A recent trip to Los Angeles left me with quite a few lessons to bring back to my daily life. I learned about grocery stores. I went to Compton. I ate a lobster grilled cheese sandwich in Hollywood. But first and foremost, I learned that a sixteen-year-old from New Zealand is about to be a huge star.
The first time that I heard “Royals” on the radio while driving through the valleys east of L.A. I was taken completely off-guard and was fumbling through the lyrics of the chorus. The second time I heard the song I desperately hoped to hear who was behind the track. The third time I heard it, a DJ on KCRW had reworked it into a killer remix that had me dancing in the driver’s seat. Spotify searches and a bit of internet investigation gave me all I needed to know about Lorde. I was hooked.
Lorde is the stage name of sixteen-year-old Ella Yelich O’Connor, a typical young lady from the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, in all respects except that she pens and records alt-pop tracks that are simultaneously airy and sharp. O’Connor was discovered when a video of her performance at a talent show put her on Universal’s radar. Then a preteen, O’Connor was singing Duffy songs and writing about classmates, but had already flashed a unique voice and a precocious knack for tackling weighty personal themes in her lyrics. Four years later, Lorde has topped digital download charts in Auckland and boarded an airplane for the first time in order to embark on an international tour. Behind the strength of her debut EP The Love Club and touting hype for a full-length album set for release this fall, the singer is taking a slight detour in her coursework towards graduating high school in the North Shore. In interviews and through her web presence O’Connor has come across as down-to-earth (if a bit aloof) and wise beyond her years. All of this bodes well for the explosion that seems to be bubbling beneath the surface. Coming from a small island that seems to be a hotbed for young female vocalists (Princess Chelsea, anyone?), Lorde stands out for her startling honesty and lush harmonies.
Lorde’s music is characterized by songwriting that is decidedly vocal-centric. Feist and Cocorosie might be fair comparisons, though a more apt one might be to imagine Bon Iver as a teenage girl trying to record a hip-hop album. Sparse drum machine loops and synthesizer hooks and pads make up the bulk of Lorde’s instrumental arrangements, though the singer’s voice is multi-tracked and recorded as percussion and accompaniment to virtually every tune’s lyrical content. With a musical base for her songs serving like a blank canvas, O’Connor is free to style her lead vocals in a quasi-rap croon over self-harmonizing that swells and soars behind. The singer’s range is truly impressive, rising from a husky dip to a sugary high. The lyrics of Lorde’s songs focus on being real: O’Connor draws from personal experiences and anecdotes of eschewing pop culture consumption and endless partying for a simple life surrounded by people she loves. O’Connor sings of finding secret teenage haunts and sudden success as a performer, and couches it all in the swagger of an introvert faking self-confidence until she makes it. These are endearing songs, but hit on more complex ideas in the sway of the music that surrounds them: the listener immediately relates to O’Connor’s lyrics while wondering if the young singer is even from this planet.
The can’t-miss standout among Lorde’s catalog thus far is “Royals”. The artist’s first single is everything described above about Lorde- the song tackles rap music’s obsession with money and luxury while touting O’Connor’s friends as above it all while absolutely gorgeous harmonies build a hook in unexpected musical architecture. The rest of The Love Club continues Lorde’s idiosyncratic take on harmonic pop: “Million Dollar Bills” is a jumpy club banger whose blaring synth blasts are actually O’Connor’s voice, and “Biting Down” is a darkly dramatic call-and-response vamp to close the EP out. The title track details the singer’s lost time partying with a circle of friends she ultimately grew uncomfortable with. The lead-off tune, entitled “Bravado” seems linked to the new single “Tennis Court“, with both numbers chronicling O’Connor’s venture into the music industry and her attempts to reconcile that with her still-normal day-to-day in the suburbs. Also to be found floating in the ether of the internet are a Lana Del Ray-style tribute to solidarity among teenage rebels (“Swingin’ Party“) and an acoustic cover of British singer Pixie Lott’s “Mama Do“, to date the most distilled example of Lorde’s voice. Each song is enjoyable on a superficial level that belies thought-provoking lyrics while projecting the tunefulness that makes drivers beat their steering wheels and writers tap their pencils.
Sixteen-year-old Ella Yelich O’Connor seems poised to wedge her earworm single and layered harmonies into worldwide music consciousness. In between house parties and homework, Lorde is a young woman with a fantastic voice and an incredible talent for writing who simply writes and performs songs that are interesting to listen to. In her quest to remain authentic and genuine the singer is game but honest. Whether posting new tracks to her soundcloud or proclaiming her love for Prince and Lou Reed in interviews, Lorde unveils a new surprise at every turn- it seems that the teen’s mystery grows as she becomes more famous. And maybe that is the point. Lorde can be followed on twitter and facebook, and operates a highly minimalist official page. Nobody is listening to Lorde yet, but sweeping vocal harmonies and spunky white girl raps about being the queen bee will soon draw listeners in, and honest songs sung by a unique vocalist promise to retain those listeners’ attention.