Lorde was thinking the other day about the strange fact that she is a pop star. ‘I wonder if part of it is because pop happened to be the medium that I was interested in the most when I was 15, you know?’
It’s not that she is bad at being a pop star. Only a couple of nights ago, she was performing songs from her third album, Solar Power, at the Guggenheim International Gala in New York, wearing her own hair as a scarf, peeling a tangerine live on stage — as it should be. And it’s not that she hasn’t enjoyed the past decade or so: the paradigm-shifting, 10 million-selling hit she scored with Royals in 2013; David Bowie calling her ‘the future of music’; the fierce fandom she has inspired; the space she has created for any number of single-minded, young female artists that gives her the status, at 25, of an elder stateswoman.
It’s just that everything she now does is defined by her much-younger self. ‘I think there are other versions of my life where I am a novelist or a journalist or… a critic, do you know what I mean? But it happened to be the medium that I was interested in as a teenager that took me somewhere.’
This is a surprising admission for someone who always seems so self-possessed, so singular, so unafraid to tell a record company that its bosses didn’t know what they were talking about. And she, Ella Yelich-O’Connor, the intensely shy girl from Auckland who spent her time posting on Tumblr and recording harmonies into her phone, did. I first interviewed her for ES Magazine back in 2014 and came away impressed by her extreme self-possession. ‘You could be forgiven for thinking that she has planned her career in the same exacting aesthetic terms as she does her art,’ I wrote. But no, she never felt like she was shaping her own destiny. ‘You know, it sort of fell to me,’ she says. ‘I have zero will.’ She stops and laughs. ‘Well I must have some because…’ She makes a gesture as if to say: I wouldn’t be speaking to her if she didn’t.
It is 7pm in Auckland, an hour before sunset, and 6am in the UK, an hour before sunrise. Lorde is speaking over Zoom under house arrest, or rather, hotel arrest, having just flown back home from New York. New Zealand’s strict coronavirus protocols mean that she must remain in managed isolation under the supervision of the Civil Defence force for seven days. The prospect, however, doesn’t seem to faze her too much. ‘This whole pandemic is such a mystery to me,’ she says. ‘I just do what anyone tells me to do.’
It’s also useful decompression time: a week to transition from Lorde to Ella again. ‘I think people don’t realise, it’s almost like I take time out of my life to do the pop part of it. It’s like this thing that I go and do and then I go back to my real life.’ She also has a stack of books to keep her company: On Freedom, by the philosopher Maggie Nelson; The Dolphin Letters, compiling those sent between the critic Elizabeth Hardwick and the poet Robert Lowell; some Annie Ernaux novels; The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. Impressive, I say. ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s a miracle I can read at all,’ she says, in reference to the fact she left school at 16. Actually, she was certified ‘gifted’ at the age of six and won numerous awards at school; she hopes to continue studying properly one day.
Solar Power is Lorde’s third album, following her wildly successful debut Pure Heroine (2013) and the critically lauded Melodrama (2017). It is a departure, in its summery vibe and, ahem, cheeky cover art, but it still contains plenty of songs over which you will wake up haunted and have to play immediately.
Still, while her fans adore it, Solar Power has been the first of her releases that has received anything other than straight-up rave reviews. It was notably absent from the recent Grammy nominations. Being a famously well-adjusted person, fully cognizant of the ephemeral nature of adulation, she’s not overly concerned by that. ‘I sort of knew it would be a bit of a strange record for people,’ she says. ‘But I think it to be wonderful and exactly what I needed to make.’
Besides, she is not out to recreate her early success. ‘I think people have a certain idea of me because of how popular my first album was but I think I was always going to be a weird artist, you know?’ she says. ‘I’m exactly where I thought I’d be.’ What she really wants is to create a ‘rich, deep body of work’ and for each record to change her artistic trajectory ‘in really dramatic ways’. ‘That’s the long way of saying it’s all good, you get nominated for stuff when you get nominated for stuff.’ She notes that Bowie didn’t get a whole load of Grammy nominations either.
Solar Power has been framed as an environmental record, in that the flash of inspiration that brought it all together came during a trip to Antarctica. Lorde also made the eccentric decision to release a CD version of the album that didn’t actually include a plastic CD, apparently for environmental reasons. However, she is understandably wary of charges of hypocrisy. ‘I’m a pop star — I’m not going to be able to halt the end,’ she says. ‘I’m going to tour a massive show around the world next year, that’s a huge footprint. The power that I have is in symbolic choices.’
In truth, however, Solar Power is mostly smaller-scale. It’s an album of clear skies and unforbidden pleasures, hanging out with her old school friends on Waiheke’s beaches after the euphoric highs (and lows) she documented on Melodrama. ‘I remember coming off tour in 2018 and saying to everyone, “I want to get bored. I’d love to be bored!” What a ridiculous thing to say.’ But then she did ‘literally’ sit on her sofa for six months. She read books, looked after her puppy, tended her garden, learnt to cook, remembered to Facetime her brother on his birthday and ‘just sort of learnt to be an adult’. She also hosted parties, endless parties, by the sounds of things. ‘I love to put myself in a situation where I can dance. I can dance for a long time, hours and hours, all night. I’m the last person on the dance floor. So that’s kind of what I did, it was mellow and needed.’
