With her whip-smart songcraft and precocious poise, Lorde has electrified pop culture since the age of 16. Lena Dunham meets the young mogul in the making
Taken from the summer 2015 issue of Dazed:
The first time I heard the music of Ella Yelich-O’Connor, I was transfixed. Here’s what I knew: her voice was haunting, like Laura Nyro had huffed gasoline. Her lyrics were deeply emotional and witty as hell. Everyone would soon be singing “Royals”, grandmas and toddlers alike announcing that they didn’t care, they were driving Cadillacs in their dreams.
Here’s what I didn’t know: she was 16 years old at the time, and living about as far from the world’s hipster music enclaves as humanly possible, in a place more famed for its hobbits and whale-riding than producing Coachella favourites. This, my friends, is the magic and contradiction of the girl who calls herself Lorde.
To meet Ella is to witness those contradictions first-hand. On one level, she is pure teen id, tying and re-tying her bun, picking at her nails (dark and sharp when on tour, short and plain when I video-chat her back home) and yanking at the straps of her tank top. But then she brings up topics as diverse as intersectional feminism, the healing power of nature and the politics of the male-dominated music industry, and you feel as though an ancient mystic force is speaking to you from behind a bright teenage face (she is 18 now, thank you very much).
I often think about what Lorde’s existence would have done for me during my teenage years, when pop princesses Britney and Xtina battled it out on MTV. Back then, I divided the world between the blonde bombshells I was meant to dance to at parties, and elder stateswomen like Joni Mitchell and Joan Armatrading who sang my secret feelings when I was locked in my room. The idea that one girl could bestride both those worlds would have freed me in incredible ways. It’s freeing me now.
I am used to being the youngest girl in the room, and I still feel that way when I hang out with Ella, eating scones and passing favourite books back and forth across the table. I am unusually shy, desperate for her to approve of my perspective on this mystery called life, a mystery she so easily sums up in songs such as “Tennis Court”: “I am only as young as the minute is, full of it, getting pumped up on the little bright things I bought. But I know they’ll never own me.”
Lena Dunham: I was thinking about questions and I really wanted to make sure that, even though it’s the Girls Rule the World issue, we talk about more things than being a girl. The first thing I wanted to know was if you feel, as I do, that a lot of your interviews end up being exclusively about being female and being young in a way that you find exhausting.
Lorde: (laughs) Yeah, I mean... There are only so many times you can answer those questions. People always want to know if it’s ‘hard being a girl in this industry’ and it’s kind of like, ‘Well, it is hard sometimes. But also, I’m good, you know?’
Lena Dunham: Totally! You’re like, ‘I’m also a young person who’s really enjoying her career and having the career that she wants.’
Lorde: Yeah. I think people like hearing the horror stories about old male executives having the wrong idea (about my music), which happens, but, you know...
Lena Dunham: It’s not like you’ve come into this as a Disney star, or had lots of people trying to commodify your sexuality. It feels to me, as an outsider, like you’ve been able to keep control of your work in a very important way.
Lorde: I sometimes get asked, ‘Did people try to sexualise you early on in your career?’ But I came into this with such a strong viewpoint – even when I was 13 or 14, my sense of self felt too permanent for anyone to fuck with. You know, whenever there was a makeover suggestion or like, ‘Do you wanna try this push- up bra?’ I think I freaked enough people out – or intimidated enough people – that it didn’t happen. But also, does that still happen these days? Is that a thing? I feel like people think more of teenage girls than that.
Lena Dunham: I want to think so. It’s funny, people always ask me, ‘Did anyone ask you to lose weight for your show?’ And I’m like, ‘No’...
Lorde: It’s your show.
Lena Dunham: Yeah! That’s the thing – you’re running your show, you’re not going to have those conversations. That was something I was amazed by when our music supervisor first sent me your music. It was before ‘Royals’ was being sung by every human being on earth. I remember looking you up on Twitter and thinking, ‘Oh, this is someone.’ The idea that you’re like, a baby or whatever is so beside the point. You had such a clear sense of self and purpose in a way that felt timeless – you’re like a magical wizard.
Lorde: (laughs) Oh my God, Twitter is so crazy.
