Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor was born in 1996 to poet Sonia Yelich (Croation) and civil engineer Vic O’Connor (Irish) above, as the second of four children, living in the Auckland suburb of Devonport, she attended the Belmont Intermediate School, and read the works of Raymond Carver, J.D Salinger, Janet Frame, and M.T. Anderson, which influenced her early lyrical development. At school she formed a duo with her friend Louis McDonald (below) and competed successfully in the Belmont talent quest in 2009, subsequently appearing on Auckland radio and coming to the attention of Universal Music Group who signed the young Ella to a development/recording contract, at the age of 13.
Lorde’s early musical influences were an eclectic mix of jazz and soul- Billie Holliday, Sam Cooke, Etta James, and Otis Redding as well as her parents record collection – Cat Stevens, Neil Young, David Bowie, Prince, Paul Simon, Phil Collins, and Fleetwood Mac – and electronic music from such producers as SBTRKT, Grimes, and Sleigh Bells.
She would soon become professionally known as Lorde, inspired by her love for such royals as Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI of France, and the last Tsar, Nicholas II of Russia, but for the moment she continued to perform as part of the Belmont School band Extreme and to do covers with her friend Louis as “Ella and Louis” at local venues around Auckland. In 2011 UMG engaged vocal coach Frances Dickinson to work with Lorde while the company looked for producers and songwriters to collaborate with her creatively.
She was only fifteen at the time, but clearly a precocious and prodigious talent, who was also a synesthete, a person who could see specific colours when certain musical notes were played. This meant that her song writing was a very visual process, that she was able to form a big picture of a new song, even before she had completed its composition, and adapt her song writing according to the colours she was envisaging. Other notable musical synesthetes include Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Kanye West, and Pharrell Williams, who also possess a similar sound-to-colour synesthesia.
Lorde performed her original songs for the first time at the Victoria Theatre in November 2011, and the next month UMG paired her with songwriter/producer and former Goodnight Nurse lead singer Joel Little, and a creative union was formed, she was attending Takapuna Grammar School at the time and completed Year 12 in 2013, but she decided to focus on her music, and abandoned further studies. Lorde’s first commercial record release in 2013 was the EP The Love Club, recorded at Little’s Golden Age Studios (Auckland) with Joel Little producing, it featured her global breakout hit Royals, but such was her uncertainty about the success of the record that she initially made it available as a free download on her SoundCloud account. But after 60,000 downloads, Lorde and UMG realised that it would be a commercial success, and when it became the lead single on Lorde’s debut album Pure Heroine, and sold 22 million copies, this decision was comprehensively vindicated.
Lyrically it’s an underdog song written by Lorde in 30 minutes, which was inspired by the blatantly materialist nature of songs by such hip-hop artists as Kanye West, Jay-Z and Lana Del Ray, who lusted after opulent lifestyles in their music – designer clothes, trophy homes, exotic cars, expensive jewellery, and fancy liquor- which Lorde found alienating and unrelatable, especially to a 16-year-old girl who had just left school. She very publicly condemned this inauthentic attitude toward song writing, and life in general, by people who she called “royals”. The Royals connection was also partly attributable to a photograph of baseball legend George Brett (below) a major league third baseman for the Kansas City Royals, which depicted Brett signing baseballs for fans, which appeared in the National Geographic magazine, and triggered the song title and reinforced her narrative theme.
Musically the song is mid-tempo electropop that beguilingly incorporates elements of electronic music, R&B, and indie pop, with percussive finger snaps, deep bass, and looped, programmed percussion. A hip-hop beat is overlayed by synthesiser and pro tools, to produce a minimalist, engaging sound palette, which underscored the husky, playful, sultry and at times vulnerable mezzo-soprano vocals, of the precocious teenager. Her voice is not booming or overpowering and on her debut album it seems to float on a sea of reverb and digital blips, awash with a wall of chorused overdubs, which was both alluring and mystifying, at the same time.
