Lorde: ‘I’m not a climate activist. I’m a pop star’

She quit social media, embraced the feral and grieved for her beloved dog. Now rejuvenated, Lorde is back with a nature-inspired new album – though she tells our writer there’s a sinister side to its sunniness

Lorde, in case it wasn’t obvious, has made her name on glorification. Ella Yelich-O’Connor was an aristocracy-obsessed 16-year-old when her imperiously cool debut album, 2013’s Pure Heroine, elevated suburban New Zealand adolescence to pop echelons in which those kids had never previously seen themselves. In 2017, Melodrama cast post-breakup hedonism in glittering synths, dramatising one fabulous night on the cusp of adulthood as if it were Greek tragedy.

Her forthcoming third album, Solar Power, has humbler origins, especially for a songwriter who likes describing inspiration as “divine”. The loose, sunny instrumentation – inspired as much by Crosby, Stills & Nash as Nelly Furtado – mirrors a shift within the 24-year-old. “When I got my dog, all of a sudden you’re literally picking up shit, cleaning up vomit and not caring,” she says cheerfully, video-calling from the start of a jet-lag-addled workday in Los Angeles.

Her elegant jewellery and sleeveless black top contrast with her gusto for animal bodily functions. “It’s all in service of this huge amount of love. You feel this shift toward the feral and a relinquishing of the control that would have maybe kept that feral nature at bay.” She loved it. “Because I’ve been the master of my own universe since, like, 16. Which is a very unusual experience.”

More on the dog – the dearly departed Pearl – later. These may seem insalubrious beginnings for one of the year’s most anticipated albums, but if Solar Power glorifies anything, it is life’s natural rhythms: tides, seasons, the evolution of a feeling, or indeed, canine cogitation. Lorde wanted to reflect how she feels at home in Auckland, where she lives in blissful obscurity. There are hardly any paparazzi; once in a blue moon she pops up on MailOnline, buying a rug. In 2018 she deleted all but a few posts from her Instagram and Twitter and abandoned both. Her greatest joy is contemplating the promise of a long summer day: will she garden? Swim? Fish? She rues spending today’s solstice trapped on Zoom; at home, she would have swum at dawn.

The album’s genesis, she says, “was this feeling of the clothes coming off and the skin being exposed and feeling this playfulness”. Behold the artwork, in which she leaps over the camera, revealing an acute bikini wedgie. “When I first saw it I was like, ooh!” she gasps coyly, raising a dainty hand to her mouth. But it worked. “It felt innocent and free, a little feral, a little spicy.”

‘I’m very comfortable in the periods of limbo, or times where I feel afraid or vulnerable.’
‘I’m very comfortable in the periods of limbo, or times where I feel afraid or vulnerable.’ Photograph: Ophelia Mikkelson

The simple life dissolved a little self-seriousness. “Making my first record, I would have rather died than have an acoustic guitar,” she says. “Acoustic guitars were like, bonfires and guys in dumb hats, it was very mid-2000s to me.” She belly-laughs. “And then everything I listened to became guitar music by way of both 2004 and 1976!”

She was too young to enjoy the “bright, forward, shimmery acoustics” of Natalie Imbruglia, Natasha Bedingfield and All Saints first time around. Delving back, she heard “a time of optimism” in this critically maligned era. “‘Take me to my beach’, ‘If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air’ – all these crunchy outdoor images were so compelling to me, and felt so ripe for a return.” (I hear the Spice Girls’ Viva Forever in it, and am mortified to learn she has never heard it. I send it to her later, and it hits the spot. “Gonna spend some time with this.”) She told her drummer Matt Chamberlain to make his parts “sound like skateboarding”, a sense memory she wanted to channel. She can’t skate, although her teenage friends could. “I always remember seeing that light come up from the bowl and it being so blue, it’s a very visceral memory.”

This newfound ease does not, however, portend a crusty campfire singalong. She and co-producer Jack Antonoff “still pored over every fucking detail! I’m a maniac, my ears are unparalleled. You can’t get a thing past me.”

Solar Power’s title track and lead single draws on the transformative pleasures of the beach, referencing the buoyant daze of Primal Scream’s Loaded and George Michael’s Freedom 90. (Bobby Gillespie and Michael’s estate gave it their blessing.) It doesn’t reach for the wayward euphoria of Melodrama’s lead single Green Light, but more attainable epiphanies. Some critics called it slight. “I don’t think of Solar Power as a shallow moment,” says Lorde. “It’s still very much a moment of depth and it feels very big to me, it’s just also light and flirty.”

