For a minute, it’s easy to forget that Lorde is over 8,600 miles away, at home in New Zealand -- an island nation so remote, the sheep-to-human ratio is, famously, 7-to-1. Before our Skype connection starts failing (“The universe was like, ‘You’re talking about baking, no one cares,’” she quips after one crash), Lorde welcomes me into her little slice of the world: a lush, midcentury-style living room, with a black upright piano to her left and a Christmas tree to her right.
“There is a lot of green around us,” she says, panning to the de Gournay wallpaper hand-painted in a deep fern hue, then over to a set of glass doors that look onto a garden where the fennel is growing “tall enough to lead an army.”
It’s a few days before Christmas, and the 21-year-old born Ella Yelich-O’Connor has been holed up here, on break from a 65-city world tour in support of Melodrama, her stellar second LP, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in June 2017 and landed her a Grammy nomination for album of the year in November. (At the ceremony on Jan. 28, she’ll be up against Kendrick Lamar, JAY-Z, Bruno Mars and Childish Gambino.) Dressed in an off-the-shoulder buttercream blouse, she says her time has been mostly spent baking -- “I’ve been working my way through the Ottolenghi dessert book” -- and studying for her learner’s permit, a rite of passage she missed at age 16 when her debut album, Pure Heroine, sold 1.7 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. (Two days later, she giddily informs me she passed the driving test -- and made a banoffee pie.)
By the time she had scooped up two Grammys for that album, Lorde was in the throes of the kind of superstardom she parodied in her first single, “Royals” (“Everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece/Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash”). She had become close friends with Taylor Swift and found a fan in Kanye West. David Bowie told her that her music “felt like listening to tomorrow,” and critics labeled her a prodigy. The question, of course, was where she would go from there.
The answer lay at the ends of the earth. She returned home to Auckland, making a U-turn from fame that’s normally impossible for working celebrities. “I made a really conscious decision to keep my life here as this pure thing,” she says. “No one knows anything about this world, or the people that I’m writing about.”
The intimacy of those experiences unfolds in Melodrama, which was mostly recorded in producer Jack Antonoff’s home studio in Brooklyn. Loosely constructed around the conceit of narrating a single house party, the album moves from heartbreak to bliss with production that spans lonely piano chords and screeching industrial synths. Like Pure Heroine, it deploys empty spaces to great effect. Perhaps most of all, it affirms Lorde’s gift for distilling complex emotions into luminously simple, often gut-wrenching lyrics.
“She’s like a Jedi,” close friend and Rookie magazine founder/editor-in-chief Tavi Gevinson says of Lorde’s unique prowess as a writer. “She knows when to be inside of a moment, losing herself, and when to kind of hover above and watch it and take notes. With some experiences, she knows how to do them simultaneously.”
A voracious reader who once estimated that she had read 1,000 books by age 15, Lorde developed her ear for language as something of an outsider. “Often,” she says, “when you live in books and your life isn’t very exciting, you listen for people’s exciting morsels.”
Before we part ways and Lorde takes her place 18 hours in the future, I ask about the row of books perched above her. There are works by Lucia Berlin, Ray Bradbury and Renata Adler. “I remember finding this -- it’s secondhand,” she says, turning the camera to show me the cover of Michael Chabon’s A Model World. “It’s a true must.” She flips through a few pages before stopping at words so perfect, they could be lifted from her music. Stamped in bold black letters, the phrase: IMPERFECT NOT FOR RESALE.
I’ve read that rich Silicon Valley types are buying property in New Zealand because they think, “When the world falls apart, that’s where I want to be.”
Oh, yes, this is a thing. I think [PayPal co-founder] Peter Thiel was here. The getaway nature of it is very real -- I always feel very unmoored from America when I’m here. I’ll get a work email, and I just laugh at how absurd it feels. It’s like it has traveled underwater or something. My main concern right now is what the tide is doing. I map my day around it. It’s high soon, so I’m going to go for a swim. I can bike over to the beach.
Where were you when you found out about the Grammy nomination?
True to the DNA of the record, I was at a massive party [in Australia]. I was drinking, and I was kind of blitzed. It was the middle of the night, and I was aware that the nominations were coming out, and I’d done that thing where I’d convinced myself that [I wouldn’t be nominated]. I was getting over it in my mind, like, “You still made a great record.” And then a friend found me and told me, and we were the only people in this room who knew. It was such a special moment.
