This story also appears in the Ensemble style issue of Sunday magazine
When stardom came for Lorde, it came fast, making her one of the most well-known teens on the planet. A decade on, and ahead of her New Zealand tour, the pop star talks to Clem de Pressigny about surviving fame, ageing and the allure of the underdog.
It’s the early afternoon of a humid, rainy summer’s day in Tāmaki Makaurau, and Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as Lorde, is feeling good. “I turned 26 at the end of last year, and I really feel a kind of new leaf or something, you know, something about the second half of your 20s. I’m like, OK, we’re in it now. We’re doing the thing. No time to f… around. So I feel quite motivated in an exciting way.”
Since April last year, Yelich-O’Connor has been touring Solar Power, her third album, released in 2021, a sonic departure from her earlier music, moving from synth to guitar, and drawing on trippy 60s psych and folk, as well as shiny early 2000s pop. It is lyrically brighter and more inward looking. A sunshiny nature walk about freeing herself from the epicentre of fame, unhooking from social media, and why certain aspects of that starry life will always be seductive but only nature can sustain.
The tour extends to more than 20 countries, and will finally be touching down in Aotearoa and Australia, after continuing question marks around the impact of Covid meant those shows were postponed early last year. Taking place in intimate theatre venues as well as stadiums, Lorde fans are ecstatic to see and hear her again. They know every single word of every song.
“I just had such a rewarding year of touring. It’s been so amazing to just be out doing it again. I totally underestimated how it would make me feel, so yeah, it’s good. Life is good.”
Touring for her first two albums, Pure Heroine and Melodrama, was not like this. Yelich-O’Connor had struggled with enervating stage fright, the adrenalin flooding her bloodstream night after night leaving her mentally and physically raw.
“I’ve always loved to perform,” she says. “But since I was a little kid, I’ve had this just stomach churning, full fear. You know, it was actually debilitating for months and months on end. I really struggled to the point where I’d had a panic attack on stage a couple of times. It was really interfering with being able to do my job.”
She has managed to reach this point, where being on stage leaves her on a high instead of drained, through time and effort. “I did a tonne of therapy, aimed at alleviating [stage fright] specifically. And I didn't know what that would have actually done for me until I got out there and started performing. And it’s made a huge difference to my quality of life.”
These days, she ends up tired from the physicality of performance and the travel, but not the immense pressure that stage fright used to put on her sympathetic nervous system.
The fame game
Yelich-O’Connor laughs easily, often at herself. She is composed, warm but careful, deliberate. And she seems to have been able to metabolise fame in such a way that makes it possible for pop stardom and unaffectedness to coalesce but not detract from one another.
From the beginning, Yelich-O’Connor had a clear understanding of her approach to fame. “I sort of had a few guiding principles… Everyone else can go home from work, can leave it, but it’s my body, it’s my face, it’s my story, forever, you know. So in the same way that I’ve had boundaries around my privacy, I feel like fame is a similar thing.”
She doesn’t place much stock in fame, because it happened so fast, “too fast”, and she thinks the same thing can happen in reverse. “Oh, it was interesting as a teenager to feel the rush, and then be like actually, I don’t know if I want this all the time, or, I don’t know if I want to do all the things you have to do to keep that moving.”
It has been 10 years since the charge of fame came at her. Yelich-O’Connor was 16 when she released Pure Heroine and became one of the most well-known teens on the planet. We’ve already had a decade of Lorde. “Oh, my god, isn’t that so f…ing crazy?” It is crazy. Who was Ella back then? “Ella, in 2013, was super confident, super driven, quite awkward, not particularly sort of in her body, you know, sort of bashing through and pretty confident in what was ahead, which, 10 years on, blows me away. I have way less faith in my abilities now.”
She clarifies that she means less blind faith – Yelich-O’Connor is now coming at it all with a wealth of experience, after three albums and a whole lot of touring under her belt. “I have a lot of affection for… I mean, god, just thinking about being 16 and being a working public professional. It’s pretty wild to think about now, but I’m stoked, honestly, it could be a lot worse.”
The magic age
Today’s teens are moving through a different landscape. Though the world feels diabolically precarious and there is a lot that Gen Z (born in 1996, she’s on the cusp of Gen Z and Millennial, aka a Zillenial) has to contend with, Yelich-O’Connor is happy to see teenagers holding much greater social and cultural power. In her adolescent years she was a jaded, frustrated anomaly on the pop cultural stage.
“I feel like when I was a teenager, there was just a really polished – I guess it was sort of like post Disney Channel, you know – a really polished young person and I think all of that is completely different now. There’s so much more deference to kids, teenagers. Teenagers have true, true social power now in a way that I think is accurate for how smart they are and how well they already know themselves and their gen.”
