In 2019, for the first time since she was a teenager, Ella Yelich-O’Connor watched the seasons change. The pop star better known to the world as Lorde was back home in New Zealand, recovering from the hype (and the commercial disappointment) that had accompanied her 2017 album Melodrama. As she readjusted to normality, she saw the trees turn from green to brown to grey. And she thought about life and about death.
“I hadn’t really paid attention before,” she says. “Every day a tree would slowly start to turn – to lose the leaves. Later, it would regenerate. And I had never experienced that. It makes you think about everything in your own life. That the same process is happening.”
These experiences – of life and death, renewal and decay – are poured into Lorde’s new LP. Solar Power, released on August 20th, represents a stark departure from the exquisite bedroom pop of 2013’s Pure Heroine and the dancefloor angst of Melodrama.
Lorde has, in her own polite and thoughtful fashion, ripped up the rules and started over. Gone are the sad finger-snap grooves and euphoric synths of her previous records. Replacing them are guitars that chime languidly and woozy melodies that carry an undertow of menace. Listening to Solar Power is a bit like going for a walk in sun-dappled woods only to realise you’ve lost your way. Suddenly a chill descends.
The beauty of the New Zealand landscape was one influence. But a component of grief is stirred in too. Two years ago her dog Pearl died. Lorde was devastated, characterising the loss as a bereavement.
“It [the album] is about love and loss. And grief is a big, big version of that. It’s so close to you. Loss is a divine state to enter into. It did make it onto the album.”
Fans may or may not be on board with Yelich-O’Connor’s bucolic reboot. They are, however, unlikely to be completely blind-sided. Lorde provided a sneak preview of what awaited in June with the single Solar Power and its accompanying video.
Unfolding on a bleached Antipodean beach, the vibe was folk horror by way of Primal Scream’s Loaded and George Michael’s Freedom 90. Lorde was partly drawing on The Wicker Man and Ari Aster’s Midsommar. She had also been studying charismatic cult leaders such as Jim Jones and Charles Manson.
All that research has paid off. At points Solar Power evokes the menacing effervescence of Emma Cline’s Manson novel The Girls. In other places, it feels like the perfect soundtrack to the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood in which Brad Pitt visits the Manson family compound at Spahn Movie Ranch.
That sequence starts off as one thing – a glamorous showcase for Pitt – and then goes dark in a hurry. Solar Power follows a similar trajectory, from glittering to gothic. It also at moments brings to mind a sort of Wednesday Addams twist on Taylor Swift’s Folklore (both projects feature production by Jack Antonoff).
“I read a lot about 1960s commune culture,” says Yelich-O’Connor. “And the dropping out phenomenon. The ideal of starting somewhere new and going back to the land. And we know now that a lot of that didn’t work. The Summer of Love descended into death and addiction and psychosis. There is a sort of an inherent darkness in those concepts.”
Lorde is just 24. Even down a zoom link from Manhattan, though, she carries herself with the deportment of someone older and wiser. Dressed in minimalist grey, she laughs a lot. Yet there is a thread of earnestness running through her conversation too.
“This is a huge adjustment for me,” she says, indicating her sparkling surroundings and her return to the business of being a pop star. “All of a sudden people are touching me and looking and me. It’s their job to have me looking a certain way. This new focus on my physicality is always a big adjustment. It’s so strange to me.”
She can, as required, carry herself like a pop star. But it isn’t a comfortable fit. She yearns constantly to get back to normality.
“In my life at home, I could not be more invisible to people,” she says. “And I’m at my most visible now…The first couple of weeks I was like, ‘what am I doing here? I need to be home’.”
That desire for respite from the music industry – to be someone other than a pop star – grew particularly acute in the aftermath of Melodrama. That record is a masterpiece in confessional pop. At the same time, going strictly by the numbers, it was a disappointment. Pure Heroine, her 2013 debut, sold six million copies and yielded several hit singles, including the all-conquering Royals.