It’s crazy I’m the only woman in my category, and I feel very proud of that. I’m wearing that mantle for sure. But I’m also stoked that I’m in there with four incredible artists of color -- it’s a big moment for the Grammys. It’s exciting when these institutions move in the right way. To me, that is a huge victory.
Were there any artists you were particularly over the moon to see nominated?
I’m really pumped about Childish Gambino [nominated in four categories, including album and record of the year]. I think everyone was pleasantly surprised by that. We share a musical director, and it’s nice when friends of friends are recognized.
Are there any artists you wish had been nominated but weren't?
I can’t remember -- I’m literally Googling “Grammy snubs” to see if I can think of something. Oh, fuck! Cardi B should have gotten a nomination in one of those big categories. [“Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” is nominated for best rap song and best rap performance.] She kind of defined 2017. I wish Jack got nominated for producer of the year, but still he’s well represented, I feel. [Antonoff is nominated for best song written for visual media.]
What was your favorite moment from the 2014 ceremony?
It was just one of those nights that kept on giving. JAY-Z shook my hand, and Beyoncé acknowledged that I existed, which was the best thing. Being addressed by Beyoncé, it gives you this elixir of confidence and beauty and strength. It was such a weird dream to be up there [accepting the awards]. I didn’t write anything to say, I just word-vommed, and then all of a sudden you’re underneath the stage in this little nest, and they take the Grammy off you and say, “OK, come this way.” And you’re like, “Wait, my life just changed!”
Melodrama examines what happens after a relationship ends. What did you learn about the human heart in the process of making the record?
It really is a muscle that you have to tone up. [Laughs.] It’s like heart gymnastics. I was pleasantly surprised by myself and what I have in me -- by what won’t break me. And I’ve had an amazing year of re-getting to know who I was at the time that I made it. I feel a lot of tenderness and a lot of appreciation for that whole period, and for myself being able to muddle my way through it.
Does who you were when you wrote the album feel distant now?
It does, because I was so much more fragile. When you’re newly alone, you have these very real moments of, “Am I crazy? What is my reality outside of this thing?” You realize you’re not crazy, something just really hurts. Finding your reality outside of other people is special. I feel much calmer now.
What do you do to get to that place of openness?
In a way, my records are always me in the present trying to reach a hand out to me in the past, trying to offer what little knowledge I have. There’s always a few versions of myself sitting in a room metaphorically when I’m making work.
Young women in pop so often have their lyrics scrutinized and get pulled into controversy both real and imagined. Do you ever worry about how someone in your orbit might react to your work?
Tavi said this thing to me about a year before I finished Melodrama that I found really helpful: “It’s not fact, it’s not a documentary, it’s not a police record -- you’re just writing this thing.” I think if I was censoring myself, I would feel more like shit than if I said something about someone that was overly revealing. That was sort of my thing with “Writer in the Dark.” It was my way of saying, “When you choose to rub up against someone like me, I may steal some sentence out of your mouth and reframe it.” But I think that can be really beautiful, too. I’m a big Joni Mitchell fan, and she does it so well. She’s just snipping details out of her memory and putting them in this one place. Joni was really famous when she wrote “A Case of You,” but you’re not thinking about this famous person saying, “If you want me, I’ll be in the bar” -- you’re thinking about this woman who at that moment was lost.
Around the time you were working with Jack on Melodrama, he was working on Taylor Swift’s and St. Vincent’s albums.
And he manages to make you feel like he’s only working on your thing. The Bleachers album is what he was working on most of the time. Those two records were really happening side by side. It’s like when people have their babies around the same time and the babies are friends. We still FaceTime almost every day. When you work with someone, you sometimes think, “Maybe it will just be for this time, and we say we’re going to keep in touch but we won’t.” But we really ... I’m like, “Hey, dickhead, what are you getting me for Christmas?” [Laughs.]
Is there a moment that, to you, kind of crystallizes who Jack is?
When I came to New York, we had only written together maybe a couple of times, and we were very obsessed with each other on a creative level and as buds. I was sort of doing nothing in New York, and we did this thing where for five days in a row we just kept having dinner every night, just getting to know each other. One night, somehow it came up that I hadn’t had Cap’n Crunch or Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Lucky Charms. He was like, “We have to do this.” So we went to a bodega, got all of these cereals and went back to his house in Brooklyn and did a little lineup of bowls. We tried, like, 20 different kinds of cereal. [Laughs.] I still think about Cinnamon Toast Crunch all the time.
