16-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor picks up the phone in her studio on the North Shore of New Zealand just moments after she has just released the music video for Royals into the world.
“It was only a few minutes ago,” she says, “so I’ve just tuned into the social networks, perusing things. I’m sitting here fretting about it all, but, so far, people have said really nice things.”
Ella should be getting used to people doing that. Her first EP, Love Club, went straight to Number One in New Zealand and was picked up on and praised by everyone from Grimes to Sky Ferreira. Influenced by James Blake, Lana Del Ray, Lou Reed, Burial, Bon Iver and Drake, Lorde is, clearly, already, a phenomenal talent – as for what’s next, she’s working towards an album and another new music video, for Tennis Court, a song about the town where she grew up and the friends she would (will) hang out all summer.
“We’re still doing the things that we’ve always done,” she says. “But this song tries to capture what’s happened to me in the past couple of months. Things are changing so fast…”
Tell me a bit about where you grew up.
I grew up mostly in a part of Auckland called the North Shore. It’s basically suburbs, and there isn’t really a lot to do. You have to catch a boat if you want to go into the city, so we all kick around and everyone rides bikes everywhere because no one can drive! There’s lots of finding underpasses and tennis courts and places that we make our own! And a lot of house parties…
What would happen at a house party on the North Shore?
Oh my God! I don’t know. I feel like my friends would kill me if I told you! Well, there’s some pretty inventive like games and dares that happen. Many involve eating strange things – like someone put a dozen sausages down their throat, just inserted right down their throat. I said, “I don’t even know what’s happening right now, so I’m just going to go with it”.
I’m hoping they were cooked.
They were definitely cooked. No one’s that intense.
What would I be hearing there?
People are pretty into TNGHT and Hudson Mohawke, so they would definitely be playing. Fantastic Mr Fox too, maybe a bit of James Blake. We listen to pretty good music! My friends have great music taste, and we kind of toss things around. I do find a lot of new music on Spotify.
That’s lovely, I didn’t even prompt you!
I’m just trying to be honest!
Who have you picked up on recently?
I’ve got into this guy called Deptford Goth, who I think is amazing.
That album has been a huge office favourite.
Tell me about the music that you grew up around, first music you were aware of playing in the house.
My dad’s always listened to Neil Young and lots of soul music like Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald. As a young kid my parents seemed to have about eight or ten albums that they had on constant rotation – there was a definite adult contemporary vibe, a lot of David Gray, although I shed that quite fast!
What was the first music that felt like it was all yours?
Ha! I think every young person has a moment where they listen to music that is completely unlike anything their parents would ever listen to and for me that was Animal Collective. I remember thinking, “This is fantastic, Dad hates it!” I never knew music could be like that – so frenetic, but so much fun. Their album Merriweather Post Pavilion was a huge thing for me aged 12 or 13.
By that age you were already writing your own songs?
Yeah, I was. It was all pretty tentative. I’d always been writing – as a child it was short stories – but later I made the transition to writing songs. My mum’s a poet, so I never wrote any poetry, I left that to her! When I was 12 I entered this talent show at school. I sung and a friend played guitar – we did Warwick Avenue by Duffy, which was a big song for us back in the day – and we won. I’m pretty proud of that, to be honest. Somehow, the video of our performance got to Universal and we began talking. It’s strange as I feel like so many musicians have a half-decade or a decade of toil and albums that weren’t picked up or whatever, and I almost feel like that I need to have that to be a real musician, to have that suffering. But I was young and looking for an outlet, so I just grabbed my chance.
What sort of songs were you writing then?
One of the earliest songs I was about a girl in my year that took to drugs and went off the rails – it was kind of like a diss track. I wasn’t happy that she was letting down our year group in that way, she gave us a bad name. I also wrote a song about how I slipped on some rocks in the middle of winter and almost drowned. They were often these sort of strange, melodramatic pieces. But then I was only 13!
Your Love Club EP is a pretty startling collection – there’s a lot of strong emotion in there.
Ha! Yeah, well, that was the time they were written. The title song is about a group of friends that I fell in with that sort of took over my life for a bit. Mid-way through last year I found a group like that and stopped going home so much, stopped caring about the friends that I had when I was young. I mean, this club was awesome – when you’re in it everything feels so perfect – but it quickly became quite intense. Eventually I realised that family and old friends are the way to go sometimes.
There’s a great line in Bravado where you sing, “I was raised up to be admired, to be noticed…”
You see, I’d been listening to Kanye West and there’s a track called Dark Fantasy where he says, “we found bravery in my bravado” and I liked that idea of false confidence delivering real confidence. In reality I’m a super-shy, contained, non-confrontational person, but I was about to step into a line of work – a line of art – where everyone would be watching me, and everyone would want to talk to me and confront me. That song is me coming to terms with having to be a public person.
Does it worry you, having to deliver these very personal pieces to, basically, everybody in the world?
Right now it feels very strange, because my music is very anecdotal – there are hyper-real, hyper-personal details in all my songs. Often I’ll play one to a friend and they’ll say “Oh my God, that was about the night this happened, I spilled that drink on you and now you’ve written a song about it!” Some guy emailed me about the Love Club and said, “This song totally resonated with me”, and that was awesome, the idea that someone else could pin their life to something which was so personal to me.
Royals really takes on that whole over-consumption culture…
You see, at that time I’d been listening to a lot of Lana Del Ray and a lot of A$AP Rocky – because I love rap, that crazy money and opulence and extravagance. But I also know it’s all total bullshit, you know!
Do you think the perfect song exists?
Oh, well, the first thing that came into my head was a Lou Reed track, something like Perfect Day or Heroin – they’re both close to perfect because they have this complete honesty, which sounds clichéd, but Lou Reed is putting his entire soul on the line here, that’s something everyone can relate to. Everyone likes honesty that almost makes you cringe a little bit; Lou Reed taught me that unflinching honesty is a very powerful tool in song writing.
There’s a theory that musicians really ought to be writing music for the future, does that seem sensible to you?
Ooh, yeah! Artists should write like that, but not enough do – half of the crap on the radio these days is too worried about what’s current. Right now I’m listening to this band called The Replacements – they’re from the ’80s or something – and half the songs make me think, “God, I should cover this!”
So, we’re throwing a house party at yours tonight, and you’re DJing at midnight, the peak of the party. What five songs will you play?
OK. I’m going to play Evelyn by Fantastic Mr Fox, Jasmine by Jai Paul, Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, because it’s the sweetest dance record ever, Kiss by Prince, because that’s the next sweetest dance record ever and I’ll finish with TNGHT’s Higher Ground, that’s like the perfect song to just lose your mind to.
Finally, crucially, what’s your favourite noise?
Oh! I know the answer, I know the answer! I have these monitors called in-ears and when I play live I put in my in-ears a minute or two minutes before I go on stage. So when the microphone is on, out on the stage, I can hear the buzz of the crowd, and I can hear them talking and cheering and getting excited for me to play. And there is no better, cooler, more hyping sound in the world. It makes me so ready to play: I love it so much. So it’s definitely that sound!