Lorde On Dialing Out And Turning Inward

Jun 15, 2017
Originally published on June 17, 2017 7:26 pm

It's an old music industry maxim: You have your whole life to write your first album, but only months or years to write your second. If there's anyone who knows the pressure of the sophomore record, it's Ella Yelich-O'Connor, better known as Lorde. Her 2013 debut album, Pure Heroine, sold a million copies in just five months and launched her to stardom, buoyed by the blockbuster single "Royals," two Grammys and praise from the likes of David Bowie.

With such a heady start, it's no wonder Lorde's new album, Melodrama, took another four years to make. "I would go to sleep thinking about it and I would dream about it, and I'd wake up in the morning thinking about it," she tells NPR's Michel Martin. "Its grip on me was unrelenting. I knew I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't make something different, singular and something that I would be proud of."

Yelich-O'Connor wrote Pure Heroine from her native New Zealand with producer Joel Little, making understated yet magnetic songs that captured both the ennui and intensity of youth. Melodrama, on the other hand, was created mostly in New York City with producer Jack Antonoff, who also plays in fun. and Bleachers. With stories of heartbreak, of coming of age and of living in the spotlight, Melodrama marks a new chapter for the 20-year-old singer.

Yelich-O'Connor spoke to Michel Martin about finding anonymity in New York, her love of the album as a medium and the intimacy of the spaces she creates on Melodrama, out Friday. Read on for an edited transcript and hear an abridged version of the conversation on All Things Considered this weekend.

Michel Martin: We would have been happy to meet you in New Zealand, but you've been working on the new album here in New York. What made New York the place to think these thoughts?

Ella Yelich-O'Connor: Well, it's interesting. I had never really had a relationship with New York before I started writing the record here — it was sort of everybody else's city to enjoy, and I kind of felt like the extent of my relationship was going from my hotel to a friend's hotel to hang out. The face of the city was a bit more abstract for me. But we started coming here because Jack lives here and has a great home studio out of his place in Brooklyn. And it happens to have one of the best vocal chains I've ever come across — the mic and the pre-amp and all the stuff that makes for this incredible recorded vocal tone.

But New Zealand and New York have [both] played kind of vital roles in the record. Obviously, I wrote [Pure Heroine] in New Zealand and hadn't really left New Zealand before, and going into writing this new one, it was like — I mean, it sounds so crazy when I say it, but I'm one of the most well-known people in New Zealand. Even now it sounds crazy, but it's like, cold hard fact. So I would sort of be, like, walking to the studio and everyone would know that it was me and that I was home working on it. I feel like I got self-conscious about the process and about, had I written an amazing song that day? No? Then it was wasted. I felt very aware of time and all this stuff.

It was almost like people could see your thought bubble somehow.

Yes, I felt deeply conspicuous. And so it was wonderful to come to New York — you know, no one cares about anyone here. It's like, you're very busy, you've got to get home. ... You know, think about a shared space like the subway. No one's interested in getting in anyone else's space, or you know, when you hear a rare conversation on the subway, they keep it to a minimum 'cause they know that everybody else has such a full life, and it's like — we'll just keep this over here so we don't have to pollute everyone else.

There's this great Virginia Woolf quote [where] she talks about how wonderful it is to go out on the street in the city between the hours of 4 and 6 and be part of this sort of swell of commuters and how wonderful that anonymity is. And yeah, I really felt that that helps the work immeasurably, to be sort of walking around with my MetroCard, working it all out. So they were both very important — [in] New Zealand I would do a lot of the stuff that the record was about, and then I would get that distance from it and come here and write those stories.

I read in an interview that you had such a strong sense of your work at such a young age that an early producer of yours, Scott Maclachlan, realized he had to tear up his preconceptions about the best way to work with you. You were 14, but you really had a sense of what you wanted to say and how you wanted to say it.

