Lorde On Life After Death, The Weight Of Expectation & Whether There's Utopia In Her Dystopia
The singer's newest disciple Megan Dunn quizzes the prettier Jesus on everything
‘How do I get in?’ is my first thought, as I stand on the pavement outside the house of our Lorde.
Answer: call her manager. Lorde lives in a bright white villa behind two stately well-trimmed hedges and a tall gate. No buzzer. The day is too hot, Omicron on the rise. I’m no sooner off the phone, and she appears in person to open the gate.
Lorde is barefoot, in a clingy nutmeg-toned ankle-length dress, with spaghetti straps over her pale shoulders. Her pallor is oatmeal, and that adjective is her own, I read it in one of the newsletters she writes to her fans.
“I don’t usually have interviews at my house,” she says, casual and spry in that long lapping dress.
“I feel honoured.” I follow her up the villa steps and down her hallway as though we’re old friends. Coral and various shells decorate a wooden stand. I sneak glances at Lorde’s feet, certain that the dark earthy polish on her toenails must be ‘oxblood’, her favourite shade, a detail also gleaned from a newsletter.
We arrive in a large open-plan kitchen. Sliding doors lead onto a small deck and garden. The room is flooded with light. Turns out, her mother, the poet Sonja Yelich, gave Lorde my first book for Christmas years ago. I feel chuffed — and chosen.
On one wall, a pair of Saskia Leek’s quaint paintings of sun-drenched suburban New Zealand. Lorde bought the paintings when she was 18, she bought the house then too. She splits her time between here and New York. I ask about a mauve-hued pointillist painting that depicts the canopy and entrance of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on Madison Avenue.
“It’s by Cynthia Talmadge.” Lorde bought it recently in memory of her dog, Pearl.
We sit down at her long rectangular kitchen table. On it, a vase of hydrangeas and a candleholder with three fat yellow candles nearly burned down to their wicks.
I press record on my iPhone, she does the same on hers.
“In the beginning, did you toy with other names?”
The world knows 25-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor by the moniker she chose when she was 16 years old, on a Friday afternoon, before she dropped her first songs on SoundCloud. She typed Lorde with an e in a Word doc in a special font just to see how it looked. “It had a softness, but it was tough, y’know? I still like it.” I like it too.
“It could have gone horribly wrong, having to choose that name at 16,” she says.
“Like a first tattoo,” I propose.
“Or a bad email address,” she replies.
I pull out my scrapbook full of scrawled questions. An exotic shorthair cat named Dudley jumps on the table and sprawls out.
“I hope that’s okay,” she says.
I’m Lorde’s newest disciple, a convert to Solar Power, her latest album released on August 20, 2021. It’s the work of an auteur, a concept album full of soul-searching songs about the virtues of going offline and simply being present in nature. Lorde was meant to be on the Solar Power tour right now, but has bumped the dates until 2023 due to Covid.
As my plane rolled down the Wellington runway that morning, I clenched the seat arms, ready to die listening to The Path. In it she sings: If you’re looking for a saviour then that’s not me. Lorde lingers on the word ‘saviour,’ her voice swelling with happiness, then the plane lifted its wings and actually flew! God, I hate flying. But an ex-Catholic schoolgirl does not turn down the opportunity to meet the prettier Jesus.
“I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus is such a sticky line,” I say. “It reminds me of Shakira’s lyric, My breasts are small and humble…”
Lorde finishes, “So you don’t confuse them for mountains.”
Confession: when I first saw her in the music video dressed in that golden two-piece like a prophet of summer my eyes narrowed. Then she stepped onto that wooden barge — still singing — and drifted out into the ocean. How could that not be a reference to Jesus walking on water?
“I like the way you risked naffness,” I say.
“Thank you so much,” Lorde replies. “That’s my biggest achievement with this album and I feel like no one got it. I say, ‘Let the bliss begin.’ I say a lot of crazy naff shit on this album.”
Thou shalt not overanalyse Lorde. Too late. And, she is in therapy. Me too.
Lorde muses, “To be a pop star not in therapy, I cannot imagine those shark-infested waters! I started seeing my therapist when I was almost 19. She illuminates my life and I’m a much richer person for having that relationship.”
Across the table, Lorde is luminous, but also completely down to earth picking up Dudley’s cat hair.
“How much do you think your talent was bestowed on you? How much of it is a gift?”
Her pale blue eyes absorb each question. “My whole life I’ve always thought of myself as a cup, a vessel. And everything that was poured in, I’m the product of.”
But her cup overfloweth; Royals was the eighth song she wrote. “I couldn’t have known when I released the song that it would do that. My brain had to stretch to accommodate the size of my world and the success. I didn’t have language for it.”