Melodrama was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2017. Lorde still considers it a miracle it got made – she and Antonoff, both “young and clueless”, were left alone for two years. “We had taste and feelings but we didn’t really know how to make anything.” Yet it failed to replicate Pure Heroine’s commercial highs. She didn’t seem to care. (In 2018, she said: “If you’re here for the commercial performance of my work you’ll only become more and more disenchanted.”) Nonetheless, her influence has never been louder: the likes of Olivia Rodrigo, Conan Gray and Holly Humberstone have appropriated Lorde’s instantly identifiable sprite-like vocal harmonies. She hasn’t noticed – she doesn’t listen to much contemporary pop – although she’s flattered. “It’s my joy to be patient zero on a harmony virus.”

I have heard half of Solar Power. Unless there are massive pop songs hidden elsewhere, it is much more intimate than its tumultuous predecessor, centring those trademark vocals in classic pop melodies that summon the Carpenters’ uneasy beauty. While Lorde still thinks of herself “absolutely” as a pop artist, she is “way past being interested in if it’s going to play on the radio or anywhere in a literal pop context. It’ll be interesting to see if this becomes a sound people are interested in because it’s so fucking zany.”

She calls Solar Power joyful and optimistic, but I am struck by its sadness: the laments on celebrity, the climate crisis, wellness culture and time passing; the weighty self-doubt. “I didn’t think it was that sad,” Lorde says, surprised and inquisitive. She cites the prismatic folk song Stoned at the Nail Salon. “That kind of searching, being unsure that I had chosen the right path and feeling lonely, I don’t see those as permanent or even bad emotions. It’s all part of the thing” – life – “to feel that trepidation. Maybe it is sad, but I’m very comfortable in the periods of limbo, or times where I feel afraid or vulnerable.”

Also on that song, she sings of how “all the beautiful girls will fade like the roses”. That relatively recent revelation was “truly the first time that I had entertained the notion that the sexy models on Instagram who made me feel inferior – they too will age”. She shrugs happily. “We’re all on the same bus. At some point we have to get on the bus back.” Contemplating time passing was comforting, she says. “I was old enough to finally think about it. When you’re a kid, you’re immortal.”

She says the record is definitively a product of joy, albeit joy born from the revelations of grief. Which brings us back to Pearl. In 2018, exhausted from touring and craving stability, Lorde decided to get a dog. “And he would have gold hair, and that would take me somewhere,” she says. “And he did. He was the ultimate tour guide.” He lay under the piano while she learned to write on an instrument for the first time. “To feel this energy that was not being generated by me was really profound,” she says.

Caring for him helped her understand her parents and contemplate her own future children, to consider things “that are greater than my feelings on this dancefloor”, she says, with self-deprecation. “I could have the worst workday ever, but you come home and this being is pleased to see you. You’ve done that right for another day, you know? There was an element of wanting to take my performance scores away from ‘How’s this review?’ I’m not so that way inclined now, but maybe at the time I was a little more.”

After less than two years together, Pearl succumbed to lifelong health issues. Lorde emailed fans to say the loss would delay her new record; the grief was long-lasting. She hasn’t returned to the park where they walked. Without wishing to diminish his life, the scale of her devastation seemed to represent some greater loss. “It was absolutely, you’re right, something bigger,” she says. “It was everything. But I don’t know how much of this I wanna talk about with a journalist.” She chuckles kindly and tries to trace its outline. “Grief is a really transformative force. I’d never experienced it fully like that, and it makes you question everything. It overturns a lot.”

How it has changed her is probably a detail for the next album. “This record is about how precious life is, really,” she says.

She got a sense of it when she fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit Antarctica in February 2019. “The only thing to contemplate there is this raw force,” she says. “It’s as much terror as beauty. You don’t feel welcomed by the natural world – I completely felt like an interloper.” She calls it a spiritual pilgrimage. “It was the middle of summer in New Zealand. Going from the beach and tans to this hostile, cold environment and back to the beach, that whiplash helped set the scene to start writing this record.”