I think I didn't always know exactly what I wanted out of the work, but I knew what I didn't want and I knew that I would eventually know. I had my own taste, I guess, and I obviously had to learn how to write a song and really get to know the ins and outs of the craft. ... But I think everyone around me realized very quickly that the work wasn't going to suffer or get less popular with my involvement — which I think is an opinion that record companies and industry people are just starting to understand, that the pop artist could actually help and not hinder.

You seem to be going in a very different artistic direction from a lot of your peers, many of whom are using a lot of guest artists and AutoTune and things like that. Are you consciously making an effort to be different?

I guess writing this record I really dialed out of what was happening in music. I tried quite hard to do that and actually listened for the first time to a lot of quite classic music, a lot of really classic songwriters — Joni Mitchell, Don Henley, Paul Simon — and really just tried to reconnect with this exquisite craftsmanship. These songs are just so perfectly formed. I think sometimes with electronic music you can get away with fudging the songwriting a little bit — and for me, we wrote the record on the piano. I actually wanted for them to just be songs that could live in any form.

But in terms of the collaboration thing, you're right — I'm quite lonely up on my little area when it comes to my music. And I think I really just attribute that to two things. One, I'm quite a strange person and I'm quite shy, and I struggle to really get to a good place musically with a lot of people. There's a reason I write my records with, like, one person. It's because that's about as many people as I can really connect with artistically at one time.

But also, I'm so into the album as a medium. A lot of my peers are not, and that is totally fine ... but I just hold an album so dear. Because to live inside 10 or 11 or 12 songs, and to just be wrapped in the universe of them, I think, is so profound. And I think about the records that have endured for me, and one of them is Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. I think there's a classicism to that approach — I wonder, if there were a bunch of collaborators on Rumours, would it have endured the same way? I think because it's such a concentrated shot of those few people and what they were up to at that time, that's what makes it so wonderful, and so I sort of I try and make the records like time capsules, so to speak.

Let's talk about Melodrama. Was there sort of an organizing thought going into it?

I think I thought I knew what it was gonna be, and I really didn't. The Melodrama thing came to me in late 2015 — the idea of calling the record Melodrama — and then it sort of started to build from there. It's so funny, one day you don't have a title for a project and one day you just do. And it's just called that, and you could never call it anything else. The world just drops this title into the top of your brain, and you're like, "All right, cool, that's what it's called."

Tell me more about the title track, "Sober II (Melodrama)."

That song is interesting, it's the second part of one of the first songs that we wrote where I really started to understand what the album would be, which was "Sober." The two of them kind of came around the same time, this was April of last year — I remember Jack and I went out to Coachella and we got a studio in Palm Springs.

It's funny, I have synesthesia, which people have asked me about, and the clearest example of synesthesia kicking in with this record was with this song and with the other part, "Sober." It just, all of a sudden the color of the record was so present and vivid and it was just the craziest — just this sort of rain of violets and blues. And it was so intense, and that sort of came to shape the rest of the record.

So this song sort of maps the course of a party. In the first part, it's very much like the party's in full swing, and maybe sort of tipping over into that area where it might be a little too much, and then ["Sober II"] is sort of singing from the perspective of the deflated room. There's such a sadness to the lights being on after a party, you know, this whole room has sort of been washed in this dark, and to see the corners of the room again can always be a little bit heartbreaking.

I think one of the reasons people respond to your work is that the experiences are familiar. They're things that people go through that are universal, and you give it a new voice. On the other hand, your life at this point is very different from other people's. So how do you go about having the kinds of experiences that inform the work that made you famous?

Well, I live in New Zealand because I love it, but also because I do get to just be regular — just have regular friends and I go to the same bars that everybody goes to. I don't have security or anything like that. I'm able to do this kind of stuff. ... And I think really withdrawing from everything and not doing a red carpet, not having my makeup done for three years or whatever — I was able to really lose touch with that side of who I am.