Lorde is highly attuned to the balance between clarity and mystery in pop songs. She has synaesthesia. “My ear is very sensitive… it’s not pleasing to me if it’s too complicated.” Does she believe in genius? Yes, but she defines genius as the ability to express inner brilliance clearly.
“Part of what I love about pop music is you have to make it simple for it to work.” She likens the process to writing children’s books because “you have to just get to it”. But she’s learned that the melody must remain king. “As I’ve progressed as a songwriter, it’s much more of a challenge to keep things simple, to keep it what I would call pop. I still really respect those constraints.”
Thou shalt not underestimate Lorde, or the mantle of fame she carries.
“The further I get into this job, the more clear it is that people like me become archetypes. And from my experience as a fan of pop, those things fix. We need archetypes to be rigid to hold the space that they hold.”
“Are you one of those people who believes everything happens for a reason?” I ask.
“No,” she replies. “Sometimes you just get fucked, you know? I roll with it all. I set no goals, I don’t visualise, I’m always just where I am. Things sort of come at me.”
In her speech at the 2021 Variety ‘Women in Power’ event in Los Angeles, Lorde fittingly described her fame as a golden megaphone “that amplified my voice tenfold”.
“There’s a lot of weight in holding that megaphone, isn’t there?” I say.
The Variety event recognised her philanthropy work with 350 Aotearoa, an organisation advocating to ban fossil fuels in schools that also prioritises a partnership with Māori in climate-related decision-making. In her speech Lorde directly addressed the critique she received when Te Ao Mārama, her companion album to Solar Power, was released. Te Ao Mārama means “world of light” and features five songs translated into te reo, but the album provoked polarising reactions and was called out as an example of uninvited Pākehā allyship, and at worst the actions of a “white saviour”.
Lorde said in her Variety speech, “What does it mean when someone who’s never had to fight to be heard, to have their power acknowledged, stands alongside those who have, who do? … Maybe it feels spicy when you’re the one whose power is being discussed in this way. But it’s not about you.”
“Did you get more kickback than you expected?” I ask.
“I expected kickback for sure, as there should be. A famous white woman singing te reo. That’s big and worthy of discussion.” My collaborators (Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, Dame Hinewehi Mohi, Hana Mereraiha and Hēmi Kelly) were maybe more surprised than me.” They noted that Benee and other Pākehā artists had also released songs in te reo but with Lorde it was different.
Te Ao Mārama was a meaningful project. “We sat for hours and talked about every part of it… I do still try to sit with what that language-loss trauma would feel like… I’m reading, learning and listening all the time.”
Lorde stands by her intentions and the quality of her work. “It’s one of the times I actually felt privileged as an artist, to have a conversation like that happening around me. It’s sort of why you do it. I never want to harm people obviously, but the conversation was invigorating and scary and precious to me.”
Of pop music she knows, “When you make something clear enough, it does work. It becomes like a spell. Everyone can say it.”
But the pathways out of decolonisation and inequality are not clear.
“These are important topics. I didn’t get taught this at school,” Lorde says.
I didn’t either. Her Variety speech ended on a quote from Maggie Nelson’s latest book, On Freedom.
“Have you read it?” Lorde asks.
“I’m reading it on my phone,” I confess.
Lorde relates to the first chapter, ‘Art Song’, about art’s responsibility to provide care. “We’re in a moment as a society of wanting art to care for us. I’m still definitely trying to figure out what my responsibility is as a public figure to give care. But also, what responsibility I have to myself, which is a totally separate thing,” she says.
“Every public figure I know feels an immense amount of pressure to give care around social issues, to do what’s right. I remember being online and something terrible would happen, and almost before I even had a chance to metabolise it, I was being called upon to respond. I’m in shock. And the clock is ticking. Why didn’t she say anything about this on the first day?”
Thou shalt ask Lorde everything.
“Do you believe in life after death?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Have you ever seen a dead body?”
“Yes,” she replies. “I’ve kissed a dead body.”
“Family?” I ask.
“Yes,” she laughs. “Be amazing if it wasn’t? I know someone who was kidnapped too.” Lorde ups the stakes.
“Fuck! Someone famous?” I lean in.
“Oh yeah. We’re all constantly on the verge of being kidnapped,” she deadpans. I half-imagine some miscellaneous orc running down the hallway — the door is open — clenching her round the waist and carting her off.
“No, I feel very safe,” she assures me. “This is a tangent, but when I was 16, I got letters all the time from this person who I realised had a cheek fetish. They talked a lot about wanting to give me a big smacking cheek-to-cheek kiss. All this cheek chat. As a teenager, I thought, ‘Oh wow, the world is wide.’ You know?”
“You have a good sense of humour,” I reply.
“I think people are starting to figure that out about me. I’m a little bit sly, you know?”
“Hello, hello.” Her girlfriend strides down the hallway, in a denim mini skirt, car keys in hand.
