The Billboard Cover Story - Lorde: "The New Queen of Alternative"

How an unknown 16-year-old from New Zealand became the most sought-after new artist of 2013. Inside Lorde's ascent from quiet bookworm to alt-rock heroine.th

"In a perfect world, I would never do any interviews," Ella Yelich-O'Connor says, "and probably there would be one photo out there of me, and that would be it."

Pausing a photo shoot in Auckland, New Zealand, for an interview, the 16-year-old singer better-known as Lorde delivers this without a hint of standoffishness. She's less distraught about the promotional trappings of a flourishing music career than she is clear about her desire to retain some mystique.

In a generation of endless selfies and attention-hungry YouTubers, Lorde courts enigma, harking back to the mid-'90s heyday of alternative dark-stars like Mazzy Star and Portishead that preferred to let their music do the talking. She's always been attracted to the small corners of inscrutability that hold fast in this time of digital ubiquity: She cites the long-anonymous U.K. dubstep titan Burial as one of her favorite artists, and says she wanted to emulate the Weeknd's cryptic, free-mixtape rollouts from 2011 when she posted her five-song debut EP, "The Love Club," on SoundCloud in New Zealand last November.

"I feel like mystery is more interesting," Lorde says. "People respond to something that intrigues them instead of something that gives them all the information -- particularly in pop, which is like the genre for knowing way too much about everyone and everything."

Little was known of Lorde when her mesmerizing debut single "Royals" first entered Billboard's Alternative chart the week of June 29, and only slightly more personal details had been established by the time the song hit No. 1 on the tally less than two months later. The teenager hasn't actively sought out press opportunities, and her manager Scott Maclachlan estimates that she has played only 10 shows to date. Lorde's first U.S. performance, a headlining show at New York's Le Poisson Rouge on Aug. 6, was her first real moment of stateside promotion, and the 700-capacity show was sold out and packed with curious industry executives. An hour after Lorde had finished whipping her brown curls around and playing songs from her forthcoming debut album, "Pure Heroine," a dozen fans still lined Manhattan's Bleecker Street, hoping for a glimpse of their secretive new idol.

 

Speaking on the phone, Lorde is as demure as she is incisive, but for the most part, the biggest breakout star of the year is a disarmingly regular teenager. She enjoys going to the beach, riding her bike, making dinner and "mucking around," as she puts it. She's a huge fan of Nicki Minaj ("She's so fucking good I can't even fathom it"). She's the kind of whip-smart teen who has a lot of older friends as a result. And although she's been performing since her tween years, Lorde says that her parents weren't "stage parents" by any means. She's the daughter of a civil engineer and a stay-at-home mom, neither of whom actively encouraged her to sing while growing up in Devonport, a suburb of Auckland. "The fact that my parents weren't really involved in music was kind of good, because it meant that I had something that was private and personal," she says.

The 10 songs on "Pure Heroine," due Sept. 30 on Lava/Republic, refract the commonplaces of suburban life through a tone that's insightful and persuasive for a writer of any age. A devout fan of Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver and Wells Tower, Lorde started penning short stories at 11, though it wasn't long until her smoky, soulful voice was discovered. Maclachlan saw a video of her performing at a local talent show, as half of a boy-girl singing duo, and signed her as a solo artist to a development deal with Universal at the age of 12. Lorde spent the next three years channeling her provocative fiction into song structures. "Right from the off, lyrically, her words were incredible," Maclachlan recalls. "The arrangements required work, but when you're dealing with a 13- or 14-year-old, you're not really in a massive hurry...I just let her get on with it, and she just kept on improving."

Lorde wrote the lyrics to "Royals" -- a biting takedown of the perceived euphoria of luxury -- in just half an hour, and the single has achieved global success with comparable rapidity since quietly being released late last year. After topping New Zealand's digital songs chart for three weeks beginning last March, "Royals" has gone from selling slightly more than 1,000 downloads per week in late May to moving 160,000-plus weekly downloads at the start of September. (Its current U.S. sales stand at 788,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan.) Meanwhile, the song has captivated alternative radio listeners, becoming the Nielsen BDS-based Alternative chart's first No. 1 from a female solo artist since Tracy Bonham's "Mother Mother" reached the summit in June 1996 -- five months before Lorde was born.

