Ella Yelich-O'Connor aka Lorde, shot by James K Lowe.
In today's over-saturated pop world, it's just as easy to become a fan of a musical artist by osmosis as it is to discover something that you believe has merit and listening to it intently because you think there's something there that deserves your attention. By that I mean you can start liking just about anything if you hear it enough, so if you sit there listening to the radio all day long, you'll no doubt love any number of songs or artists simply because you've heard them so much. We all do it, and that's why I think it's stupid when people complain about how record labels manufacture music in a laboratory, because those clever business heads are just making money off the fact that the vast majority of us are too lazy to put the work in discovering whatever it is that we love for ourselves. I am one of those classic lazy people, but I don't even listen to the radio. I know what I like (a winning combination of Drake, Kanye West, Toto, LCD Soundsystem, my Dad, and The Cure), and I can quite honestly say that I wasn't an early fan of any of them. Take Drake, for example — I got obsessed with his song Forever two years after it was released, and then I started buying up everything he'd done once I'd thrashed that radio smash to death. Now let me tell you the story of how I had the opportunity to become one of the first people in the entire world to become a fan of Lorde, and I didn't take it. Here's what happened.
I'm friends with a guy called Justin Warren who works at Universal Music in Auckland. He's hooked me up a lot over the years with cool things like invites to Kanye West press conferences (and this started way back when nobody took bloggers seriously at all), and he'd always make sure to call me and Katherine to ask if we wanted to gift Thugged Out Since Cub Scouts tee shirts to stars who were coming to town. On the 21st of November last year, he sent me and Katherine an email asking if we'd like to give Nicki Minaj and Tyga some tee shirts, and he slipped this note on the end of the message: "BTW, this is interesting: http://lorde.co.nz/# I’m quite fond of the downloadable one."
Katherine being Katherine listened to it straight away and replied, saying, "I just checked out that Lorde thing, it's cool - who is she?" to which Justin responded, "She's amazing. A girl from Auckland, just turned 16 like a week ago. We don't know a lot about her, but she's EXCITING!" Me being me, I didn't listen at all, and replied, saying, "Get one to Tyga for sure!!!!" Now that I think about it, that one email says quite a lot about me (lolz).
For the next few months, Katherine would regularly message me about Lorde, pleading with me to listen to her, and telling me in no uncertain terms that I was an enormous idiot for not being an early adopter and promoter of a person that she assured me was going to be a worldwide pop sensation. "Just listen to that one song Royals!!!!!" she'd say to me. Finally in February, I downloaded the EP, and was pleasantly surprised that it was every bit as good as Katherine told me, especially that one song Royals. I then started tweeting and blogging about her which potentially made me look like an early adopter, but in reality I was jumping on a bandwagon which at that point was pretty much a done deal.
I met Ella Yelich-O'Connor aka Lorde in Auckland when I was back there in April, and I remember walking away, thinking, that girl is precocious in a way that makes me uncomfortable. By that stage Katherine had been hanging out with Ella for a while, and was always telling me stories about how she had turned down this interview request or that collaboration, which to me always sounded ridiculous, because as you might have gathered from the Tyga email quoted above, I'm far more attracted to the commercial option than the slow burner. So my reaction to Ella when I met her in real life had a lot to do with the fact that I felt like she was playing the role of a cool indie artist as opposed to just being herself. Blame the New Zealander in me — we're very judgmental people.
Then she came to New York. I emailed her a couple of days before she arrived and said I'd love to do a story with her and get her shot by a great photographer friend of mine while she was in town, and guess what? She said no. But not only did she say no, she finished the message with this line that quite literally made me seethe with rage: "Maybe next time, buddy." Looking back now I imagine she was just being friendly, but oh my God did I get mad. So mad, in fact, that I messaged Katherine to complain, and then called up my parents and told them about this little shit who had DARED to say no to me. (In other words, she bruised my ego.)
The anger lasted a few days, and then I got over it. I went to her show, which impressed the bejeezus out of me, and I felt a strong sense of pride that a New Zealander who was friends with my friends from back home was doing that well. I messaged her and told her congratulations and she said thanks, and then I didn't hear from her for a long time. And then last week she messaged me from LA saying that she'd just met Kanye West, and she very kindly put me on the door for her show last night — which, for the record, I had tried to buy tickets for, but it was sold out.
So last night I went along and saw her at Webster Hall, and watched as hundreds of people danced and sang along to her songs. And I thought to myself, here is an extreme exception to the typical pop music story. Sure there must have been some brilliant machination behind the scenes, and being signed to an enormous label like Universal can't have hurt, but for the most part, Lorde's success has been due to fans seeking her out and hungrily consuming everything she has to give. She went viral as a musician because of the fans and I can't think of too many brand new artists you can say that about.
And her decision to tightly control how she presents herself to the world is obviously paying dividends, because she hasn't sold out or said yes to the corporate money, but she is still having all the success in the world, and she's paving the way for a longterm career as opposed to a flash in the pan.
Ella wrote this brilliant piece for the Sunday Star Times in the weekend, which kinda explains everything that irked me about her, and made me feel stupid about being annoyed with her in the first place. And if you read the comments, you'll see a bunch of likeminded idiots who don't get it at all, just like I didn't.
She included a quote that has always stuck with her, that William S Burroughs once said to Patti Smith: "Build a good name for yourself, because eventually that will become your currency."
Can't argue with the results.
Ella, my apologies for misjudging you, I think you're a very clever lady, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.
I LIKE YOU!