Lena Dunham: I still wasn’t used to the idea that you could actually reach people that way. But here we are! So what have you been up to recently?
Lorde: I had three months off. It was summer in New Zealand and I just went on all these road trips and did heaps of rock walking. I found the best dive spots, did some great fishing and saw some orca whales. It was amazing. Just lying in the ocean in front of my house and being like, ‘Life!’
Lena Dunham: That sounds amazing! Maybe that’s the difference between time off in New York and time off in New Zealand. Time off for me is like, ‘I guess I’m going to watch all the seasons of Gilmore Girls and sleep for 17 hours a day.’
Lorde: It was weird, because I almost forgot I had a career, something that I filled my days with. I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ because all my friends were going off to university and I was like, ‘I need to figure out what I’m doing because I’ve been cruising for a long time... Oh, I have something that I can do!’ I had a bit of a complex because I was like, ‘Shit, it’s time!’
“I came into this with such a strong viewpoint – even when I was 13 or 14, my sense of self felt too permanent for anyone to fuck with” – Lorde
Lena Dunham: You’ve got to get it together, Ella. (laughs) I know how challenging it can be having a career that separates you from your friends. What is it like to come home to the people who inspired your album and were in your life before?
Lorde: With any transition you do lose people, which is sad, but some people don’t want to deal with what you’re doing or it freaks them out a bit. So there are people I’m not as close to now, but I still roll deep with my original dudes so it’s good.
Lena Dunham: Are they mostly dudes? Do you mostly have dude friends?
Lorde: I do. I have a lot of dude friends. I was kind of the camp mother of all the guys. I’ve been texting my friend because he hasn’t had a haircut without me in seven years so he just sends me the haircut emoji and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m going to take you.’ They’re amazing. I feel like teenage boys, all their emotions are really simple and diluted. Teenage girls feel everything so intensely and are so multi-faceted. Boys are just like, they’ll rest a head on your shoulder and you know exactly what that means.
Lena Dunham: It’s amazing how you get that, because I think part of my issue until recently was that I would always be overdetermining what guys were thinking. I was running an entire internal narrative for every young man I encountered, whereas they were probably just like, ‘I want pizza.’ And speaking of camp mother, I feel that Taylor (Swift) has really taken control and said, ‘I’m going to get us all together in the same place, I’m gonna make it very clear that friendship is powerful and women are magic and if anybody thinks this is a witches’ coven they might be right.’ She’s just made it her job in a very cool way.
Lorde: Yeah! I mean, she definitely brought me into this amazing world of supportive female friendship. For me, someone starts talking about boys and I’m like, ‘I just don’t know what to say.’ I’m useless in that capacity and that was why I thought, ‘Well, I can’t have girl friends (because) I don’t know how to talk about boys.’ But Taylor just glosses over the fact that I’m terrible at that and she’s just like, ‘It’s OK, I’ll love you for your other qualities.’
Lena Dunham: I didn’t even have a boyfriend until three years ago. I was incapable of giving advice or having conversations about guys because of how alien my own experience was. My favourite thing in the world is talking to other women. You know this concept of the Bechdel test?
Lorde: Oh I do, yeah!
Lena Dunham: I like it when my friendships pass the Bechdel test. Like, it’s not just two women talking about boys, it’s two women talking about work, female friendship or current events. I love how rich and important that can be. By the way, I just realised that I am the least successful journalist in the world because I’m such a big interrupter.
Lorde: No, you’re doing great!
Lena Dunham: You’re an angel. OK, I have a real question – I’m obsessed with the (Lorde-curated) Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 soundtrack. It’s so brilliant. My boyfriend and I got in a fight in bed because he was helping me with the Girls soundtrack and he was like, ‘You’re not taking it to the next level, just think about the Hunger Games soundtrack.’ Then he read your track list out to me and was like, ‘This is unbelievable! Listen to all these collaborations.’ We ended up rolling away from each other in bed while I cried thinking that he was insulting my soundtrack.
Lorde: Oooh! I feel terrible.
