How a brainy, goth-y 16-year-old from a suburb in New Zealand became the least-likely breakout pop star of the year
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.
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."
"OK, cool," she says. Then she returns to her fish tacos, in no particular rush to finish.
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.