Lorde starred on the cover of issue 89 of Clash magazine – our Pop Special. It’s over here. And here, below, for the first time, we’re able to run the feature in full online. Because we’re nice like that.
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“Believe me,” wails pop’s latest shooting star, “I WEPT.”
Lorde is telling Clash about a particularly harrowing recent life event. Things started promisingly enough: the (then) 16-year-old sensation was one of only 100 VIPs invited to the launch of a Hello Kitty jet in LA. (This, she is beginning to realise, is the sort of thing that happens when your debut single is storming up the US charts.) “A HELLO KITTY AEROPLANE!” she exclaims. “That would be the one party to go to. Except...”
Except, of course, while celebrities mingle on a ridiculous vessel with a massive cat on its side, Lorde is right here in London. These are the woes of a fast-rising superstar: successful enough to be invited to the big parties, too successful to have time to attend. Accordingly she’s distraught, but couldn’t be happier.
While the Hello Kitty jet launch takes place without her, and high school contemporaries back in New Zealand carry on doing what high school kids do the world over – “all that weird social shit that goes on” – this extraordinary talent is conquering pop with smart, idiosyncratic modern music that matches big tunes with big ideas.
Spotted by her manager at the age of 12, Lorde signed a major label development deal at 13, purely on the strength of her vocals. As it turned out, her delicate but powerful voice was matched by an almost improbably brilliant songwriting spark which, together with Lorde’s highly evolved visual style, have made her one of this year’s most pleasantly surprising success stories.
After a low-key EP release at the end of 2012, Lorde’s breakout track ‘Royals’ pulled off the unusual feat of converting blog buzz into tangible success in the summer of 2013, prompting US music bible Billboard to slap her on their cover with the breathless headline, ‘THE NEW QUEEN OF ALTERNATIVE’.
Just as extraordinary as her rise to fame is the way in which her enigmatic pop persona is complemented – not destroyed, as one might expect – by the fact that Ella Yelich-O’Connor, the woman at the heart of all this, is a cataclysmically normal teenager who enjoys her spare time going to the beach, and fishing, and, yes, feeling momentarily stroppy about missing a Hello Kitty launch party.
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Your image as Lorde, across all your videos and artwork, is very stylised and understated. But you’re not really like that in person.
The thing is, I’m a goon. Nobody wants to watch me talking and eating biscuits! I’m trying to make art! (Laughs) Initially I didn’t have any photos out there, and I could heavily control what I wanted people to see. I’ve done something similar in my music: it’s all to making the listener feel a certain way.
You seem more aware than some of your peers that a strong visual identity helps the listener make sense of pop.
I think you have to bring everything together. I’m really into this artist FKA Twigs – with all her videos you can’t tell whether the visual or the audio came first, and I find it so incredible that something can be so symbiotic. And the music is pretty cool, too.
Are you a popstar, an artist, or a singer/songwriter? Or all three?
You can choose.
You do seem like a popstar.
I wouldn’t take offence! People think pop is filthy and shameful. I love pop music! I don’t think it’s right to shit on a genre just because some stuff about it isn’t perfect. Pop is really powerful, and if I’m a popstar then I’ll be that to the best of my ability.
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I feel like I’m alone, a lot. I’m always, kind of... Well, thinking about loneliness…
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What would you like people to think about you?
That’s a good question. Hopefully they’ll think I’m cool. And hopefully people can relate or identify in some way with what I’m talking about, which is important to me. It’s important that my peers kind of get it, and understand the shit I’m dealing with.
What is the shit you’re dealing with?
Loneliness. I’ve realised that when I’ve been listening back to it: I feel like I’m alone, a lot. I’m always, kind of... Well, thinking about loneliness. Partly I think because I’m in high school and there’s people leaving other people out, and being quite cliquey and so on. It’s weird shit and girls are particularly weird. I love to observe the shit that goes on. How girls think, how people process the high school situation... And it’s odd: because you’re immersed in it, and it’s your world, you don’t realise how f*cked up it is until you’re out of it. Over the last couple of months I’ve just started to realise that, wow, people in the real world don’t care if your legs aren’t perfect.
Your lyrics are quite oblique, but there doesn’t seem to be much about relationships on your album, ‘Pure Heroine’ – is that right?
No, there isn’t. Well, there’s stuff about my relationships with people, but I think you can’t tell what the context of those relationships is. And I like that. I like that I can keep that for me.
That makes it quite an unusual album. ‘Love and stuff’ has been the default pop subject matter since the 1950s.
Maybe I will write a ‘love and stuff’ album when it’s important to me, but it’s just not something I felt drawn to with this album.
One of the best things about pop is that it takes all the best bits from lots of different types of music, and turns it into something loads of people want to hear. Is that something you consciously do?
