in conversation with lorde: what ella did next
Ahead of the release of her massively anticipated follow up album, i-D spent a few moments of calm with Lorde and learned Ella Yelich-O'Connor has a lot of secrets.
The article was originally published by i-D Australia.
When Lorde broke out in 2013 with Pure Heroine, her evocative ode to a tender and tough suburban adolescence, she was lauded for her "authenticity". That's a tricky concept for anyone to grapple with, but for a young woman on the precipice of mammoth fame it was a spiky badge to wear. After all, a beloved debut will always be hard to follow up. But infuse it with a sense of being deliciously "normal" and suddenly it seems impossible to mimic in the glow of fresh stardom.
So what do you do when your every-girl status is punctuated by generation defining success? You go home. Lorde's return to New Zealand — where she is still known to her friends as Ella Yelich-O'Connor — has formed the bones of her follow up record Melodrama, a concept album tracking a night at a house party. It's arguably the first project of this scale inspired by Auckland ragers.
That time at home not only informed this long awaited follow up, but also helped define the second coming of Lorde. Cocooned in her hometown, she was able to claw back some private space to reflect. After experiencing the strange reality of trying to work out who she was while the world spewed out countless hot-takes on what she meant, Ella found room to form her own ideas of identity.
Now on the brink of another barrage of press, the kind she's spent years avoiding and arguably recovering from, we sat down with Lorde to talk about home and why we don't really know her at all.
Can we start by talking about your return to New Zealand after the huge success of Pure Heroine? It is an unusual move considering how many young creative Kiwis are planning their exit route.
For me it kind of felt like the only thing, it didn't feel there was anything else I would do. I love New Zealand so much and I really depend on it to feel happy and normal. My friends are there, my family's there - my relationship with the place is so deep. Now that's where I live. It's very much part of the fabric of the way I am.
I feel like my relationship with New Zealand is like, it's my cool older boyfriend that I'm just obsessed with and I just hang around with. I'm like, you're just so cool what music do you listen to? I wanna hang out with you.
I read you tend to write mostly about experiences in New Zealand. Your life is so full, why do these more familiar spaces still inform the bulk of your work?
The thing about what I get up to in New Zealand is that it isn't interesting or exciting, it's super domestic and regular. There's a lot of just sitting in cars or sitting around somebody's kitchen table talking. I find of lot of my writing is inspired by just listening to people talk. The domesticity of life at home is really important.
Also the record is kind of like this weird document about partying, and I definitely went to a lot of like fun, scummy house parties in Auckland which I feel like you can't really do in LA. In LA they're like, "We have a valet," and you're like, "mmmm not the same."
Can you really return as Ella after leaving and becoming Lorde?
People are pretty good about treating me chill in New Zealand, I have my group of friends who I've known for a long time, that's mostly the people I hang out with. But also, you know, it's the kind of city where you know the people who run the restaurant you go to every night for dinner. Auckland is a very insular city, I don't have too much trouble trying to live a normal life. It's almost like everyone's forgotten about anything I do. Most days I don't get recognised, so I do feel very lucky.
You have an ability to present the normal as evocative without overly romanticising things. Now your life does have an undeniable sense of the surreal, do you need to seek out the realness in daily interactions?
The first record was very much - that was my life, I didn't know too much outside of the suburbs and getting the train everywhere and stuff. But there was an element of trying to elevate those details to make them seem grand and special, because that was all we really had going for us. Where as now, you do have to work hard not to be like "oh I just love going to pick up the milk like a normal person."
For part of this record, I feel like I retreated inward, a lot of what happened in the record took place at my house. I think that was all an effort to keep the telling not too romanticised. It's funny to return to a place that you had such a specific relationship with, you know, having gone through all this stuff and to see how that changes.
Do you feel you idealise New Zealand though?
You know what, I do have very romantic thoughts towards it, but I get home and they're almost always confirmed. But being away has really helped me realise that it's magic. I'm very lucky, to have been born somewhere like that. When you're a kid you're like, "Aukland sucks, can't wait to get out and go to Tokyo." And like it's awesome you can go to Tokyo, but for me I really find a lot of empowerment and joy in coming back.
For most people the process of becoming an adult happens so slowly, you move out of home, you learn how to drive - but you skipped all these steps. Once touring was over, did you kind of find yourself in an adult life having skipped a few steps to get there?
It's weird - touring finished and I stayed quite stagnant for a couple of years sort of like, sleeping at my parent's house, wasn't really doing anything too much differently. It wasn't really until I did move out that I started to go to that next chapter. It felt like all of a sudden everything happened. Whether it was little emotional interactions I might have with people or you know, thinking the washing machine's making a crazy sound oh god this is adulthood! But I still can't drive, that's the one thing that I can't do.
A lot of your imagery is from the point of view of the passenger. I wonder if when you learn to drive your lyrical perspective will flip.
That's really interesting - yeah, I'm constantly the passenger in my music. I weirdly think it would be a really good thing for me to graduate to being a driver. It might open up the work to be able to drive around. Also how I listen to music, I have to be moving, I can't really take on the work when I'm standing still so I'm always going for a walk, or in New York I would get on the subway and just go somewhere I didn't really need to go because I needed the movement.
You were so young when you were promoting Pure Heroine, that's really an age where you're trying to work out who you are and what kind of person you want to be. But how do you do that when the whole world is writing op-eds about what you represent? How do you create your own personal narrative when the world is constantly feeding you one?
I think I was quite quick in rejecting the narrative. I was like, this is not gonna be something that's gonna work. Especially because I wear black all the time and I had this hair, it was easy to make me a caricature. But I knew I wasn't that. One day I was gonna put down the purple lipstick and probably not wear it again for ages.
I felt okay about changing, and I did a lot of that growing and changing in private. I stopped going out a bunch and getting photographed and just came home and lived, which a lot of people in my position find difficult. It can feel like your life is defined by people's eyesight and people's ears and people being in conversation about you and about your work.
I know people who have kind of struggled with then retreating from that and being like, oh god what does my life mean when everybody's thinking about me everyday? But for me I've valued the lack of opinions for a couple of years. It was important for me when I was growing up. I mean, I'm still growing up.
Reading articles about you, there are echoing themes around the idea of "one in a million," "one in a generation," "a singular talent." What does it feel like to always be told you're a single entity? It's like being the last unicorn.
Yeah, I definitely don't subscribe to it. I don't think it is real. I'm so aware of my skills but also my shortcomings and things I can't do. I'm like, how can I be that good if I'm so aware of all of the things that I get wrong?
I think real writers always feel the sense of dissatisfaction with what they're doing, I don't know if I'll ever feel like I've done it, I've made it, I've like clocked being an artist. All the best writers are projects-deep and still trying to make the best thing they can make, and still trying to fix all the things on the last project that they didn't necessarily love. I'm just trying to get as good as I can. I really hope that one day I'm really quite good. I see my skill level now as a little embryo, like a tadpole.
You're so open in interviews and with your fans. How do you then decide the parts of your life that you have to keep to yourself?
I am a really open person, it doesn't make me feel nervous to share my emotions with people. But I guess, it's funny because there's so much about me that people don't know, I feel like there's 10 percent of my life that's just this little layer on the top that people are aware of, and for the most part I live this very private life. I hope that it will always be like that.
I have a lot of secrets. It's quite nice that people don't really know what I'm doing every day or every night. They might have an idea, but I like that there's mystery there. I think about Stevie Nicks, we don't know what she was doing on her afternoons off in the 70s. I really like that we know how she was feeling about Don Henley, but we don't know that.
Text Wendy Syfret