The last record was very much — there was something so outward about it because I was reaching out. I lived very far away from the world and would go on my computer and try to find people who were into the same stuff that I was, and so the sound of it is like, "Do you hear me?" Like, "I'm trying to reach you." And [for] this one, an opposite thing happened where I was like, "Oh no, I'm truly reachable enough at this point." And a lot of the things that happen on the songs take place sitting in a car with one other person, or being inside my own house while a party's going on, in the bathroom or on the dance floor, in a bedroom or whatever. The intimacy of the spaces on this record, I think, is a direct response to having my life kind of flipped inside out. And that's what I really like about this record — I think you could listen to it not knowing that I was, like, a famous person, and hopefully the emotional DNA would be the same.

Your self-determination is something that a lot of young women have come to admire. Does that feel like a burden at all — does it feel like you're a spokesperson, in some ways?

I've never felt like a spokesperson or a role model or anything like that, really — because I know how violently I rejected those figures when I was growing up. But also, I think there is no one young person that can communicate what it's like to be a young person. And I think even in the last few years since [Pure Heroine] came out, it's so wonderful that there's been such an influx of young voices and young people who are so informed and so culturally aware. And it definitely takes the pressure off me, because I don't think anyone's thinking about me anymore as, like, "Oh, we've got this one person we need to hold up." But I mean, I guess I just try and represent myself in a way where I'm gonna feel like I can live with myself when it's the end of the day and I'm alone in my room and it's just me and my thoughts — I need to know that I'll feel like I represented myself and what I believe in with dignity.

Web intern Karen Gwee and web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, a star who seemed to come out of nowhere four years ago, a teenaged singer-songwriter from New Zealand who won a place as a leading voice of millennials with this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROYALS")

LORDE: (Singing) And we'll never be royals, royals. It's not in our blood. That kind of luxe just ain't for us. We crave a different kind of buzz. Let me be your ruler.

MARTIN: This is the artist known as Lorde, born Ella Yelich-O'Connor. She was a 16-year-old high school student when her first album "Pure Heroine" - as in female hero - took off back in 2013, making her the youngest singer to reach the top of the Billboard charts since 1987. The album won critical raves for its fresh take on life and musical genre. The many accolades included two Grammys and praise from stars like David Bowie and Taylor Swift, not to mention it sold a million copies in five months.

That album, though musically sophisticated, spoke to a teenager's experience with touches of angst set off with biting critiques of pop culture, celebrity lifestyle and Hollywood glam. And now, Lorde is back with a second album. It is called "Melodrama."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN LIGHT")

LORDE: (Singing) But I hear sounds in my mind, brand new sounds in my mind.

MARTIN: It's a new chapter with new stories to tell of heartbreak, of coming of age and of living in the spotlight.

LORDE: I've never felt like a spokesperson or a role model or anything like that, really. I think because I know how kind of violently I rejected those figures when I was growing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN LIGHT")

LORDE: (Singing) I'll come get my things, but I can't let go. I'm waiting for it, that green light, I want it. Oh, I wish I could get my things and just let go.

I just try and represent myself in a way where I'm going to feel like I can live with myself when it's the end of the day and I'm alone in my room. It's just me and my thoughts. Like, I need to know that I'll feel like I represented myself and what I believe in, you know, with dignity, I guess.

MARTIN: With her latest album, Lorde is no longer an outsider but instead has had a taste of the celebrity life she once famously criticized. She's also gone through something just about everyone has experienced - heartbreak.

LORDE: The intimacy of the spaces on this record, I think, it's sort of like a direct response to having my life kind of flipped inside out, I think. Because I think, like, it doesn't matter if you're famous or not, a breakup feels horrific for everybody. And everyone knows that feeling of just feeling like your head is going to explode walking around with all of these - you're like, if people knew this, if they knew what you've done. And I feel like that is - that's universal.

MARTIN: I do find myself wondering if having had such a success with the first album, was the second a struggle? Was it just - was it sort of terrifying to think about, you know?

