Lorde's Teenage Dream

How a brainy, goth-y 16-year-old from a suburb in New Zealand became the least-likely breakout pop star of the year

October 28, 2013 11:00 AM ET
Frank Ockenfels 3

There's a drink they make at the Soho House in New York that Lorde likes – she had one when she was there last week, but she can't quite remember what went in it. The Soho House is a big-bucks members-only club with outposts in the world's fancier cities, and tonight she's at the Los Angeles chapter, gazing out from a sumptuously upholstered booth at the city lights stretching onward to the Pacific, trying to describe the drink to a waitress. "A sort of fancy-lemonade situation, with a cucumber?" she says. "I don't know if it's lemonade." The waitress furrows her brow. Lorde is in L.A. to drop in on Ellen and perform her transfixingly hushed, sneakily catchy single, "Royals," which is currently the most popular song in America – it beat out Katy Perry's "Roar" and Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" for the Number One spot.

Learn How Lorde and Kanye West Became Friends

Yesterday she was in Toronto, where she played a sold-out club show, and where fans "literally chased our van, screaming, everywhere we went," she says. She'd been in New York before that, playing three sold-out shows, where one of the audience members was fashion designer Phillip Lim, whose leather jumpsuit Lorde just happened to be wearing onstage that night, having gotten it free at a photo shoot. While in New York, Lorde also hung out with Tavi Gevinson – the teen-style icon and burgeoning publishing guru – first at Soho House, which is where she had the drink, then at "this party over in Bushwick."

"I know the drink," the waitress says. "You must have had the Eastern Standard: cucumber, mint, lime . . ."

"That's it!" Lorde says. She is having a virgin version, because despite the fact that this New Zealand-born singer-songwriter is successful enough to score a prime booth at the Soho House on practically no advance notice, Lorde is only 16 years old. She sings about draining bottles and house parties on her remarkable, electronics-heavy debut album, Pure Heroine, but she can take alcohol or leave it. "I don't feel bummed about not getting super-crunk all the time," she says, then instantly realizes how Hannah Montana this sounds and squeals with embarrassment. She looks down at the tape recorder that captured her words, imagining them in print: "Oh, no!" she cries, laughing. "Tragic!"

Lorde – whose real name is Ella Yelich-O'Connor – is the sort of teen you forget is a teen. In conversation, she comes off not simply self-possessed but downright wise. Her eye contact is unwavering, her declarations contemplative but crisp. On record, she wields a luxuriously deep voice over minimalist beats she herself co-produces. Her lyrics explore classic teen-pop themes – social anxiety, romantic yearning, debilitating ennui, booze-soaked ragers – with an eerie, zoomed-out detachment. On one song, describing a passionate romance, her mind can't help but jump-cut not only to the relationship's inevitable failure, but past that, to death: "I know we're not everlasting/We're a train wreck waiting to happen/One day the blood won't flow so gladly/One day we'll all get still." Lorde regards herself as a lyricist first and foremost, attributing this in part to the fact that she has been devouring the fiction of authors like Raymond Carver and Kurt Vonnegut since she was an adolescent.

When Lorde played Later . . . With Jools Holland in September, Kanye West, who was also performing that day, approached her backstage and said he liked her stuff. At her first L.A. concert, in August, Chloë Moretz and Jared Leto turned up, as did Dr. Luke, who said he'd love to meet up sometime, bat some ideas around. Which Lorde admits is awesome, but she takes it in stride. "I'm excited to maybe work with him – for other people," she says. "Not so much for my stuff. But it'd be awesome to figure out that side of things. He's got, like, an algorithm that just keeps working."

We scan the menus. She's wearing a large, jagged crystal on a string around her neck, over a drape-y white T-shirt. Her hair geysers in leonine curls. She settles on the chicken-liver toast, a baked sweet potato and, to use her phrasing, "fish tacos, motherfucker!" I spot a black-truffle pizza on the menu and suggest we split it, but she's immediately suspicious. "Then you'll write about it like Lynn Hirschberg!" she says, cannily referring to a celebrity journalist with a reputation for ordering truffle-infused dishes to make profile subjects come off like pampered one-percenters. "She did it with M.I.A. in the Times Magazine, and she did it with Megan Fox before that," Lorde says. "So you can definitely order the truffle pie."

"Royals" is a song about both succumbing to, and calling bullshit on, the allure of hedonism and materialism. The refrain – "Everybody's like, 'Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece'" – is defiant but also a touch bittersweet: "We'll never be royals." "I've always been fascinated with aristocracy," Lorde explains. (It's where her moniker comes from.) "I'm really interested in the Ivy Leagues, the final clubs, all the really old-money families, the concept of old money." She sings about class from a privileged position, although one that boasts more cultural than financial capital. Her mother, Sonja Yelich, is an award-winning poet who has been included in the Best New Zealand Poems anthology series four times, and whose last collection imagined the grim life of an American Marine in Iraq. Lorde's father is a civil engineer. The family is middle-class – "standard," is how Lorde describes it, noting that her father drives a Toyota. On "Royals" she critiques rock and hip-hop fantasies even as another part of her covets them. She recalls a recent shopping excursion in London, where, emboldened by her success, she decided to splurge on a couple of things from Comme des Garçons, which came to £780, and a hideously expensive cardigan that fit wonderfully and cost more than the Comme pieces combined. "My credit card was declined," she says, laughing.

The food arrives. She has two slices of the truffle pizza, and enjoys them. After a while, Tim Youngson, who's one of Lorde's managers, comes over: "You guys good?"

"Great," Lorde says.

"Kanye's manager is over there, and he'd love to say hi," Tim tells her.

"Whenever you're done."

Watch Lorde Perform 'Royals' on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

"OK, cool," she says. Then she returns to her fish tacos, in no particular rush to finish.

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