How Lorde Became the Life of the Party
It’s a bone-dry desert night in April, and Lorde is dancing onstage in a corseted top and shimmery sequined pants that make her look a little like a disco mermaid. It’s her second time performing here at Coachella, the music festival that overtakes the valley east of Palm Springs, Calif., every spring. The first time, in 2014, when she was 17, was a trial for Lorde—a hyperliterate teenager thrust into the center of one of the biggest music festivals in the world. Now 20, she is familiar with this particular type of fever dream. She runs the stage like a veteran pop star, charismatically chatting with the crowd. But she doesn’t dance like a pop star, even as the pulsating chords of her new single “Green Light” crescendo. There’s no real choreography, no backup dancers flexing in unison, no marks to hit. Her movements are spidery and wild. She’s a tangle of limbs, mesmerizing and vaguely mystical.
Later, she tells me that the scale of a performance like this intimidates her still. “Ten minutes beforehand I was like, ‘I can’t do it. Give them back their money. So sorry,’” she says. “It was too much for me.” She’s honest about what it takes for her to get through it. “A shot of whiskey and a beta blocker, and it all happens for me,” she says. “But I’m a shell of a person after. I need to sit alone and watch a cooking show.”
Playing to tens of thousands of people at the main stage of Coachella is a disquieting proposition for a self-described introvert. But Lorde is making some of the most exciting music in pop by living in contradictions like this. Her second album, Melodrama, out June 16, packs an emotional wallop, especially considering how coolly analytical her debut was. “For a lot of people, their teenage years would be where they were most emotionally accessible, and for me it was the opposite,” she says. “I realized I was feeling all the feelings, and they feel so singular and so young. When I was 16, it felt important to be unfazed by things. Now I’m deeply fazed.”
This record is not only a test of her unique position in the pop firmament but also an attempt to capture the feeling of being young in 2017: tense, urgent, uncertain about the future. To be a success, it needs to speak to this moment. As she puts it, “Nobody wants an apathetic pop record right now.”
Lorde was born Ella Yelich-O’Connor in New Zealand in 1996. (Her friends still call her Ella.) She grew up outside Auckland, raised by her mother Sonja, a poet, and father Vic, an engineer. “Since the day I was born, I was the kid who stays at the party for an hour, then walks upstairs and sits with her book,” she says. She signed a development deal with Universal Music Group when she was 12 and spent several years learning to write songs and working with a coach to hone her deep, smoky voice. She chose to call herself Lorde because of her curiosity about aristocracy, the e adding a touch of femininity.
In 2011, she hit it off with producer Joel Little, a fellow New Zealander. Together they wrote her first single, “Royals,” released in late 2012. The song became a surprise hit, holding the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for nine consecutive weeks and going on to win two Grammys, including Song of the Year. Her debut album, Pure Heroine, sold over 3 million copies worldwide and was critically acclaimed for its brooding minimalism and sophisticated themes.
“Royals” was a rarity—a chart-topping single that had something smart and fresh to say. The song is an uneasy, class-conscious take on conspicuous consumption and what kids are supposed to aspire to. (“And we’ll never be royals/ It don’t run in our blood/ That kind of lux just ain’t for us,” the chorus goes.) Built on an infernally catchy hook, “Royals” helped define Lorde as an intellectually credible counterpoint to peers like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, who also had No. 1’s in the same season. She telegraphed the precocious world-weariness of a generation sick of being pandered to: “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air,” she sings on another Pure Heroine single, “Team,” also a Top 10 hit.
Success freighted Lorde with considerable pressure. “I had this experience of being disconnected and making a record that felt like it was reaching out to the world,” she says, perched on a balcony at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, of writing her first record. Then the world reached back, making her a superstar. “It put me in this unique position: How is she next going to speak for all of us?” Which, she says, was terrifying. “One young person shouldn’t, and can’t, speak for all of them. I know my record company would love it if I could.”
Her life was also changing—and quickly—partly because she became famous but also as a result of normal young-adult stuff like moving away from home and experiencing heartbreak. “I always saw myself, with my writing, as like an anthropologist. It was just about observing,” she says. “This time I was thrust into the soup of what I was doing. I couldn’t be detached or cool anymore.”