"It's easy to say this has been our most-requested song so far this year," says Mike Kaplan, PD at KYSR Los Angeles, which has played "Royals" 766 times, according to BDS. Although Lorde is something of an outlier in a genre that's been dominated by guitar-wielding male artists since the grunge era, Kaplan says "Royals" is "one of those few one-listen songs" that transcends and ultimately diversifies the format's reach. "As the alternative format has leaned toward the pop lane in recent years, we've seen our mass-appeal success grow. And that's given confidence to many programmers to fully embrace a more gender-agnostic artist approach while curating playlists."

As "Royals" spills over into more radio formats and continues ascending the Billboard Hot 100 (the song reaches a new peak at No. 8 this week), Lava and Republic must keep up with the swelling interest in their new star, as well as direct attention toward her first full-length. Lava president Jason Flom, who has helped fast-track the careers of Kid Rock and Paramore during a three-decade career, says he has never seen an artist of his explode so quickly, and that Lorde's reign will extend well beyond "Royals" with the right moves.

"I don't use the word lightly...but I'd say she's a legitimate genius," Flom says. "We know we've got somebody who's not only achieving extraordinary commercial success, but somebody who, if handled right, can be around a long time, and be the artist of her generation."

Lorde first appeared on Flom's radar last November, when his friend, music supervisor Natalia Romiszewski, sent him a link to the singer's SoundCloud page five days after "The Love Club" was released for free (see story, left). The singer promptly received an email from Flom, which she forwarded to Maclachlan. "She says, 'I got an email from this guy in America called Jason Flom. Does this mean anything to you?'" Maclachlan recalls. The manager, who served as A&R director and head of business development at Universal in New Zealand, was familiar with Flom's long A&R history at Atlantic, and started discussing a U.S. label deal with Lava and Republic. "There was a tsunami of American A&R after that," Maclachlan says, "but Jason was the first, and Jason was the most outwardly passionate about this."

Flom, who recovered the Lava imprint in 2009 and renewed a label partnership with Republic last October, describes his role as providing the "special sauce" -- i.e., influencing a key creative decision -- for each artist on his roster, which also includes Jessie J and Black Veil Brides. In the case of Lorde, Flom was presented with the artist's list of producers she was interested in working with on her debut album. Instead of opening his Rolodex, however, Flom recommended that Lorde continue recording with New Zealand producer Joel Little, who had helmed "The Love Club" in Auckland after being contacted by Maclachlan for the project. The "don't fix what's not broken" approach paid off: Produced entirely by Little, "Pure Heroine" carries over the EP's stark collection of looped vocals, canyon-sized beats and ominous harmonies, despite including only one song from "The Love Club," "Royals," on its track list.

As Lorde worked on her debut album, the Lava and Republic teams discussed how to launch "Royals" as a single in the United States in a way that would set up Lorde as an "album artist" and not a one-hit wonder. "We knew what we had with 'Royals,' and sometimes if you're too cute early on, you can have a really big song but not a really big album, which means you don't end up having a really big artist," says Charlie Walk, who joined Republic as executive VP last January. "It's similar to Adele. People fell in love with [2011's "21"]...you press play and fall in love with the artist. For Lorde, there's an age difference, but still the same value for the collection of songs."

