Lorde: The Billboard Cover Story

Photograph by Ross Brown
Lorde

Meet your new alt-rock heroine: how an unknown 16-year-old from New Zealand became the most sought-after new artist of the year

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

"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."

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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.

Listen to Lorde

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.

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"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."

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