Lorde's "Pure Heroine" plants its flag squarely in the gray area where mainstream blurs into fringe – the album is full of references to acts like Drake, the xx, A$AP Rocky, James Blake, Kanye and Burial. When Lorde began making music, at 12 or so, she says, Laurie Anderson was a huge influence. "I'm someone who loves electronic music and lots of alternative music," she says, "but I love a good pop banger, too."
Which is why she's totally content to perform on an afternoon talk show, even if it's a pretty long way down the coolness spectrum from partying in Bushwick with Tavi. "Ellen is awesome," Lorde says. On the afternoon of the taping, a van awaits Lorde and her band outside her Hollywood hotel, ready to take them to the soundstage. Her touring outfit, composed of fellow Kiwis, is light: Ru, the sound guy; Jimmy, the keyboardist; Ben, the drummer. The vibe in the van is laid-back and chummy – everyone seems amused by how ridiculous their lives have become since "Royals" broke big. Jimmy, who looks a bit like Otto from The Simpsons, takes the van's rear-most bench. "I met J. Lo's keyboardist at a tattoo parlor last night," he says, grinning. "Yeah, you sat on his lap!" Ru calls out. "We can't bring you anywhere," Lorde says.
Lorde is wearing a fitted black top, platform-sole granny oxfords and a black mesh tennis skirt. "Got my sport-gothic thing going on," she says. Her mother, Sonja, is riding up front. She's an extremely friendly woman with bright dyed-blond hair and thick-rimmed glasses. "It's a bit like The Truman Show," Sonja says of life on the American pop promo circuit. "I'm still taking it all in." Her presence doesn't encourage much self-censorship from the gang. Ru talks openly about "hands-free vaporizers," and Lorde happily ribs Jimmy about the girl he was "rolling around on a bedspread" with the other night. When "Royals" comes on the radio, Sonja sings along exuberantly, throwing finger-pistols in time with the beat, and everyone cheers.
In the dressing room at Ellen, Lorde heads to a computer, fires up a Haim song on YouTube and walks into the adjacent makeup room. "Do you want me to curl your bottom eyelashes?" the makeup artist asks. "Curl away," Lorde says.
She flies back to New Zealand tomorrow, where she'll have a week of downtime before more touring. Her hometown, Devonport, is a seaside suburb of Auckland, New Zealand's most populous city, which hosts a naval base. Lorde has more than a year of high school left, though she hasn't been to class in a while. "I don't know how school's going to go," she says. She's not sure when, or if, she'll graduate, and has no specific college plans: "I read and write so much anyway, I don't feel I'm particularly missing out." When she did attend school, she says, "I'd float. I hung out with a lot of boys. Lots of my friends are into sports, lots of them are into art, drama. . . . I have friends all over." She has three siblings. "We're all very different," she says. "My big sister studies German and is a film student, but also doing a business degree. She rides horses. My little sister's, like, superpersonable and bubbly – she's beautiful. She'll be a TV show host one day. My little brother's into sports and math. I'm much more within myself; I've always read a lot and been the quieter one." At the same time, she says, "I've been taking drama classes since I was, like, five, and I'm, like, a fucking killer public speaker. I'm pretty good at turning it on."
Lorde's other manager, Scott Maclachlan, arrives in the dressing room. Maclachlan caught wind of Lorde when she was 12 – she sang Duffy's "Warwick Avenue" at a middle-school talent show, accompanied by a schoolmate named Louie. Louie's dad sent Maclachlan, a Universal Records A&R guy in New Zealand, footage of the performance. "She had this amazing voice, and actually it isn't that different now," says Maclachlan. "It had the same great sort of depth and timbre, a real soul to it." He signed Lorde to a major-label development deal. (Sorry, Louie.) "One of the coolest things was that I could have vocal lessons twice a week," she recalls. "I've always had a low voice, but you can find a couple of shitty covers on YouTube from when I was 12 or whatever, and my voice is quite nasal. Strange tonally. I got to strip all that stuff back and kind of rebuild the machinery, take a lot of twang out of my sound."
Maclachlan paired Lorde up with various songwriters. "It didn't work at all," he says. "I think Ella inherently sensed that she was never going to sing other people's songs." She finally found a simpatico collaborator in Joel Little, a graduate of the New Zealand pop-punk circuit with some national hits to his name and an ear for spare, electronic beats. Little helped teach Lorde about song structure. "I wanted to bend the song around the lyric, as opposed to vice versa, kind of squashing the words in there," she says. "Joel would say, 'The syllables have to match up!'"
Lorde's public debut was an EP called The Love Club, released last November. Inspired by enigmatic acts like the Weeknd, she decided to keep photos of herself off the packaging and, to the extent that it was possible, off the Internet. She posted her music for free on SoundCloud and watched her online buzz grow. Then her label threw in its weight, and "Royals" built from there – first hitting Number One in New Zealand, and eventually spreading from alternative-rock stations in the U.S. to pop radio. "I'd go on YouTube – like, who's watching this?" she says.
"It's weird, because, when you're in the early stages of a project, it's so pure – you're like, 'This will never be tainted,'" Lorde says. "Then you get further on and you're like, 'I want people to hear this record, so I've got to do something to support it.'" She laughs. "I put my music out with no kind of commercial expectation, and found out I was a pop star."
The Ellen performance goes well. Lorde's voice is lush and assured; she hunches her shoulders, smiles slyly and hardly moves her body beyond a raised hand that flutters in time with her words. The effect is oddly magnetic, and the audience can't help but clap with the beat. When it's done, DeGeneres shouts, "So good!" and runs over to Lorde, who beams. Lorde accepts a hug from DeGeneres, then raises her mic as if about to say something, drops it, raises and drops it again, then fixes her hair self-consciously and just smiles, taking in the applause.
Back in the dressing room, she drops down onto a couch, accepts well wishes and gets lost in her phone. Sonja tidies up the dressing room, clearing empty bags of chips and half-empty bottles of iced tea from a coffee table, then sits beside her daughter.
"Ella's a better writer than I'll ever be," Sonja says, beaming proudly. "A couple of years ago, I wrote a thesis for my master's, and I asked Ella to proofread it – 40,000 words. She did an incredible job. And she was 14."
"Mommm!" Lorde yells. "Stop talking about me!" She falls onto her side, blushing and burying her face in a couch cushion – acting, at least for a moment, like any 16-year-old.
This story is from the November 7th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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