In our new Lorde cover story, Rolling Stone examines how pop’s unlikeliest superstar climbed to the top while breaking all the rules — and making people rethink what it means to be a teen girl artist in 2014. Behind the scenes at our photo shoot, we got a chance to grill Ella Yelich-O’Connor on her literary inspirations (there are many), process for picking songs to cover (it’s complicated) and advice for young folks interested in getting into the music biz (it’s sharp).
On five authors who inspire her:
Raymond Carver is definitely one. I have this thing with, like, words being in that perfect order, and you know exactly how they’re trying to make you feel. And the order of the words…just, like, slapping you in the heart: “Oh my gosh, I totally get it.” And I am really into how words sound out loud, so I was always the kid who would, like, read the page of the book to herself in her room over and over and over. And Raymond Carver is great for that. Tobias Wolff is an author who is really good for that as well. I’ve only read one collection from Claire Vaye Watkins, but it’s one of the best collections of short fictions I’ve ever read. Sylvia Plath, I would say, as well. I don’t read a ton of poetry, but hers is so good that you kind of can’t not, I think. And then probably number five would be Kurt Vonnegut, I reckon. He’s brilliant. I guess I like writers who have the kind of humor that I have, which is a sort of cynical, sardonic… black humor. He’s just the don.
On the figures who’ve most influenced her style:
I feel like I would just kind of take little pieces from someone else’s style. I don’t know how I ended up where I am. [Rookie editor] Tavi Gevinson, probably, because we were growing up around the same time and she was so cool. She had all this crazy thrifted stuff, and so I would thrift and try and look like her. Grace Jones was an influence, because I was like, “These shoulders! These pants! Girls can wear pants and be awesome.” That’s something I definitely embody.
On how her perspective has changed, post-“Royals”:
It’s a really weird thing to write a song like “Royals,” or a record like the record I wrote, and then go through something like this, which changes your entire world and way of living and changes what you do every day. And then you find yourself writing and being in a completely new stratosphere in terms of what you’re talking about and how you approach certain subjects. So it has been weird. Do I really want to write a record which is like, “I’m in my Jacuzzi and I have so much money, and I’m sad?” It’ll be interesting to see how something like this manifests itself creatively for me.
On choosing covers:
I’m usually really drawn to a song, and I know it would be good to cover if it sounds like something that I could write, or I wished I could write. Sometimes a writer just sounds like they’re in your head, and that is really cool for me. But I think there’s no point in covering something unless you’re going to do something quite different and take it out of its original context and make it mean something different, and make it apply to you. So there’s lots of stuff that I really want to cover, but I know there would be no point. [Laughs] For the Replacements’ “Swingin’ Party”…my producer and I were just kind of surfing Spotify one night, and he was like, “Oh, do you know this band?” I was listening to the lyrics, and, tonally, the lyrics are just so in line with something that I would write. The subject matter just sounded like something I would write if I was as good a writer as Paul Westerberg.
On what she’s learned about the record biz:
I’ve learned how to interact with people in order to get what I want, but also…you can’t just crush someone’s vision, you have to make compromises. That wasn’t something I was familiar with until quite recently. I was so kind of fixated on exactly what I wanted to do, but now I’m quite good at taking other peoples’ opinions on board. But that being said, I’ve totally learned in this process that 99 percent of the time your gut is right, and you know what’s right for you. I know exactly what’s right for my career and for my art, and sometimes, even if the whole room is saying, “Don’t do that, don’t do that,” you know that doing that is going to be good for you, in the long run. So, yeah, I guess it’s a balance between listening to what other people say and not listening.
On staying grounded:
Well, the way I see it is that when I meet people whose music I really inspire, and they may be a little bit famous, I still get the little, “Holy crap! This person wants to talk to me.” And I think when you stop having that feeling, and you’re like, “Oh, of course they do,” then maybe you’re not who you were anymore.
On what advice she’d give aspiring musicians:
If you want your music to be heard. . . you can just put stuff on the Internet and people can love it and that’s cool. I think the industry is much less scary than people think it is. You have to go into it with an idea of who you are and what you want to do, and you have to have an idea of the things that you won’t do, and the things that you want to aspire to. Because if you have clear goals and absolute no’s for yourself, then people can figure it out. And then you won’t be left like, “Oh, shit, why did I do that …” I don’t know, juice commercial. [Laughs]
My advice to young people wanting to make music and to be in this industry is to really spend your time making music. Make so much music you have no friends. Make music. Figure out what it is you love, and. . .because if you’re making cool art, then everything else will fall into line. If it’s good enough, if it’s cool enough, if it has enough emotion in it, people will listen, and people will love it. And there’s nothing else.