A lot has been made of her youth and her ability to expose with brilliant simplicity the entire emotional world that can bloom in a quotidian moment of growing up. But ageing is on Yelich-O’Connor’s mind. “I’m loving getting older but I also feel vulnerability around not being that sort of magic age with people asking you for all the answers about being a young person. You know, I feel that moving through.”
There is a blueprint for what comes next. “I do think the good thing about what I’ve built is, it’s not particularly contingent on my sexual power. So I’m not particularly worried about how that currency will change. I’ve sort of always been like a little old wizard in a young body, and there’s some perks to that.”
She mentions Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett as examples of things seeming to get better with age. And Yelich-O’Connor, with her prodigious skill for making pop magic, has good reason to think she will be able to stake out space for her future eras too. Though, she gives off the sense that if it did all disappear, she’d actually be fine. That’s not to suggest that she doesn’t love what she does. Yelich-O’Connor makes it clear she is grateful, and she seems to still marvel at her luck at being so good at what she loves doing.
On set for ourshoot, Yelich-O’Connor is serene in the makeup chair, a book in her lap, wearing a faded Crosby, Stills and Nash T-shirt and loose brown trousers, feet bare. She discusses the potential looks with stylist and designer Paris Mitchell Temple. They’re agreed on what works best. In front of the camera she’s an efficient pop star, quick at getting the shots.
Yelich-O’Connor often draws style inspiration from films, and after recently seeing the much discussed Tár, the chicness and clout afforded by exceptional tailoring has once again been clearly illustrated. But it’s the manner of ease and self-possession of the wearer that matters most. “I often go to a very expensive store called The Row in New York. I go and visit a woman called Ola who has worked there for a long time and just seeing Ola, you know – I think Ola would be in her 60s – and how she wears clothes… People who can really wear what they wear, I feel inspired by.”
Since her teen years, Yelich-O’Connor has been working with LA-based stylist Karla Welch, known for dressing some of the biggest stars, including Olivia Wilde, Justin Bieber and Tracee Ellis Ross. Yelich-O’Connor enjoys the process of choosing looks with Welch, and she knows what she likes.
“I’m super into fashion and I kind of follow what’s going on, and so often I’ll send her something [I like] and then it shows up, which always blows me away.” Welch, she says, “just gets it”, even for the simplest item, such as a plain T-shirt, she can find the perfect one. “I love working with Karla. She’s a delight, and she’s totally honest. She’s like, ‘Nah, take it off’ – which I love.”
On stage for Solar Power Yelich-O’Connor has been a kaleidoscope of colour in body-hugging designs from the likes of designers Dilara Findikoğlu and Christopher Esber. When she was first in the public eye there was an element of protectiveness to what she wore, often wrapped up in black, cascades of hair like a curtain.
“Last night I was thinking to myself, OK, now I’m going back into my physical form having currency beyond, you know, my friends and loved ones looking at it, which is always an adjustment for me. I think I think of myself as like, a brain and a head – my voice comes out of here, everything that I write, you know what I mean. I forget that people are going to see the rest… being a teenager and having people looking at, talking about your body, it was kind of a trip.”
The power of the underdog
Fans and critics fell hard unanimously for Pure Heroine and Melodrama, which of course meant heavy expectation. It’s a pop star’s job to evolve, and with Solar Power Lorde resolutely did, but the response has been more mixed. “Obviously, some people liked it, some people didn’t like it.” But even that, Yelich-O’Connor seems satisfied with. “I think the third album is like always a real... you do sort of cross over in a way, you know, you’re not new any more, and also you want maybe different things…I had real things I wanted that I just had to do with that album, and I feel more clear and calm for having done that.” She’s finding feeling like an “underdog” quite powerful.
“At the end of the Melodrama cycle I felt everything too... I don’t know, it felt too big. It felt like people believed in me too much or something. I was like, I’m 20 or 21, this is my hobby. You know, I felt really spooked by it. And so to sort of go down this weird road and for people to have absolutely no idea what’s going to come next, that is super cool to me. I’m stoked that I don’t feel pigeonholed at this stage.“
What Lorde will deliver next is what every fervent fan – she elicits a strong emotional commitment, they are all in – is trying to glean. Yelich-O’Connor already knows what’s to come, it is in the works, she confirms. “It has taken me quite a while [to start working on it]. I mean, I do just take a long time… I do a lot of research, I write a lot down.
“Sort of a big chunk of work before I actually start writing music. So yeah, that’s been a really big part of it. It’s been super exciting and I feel excited about what’s coming.” Will her fourth album, L4 as the fans call it as placeholder, be another four-year wait from the last? “You know, it’s my intention, it’s always my intention, to move as quickly as I f...ing can and then that ends up taking different forms. But this one, I really am trying to. I don’t want to wait, you know, so take from that what you will.” Surely, she’ll rule out 2023 at least, for when we can expect new material – but no, she’s keeping hope alive. “Anything could happen. Let’s see!”
Lorde – The Solar Power Tour, February 21 - March 4.