LORDE: Oh, my goodness, it was so terrifying and so difficult. I don't think I was worried that - about people and whether or not they would like it. But just for me personally, like, making a good record was such an epic novel. Like, it was such a journey to get there. And I remember distinctly thinking that it just wasn't going to happen. It just took so long and took so much from me every day.

And I just, you know, I would - I'd go to sleep thinking about it. And I would dream about it. And I'd wake up the morning thinking about it. It was just - it was - its grip on me was unrelenting. And so it was, I mean, it was very difficult. But maybe for someone who was like a bit more of a chilled-out operator, that would be a bit easier. But I'm - as you know, I'm a bit of a drama, a bit of a melodrama. It's all a bit melodramatic over here, so (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF LORDE SONG, "SOBER II - MELODRAMA")

MARTIN: So let's talk about "Melodrama." Tell me, was there sort of an organizing thought going into it? And tell me about the title track, like why "Melodrama"?

LORDE: Well, that song is interesting. It was - so it's called, you know, "Sober II." It brackets "Melodrama." It's the second part of one of the first songs that we wrote where I really started to understand what the album would be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOBER II - MELODRAMA")

LORDE: (Singing) We told you this was melodrama. Oh, how fast the evening passes cleaning up the champagne glasses. Our only wish is melodrama.

It's funny, you know, I have synesthesia. And the clearest sort of example of synesthesia really sort of, like, kicking in with this record was with this song. And it just - all of a sudden, the, like, color of the record was so present and vivid. And it was just the craziest - just the sort of rain of violets and blues. And it was so intense. And that sort of came to shape the rest of the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOBER II - MELODRAMA")

LORDE: (Singing) They'll talk about us, all the lovers, how we kiss and kill each other. Whoa. They'll talk about us and discover how we kissed and killed each other. Whoa.

MARTIN: Synesthesia is where you actually - you hear certain sounds and you see colors associated with it. Is that how it...

LORDE: Yeah. I guess it's just like there's a visual component to sound, whether there is, you know, texture or certain forms or...

MARTIN: Yeah. How you're describing it is very different from what I expected because when I hear melodrama, I think of grays and sadness. But you're describing something very different, you know, very vibrant, very kind of exciting.

LORDE: Well, just intense, I think. The intensity of the color sort of blew me away. But this song is sort of - maps the course of a party. And the first part is very much like the party's in full swing, maybe sort of tipping over to that area where it might be a little too much. And then this is sort of singing from the perspective of the deflated room.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOBER II - MELODRAMA")

LORDE: (Singing) We told you this was melodrama. You wanted something that we offer. We told you this was melodrama. We told you this was melodrama.

MARTIN: Well, thanks so much for visiting with us. And it's been a pleasure to visit with you.

LORDE: Thank you. Oh, my goodness, thanks.

MARTIN: What shall we go out on? And tell us why you - what you love about that song, one of the ones you particularly love.

LORDE: Well, I really love a song called "Writer In The Dark." I love it because I think people won't have heard my voice in this way or heard me write in this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRITER IN THE DARK")

LORDE: (Singing) Break the news - you're walking out to be a good man for someone else. Sorry I was never good like you.

There's always a song on every record, and I call them portal songs because they - as sort of a little glimpse into what could happen, what that artist could, you know, could go on to do. And I feel like this song, there's something about it. I - it happened very quickly.

A lot of the songs on this record were just so drawn out. And this one was like a couple of days and it was done. And we just - we were scared to mess with it too much, I think. We didn't want to take the essence out of it. So yeah, I really love this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRITER IN THE DARK")

LORDE: (Singing) Now she's going to play and sing and lock you in her heart. Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark.

MARTIN: That is Lorde. Her new album "Melodrama" is out now. She was kind enough to join us in our NPR bureau in New York City, where she worked on the album for the last couple of years. Lorde, Ella, thank you so much for visiting with us.

LORDE: Thank you, Michel, I appreciate it. It was so nice (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRITER IN THE DARK")

LORDE: (Singing) But in our darkest hours, I stumbled on a secret power. I'll find a way. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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