appeal to the perfectionist in me," she says. "Will I like this on the train on the way home today, or will I like it in the morning? But I guess we don’t think about outside pressures when we’re in here [the studio]. We’re making the track and if other people like it or don’t like it, that’s an added thing."
Yelich-O’Connor’s never studied music but she is a storyteller. Her songs reject the usual glamour of pop music; instead she writes wistful tales about the everyday lives of teenagers.
"My lyrics are anecdotal. I don’t write about fantasy things that I want to happen. I don’t have much interest in writing in that way."
Yelich-O’Connor splits her time between the studio and the classroom. It’s easy to forget she’s supposed to be in high school.
"This is so much better! I love you Takapuna Grammar but, it’s awesome. I love it here."
"We have had times where it’s been midnight and I’ve just totally forgotten to say, 'Oh, do you need to call your parents or anything like that?'" says Little. "Then I'll get a text from her mum, 'Where the hell is my daughter?' And I’m like, 'Oh shit that’s right.'"
In just a few months, life’s changed dramatically. The meteoric rise of Lorde has opened doors everywhere, and Yelich-O’Connor has had some big decisions to make. She started by turning down a support act spot on Katy Perry's worldwide tour.
"I think she’s really talented; I just don’t think it’s quite right for me. I have a pretty good gut instinct for stuff, and if something feels right, I’ll do it."
"Money never comes into it," says McLachlan. "If you make that wrong decision early on, it really shortens her career. This is my fifth year with her, so I’m a patient man. I think it’s lovely to be asked and it’s an honour for someone like that to say join me on tour while I play stadiums. But really it’s about Katy Perry. It’s not about Lorde."
Yelich-O’Connor’s inner circle truly believes this is just the beginning for her, that with her songwriting and intelligence there won’t be only one number-one hit for the history books. But as much as things are changing, many things are staying the same.
"I definitely have to do the dishes. No one else can do the dishes as efficiently as me either, so I’m just like, 'Get out of the way and I’ll do it.' My family is super close and super loud. We’re Yugoslav, and all Yugoslavs are loud. I’m actually the quietest one."
But quiet or not, she’s been lauded as the voice of her generation. It's just as well then at 16, Lorde has found her voice.
"I don’t know if it will always be my career," she says. "I don’t know if people will always want to book me for festivals, but I’m always going to do it. I like it too much not to do it for the foreseeable future, I think."
- Producer: Hannah Story
- Editor: Toby Longbottom
- Camera: Daniel Grade