Lorde Q&A: New Zealand Star On Next Single, Nicki Minaj & Staying Mysterious

Photograph by Ross Brown


"I'm definitely an observer in social situations -- I like to listen, and figure out what's being said and what's happening," the 16-year-old singer tells Billboard.

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 16-year-old New Zealand native (real name: Ella Yelich-O'Connor) has courted enigma ever since releasing her debut EP "The Love Club" online last year, but U.S. fans are about to get to know the singer when her captivating debut album, "Pure Heroine," is released on Sept. 30 through Lava/Republic.

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For Billboard's latest cover story, Lorde chatted from Auckland, New Zealand about her early writings, adjusting to fame and her interests outside of music. Check out the full, online-exclusive Q&A with the "Royals" star below.

Billboard: How have these last few weeks been for you?

Lorde: Quite busy. I don't know. Weird things become normal for me, very quickly. It was all a little weird a few weeks ago, but it's fine now.

What's something that was strange a few weeks ago but has become common nature?

Things like flying all the time. I'm getting really good at streamlining the airport process. I never thought I'd have to do that, because I had no reason to travel. I just take Nyquil, and sleep the time away.

How do you spend the little downtime you have?

I was actually in the studio today, and I'm going back all next week. That, to me, is the way I can relax, and process what's going on. I love being in the studio. But in my downtime, I just catch up with friends, make dinners and muck around.

In terms of the songs you've been writing lately, has the success of "Royals" and the travel affected your creative process and tone?

Not so much process, but I've definitely found myself gravitating toward [writing about] what's going on with my life. You can hear a bit of that on the record. 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.

There's a line on your still-unreleased next single, "Team," that goes, "I'm kind of over being told to throw my hands up in the air… so there." Is that your take on most modern music?

Yeah, absolutely. In that song, there are a few lines which are kind of me being the 'realistic' pop star: "We live in cities you'll never see onscreen," which is like, no one comes to New Zealand, no one knows anything about New Zealand, and here I am, trying to grow up and become a person. I've been countering that with going to New York and seeing this place that's in every movie and every TV show. 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.

People seem to be startled that you're making these songs at the age of 16. Have you always heard, "I can't believe you're writing like this at your age?"

I mean, have a lot of friends who are older than me, so I'm kind of on the same level as people... I don't know, I've never been older than I am, so it's hard for me to look retrospectively and go, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so mature for my age!' I am who I am. I read a lot of books -- maybe that's it.

What do you read?

I read a lot of short fiction, like Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver and Wells Tower. I've been reading this book at the moment called "Battleborn," by Claire Vaye Watkins. It's such beautiful writing.

You were writing short stories before you started writing songs. What were some of the things you wrote about?

I was like 11 or 12 when I was writing them, so they were probably pretty awful. I wrote a lot of autobiographical stuff, and then I wrote total fiction, because I started reading Carver and I became obsessed with... a [Carver] story will be about a couple, and this couple could exist in any neighborhood, in any city in America. There's a sense that they're not solid or not real -- they represent anyone, which I thought was cool. I wrote in that way for a while.

The Lorde Billboard Cover Story: Read An Excerpt Here

What kind of experiences were you writing about for "Pure Heroine"?

A lot of it is not about specific experiences but about something more broad -- the feeling of being my age and living in a suburb, and feeling as if there's absolutely nothing to do. There's the weird social issues that come with being a teenager. It's a general picture of it all.

How would you describe yourself, in terms of how you relate to your friends and to other teenagers?

I'm not a social outcast or anything. I've got friends. But I feel like I'm definitely an observer in social situations -- I like to listen, and figure out what's being said and what's happening. I can't just go to a party and not be thinking, 'I'm at a party, I'm doing this, what does this mean,' you know? I'm always breaking it down. It annoys my friends too -- they're like, 'Just chill out! Have some fun.' And I'm like, 'Oh, God... okay.'

What are some of your non-musical hobbies?

I'm surrounded by the beach, so I love to fish and to dive and to swim. I walk a lot, and I bike around. I hang out at the beach, really, and muck around.

You signed a development deal when you were 12 years old. Did you parents encourage you to keep pushing and make music a full-time career?

No -- if it were up to my parents, I would be an academic and not have a music career. Don't get me wrong, they've been super supportive, but I think it's not every parent's dream, because it's difficult for me to go to school now… They love what I do, but they're just not "stage parents" by any means. My dad is a civil engineer, and my mom is a stay-at-home mom. 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. There was a point where I started getting really into music, because when you're young, you listen to what your parents play or what's on the radio and don't really care too much about it. There came a time where I just started obsessively devouring so much music, which was all genres, whatever I could get, just trying to figure it out a little bit. It was kind of inevitable that I started writing my own.

What modern music do you personally love?

I'm a big James Blake fan, and I always have been. And I really like Burial -- I've kind of gone back through and listened to all of Burial's music. But I also got the Nick Minaj album "Roman Reloaded," which I've been really into. She is so fucking good, man, I can't even fathom it. I watched this amazing video the other day, of her just riffing about sex. She was putting on makeup and talking, and she's a total feminist, and I was like, 'Man, you are a badass, Nicki.' I love it.

How do you feel about the incredibly strong reaction that "Royals" has provoked in the U.S.?

It's weird, because obviously when I wrote it I had no idea it would be a big deal or anything. I just wrote something that I liked, and that I thought was cool. It's always strange, particularly with my lyrics -- there's a quite distinctive and personal [tone], and people are sitting in their bedrooms and covering it on YouTube. It's been awesome though.

Do you remember when and where you wrote it?

Yeah, I was just at my house, and I wrote it before I went to the studio. I wrote it in like half an hour -- the lyrics, anyway. I wrote all the lyrics and took them to the studio and my producer [Joel Little] was like, 'Yeah, this is cool.' We worked on that and on two other songs on the EP in a week, and just did a little bit every day.

You released "The Love Club" EP for free online last November, with basically zero promotion. Was it difficult to step back from interview and press opportunities when people started to latch onto the EP?

It definitely wasn't difficult for me. In a perfect world, I would never do any interviews, and probably there would be one photo out there of me, and that would be it. I just feel like mystery is more interesting. People respond to something which 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.

How is the live show going? You played your first U.S. show in August, and have more tour dates coming up soon.

I think it takes a while to figure yourself out as a performer. I had acted in plays my whole life and I'm good at public speaking, but I had never performed abroad, and I think that it's a different thing completely. You have to learn it, really.

Is it weird to hear people refer to you as Lorde now, instead of Ella?

Yeah, a little. I just tell people to call me Ella. I'm not really a diva.