Soon Lorde would make her presence felt on global charts in a way unprecedented by any other NZ performer, at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony Royals won the Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance, she became the youngest New Zealander to win a Grammy, the song charted #1 in 10 countries including the USA, UK, and NZ, #2 in Aust, and clocked up total accredited global sales of a staggering 22 million.
At 16 years she became the youngest artist to top the US charts since Tiffany (also 16) with I Think We’re Alone Now (1987), and the youngest NZ solo performer to hit #1 Stateside, beating out Kimbra who had featured on Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know in 2012. The promo video for Royals was praised for its simplicity and sense of disengaged ennui, and has currently been viewed 850 million times. It begins with a monochrome shot of an unmade bed, the scene fades to a shot moving away from a suburban neighbourhood, and then to a boy with a silver chain taking a shower, then staring out of the window, eating breakfast, giving himself a haircut, and sparring in boxing gloves. Lorde appears briefly throughout the video miming the lyrics, which ends with the camera moving towards the suburban neighbourhood seen at the intro.
The second single taken off the album was Tennis Court which would notch up sales of 900,00 but fail to resonate chart wise as Royals had, but the third single Team was a catchy hybrid alt pop/electro pop song which had a familiar Royals cold opening, and effectively blended synthesised bass and snare drum, over a percussive handclap-based beat that was also not dissimilar to the mega-selling Royals. Lyrically Lorde was expressing her frustration about being bombarded with images of places like New York which had little in common with small cities like Auckland “I just felt it was important for me to be speaking for the minority, coming from a place that is relatively unimportant”, and there was also her rejection of the hands-in-the-air unrealism of many party pop songs, which she rejected as unrealistic and irrelevant – Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, were two obvious examples. The promo clip reflected the outsider attitude of dispossessed teens, acne-faced misfits, surviving in a dark dystopian world, making their own rules and participating in their own initiations and hierarchies, so there was a real Hunger Games ambience about the clip, which was filmed in the Red Hook Grain Terminal area in Brooklyn (NYC). Team was a global hit charting #6 USA, #3 NZ, #19 Aust and #29 UK, with global sales of 4 million, and Lorde’s debut album Pure Heroine was also a hit topping the charts in 13 countries including USA, Aust, NZ and top 5 in Canada, UK, and Norway, with global sales of 5 million. In 2014 Lorde had accumulated an impressive CV with sales of albums and singles in excess of 30 million, she was already a very big star, and she was only 18.
Prior to the release of her much-anticipated second studio album in 2017, there would be dramatic changes within the hitherto tightly controlled inner circle of the young singer. She had been cossetted, controlled, and even manipulated by older men within her personal and professional life, since the age of thirteen, and dramatic changes were about to take place. Lorde would abruptly dissolve her creative bilateral partnership with Kiwi Joel Little, below with Lorde, who had co-written all the tracks on her debut album, and was generally regarded as the key musical producer/arranger influence on her songs. Lorde was a gifted lyricist and singer but she could not play an instrument nor could she read or write music, so Joel’s sacking was alternatively seen as very brave or misguided.
In 2016 her manager for the previous five years Scott McLachlan was sacked by Warner Music for sexual harassment of women within the company following a MeToo investigation into his conduct, Lorde simultaneously axed McLachlan as her manager, a clear sign that she too was uncomfortable with their continued working relationship. Below Lorde with McLachlan
In the same year Lorde would end her three- year relationship with photographer boyfriend James Lowe (below left), and take up residence in a $2.8m bayside villa at the exclusive Auckland suburb of Herne Bay (below centre), clearly Lorde was growing up, spreading her wings, spending time with her new A-list buddies, and with her new-found wealth, enjoying the trappings of living the life of a “royal”.
In 2017 she would release her second studio album Melodrama, working in collaboration with American Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Troy Sivan), above right with Lorde, and although critically praised, the album failed to emulate the stunning sales of Pure Heroine, although it still notched up creditable global sales in excess of 1.5 million. The best-performed hit was the lead single Green Light, an electro/dance pop outing which did well globally with accredited sales in excess of 2.5 million.