Melodrama, by contrast, flamed out at just 400,000. Lorde was meanwhile gaining a reputation for performative eccentricity. When she came down with heavy flu before the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards, for instance, she went on anyway and delivered an interpretive dance to a recording of Homemade Dynamite. The tune was amazing. The choreography less so.
“Royals was the first song I ever put out,” she says. “It did as well as anyone could hope any one song could ever do in their lifetime. I had a really, really skewed perspective on how things do. And so at first it [the perceived underperformance of Melodrama] was a little “spiky” ‘Oh, this isn’t all number ones immediately?’.But what it became ended up as a much richer experience.
Melodrama turned into a bit of a sleeper hit, she explains. A record for people to discover at their own pace. “Having the experience of an album live for years – and have people still listen to it and still discover it [is wonderful],” she says of the process. “And having it become this real touchstone for a lot of people…it’s just the coolest for the album to be the celebrity. For it to be the superstar. It’s not about me.”
Much about her career is far-fetched – but Royals particularly so. Lorde, born in suburban Auckland to a civil engineer father and poet mother, wrote it aged 16 as a love letter to her boring life in the ‘burbs.
Against a collage of finger-clicks, minimal bass and a stripped down hip-hop groove, Yelich-O’Connor sings disapprovingly of “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece/ Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash”. It’s a gorgeous diatribe against conspicuous consumption
Ironically, it was in the United States, spiritual heartland of unchecked materialism, that Royals would find its audience. With African-American radio championing the track, it vaulted to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (and went to number one in Ireland and across Europe). Three months shy of her 17th birthday, Yelich-O’Connor was a star.
“It is crazy,” she says. “It’s such a tender time, being a teenager. You are changing so rapidly. Everything about me was changing. And to have that scrutiny – it was no joke.”
Blessed with a streak of common sense, she was careful to keep two feet on the ground.
“I had extremely healthy boundaries around it as a teenager,” she reflects. “There were just things I wasn’t going to do if they weren’t comfortable for me to do. I wore the exact outfits I felt like wearing. I wore suits. I loved suits. I felt powerful in them. The fact that I sort of did it in a way that felt right for me – that meant I don’t look back and feel f****d up by it.”
She was also sharing with the world lyrics that delved into her innermost thoughts as a young woman.
“For the most part I feel I’m fairly unscathed by the experience. But it is crazy. And it’s crazy because the other thing I realised is that the work you make when you’re a teenager… I‘m sure if anybody thinks about what they were doing – writing a diary when they are teenagers or whatever. To do that and for it to be be so big and so important for people…”
Extreme fame can be especially challenging to young women. Taylor Swift has talked about how public scrutiny led her to develop an eating disorder. And the new Billie Eilish record, Happier Than Ever, is essentially a concept LP about staying sane as the world is trying to tell you how you should dress and how much of your body you should reveal. Did Lorde have any issues with body image as a teenager in the spotlight?
“I sort of kicked that out the conversation,” she nods. “I was pretty intent about that. I didn’t want people to be talking about what my body looked like. I was a kid. And I really wasn’t “in” my body. As a teenager, you kind of wear your body like an outfit that doesn’t fit yet.
“So it definitely was something I very specifically did not invite. I think it all worked out. How my body looks is not a big centre of curiosity now. Which I think is in part because of the grounding I lay as a teenager. So yeah – I feel good about baby me doing that for future me.”
Solar Power is a strange, beautiful album. As pointed out, it marks a distinct gear-change from her earlier catalogue. Then, that was the idea all along. For Yelich-O’Connor, one of the worst sins a pop star could commit would be to repeat themselves.
“The cool thing about my career is that I have made it really clear I’m just going to keep pivoting. Every new record is a pivot. And people know to expect that from me now. I learned from the best. I was a Bowie fan growing up. I relish the reinvention.”
Solar Power is released August 20th