“This is Ruby, my driving instructor,” Lorde introduces us.
Ruby is the one in the Solar Power music video, first holding the fennel bong.
“How’d it go, sis?” Lorde asks.
Ruby has come from a te reo immersion exam. “I passed!”
“I fucking passed!”
I turn my iPhone off record and flit over to the forest green lounge, to browse the bookshelf. Nightbitch, Rachel Yoder. Pip Adam, Nothing to See. Olivia Laing, Crudo. Denis Johnson. “I loved his classic Jesus’ Son,” I say. Wedged in one spot, like a paperweight, I find the MTV Moonman statue. I pluck it from the shelf. The Moonman’s flag moves back and forth. On the wall, above the fireplace, is a delicate cylindrical Ruth Castle weaving shaped like a bird’s nest. The lounge wallpaper features vines and flowers that snake around the corners.
“Kids love this room,” Lorde says.
She has just started reading the famous Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic life story, My Struggle. “He’s so hot,” I say, sharing a memory of his talk at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. A woman in the crowd stood up and said, ‘I love you’. Lorde moots that’s why they don’t put his author photo on the books. “Too distracting.”
“Interesting theory,” I say. Then I blurt out, “What’s it like to have sex as a pop star?” Lorde and Ruby look at me, startled. “There always seems to be a moment in a female pop star’s career, where she does a video in her underwear and maybe that’s important to the narrative arc…” I’m thinking partly about Lorde’s sprightly bum shot on the cover of Solar Power. But I’m also trying to get at something essential about the importance of female sexuality, how powerful and crushing it can be. “Like Miley Cyrus in Wrecking Ball,” I say. “Or [corset-wearing Vogue cover star] Billie Ellie…ish.”
I try again. “Billie Ellie…ish?”
Thou shalt not mispronounce Billie Eilish’s surname. Too Late. Lorde and Ruby crack up. Fair enough. I’ve made a terrible blooper and their laughter isn’t mean. Ruby suggests the question might be generational. Lorde says, “Maybe that question would be more interesting if I was a different kind of pop star? Then graciously, “Let’s go for a drive and let me think about it.”
The spell is broken.
We get up and I watch them locate two lurid yellow Learner driver plates from somewhere on the kitchen island. That big bold L strikes me as deeply symbolic. I also notice a dark brown, tiered spice rack tucked beside Lorde’s flat-top oven. Fully stocked. I like her use of the word spicy. “Every year I have an adjective. Spicy was one, knotty was another. Spicy’s a good one. You can use it in so many ways.”
On a peerless blue day in Tāmaki Makaurau, I sit in the back seat of a borrowed Toyota Vitz, still feeling spicy with myself, about my blunder.
“I’m a swamp beast. Shall I turn the AC on?” Lorde says.
Ruby replies, “Yeah, we can AC, open windows or both. Let’s drive to that little beachy area, then turn around and see how you’re feeling.”
“Okay.” The prettier Jesus turns the key in the ignition. Her first hurdle? How to navigate a pair of curvy man-made bends on her street that she tells me are called chicanes. How does she even know this stuff? Lorde is omnipotent in my mind. I asked her earlier as a joke, what Jesus’ Instagram would be like and she answered, “A bunch of selfies, you reckon? I don’t know. God, I honestly am not that connected with Jesus as a figure, I need to get my WWJD [what would Jesus do] hat on.”
“See Megan, we can do this.” She turns an intersection with ease.
Lorde originally had the idea I could give her the driving lesson, but alas I am a 47-year-old non-driver!
“You think I should learn?” I ask.
“Well maybe we’re at another generational crunch point here? Maybe I don’t want to learn.”
“That’s very valid,” she replies. “I don’t really want to learn, I just feel like people already think I have a lot of deficiencies. So, I’m trying to nail one of them.”
What on earth are Lorde’s deficiencies?
“I only have a fifth-form education. I dropped out at the start of Year 12.” However, she topped English, History and Media Studies at NCEA, “Flying colours at level one,” Lorde says. Pretty white villas flow by outside the open windows of the Vitz. A lady in a floral pantsuit dithers on a traffic island, “Step out,” Lorde says. “Step out my bro.” She waits for the lady to go. Lorde uses the [meaningless slang] word “bwatz” far too much. “B-W-A-T-Z, are you familiar?”
“No,” I reply. “Look, you’re doing great.”
Lorde navigates the mean streets of Herne Bay. The median house price: $2.56 million.
“So, it’s 50 here,” Ruby says.
“Oh, what am I doing?” Lorde asks.
“Don’t say that. It felt okay.”
I’m the last person to judge Lorde for any driving indiscretions. She steers the Vitz down a tiny hill and we arrive at that little beachy bit. On the glittering silvery water, a flock of birds stare towards the shore. The birds are silhouetted against the blue sky, unrecognisable in the middle distance.
