Taking Flight: 16-Year-Old Ella Yelich-O’Connor vs. Lorde, Popstar

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By Caitlin White

Ella Yelich-O’Connor is a sixteen year old girl who has never left New Zealand—but she's also a singer/songwriter that goes by Lorde, and is on the cusp of becoming one of the world's major pop stars. The strange, unsettling combination of these two extremes makes her daily life almost as compelling as the soaring music on an initial, brief EP that propelled world-wide interest in the young artist.

As Ella, she attends a school called Takapuna Grammar School in Belmont, Auckland and deals with her gossipy peers. As Lorde, she's been working with Universal for the past few years to develop her sound and artistic vision. A&R scout Scott Maclachlan saw a video of her from a talent show and immediately signed her to Universal at 12. Since then, the Ella/Lorde dichotomy has been developing, and it's apparent from even a phone conversation that the teenager feels the split within herself already.

At moments she's recounting the annoyances of high school, and then, without warning, she'll slip into a powerful monologue about the perils of worshiping wealth and the facade of fame—a topic that is addressed at length on “Royals,” her outstanding, chart-topping single. The reflections of a girl raised on Drake, Lana Del Rey, Kanye, and Burial settle alongside the influence of her literary mother’s muses—Raymond Carver, T.S. Eliot, Alan Ginsberg and Ezra Pound. The result is a gloriously self-aware, powerful and innocent voice—Lorde is a songwriter and a siren, and she does both incredibly well.

"The usual formula of pretty girl, gorgeous voice and label grooming didn’t work for Ella or for Lorde. Although Universal originally paired the teenager with a team of songwriters, it was only by insisting on independence that her initial EP The Love Club emerged."

"So I guess I was about 12 or 13 when I first started writing songs on my guitar,” she said over a crackling phone line, and deciphering her thick Kiwi accent through a haze of international static was a task in itself. “I just kept going and got better. I started writing more and I got the EP written—that was kind of when it started clicking for me and started making sense."

But the usual formula of pretty girl, gorgeous voice and label grooming didn’t work for Ella or for Lorde. Though universal originally teamed her with a host of song writers in an attempt to go the purely manufactured route, the singer's determined organic style developed from a more fluid collaboration. Once Ella teamed up with producer Joel Little, her initial EP The Love Club emerged, and these queenly, jubilant songs fully establish her songwriting voice.

“It’s completely collaborative. I have listened to a lot of electronic music, and developed a real taste of exactly what I wanted in terms of production. Joel is the official producer and often we don’t see eye-to-eye, but I always get what I want at the end of the day,” she laughed.

His expertise seems to be an important influence on the young singer though, who transitioned from writing songs on her guitar to these full-fledged, lacquered tracks. Little may be a key ingredient, but sonically and lyrically, the songs bear Ella’s fingerprints. This initial EP is stippled with existential questions, preternatural wisdom, and vocal swells that manifest both in fleets of harmonies and her unaccompanied voice, carrying the willowy melodies solo. Embedded in a foundation of synth loops and whorls, the decisions still feel fresh and imaginative—this sixteen-year-old is inventing her sound with an ease that’s fascinating.

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