Lorde on stage in Austin, Texas, in 2014.
Lorde on stage in Austin, Texas, in 2014. Photograph: Ashley Landis/EPA

Addressing the natural world on the album “was kind of a grieving process as well as a celebratory one”, she says. Fans are convinced that the video to Solar Power, in which Lorde skips around a rudimentary beach civilisation populated by bored acolytes, is a political comment. Dressed in yellow, she must represent the sun duping braindead kids into ignoring climate warning signs! Or callous politicians ignoring the issue while everyone suffers! The beach will appear in more videos and “reveal its mysteries”, she teases, but the album is not “my big climate change record”. “I’m not a climate activist, I’m a pop star. I stoke the fire of a giant machine, spitting out emissions as I go. There is a lot I don’t know.”

A much-analysed moment from the Solar Power video, in which she hustles the camera past some rubbish, is her “winking at the huge amount of idealism that people direct at where I’m from”, she says. “We have our literal and metaphorical trash on the beach like everyone else.” She won’t be drawn on Jacinda Ardern, a focus of global adulation but a source of frustration for young New Zealanders, who consider her risk-averse. “We’ve got a lot of shit we need to work on.”

She wanted to disabuse anyone of the idea that she had any answers. The album opener, The Path, is set at the 2016 Met Gala, where Lorde steals a fork for her mum, observes “supermodels dancing around a pharaoh’s tomb”, then admits: “If you’re looking for a saviour, well that’s not me.” She says it’s an odd place to start, “but I know enough about how people view me – we’re taught to view famous people as gods now – and I just wanted to dismantle that”.

One song, Fallen Fruit, is a crushed flower-power lament for the spoiled Eden her generation inherited. But that’s the only protest song. She recalls Mark Rylance saying that artists should tell love stories about the climate. “The opposite has been proven not to work,” she says. “I do think these songs are love stories more than anything. But love is complicated.”

The lost flower-children in the Solar Power video and the sad girls in the album’s lyrics mollifying emptiness with weed, manicures and crystals chime with the quote in Lorde’s Instagram bio from Joan Didion’s 1967 essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, about dropouts and psychedelics in Haight-Ashbury. In isolation, “a return to innocence – the mysteries of the blood – an itch for the transcendental” looks like a statement of artistic intent. In context, it comes from a psychiatrist assessing how romantic movements formed in times of crisis always end in authoritarianism.

Is she suggesting darker times still to come for a generation who have reached for alternatives in the absence of traditional support structures? She’s wary of revealing too much, but “that’s the vibe”, she says coyly. “I read a lot about the dropping-out movement and commune life, the ideological crises people were having then, and felt a lot of parallels with what people are going through now. It’s all gonna become clear later, but it was such a fun, rich zone to be mining.”

Lorde spent most of the pandemic in New Zealand, which was minimally impacted by Covid. “I don’t feel like I’m that tapped into the greater cultural consciousness around it,” she confesses. She has never felt better. “I think it’s getting offline, but I really feel like I’m only just now scratching the surface of my powers, which is a very exciting feeling.”

She quit social media and turned her phone into a “dumbphone” – she shows me the greyscale display, believed to minimise compulsive checking – after she came across the author Annie Dillard’s aphorism: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” She repeats it emphatically. “I was like, I can’t do this for ever, this can’t be it.” Social media was fun for years. “But I think it was altering my neural pathways and homogenising my trains of thought. I was losing touch with my ability to explore an idea at my own pace, which felt like losing my free will at times.” She laughs, baffled. “I was very addicted. To be able to put that aside has put me into such a position of power and fertility and creativity and confidence.”

Over email, I ask if she worries about losing touch, especially making work that touches on generational predicaments. “I actually think falling out of touch is one of the better things, emotionally and creatively, to happen to me in my 20s,” she replies. “I’m aware it’s absolutely a social and economic privilege to do so. I really think people need me to be able to see our world clearly in order to write about it, and I couldn’t do that and remain online.” The work, she says, “can be as rich and personal as it is” because of those boundaries.

She was inspired to get offline after reading the artist Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, a polemic on resisting productivity. She hopes Solar Power will do for fans “what that book did for me, which was to retrain my attention. It was literally walking my dog – 45 minutes twice a day at the local park – and that was so big and transcendent for me.”

When Lorde emerged, articulate teenage pop stars who wrote their own songs were few and far between. Now there are dozens in her wake, from Rodrigo to Billie Eilish. Her own precocity has shapeshifted, evident in how she has enforced normality on her life. “I was just at home for years,” she says of Solar Power’s roots. “It would make me feel vulnerable sometimes, feeling that cut off and that irrelevant, so to speak. But it’s also very powerful, and I can understand that as something that is precious.”

Solar Power is out on 20 August


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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