 

The "Royals" U.S. rollout started surreptitiously with Flom playing the song for as many key platforms as possible, including iTunes, Spotify and influential blogs. In the months after "The Love Club" reached stateside digital retailers in March, Buzzfeed ran a post titled "Listen To This Teen Singer From New Zealand Right Now," while Jezebel posted a story called "We Need To Talk About 16-Year-Old Singer-Songwriter Lorde." Flom sent a personal email to multiple iTunes executives comparing his latest artist to one of his most beloved career signings, Tori Amos. Spotify director and Flom's pal Sean Parker added "Royals" to his "Hipster International" playlist in April (883,000 followers), and the single began dominating the platform's "Viral Chart" the following month. Another hip co-sign came months later, when the Weeknd -- now Lorde's Republic labelmate -- posted a remix of "Royals" on his SoundCloud account in August, where it's garnered 586,000 plays.

"Royals" also began taking over alternative radio thanks to a similar targeting of tastemakers. Republic senior VP of rock formats Dennis Blair says, "We went out and played it for the key people. Chicago and Los Angeles came in right away, and it started off as a major-market airplay record instantly." To help convince alternative gatekeepers that Lorde was more than just "Royals," Blair says he also played PDs "Tennis Court," an album track that was released last June, as well as "Team," the still-unreleased follow-up single to "Royals." Music fans also started realizing that Lorde was more than just one knockout song: "The Love Club" entered the Billboard 200 at No. 191 in late June, and has since climbed as high as No. 23 on the chart. (It's No. 34 this week.)

With sweeping synthesizers and pummeling drums, "Team" will also start at alternative radio, after "Royals" makes its mark at rhythmic, pop, adult top 40 and R&B/hip-hop radio. The upcoming single is highlighted by the declaration, "I'm kind of over being told to throw my hands up in the air...so there" -- a line that captures Lorde's attitude toward the artificial ecstasy of much current pop music. "There are a few lines that are kind of me being the 'realistic' pop star," she says. "Part of me wanted to go back to writing for me and for my friends, and write something that I felt related to us a little bit."

Lorde has yet to perform "Team" live, but will likely unveil the song during a short North American tour that runs from Sept. 24 through Oct. 6. The latest signee of the Windish Agency will "definitely" tour more this fall, Maclachlan says, with another headlining trek possibly for first-quarter 2014 leading into summer festival dates.

"The strategy is to be cautious," Windish Agency president Tom Windish told Billboard in August. "We don't want to put her into huge venues right away. She's a very genuine artist who wants to play the right places at the right ticket prices with the right opening acts, where she can have a really good, intimate, genuine experience with her fans. The venues [for the announced shows] are about 1,000-1,500 capacity, which are reasonable sizes but still pretty intimate performances. They all sold out instantly." Maclachlan adds, "There's requests coming in from all over the world, and we just agreed to some dates in South America, which will be really exciting."

There have also been requests flooding in regarding Lorde's publishing deal: Representatives from SONGS, Spirit Music Group, Sony/ATV and Universal Music Publishing Group were in attendance at the singer's New York show last month, in hopes of landing a partnership before the release of "Pure Heroine." "We are in the final stages of making a decision for the next stage," Maclachlan says of the still-unresolved publishing choice, without mentioning any specific names. "We're close to zeroing in on two or three people and companies that she's really keen to approach and get into a serious discussion with."

Lorde's manager says he and her U.S. labels are working closely to map out the next 18 months for the singer, with major TV appearances scheduled (Lorde is VH1's You Oughta Know artist for September) and TV/film licensing opportunities carefully discussed. ("You won't see ["Royals"] show up in an ad for dishwasher detergent," Flom says.) Meanwhile, Lorde has continued devouring literature (current reading: "Battleborn" by Claire Vaye Watkins), writing new material and heading to the studio while on a packed promotional schedule for "Pure Heroine" and 28-hour flights from New Zealand to the States. New songs are just taking shape, and although her creative process hasn't changed, Lorde's whirlwind year is starting to grip her latest lyrics.

"I've definitely found myself gravitating toward [writing about] what's going on with my life," she says. "It's a big elephant in the room if I don't talk about it -- it's the craziest stuff. I would love it if one of those big pop stars wrote a record about the craziness that is their life, as opposed to trying to 'keep it real' or whatever."