Yeah. One of the things that’s key to my music is melodies that are so, so simple – almost like nursery rhymes. Killer pop melodies: Sleigh Bells, music off the Drive soundtrack, stuff like that. Pop is about gratification and melodies are the way of achieving that.
The idea of pop as gratification is interesting. Sometimes it’s about giving people exactly what they want, even if they didn’t know they wanted it.
Yes. And I like that. It’s funny with the way ‘Royals’ has worked out: I listen to people covering the song, and putting their own spin on it, and I listen to it in every single form except the original one I put out, and I realise that actually it sounds horrible. (Laughs) It sounds like a ringtone from a 2006 Nokia. None of the melodies are cool or good. It’s disastrous. Awful! But for some reason, in the context of the way I released it, it just worked out.
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Now you’re “the alt-music It Girl” – that’s how Entertainment Weekly describes you – are you receiving strange emails from producers and writers who want to work with you?
Yeah! I’ve heard from lots of people – almost too many to mention! But Dr. Luke was particularly impressive. It’s like, ‘You’re Dr. Luke. You’re like Rambo.’ He’s pop royalty. I imagine him living in some ice palace with Nordic maidens and wind chimes. He’s cool. I find what he does so fascinating. I haven’t written for other artists yet, but I definitely want to. Obviously lyrics are a huge part of my music, and they’re so personal to me, so... It’ll be such a challenge to step out of my body. I can’t wait.
You could just invent a girlband. Audition a load of singers, write the album, job done.
Girlbands are only cool if they’re so ridiculous it’s awesome, like the K-pop girlbands with 12 people who rule the country. I’d write for a Korean girlband, definitely – some of their melodies are the best pop.
On your Tumblr, you posted a picture of Britney (Spears) shaving her head. What does that image mean to you?
When I was growing up, I had never experienced ‘pre-crazy’ Britney. And then I researched and read the articles and interviews from when she was 17 and fresh-faced and on top of the world, and I pieced all that together with what I did know, which was the head-shave and everything else. And it changed the whole story for me. I realised what was lost. I’m just kind of obsessed with pop culture and moments like that are pretty unforgettable.
How and why do you strike a balance between being personal, and over sharing?
I run all my social networks and the way I come across is super-important to me. The weird thing about my Twitter is I’m always saying stuff that’s almost way too personal and embarrassing to put on there...
Yes, there’s a real sense of, “this is my ridiculous life”...
Exactly. The tone is “HOLY SHIT – look at this!” My whole life I’ve wished that someone in my position would really talk about what it’s like to be going through all this, but nobody ever does. I’m such a rookie and I’m so green, that it sort of makes sense...
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Being on stage, to me, is acting. Sometimes you have to fake it a little. Sometimes…
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Have you got a name for your fanbase yet?
No! F*ck no! That’s the worst! I just find it grating to lump a bunch of people into a really awkward, quite pun-centric name. A lot of people joke about it on Twitter – “You should call us the disciples.” Never! I have discouraged it. I’ve tweeted about it multiple times: “No fan name. I do not condone this.” (Laughs)
When you watch Miley Cyrus licking a hammer, do you see her as someone who’s doing the same job as you? Or are you completely different?
Miley and I are automatically close together because we’re in the pop realm. But it’s different for me because as far as I know she’s not involved with writing her music – she’s an entertainer. She’s got other dimensions to what she does. And for me, I write music and in a way at that point it’s done, and I’ve done what I wanted to do. For her, that’s just the beginning. She gives it meaning after it’s written. And this isn’t meant as a criticism at all. I hugely admire Miley Cyrus – it’s easy to forget that she’s been doing this for SUCH a long time. I’ve been doing this for less than six months and I already feel tired! (Laughs) To have grown up like that is... Not admirable, as such, but she deserves a lot more credit than she’s given. Also, the songs are great. From what we’ve heard so far. F*cking great.
What’s the difference between Lorde and Ella, and who’s sitting here now?
It’s just me, Ella. When you ask, “Who am I talking to now?” it does conjure up Sasha Fierce vibes, but it’s not that extreme. The only time when I have to be different is on stage because I’m quite reserved and quite shy and you can’t really be shy when you’re performing.
Why are you shy?
I don’t know. I just am. I’m quite bookish and always have been and I wasn’t much of a social person, which is part of it. But I’ve always acted, in a local drama group, so I learned quite early on about having to fake it, to a degree. It’s acting. I think. Being on stage, to me, is acting. Sometimes you have to fake it a little. Sometimes. But sometimes I feel like just me.
Do you act in interviews?
I don’t think so.
Have you been acting today?
Do you think I am?
No. But you might just be very good at it.
I’m not that good.
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Words: Peter Robinson
Photography: Billy Ballard (except for homepage rotator image)
Fashion: Victoria Higgs