Lena Dunham: No, it was for the good of our relationship. But I was wondering what it was like for you, stepping into that role of engaging other artists? (Charli XCX, Grace Jones and Kanye West all contributed to the soundtrack, among others.) That would be so challenging for me to be like, ‘Hey Kanye!’
Lorde: I took it on a little bit naively. I am one of those people who doesn’t want to pick up the phone or get into a conversation with their next-door neighbour. I’m really bad at getting a waiter’s attention or asking my Uber driver to turn the music down a tiny bit.
Lena Dunham: Terrifying.
“I have a weird authority problem... My mantra in life is, ‘I’m not running for president!’” – Lena Dunham
Lorde: These are things that I’m not so good at in my life, so it was amazing that I just had to cold-email and cold-call people and be like, ‘OK, I’m going to meet you in the studio in Malibu.’ Every song on that soundtrack was my baby, basically. It was interesting for me to be like, ‘We’re going to need it by this date’ and kind of hard-ass people a little bit.
Lena Dunham: The Hunger Games is so huge – why do you think people love the concept of dystopian women kicking ass?
Lorde: When the first Hunger Games came out I remember thinking how cool and natural it was to have someone like Katniss at the number one box office slot in America. A woman who is strong without even really thinking about it, it’s just who we are in this day and age. When I made ‘Yellow Flicker Beat’ for the soundtrack, it ended up being quite feminist. I didn’t really approach it from there, but I welcomed it once I’d finished the song. There’s this bit about locking up everybody who’d ever laid a finger on me. A lot of people have told me that line tapped into something specific in them, because I think every woman knows that feeling.
Lena Dunham: There is something powerful about that. I think your music has coincided with a moment where the concept of being a feminist is no longer controversial and has taken on some kind of pop-culture cachet. When you were growing up, were you told there was space for you to act this way? I’m projecting major feminism on to your mum here!
Lorde: Oh yeah. My mum is such a big influence on all aspects of my life – as a child of immigrants who escaped the First World War, she’s the strongest person I have come across in my entire life. The idea that someone can’t do everything that they want to do is just absurd to her, it’s like, ‘Of course you can do it.’ One thing my mum did, even when we had no money and her card was getting declined at the supermarket or whatever, she would make us feel – I don’t know quite how to put this into words – she would really drum into us that we were excellent before we knew what excellence meant.
Lena Dunham: She’s a poet, right? I don’t know how much that influences your wild lyricism but there has to be an element of that.
Lorde: She would encourage us to sit at the computer with her and type whatever it was we were thinking. We would say something and she would take us to the computer and type it out. Even now, I can see patterns in my writing that were emerging when I was four or five years old, which is amazing. She’s a fearsome woman. She needs to be given a Nobel prize or something.
Lena Dunham: She travels with you a lot, right?
Lorde: Yeah, she does. Pretty much all the time.
Lena Dunham: What is that like for you? My mom and I are incredibly close, but we would both wind up bloody in a hotel room somewhere.
Lorde: (laughs) There’s always the kind of crazy moment, but my mum didn’t envisage me being in music when I was a kid. It’s not her area of expertise, so ever since I started doing this I would come to her for advice and she’d be like, ‘I’m not going to help you make this decision,’ because she knew I had to arrive there myself. Sometimes an incredible opportunity would come up and for whatever reason I would say, ‘I’m not going to do this,’ turning down an astronomical amount of money in some cases, and my parents would have to respect that. That kind of thing is hard as a parent, because you don’t know if your daughter is just going to be the flavour of the month.
Lena Dunham: I feel like there have been a lot of journalists asking young women about feminism and trying to trick them into denouncing it or making uninformed statements recently. My opinion is that people want to do a ‘gotcha!’ on girls that maybe haven’t been educated about feminism, but I wondered what you thought about that? It’s the girl power issue! We have to bust some of these myths.
Lorde: It’s weird. I’m not just going to do a 180 on a girl because she hasn’t learned about feminism. I remember not being 100 per cent sure what feminism or intersectional feminism is – I’m still not 100 per cent sure! One thing I hadn’t come face-to-face with until I was about 16 was thinking really hard about whiteness and what it means to be white, and all these questions around race and sexuality, which are incredibly important. For a long time, I wasn’t aware of how important it was to be a feminist for all women.
