Sixteen-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor, stage name Lorde, is already a big deal in New Zealand, where she was born, and which she’s only left two times in her life. There, her spare but soulful pop single, “Royals,” debuted at No. 1 in March, with an irresistibly teenage blend of defiance and longing. In it, Lorde denounces the brand-name trappings of Top 40 rap royalty (Maybach, Cristal), before admitting she wants a turn with the crown. “That kinda luxe just ain’t for us,” she sings, “let me be your ruler.”
Discovered by Universal at a talent show when she was 12, the Auckland 6th form (the equivalent of a high school junior), still relies on her poet mum for lunches and rides to the studio, but she writes her own songs and controls her own career. “I show my parents the stuff that I’m doing,’” she told the Cut, “but I tend to micromanage situations.” With the help of a moody music video starring Yelich-O’Connor’s guy friends, her local train station, and her old sweater, “Royals” cracked American audiences this spring, topping Spotify’s “Most Viral” chart. The Cut braved a crappy connection, a thick Kiwi accent, and an incalculable time difference to chat with Yelich-O’Connors, who is making new music, planning her first trip to the States in the fall, and adjusting to a level of fame that is not yet reflected in her bank account.
What time is it there?
It’s 8 a.m. I’m at the studio, doing some interviews before work.
I read that you’re working on a full-length album. How’s it going?
It’s been really drama-free. I’ve heard musicians can really break down when they’re writing an album. Maybe the breakdown comes later?
Much later, I think. Is the album different than your EP, The Love Club?
It will be the first body of work that people have heard from me. I want to paint this picture of who I am as an artist. There’s a lot of the same regal imagery, but some of the songs are maybe more intimate, about relationships with people.
Should your ex-boyfriends be worried?
No, no. I try to stay away from talking about boys all the time. You can go to Taylor Swift to hear that.
How has your life changed since it came out?
The EP has been pretty popular here for kind of couple months, so it’s dying down now. But, you know, I get recognized, which is weird, when I’m at a restaurant and I’ve got my mouth full of food. And because I currently have a single digit in my bank account. I had to make a different Facebook the other day because I get weird messages from dudes saying “We’re going to be the best of friends,” and I’m like, “Ewww. We aren’t.” But for the most part, people are really kind.
I was surprised how few photos of you are out there. I figured, as 16-year-old, you’d have years of selfies online.
Ha-ha. I’m quite selective about imagery. I like that cleanliness. They Google you and they see the one photo of you. Only now can I do that. I’m not sure that will last much longer. At first, there were no photographs. It was something I cultivated, as I started to grow. But I could feel people getting aggressive, like, show yourself already. I mean, I understand. I write pop music. People aren’t used to not being able to put a face or a body to it. So I was like, all right. I didn’t want to turn it into thing.
How did you choose the one photo?
As for why I have the dog in there and stuff, I was thinking about royal families, like, Henry VIII, he’s always got a little lap dog. So I thought, Oh, that’ll be a cool vibe. I think there’s a cool photo of David Bowie with a dog, too.
People seem excited by the criticism of conspicuous consumption in “Royals.” What were you thinking about when you wrote it?
I’ve always listened to a lot of rap. It’s all, look at this car that cost me so much money, look at this Champagne. It’s super fun. It’s also some bullshit. When I was going out with my friends, we would raid someone’s freezer at her parents’ house because we didn’t have enough money to get dinner. So it seems really strange that we’re playing A$AP Rocky. I experienced this disconnect. Everyone knows it’s B.S., but someone has to write about it. There’s typically been a lot of interest in that aspect of the song, but my all my friends are kinda like, “yeah.” They thought it was less profound.
There’s another song I want you to explain, “The Love Club.” Is that young person code for something?
“The Love Club” is about an experience I had about a year ago where I met all these new friends and I fell in with them. It happened overnight and I couldn’t think of anything but our friends and our situation. Then I started to maybe realize that group wasn’t so good for me, and that my old friends and my family are the people I should be with. It’s about being drawn into this crazy world, and you’re all in love.
Did you have to break things off with the club?
We’re still friends. I just keep my distance.
You’re a Sofia Coppola fan, so I wondered what you would think of The Bling Ring.
I know! It’s not out here yet! But I definitely want to see it. I am a huge pop-culture person. I have this weird thing: I can’t not be obsessed with the train wrecks. The girls that have gotten all fucked up, the people that have overdoses. It’s just super interesting. I’ve always been really interested in aristocracy, and those people died or fell from power in lots of different ways, so maybe it stems from that.
Are you worried about Amanda Bynes or do you think she’s fine?
I don’t know. I don’t think she’s fine. She’s so nasty to everyone. Even Courtney Love!
Can you tell me about your first performance?
I’d done some singing through school and stuff, but in terms of playing as Lorde, I played my first show in April. I was so nervous. It was real small, 120 people or something. I knew the space really well. The room was filled with my friends. It was such a strange a feeling. I’d never been in a situation where everyone was there to see me. It was strangely reverential. I had this crazy flip-out.
Flip-out in a good way?
Yeah. I was like, “Holy shit. This room is packed out.” People said it was good.
What did you wear?
A dress by a New Zealand designer, Jimmy D., that makes clothes with a witch-princess-y type vibe. It was black, see-through, flowy.
Are you into fashion?
Yeah, but I’ve never had a lot of money to buy really nice designer clothes. My friends and I, we op shop.
No. Op shopping. As in, opportunity shopping. It’s like thrift stores. It’s called that because the stores are run by churches. So we get lots of vintage clothes. It’s cool. That’ll be the thing. That’s the one thing …
Your one concession to consumerism, when you make it big?