New Zealander Ella Yelich-O'Connor, better known as Lorde, doesn't like being described in terms of her age. But it's hard not to. At 16, the precocious youngster recently broke into the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 with "Royals," a song that coolly eye-rolls at her fellow pop-charters' fascination with blings and things, and instead exalts the greatness of everyday, just-scraping-by teenage life. While she's been signed to Universal since she was discovered four years ago, Lorde has resisted major-label meddling surprisingly well. She released her Love Club EP, a sampling of her warm, unaffected vocals and minimal beats, for free last year on Soundcloud.
A few weeks before the September 30 release of her debut full-length, Pure Heroine, we talked to the singer about growing up in a major label, the inspiration for "Royals," her first trip to NYC, and trying to find something real in Top 40 pop.
So you were discovered singing a Duffy song at a talent show when you were 12 years old. When you signed with Universal back then, did you have any idea what you were getting into?
I've been dealing with the world's biggest record company for so long so I've never had that "Holy Shit" moment with it being a major label or anything. It's just something I grew up with. It didn't change or affect my schooling or my holidays or anything. I definitely had a pretty normal life. It was less overwhelming than what it looks like, the music biz.
So you weren't at the mercy of music executives to constantly be producing work?
Oh no, never. I think it was more about me being in that environment. I learned a lot: how to control my act and everything that was ever put out around me. I don't let people tell me what to do. I learned what goes on in a record company, and I think being around that ended up being good for me.
Did Universal put you in touch with [producer] Joel Little?
Yeah! Joel had had some success with an electro-pop band in New Zealand, and I saw that he had been in a pop-punk band, and so they set us up together. I had been looking at a lot of producers, and he was the only one who was working with electronic music in the way I was interested in at the time.
What's your production dynamic like? Do you have a hand in the production end as well?
Oh yeah. I write all the lyrics, and everything else is collaborative. Any song could be mine or his or both of ours. It's the same with the beats, too. It's all done together.
For someone who has kind of grown up in one of the biggest record companies, I think it's interesting that you released The Love Club on Soundcloud. That definitely made a huge impact in terms of your popularity in the States.
It was one of those choices where a record company would say, "Uh, okay, you shouldn't do this!" But I felt really strongly about it. The way I see it is that I was 15 years old when I put that music out. I have never had a credit card and I still don't. I had no means really with which to buy music, and a lot of the time I didn't. I didn't want it to be about how much money I could make off of it — I just wanted people to hear it and to like it. If I can get music for free, I'm stoked. I don't know, it felt right for me.
"Royals" is in the Billboard Top 10 now. What was the inspiration behind that? Did you see it ever becoming a massive hit?
I didn't ever think it would be as I was writing it. I didn't really think about the idea of a single or a song that would stand out from the rest of the album. That's not what I was thinking when I was writing it. I kind of thought that any song would be something I'd listen to on the radio.
You've said "Royals" was a response to other, big-name pop acts. Why did you choose to counterpoint their larger-than-life personas?
Well, I mean, I think that's my life. I don't have any houses or cars or anything like that. My life was so mundane! I was a typical teenager and I wanted to say something real. It's quite punchy; poking fun at people bragging about their jobs.
Your first trip to New York was a few weeks ago, right? The city has a larger-than-life personality of its own. Did it meet your expectations?
I loved it, but it was so weird. It felt like I was coming somewhere that I had been before because I saw it in movies and TV shows. So it was weirdly familiar, but also so far from everything in New Zealand. I love New York. I had such a good time. I didn't have any time to do anything really amazing because I had to work, but I did do a photo shoot on the top of the Empire State Building, which was tourism and promotion. Two birds with one stone!
As someone who is interested in writing about things that are outside the exaggerated showiness of the pop realm, are there pop acts that you feel a kinship with in terms of writing about real things?
Is there anyone in pop doing that at the moment? In Top 40 pop? I love Top 40 pop, don't get me wrong, I just don't think that there's anyone in Top 40 pop that's "real." Is there though? I'm just not sure.
I guess it's subjective, really. A lot of pop artists inflate one aspect or another of their lives to the public.
Yeah, I mean that Miley Cyrus song ["We Can't Stop"]. That could be her life. Who knows what's real? That's the point though; who knows what's real?
I've noticed that you're often described as "mature for your age" by the music media. Does that bother you?
It's definitely weird. I'm always going to get described in terms of being a "teen." I don't know. Hopefully when the record comes out, people can start taking it away from the age thing. I've always thought my age is kind of the initial surprise for people. I want it to move away from that.
What should we expect from Pure Heroine? Is it a departure from The Love Club EP?
It's really, really different from the EP. It's different in lots of ways, just because I've obviously grown since then. I don't want to tell anyone too much about it though! I think that I want people to just listen to it and see for themselves.