Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
When “Royals” arrived in June 2013, not many listeners stateside knew who Lorde was. Even so, the singer-songwriter’s debut single immediately garnered attention for its deep, bass-thumping beat and her vocal delivery that offered a lesser-told pop narrative — “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh… I’m not proud of my address,” she speak-sings on the chilling first verse.
But when songwriter-producer Joel Little first met the artist born Ella Yelich-O’Connor, she had barely written a full song. “She had amazing lyrics, almost just like poetry on a page, but it wasn’t a song structure or anything like that,” Little recalls.
So, they held an unofficial, two-person songwriting bootcamp of sorts, simultaneously working on artist development for the then 15-year-old singer-songwriter. For one week, they wrote a song a day — each in a completely different style. “She wasn’t completely sure how she wanted to sound,” says Little. “We were trying to figure it all out.”
At the end of the week, they ended up recording what became “Million Dollar Bills,” which Lorde included on her 2013 debut EP, The Love Club, released on Universal, with whom she had a development deal with in her and Little’s native New Zealand. “It didn’t feel like anyone else,” the producer says. “It felt like it could be her.”
Together, Lorde and Little made the minimal beat and finished writing the verses in two days. They knew they had something cool, but had no idea it would take off the way it did, which Little credits in part to Lorde’s idea to post the song as a free download on SoundCloud — “She was like, ‘I’m 15, none of my friends have credit cards, no one can buy the song.’” Within days, “Royals” had over 10,000 downloads; and soon enough, 60,000. “Coming from New Zealand, there’s only been a couple of artists that really had major success in the U.S.,” says Little. “It never even entered our minds that that was a possibility. We didn’t even think about [crossing over] the whole time that we were making [‘Royals’].”
The track topped the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks and broke the record for the longest reign — no pun intended — atop the Alternative Songs chart by a woman, passing “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette. Along with the rest of acclaimed parent album Pure Heroine, it also set a new sonic standard for Top 40’s cutting edge; the following year, many argued that Taylor Swift’s blockbuster 1989 album, particularly the airy “Blank Space,” recalled Lorde’s minimal production and speak-sing style of singing.
“[‘Royals’] signaled a change in the landscape of how songs needed to sound,” says Little, who in the past year has co-written and co-produced with the Jonas Brothers, Tove Lo and Swift herself. “Up until that point, there were faster tempos and more layers, those were the songs that were doing really well. And then we came out with a song that was just a voice and a minimal backdrop. That made people [realize] there’s power in telling a story that way.”
A year after the song’s release, it was being covered by Jack White, and won Lorde two Grammys, including song of the year, at the 2014 ceremonies. She’s since topped the Billboard 200 with her 2017 sophomore album Melodrama, which earned her a spot as musical guest on Saturday Night Live, sent her on a world arena tour and landed her a headlining slot at festivals like Lollapalooza.
“When [‘Royals’] comes on now and I’m in a completely different country,” says Little, “it still blows my mind to think that it has reached as far as it has.”