“Look at those, are they swans?” Ruby asks.
“Geese, maybe,” Lorde says. “Once I came down here and there were thousands.”
“Wow.” I stare out to sea, watching the waves gently lapping.
I love Oceanic Feeling, the last track on Solar Power. Earlier in our interview, I asked Lorde who she had inherited her singing voice from. Her dad, “a lesser-known figure in her origin story. He is very calm, very patient. We often will sit and talk about the tide, you know?”
Oceanic Feeling is like a sprawling prose poem to the sea, weaving together memories of fishing with her father, her brother, and jumping off Bulli Point, a rock in Taupō, the area where her dad grew up. “I actually have a running document of every time I have a dream where there is a body of water. My water dreams, I write them down. I’ve got hundreds. It’s by far my most frequent motif in my dreams, bodies of water.”
“I have a mermaid thing,” I said, “so I found the final lines of Oceanic Feeling incredibly moving: I’ll know when it is time to take off my robes and step into the choir.”
“Well, that is a mermaid thing,” she confirmed, referring to T. S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
I quoted Eliot to her: “I’ve heard the mermaids singing each to each.”
She quoted back, “Till human voices wake us and we drown.”
Oceanic Feeling has mystery and clarity and it moves me. So does Lorde, who at that moment does a three-point turn, “Oh, I hate accelerating up a hill,” she says. Ruby scolds, “And you can’t use both feet, sorry!”
The Vitz cruises along Richmond Road, back towards her villa, under reams of bright blue sky, Lorde turns to me, “Is this enough colour, Megan?” She means for the article.
Almost. At the kitchen table again, I pull out my pack of Mermaid and Dolphin Oracle cards, given to me by a professional mermaid from LA. I draw the cards all the time at home, trying to kick-start my intuition. I felt called to bring the cards to Lorde after I watched Mood Ring, her satirical pop song on ‘wellness’. In the video a peroxided Lorde lounges in a Zen den, toking a massive spliff, she peers into a handheld mirror and sings, Floating away, floating away.
“Oh, my goodness,” Lorde says.
“I know this might be a bit ridiculous, but I wondered if you would shuffle the deck. Think about a question you’d like to ask each card, then pull out three.”
“Do I have to tell you my questions?” she asks.
Her first card features an illustration of a slinky mermaid touching a shooting star and reads, ‘Set your sights higher.’
“That doesn’t feel like the right card for you.”
“It’s actually the perfect card for the question I asked,” Lorde said. “Spooky.”
She draws ‘Empowerment’ next, then ‘Contemplation Time’.
“I’ve been getting that one a lot lately,” I say.
Lorde flicks through the accompanying booklet and reads aloud. “The dolphins ask you to stop and divert your attention through silliness and non-competitive play. Playing is a magical form of meditation. That is so cool. This is actually a big part of the album,” she says.
“I see it,” I reply.
“So, it’s the year 3000,” I crib a lyric from her song Leader of a New Regime: We’re all wearing SPF 3000, for the ultraviolet rays, it’s the future…
“Or 2080,” Lorde says, “You know, the future might be sooner than we think. That’s a thread that runs through the album. In that song I was fucking around. I talk about packing a bunch of magazines and beautiful dresses and escaping to an island, and I kinda stand by that. I was trying to think hard about what was coming for me, or for my [hypothetical] daughter… Every time I make something, I’m asking a question, and sometimes I’ll answer it in the process. And it’s satisfying. With this album, I just ended up with this mountain of questions and no answers. Or fewer than I’d wanted.”
“I thought there was a lot of dystopia in your utopia,” I say.
Lorde reflects, “One of my favourite questions to ask of any piece of work is, ‘Who is this for?’ I asked it a lot of Solar Power and the answer was always, ‘It’s for me’. And in willfully choosing to make this really weird, sprawling album that admittedly asks more questions than it answers, I think that’s not going to be for everyone, so I’m content with that.”
Before I go, Lorde photographs her oracle cards.
Then I ask for a photo for my 6-year-old daughter. She notices my phone screen is greasy, so wipes it on her dress, takes several photos and a little video too, bestowing just the right amount of care.
Thou shalt not ask Lorde to divine the future.
“I think if it’s all fucked, I’m just going to be fishing. In something nice, you know?”
Fashion director / Dan Ahwa. Makeup / Lochlain Stonehouse. Hair / Benjamin James. Fashion assistant / Tautahi Subritzky. Tailor / Kama Aliska. Shoot assistant / Annabel Dickson. With special thanks to Andrew Clifford, Iona Matheson, Ben Chan and the team from Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery and Cordis, Auckland.
This article was originally published in volume seven of Viva Magazine.