A total game-changer for the palate.
And there was another one that was like Reese’s Pieces balls. Delicious.
Early last year, you tweeted -- presciently, as many people later noted -- that “old men in power have a storm coming, the likes of which they cannot comprehend.” Are you hopeful for the future?
My prophetic tweet! [Laughs.] What is really interesting and important about this moment is that every man I know is having to check himself -- having to be aware of his misogynistic biases, having to re-examine his understanding of consent. I think that is so overdue and so vital. It’s the kind of thing that only comes about when people are brave enough to share and really bring these dudes down. I think every woman is like, “Oh, my God, it’s happening.” A really important thing, that Gabrielle Union addressed eloquently, is that we can’t forget that white voices are given their moment much more willingly than voices of color. It’s so important to realize that people of color weren’t afforded this luxury of having everybody listen always. But for me, it feels like one of those things where there’s this chasm that opens and it’s never going to close. You don’t get to un-have this moment. This is forever, and the way this trickles down to everyone’s lives is a permanent thing.
There’s a line in “Ribs” from Pure Heroine where you sing, “It feels so scary getting old.” Do you still feel that way?
As I get older now, I’m kind of excited by the prospect. I am becoming a better writer, but I’m also better at digesting stuff emotionally. I think about older artists I love, and there’s a certain level of writing and foresight that I just don’t have right now and hopefully I’ll have when I’m 40.
Where do you want to be in your personal life 10 or 20 years from now?
I love children. I think I am definitely going to end up having children. My short-term goal: I just want to get a dog! I bake a lot. Yesterday, I made this lime cheesecake with Swiss meringue on top -- I spent a couple of hours trying to get that right. My life is really quiet. Obviously, this year has been intense for me. It’s nice to have a busy year, but I’m also aware that for the most part my life is going to be pretty quiet. It’s going to be about making this work when I feel like I have something to say. Or spending a long time mastering some weird skill, whether that’s in music or it’s something visual. I feel very excited at the prospect of a quiet life full of listening. Also, I think when you start working very young, it’s easy to imagine just doing that forever and being on a talk show every year for the rest of your life, which is not appealing. It’s nice to work really hard from a young age, but also be like, “OK, you can also have a really beautiful life.”
Did you grow up in a religious home?
No, not at all. I’m a heathen. I’m also one of the most mystical, spiritual people I know, so somewhere in there, it’s balanced out.
Do you believe in an afterlife? What do you think happens?
Oh, interesting. This is one of those things that I’ve never thought about. One of [the other things] is my wedding -- I’ve never imagined it. I don’t know why; I don’t have a glitch with weddings. And the afterlife is another one of these where I have no formed opinion but I’m happy to entertain any prospect.
What will Christmas look like for you this year?
I have a big Irish family, so we do a big family thing in our garden. It’s often 50 people, it’s summer, people are in the pool. I’ll be making a lot of desserts. We’re in New Zealand, so you might eat an oyster -- it’s very incongruous with what people think of as Christmas. I have a very vivid memory of the Christmas before last. Some of my cousins are Mexican and brought some great tequila back with them; I had two hands in the sink washing pots and one of my cousins was just pouring a shot of tequila into my mouth. So that’s Christmas at our house.
"She has become kinder to herself."
A famed blogger by age 12, now-21-year-old writer-actress Tavi Gevinson explains how Lorde transcended prodigy status.
"One of Ella’s greatest gifts as a writer is her ability to switch between dancing and writing, and to do both at the same time. That sounds esoteric, but what I mean is that she knows when to be inside of a moment, losing herself, and when to kind of hover above and watch it and take notes. With some experiences, she knows how to do them simultaneously. She’s like a Jedi.
I think she has become kinder to herself and given herself some distance from pressures or expectations that might’ve come with her debut. She is beholden to the visions in her head more than anything. But after the first album she had to work to remember that, because there were so many voices clouding her path. When you are getting so much constant feedback, not just from consumers of your work but the people in your industry, some of whom work for you, and everyone has a different agenda, and very few probably see you as a person ... it’s very hard to parse what’s worth listening to and what to take in stride.
The music industry seems uniquely toxic to me, even more so than Hollywood, and there are probably three 21-year-olds in the world who could not just survive it but use it to achieve their artistic/professional goals and grow as a person in the meantime. Ella is one of them."This article originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Billboard.