Lorde: More ‘Real’ Than Bieber, Cooler Than You

The 16-year-old's single 'Royals' is taking the music world by storm.

Lorde is cooler than you. Not only does she name-drop the likes of Nick Drake and SBTRKT as influences, her first song was inspired by Larry Clark’s 1995 dark coming-of-age tale “Kids,” which, coincidentally, was shot before she was born. That’s right, this erudite and articulate songstress is no weathered and weary musician who’s jaded by years in the biz — she’s just 16 years old. And despite her soon-to-be-status as “the next big thing,” she’s no manufactured pop princess either.

“I’ve always written. I wrote short stories until I was about 13 and then messed around with songwriting until I got a bit better,” Lorde, a.k.a. Ella Yelich-O’Connor, told MTV News of her budding and oh-so promising music career. “[My first song] was called ‘Dope Ghost.’ I had just watched that Larry Clark movie ‘Kids’ and I thought it was rad. I think it was poking fun at this girl in my year who was kind of going off the rails.”

Yelich-O’Connor, who grew up on New Zealand’s North Shore with a Neil Young-loving father and a poet for a mother, first caught the ear of the music world at a talent show when she was 12 years old. “It was my intermediate school talent show, so it was very low-key, just in my school hall,” Lorde said. “I sang ‘Warwick Avenue’ by Duffy.”

Although she never posted a video to YouTube — this isn’t a Justin Bieber kind of fairy tale — footage of the show somehow found its way to her now-manager, Scott Maclachlan, which led to the tween to being signed by Universal Music at age 13.

After that initial signing, it was, obviously, not a meteoric rise for Yelich-O’Connor. She didn’t release any music until the end of 2012, when she dropped her Love Club EP on SoundCloud as a free stream, which was downloaded 60,000 times. The jams were released under the name Lorde, a nod to her affinity for royals of the traditional and pop variety.

“I wasn’t out in the spotlight,” Lorde said of the period before her EP dropped. “I was just living my life. Going to the studio once a week or something. I think I had a little bit more freedom to be a young person.”

The spotlight started shining brightly for Lorde soon after Love Club hit, with the single “Royals” debuting at #1 in New Zealand and Lorde’s sultry, tongue-in-cheek tunes making their way to U.S. shores this summer and landing on Spotify’s Most Viral chart.

“Royals” — a track beloved by the eclectic likes of Carson Daly, Butch Walker and Moby — takes a wry look at consumerist culture in pop/hip-hop music. Yup, while Jay-Z name-drops everyone from Tom Ford to Picasso on Magna Carta Holy Grail, Lorde sings — in her too-sultry-to-be-a-teen voice — “Everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece/ Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash/ We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.”

Although Lorde is often likened to fellow smoky-voiced, “Lolita”-loving singer Lana Del Rey — a comparison she calls “weird” — Yelich-O’Connor is no nymphet, despite her age. Her music aims to capture what it really is to be a teen, whether it be singing about the all-consuming nature of friendship on the deceptively bouncy track “Love Club” or finding yourself come hell or high water on quintessential pump-up track “Bravado.” Oversexed and under-read she is not. Lorde writes anthems for thinking teens and teens still awkwardly shuffling in the souls of the older set.

And lest you think these words don’t actually spring from her pen or keyboard, Lorde writes all of her own music with producer Joel Little. To the doubters, she would say: “I think the longer I’m around and the longer I keep producing cool stuff and making cool music, people will realize it’s not a bunch of 40-year-olds around a table.”

From lyrics to videos, Lorde has a hand in every aspect of her image, even casting her friends in the stark vid for “Royals,” which features a cadre of boys wandering around a particularly un-lush urban landscape, and highlights the boredom that comes along with being a teen. It’s like “Skins” — without all the drugs and sex.

“Basically everything that I put out that has my name on it is controlled by me,” she said. “I have a very strong visual identity. I know how I want stuff to look. I’m almost too involved. I feel like people who work with me are like, ‘Oh, God! Leave me alone!’ ”

That same mentality led to a particularly stark video for her new single “Tennis Court,” which features the singer in a Goth mesh getup — which has drawn some comparisons to avid Lorde fan Grimes — crooning about how her life is apt to change with her newfound success. Despite the name of the track, Lorde doesn’t actually play tennis. “I’ve always been really fascinated by the visual concept of the tennis court,” she said. “Then also there’s a tennis court in my hometown where me and my friends would hang out when we were kids, right up until we were teenagers, and that was just a symbol that felt kind of nostalgic to me.”

Watch Lorde’s Arresting “Tennis Courts” Video On The Buzzworthy Blog.

Although it may seem insane for a 16-year-old to be trucking with nostalgia, with her first LP due to drop this fall, Lorde admitted that she’s still growing as an artist. In particular, she expressed some bashfulness about party jam “Million Dollar Bills” off of the Love Club EP.

“I wrote that probably 18 months ago now,” she said. “Music like that just feels a little bit young to me now. I think the cool thing about the album that I’ve been writing is that it feels like the maturation of the Lorde that people have heard. I’ve grown up a bit, for sure.”

The LP doesn’t feature guest producers or vocalists, but Lorde wouldn’t object to working with other musicians in the future — particularly Diplo and Rick Rubin. Judging by the buzz the upcoming record is generating, that dream doesn’t seem that far off. Lorde is set to make her first-ever visit to the United States — where she aims to eat a lot of burgers and hit up Brooklyn pizza hot spot Roberta’s — this fall, and it seems she’s destined for pop-star greatness.

And that’s a fate that many a music purist — those who deride songstresses who don’t pen their own music and rely more on image than sound — should be more than happy to see manifest.

“I really appreciate that people think that I’m doing something good for the ‘kids.’ The ‘young people,’ ” Lorde said with a wry laugh. “I feel like the influences that are there in the industry for people my age, like Justin Bieber or whatever, are just maybe not a very real depiction of what it’s like to be a young person.”

Well, Lorde, if your sharp-as-nails badassery is indeed a real depiction, we say: Bring it on!

Brenna Ehrlich is a reporter for MTV News as well as the senior writer/editor for the O Music Awards. In the past, she served as associate editor at Mashable, penned a netiquette column for CNN and co-authored the blog and book "Stuff Hipsters Hate." She likes trying not to die in moshpits and listening to songs on repeat. Follow her on Twitter for news on cats and punk bands.
@BrennaEhrlich