It’s also an album that actively discourages her fans from investing too heavily. ‘If you’re looking for a saviour, well that’s not me,’ she sings on ‘The Path’. (Naturally, this is precisely the sort of self-awareness that her fans treasure.) And it feels significant that it is her first recording to include voices other than her own. She had been listening to a lot of The Mamas & the Papas and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and decided to form her own virtual choir, employing Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo as backing singers. ‘I wanted it to feel like me and my friends a little bit more,’ she explains. The Swedish disco queen Robyn, meanwhile, provided a spoken-word ‘outro’ to ‘Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All)’, and left Lorde in awe. ‘I mean she’s as good as it gets. “Dancing on My Own” — that song is just the Holy Grail. Every single one of my peers is talking about “Dancing on My Own” all the time.’ She presumably has Jack Antonoff in mind here, her long-time collaborator who has also produced albums for Taylor Swift, Clairo, Lana Del Rey and St Vincent. He once said that ‘Dancing on My Own’ ‘completely changed my life and how I approach writing’.
Rather more surprising is Lorde’s name-dropping of S Club 7, Natasha Bedingfield and All Saints; I have never heard anyone say that ‘S Club Party’ completely changed their life and approach to writing. However, Lorde was barely a schoolgirl when these sunny records were released around the turn of this century, and to her the music of this period sounds like pure, hazy optimism. ‘I’ve tried to ask people where this optimism came from. It might have been the new millennium or something. Or I guess the economy was good? But there is something in that music that is sort of sepia-tinted to me.’
There’s a minor irony here — in that it was Lorde’s own emergence that helped shift the pop paradigm away from vibey lifestyle pop and towards moody introspection. ‘Royals’ (inspired by the now defunct Tumblr site, Rich Kids of Instagram) was not only striking in its rejection of materialism. Its minimal production and multi-layered harmonies proved highly prescient of the way pop would turn; certainly it is hard to imagine, say, Billie Eilish or Olivia Rodrigo landing in quite the same way without Lorde’s impact. She and Eilish ‘exchanged a couple of DMs’ when Eilish was just breaking out a couple of years ago, she reveals. ‘It’s a very specific position and only a handful of us can understand it,’ she says. ‘But she’s like me, I feel like it wouldn’t stress her out to say “no” to a bunch of people.’
Now that Lorde has some critical distance from her own 16-year-old self, she remains impressed. ‘I’m still, like, how cool,’ she says of her first album. ‘I think it was exactly what you would make if you were consuming every single bit of pop culture at that time.’ The only teenagers making pop at the time were former Mouseketeers, she points out. ‘The way I always thought about it was, I’m trying to talk to people in the way that my friends and I want to be talked to, you know? I’m just making the thing that I think should exist.’
I tell her I came away from that first encounter highly impressed by her imperviousness to bullshit. ‘I sort of have the same thing now,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t scare me at all to walk into a boardroom and be like: “No! This is dumb! This is not what kids like!” Looking back, I’m like: “Jesus! You said ‘no’ to a lot of very powerful people.”’
But she also had endorsements from very powerful people. Bowie asked to meet her in person. When he died, she described their encounter as the evening that she found peace with her new life. ‘I never tell anyone about it because it’s so private for me,’ she says. ‘But it was like an angel coming down.’ She recently shared a Rolling Stone cover with another idol, David Byrne (‘I mean, how cool to have made the best work of your life that you know, at whatever age David is?’) and has had a couple of meetings with another of her idols, Stevie Nicks. ‘She was so kind to me and actually I wrote a note to myself: “Stevie believes in me.” I have that in my house because, like, that’s a really amazing thing to remind yourself of when you are feeling unsure.’ I bet.
After the Solar Power tour, she would like to crank up the pace a bit, perhaps with an eye on creating a Nicksian sort of legacy. ‘We’ll see what I can manage.’ Her tastes, meanwhile, continue to evolve. She once said she would rather die than use an acoustic guitar in one of her songs; Solar Power is a proper strumfest. She always wanted her music to feel tough, for the beats to be huge. Now, she hears things differently. She mentions the song ‘Love… Thy Will be Done’, written by Prince for Martika in 1991. ‘When I was 16 I was like: “I can’t hear this!” It seemed like a boring song to me. Now that song is like, bang! It has so much complexity, feeling and I just find it to be such a beautiful piece of music.’
She has also — middle-age alert! — found herself getting into homeware. ‘I buy these crazy vintage Swedish rugs and these beautiful Chinese art deco rugs and every time I buy one, my accountant is like…’ (she makes a concerned accountant noise). ‘There’s something so amazing about this simple domestic thing being a work of art. A work of art that everyone stands on.’ I imagine it would be hard to become a millionaire at 16 and not develop a few dangerous spending habits. But it seems typical of Lorde to have developed a hardcore rug dependency.
I wonder if being described all the time as ‘wise beyond her years’ grates on her? Isn’t that just another pressure that society puts on young women? We need you to cut through the bullshit and absolve us of our adult sins? See: Greta Thunberg; Eilish; Joan of Arc? But no, Lorde doesn’t feel she was ever mischaracterised.
‘I think in some ways I was wise beyond my years,’ she laughs. ‘I’m still probably wise beyond my years. It feels about right.’ But looking back, she marvels at the amount of power that was bestowed upon her. ‘I didn’t finish high school and the social influence I had was unreal. I could have spoken to anyone, you know? Like I could’ve called anyone on the phone and they probably would’ve picked up — that’s an insane position to be in as a teenager. But I think it probably could’ve gone a lot worse. I feel quite proud of, you know, baby me for how she handled it all.’
Lorde’s new album, ‘Solar Power’, is out now