Lena Dunham: I’d done gender and women’s studies in college so I understood all of this intellectually, but it wasn’t until Girls came out and the dialogue of whiteness around it started that I really wrapped my mind around those questions. Really smart writers talked about the show in a critical way, and helped me examine what was exclusionary about my own feminism. That was a huge wake-up call – and, in a lot of ways, it was terrifying to realise that the simple girl-power message you’ve been moving through life with isn’t necessarily enough. So what you’re saying is beautiful and important, because you appeal to people who have read Judith Butler and also people who are 14. And when you talk about intersectional feminism, that’s an incredible thing for you to be putting out into the world as a person who can also perform at the AMAs.
“For a long time, I wasn’t aware of how important it is to be a feminist for all women” – Lorde
Lorde: (laughs) Well, thank you. It’s definitely something I want to keep learning about.
Lena Dunham: That’s the thing that I’m always telling people: that feminism, femaleness and identity are all part of an endless learning process, and you’re never done. If you think you’re done, you’re wrong. But I’d like to know: being a young woman, it’s so easy to say things that are misconstrued online in ways I rarely see happening to male peers. How do you mediate your own opinions while also being loud and proud about who you are?
Lorde: When I first came into this industry, obviously I was a big fan of music and a student of pop culture. So when I met these like-minded journalists on the phone and they were asking me what I thought of a certain pop star, I was amazed they knew who that pop star was and wanted to have an intelligent discussion about it. I didn’t realise that some journalists were ensnaring me for the sake of a headline. Some things I don’t regret saying because I feel like they’re important to say and I was talking about an actual issue, but I don’t know, just some offhand comment about what I thought was funny about some teen pop sensation or whatever...
Lena Dunham: I learned the hard way, because all I used to do was talk shit about Chris Brown – which, by the way, I still would 100 per cent do on television – but I used to be like, ‘I’m upset about Chris Brown and Rihanna’s relationship! I don’t think the Kardashians are good for women!’ I would make these big pronouncements that weren’t necessarily supporting other women dealing with the same issues I am. (For the record, I love RiRi and Kim K.)
Lorde: It’s an incredible privilege to have all these ears on you just quivering waiting for the next thing you have to say, so you might as well make that thing something awesome.
Lena Dunham: That’s been the biggest lesson of the last five years for me. I was so used to that feeling of being a 14-year-old girl interrupting in class, going, ‘Please, please, please listen to me! I have something to say!’ that I couldn’t wrap my mind around how you have to be really careful with that platform.
Lorde: Totally. But it’s so fucking hard going from no one except for your friends caring about what you have to say, and even then they don’t really care...
Lena Dunham: And they’re all, like, half-listening and checking their Snapchat...
Lorde: ...to speaking with a journalist that you don’t realise is from The New York Times. (laughs) I’ve still never had media training or anything like that.
Lena Dunham: Me neither – the idea of media training is existentially repulsive to me. I would rather step in my own vomit 800 times and track it all over the world and get in trouble than sit in an office and have someone explain to me how I’m supposed to talk about things. That said, am I happy I compared Bill Cosby to the holocaust? No! My entire life is just dotted with these things that have come out wrong in a very public way. I don’t know about you, but I have a weird reactionary authority problem, and that’s a very dangerous kind of person to unleash on a journalist. My mantra in life is, ‘I’m not running for president!’
Lorde: (laughs) Until you are, Lena, until you are.
Lena Dunham: (laughs) You know, I never thought I’d show my boobs on TV, but look at us now.
Lorde: Yep. There you go.
Lena Dunham: By the way, when I edit this, we’re both going to sound like the smartest, most serious and studious geniuses in New Zealand and American history.
hair Akki at Art Partner using Bumble and bumble; make-up Fulvia Farolfi at Bryan Bantry using Chanel; nails Alicia Torello at The Wall Group using Chanel Le Vernis; photographic assistant Brent Lee; styling assistants Victor Cordero, Louise Ford, Patricia Machado; hair assistant Takuya; make-up assistant Robert Reyes
Subscribe to Dazed magazine here or pick up your copy from newsstands now