At first blush, it brings to mind the sultry, melancholic croon of Lana Del Rey. Then the lo-fi beats set in and the voice begins rapping, recalling Lily Allen in her heyday, before soaring upward like a vernal Cat Power. And the lyrics are both acerbic and buoyant:
“But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece / Jet planes, island, tigers on a gold leash / We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.”
“Royals,” the hit tune by the 16-year-old New Zealand songstress Lorde, is the anti–Magna Carta Holy Grail, poking fun at the outrageous excesses of hip-hop music in a galvanizing, teen-targeting pop anthem. The song is off the Love Club EP—a collection of five songs released on SoundCloud in late 2012 as a free stream, where it was downloaded more than 60,000 times. When “Royals” was officially released this March, it made its debut at No. 1 on the New Zealand charts, where it reigned for three weeks.
Lorde wrote the song in July 2012, inspired in part by the Jay-Z–and–Kanye West collaborative album Watch the Throne.
“I really enjoyed it,” she says. “I can get absorbed in Kanye’s world, but a part of me is always like, ‘This is kind of bullshit’—all the crazy extravagances he’s talking about. And I started listening to a lot more top-40 music, and realized a lot of the stuff isn’t very relatable to anyone’s lives.”
Instead, Lorde sought to create pop anthems that capture teenage ennui and aggravation, whether it’s falling in with the wrong crowd (“The Love Club”) or the monotony of partying (a cover of ’80s indie-rock band The Replacements’ “Swingin’ Party”). Her songs, which she cowrote with songwriter-producer Joel Little, are all culled from real-life experiences.
“Every situation I’m in, I’m thinking about lyrics,” says Lorde. “I’ll be at a party and enjoying it, but at the same time looking around and thinking about the translation, and how I’ll write about it. You can never shut that off as a writer.”
Born Ella Yelich-O'Connor, Lorde grew up on the North Shore of New Zealand. Her parents raised her on Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, and Etta James, among others, and her mother, a celebrated poet, brought her daughter “heaps and heaps of books” to read, including the short fiction of Raymond Carver, which she loved (she’s since moved on to Michael Chabon, Tobias Wolff, and Ron Rash).
In addition to her parents’ more traditional musical education, Lorde discovered more experimental acts on her own, including Animal Collective, SBTRKT, Grimes, and James Blake, and you can see hints of those artists on the Love Club EP, with its lo-fi, minimalist aesthetic. Despite the frequent comparisons, she’s not that high on Lana Del Rey, who she says has “never interested me,” but she is a big hip-hop head and a huge fan of Kanye West. Indeed, when it comes to the recent chart-topping albums by Throne collaborators Jay-Z and West, Lorde is firmly on Team Kanye.
Lorde has been performing in musical theater since she was 5, and was in the 2008 play Fairytale—The Musical. When she was 12, she sang a cover of Duffy’s “Warwick Avenue” for her school’s talent show. Video footage of her performance was subsequently passed around and landed in the hands of her now manager, Scott Maclachlan, who brought her to the attention of record labels. She was signed by Universal at 12.
“The music-making process was very, very casual in the beginning because I was only 12 and didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she says. “I took singing lessons and stated working with songwriters in a very casual setting—trying to find someone and a sound I could click with.”
After three years, she found her match in Little, and the two began work on the Love Club EP in July 2012. They wrote three songs, including “Royals,” in the first week. While Lorde has the raw talent and songwriting ability, Little helped “rein in my writing and make it more accessible,” she says.
She chose the name Lorde because “it felt interesting, and also kind of masculine,” and also because she’s always been captivated by royalty, including Marie Antoinette; Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia; and “many Elizabethan rulers.”
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been reading up on royal families of all kinds,” she says. “I’ve just found it super fascinating—the crazy, opulent lifestyle, and some of them were so young and shouldn’t have been ruling countries at all. There was something so tragic and awesome about all of it.”
In addition to her unique tastes, what sets Lorde apart from the pack is the control she exerts over her image and the way her music is released to the public. She says she took a cue from R&B singer the Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye), who released his initial EPs as free online downloads and is rarely photographed or interviewed. Only recently, Lorde released a publicity photo of her seated next to a dog. The image, she says, pays homage to portraits of Henry VIII, as well as a famous photo of David Bowie parked next to a Great Dane.
“It’s not so much a privacy thing as cleanliness,” she says. “I like the idea of people Googling me and seeing this one picture that I want them to see. It’s definitely something I’ve cultivated over the years. I still like to have a little bit of control in this day and age when everything gets out of hand, and everything is on the Internet.”
But with her as-yet-untitled debut album dropping on September 30, and a mini-tour of the U.S. scheduled for late summer, including an August 6 date in New York City, Lorde says she knows this sense of anonymity may be fleeting.
“It’s probably not going to last much longer,” she says with a laugh.