In person, Lorde is more cheerful and enthusiastic than you might expect, but she still has a striking intensity, like maybe she can read your mind or at least control the weather. Yet she resists being perceived as overly dark, no matter how much a witchy mystique may define her sound. Her music, she says, “is about pain, but it’s more so about joy—the process of discovering joy and reclaiming joy. Like crying and dancing in equal parts.”
Lorde at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles on May 18. Mark Mahaney for TIME
Lorde spent the years after the release of Pure Heroine touring and working on other projects, like executive-producing the soundtrack for a Hunger Games film, to which she contributed several songs. Her work on a follow-up album didn’t start in earnest until she began collaborating with producer Jack Antonoff, a musician who has released two albums under the moniker Bleachers and has written songs with Taylor Swift and Sara Bareilles. Antonoff’s writing signature is slightly left-of-center, emotionally charged songs. Lorde describes their work together as “somewhere between top-of-the-class pop and something that steals your heart out of your chest.”
Together they began shaping the songs that make up Melodrama. Antonoff co-wrote and co-produced all but one of the songs—unusual in the world of pop. Big albums these days usually feature sessions with many writers and producers to ensure that there’s a diversity of styles represented—a song for every listener. “It wasn’t easy to make,” Lorde says. “To have to do something else which felt just as idiosyncratic without retreading old ground was a handful. Every single drop of blood that went into this record was so considered.”
If it’s a decided shift away from the cool-kid persona on display on her first album, Antonoff says the core remains the same. “We have a tendency to make artists characters in a story,” he says. “What really made Ella popular was her honesty.”
Lorde talks about pop music as though it’s both rocket science and the highest art form. “A lot of people make pop music because it will make them rich,” she says. “I make this music because I’m obsessed with it and I think it’s the best thing in the world.” She says she’s mostly indifferent to her commercial performance. “Part of me feels like everything I do from now on, if it’s not as big as ‘Royals,’ some people will perceive it as a failure. But for me, I’m going to spend my life worshipping the form. Sometimes that will just mean that it comes on at a party and everyone runs to the dance floor.”
Second albums are notoriously difficult to get right, either hewing too close to the original or pivoting too dramatically. Melodrama is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound overworked and she still manages to break new ground. She moves away from just observing and mines themes universal to young people, like seeking independence, experiencing heartbreak and partying—sometimes too much. Her eye for detail is there too. “This record really does feel like what happens after you leave home. What does that new world look like?” she says.
While the hooks are as sharp as anything on radio right now, the writing is wiser than that of many of her contemporaries. It’s really a document of intensity and feeling, one that Lorde describes as a “blueprint of my brain.” The lead single, “Green Light,” is a cathartic sing-along that takes an eerie vocal introduction and builds into a thunderous chorus. It’s both unsettled and euphoric, like doing jumping jacks in the rain.
Melodrama sounds more like the Lorde who emerges once you’ve gotten to know her. “It needed to be complex, because heartbreak is complex,” she says. “The Louvre” is another standout, a swelling love song about the way a crush runs wild: “Megaphone’s in my chest/ broadcast the boom-boom-boom-boom and make ’em all dance to it.” On the lovelorn ballad “Writer in the Dark,” the chorus rips out of nowhere like a spooky keening: “I am my mother’s child/ I’ll love you till my breathing stops/ I’ll love you till you call the cops on me,” she sings.
The ballad “Liability” is maybe her finest work as a songwriter, a masterpiece of resigned heartbreak: “The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy till all of the tricks don’t work anymore/ and then they are bored of me,” she sings. She calls writing the song an “act of self-love,” even though it’s unmistakably sad. “I feel like if I’d had that song when I was 15,” she says, “maybe it would have been kind to me.”
As much as Lorde’s new record represents a departure for her, it’s also a continuation of the work she began on her debut by representing a specific set of experiences. She’s just pointed the lens inward this time. “Everyone has asked me with this record, did you have to reckon with yourself to be able to share those personal stories?” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Not really.’ What else would you do? Make it vague? Make it not your darkest truths?”
The challenge was finding the intersections between her experiences, as a globe-trotting pop star who’s no longer living in what she calls a “hermetically sealed environment,” her parents’ suburban home, and the fans she knew would be listening. “You have to be honest to be able to speak to people, but what if you’re going through something that not everyone goes through, like becoming famous?” Antonoff asks. “There’s nothing in me that’s like, ‘Oh, being a famous person is hard,’” Lorde says. “Because it’s not. I’m very lucky. Yet I feel the weight of all the people I love who sacrifice things to be close to me. And a lot of them are eventually going to leave.” She sighs. “Which sounds so emo.”
A song like “Liability” is as much about her unique circumstances as it is a universal story about loss and disconnection. To her, those are the stories worth telling, regardless of whether they earn her new fans. “The kind of thing I’m trying to build is something real and emotional, because I’ve gotten very specific emotionally,” she says. “That might not always look like the top of a chart, but I’m okay. I’m a consumer of pop music—I know how it feels to worship Robyn. I don’t know if our grandmothers know who Robyn is, but that doesn’t matter if there’s a group of us that love it so fervently it’s like a religion.” It means continuing to push back against the impulse to chase hits, seeking out what’s most compelling instead of what feels most likely to earn more No. 1s. “I love Arcade Fire as much as I love Carly Rae Jepsen,” she says. “And they’re not that different to each other in a lot of ways.”
Music also serves an escape from the punishing nature of the news. Lorde calls this “a traumatic, horrific, heartbreaking moment in history.” But she’s reluctant to wade into a discussion of politics: “I’m very aware of my position as a person of extreme privilege,” she says. “I’m a wealthy white woman, and I’m not from America. Who am I to talk about it?” Still, she came out for the women’s march earlier this year. “I didn’t post about it,” she says. “I just felt like it was important to be a body on the streets.” The political landscape, she says, “felt like the only possible fabric that this record could have been made against.” She recounts being in New York a few months before the presidential election: “To be walking around in high summer and have it be way hotter than it was four years ago, and knowing that’s because the planet is f-cked, to have the headlines coming at you from every angle, to feel the swelling and roaring of it,” she remembers. “Now it’s time to lose our sh-t, whatever that looks like. Protesting or being on a dance floor crying and screaming. It’s all the right color.”
She’s heartened that her generation seems more politically engaged and aware. “I could cry,” she says. “It’s so important, especially when you have companies making ‘woke’ commercials.” But she also says she resists the pressure to speak out for the sake of speaking out. “There’s a lot I don’t know,” she says. “I want to spend time understanding and learning and filling my head with marginalized voices as opposed to just retweeting a bunch of stuff.”
It’s the first weekend in June, and Houston is beset with thunder and lightning, rippling through a steamy gray sky. The weather is, well, melodramatic. Lorde was supposed to headline at the Free Press Summer Festival. But moments after her flight touches down in Texas, the show is canceled. She calls me from the airport, where she’s now waiting to head back to New York early. “We’ve been having these insane winds and floods,” she says, sounding disappointed.
Isn’t she at least relieved to be freed of the anxiety of performing, now that her show has been canceled? Apparently not. “Since we last spoke, I’ve really been making an effort to be more mindful and get everything I can out of each show,” she says. She describes a recent performance at Governors Ball, a festival in New York City, as “amazing and moving.” It made her excited to continue playing for the young people who come out to party and sing along to her songs. “I covered my hands in this pearlescent silver dust. I wanted them to be like my energy conductors.”
She talks more about the shape of the album, about what she calls the “narrative thread” running through Melodrama, a record about partying that’s complicated and dynamic. “I love that it isn’t 11 bangers, that it doesn’t stick to one frequency,” she says. “Songs exist in abstract incarnations of what the idea of a party means. A party can be literal, but it can also be something emotional.”
It can also be something a little bit sinister. In an era where pop music seems preoccupied with celebrating impaired states, Lorde finds the tensions in self-medicating. “Ain’t a pill that could touch our rush / but what will we do when we’re sober?” she asks on “Sober.” On the title track, she sings, “Oh, how fast the evening passes / cleaning up the champagne glasses.” There’s a curiosity at play, interrogating the desire to anesthetize away discomfort away. But it stops short of being damning.
Lorde expands on this, wondering what it really means to party, to engage in uninhibited self-exploration, whether that comes by way of a bottle or a song. “The pillars of this record are courage and fear,” she says. “Sometimes courage comes in a liquid form. This record was about giving me a different perspective, because I’m such an intense person with such an intense brain.”
There’s a clap of thunder on both ends of the call. “Or maybe,” she says plainly, “I was just getting drunk because I was sad and went through a breakup.” For a moment, she doesn’t sound preternaturally wise, just honest—like any young person looking for answers.
Her flight is about to take off, so she says goodbye. A few minutes later, the storm passes.