Ophelia Mikkelson Jones/Courtesy of the artist
Ella Yelich-O’Connor, known to the world as Lorde, is embracing a sunnier and more analog sound, full of plucked acoustic guitars and brushed snares. Since releasing her breakout single, “Royals,” in 2013, she’s made the most of hook-heavy pop songs constructed from a palette of overcast electronic sounds.
“In the past,” she says, “I’d hear an acoustic guitar and I’d say ‘Oh, here we go. It’s about to get painfully authentic!’ “
The title of her new album, Solar Power, belies the stylistic sea change; after years spent as a famous and famously melancholic artist, she’s now singing of sun salutations and meditations. In a new video, above, she and friends frolic on a beach in her home of New Zealand – far from the late-night troublemaking of 2017’s “Green Light.”
“I was feeling good, you know?” she says. “It felt like there was something in the air down there, and I really wanted to capture that. But I’ve sort of since been told that taken as a whole, the record has a lot more depth to it. It’s sadder than people thought. There’s always shades to my work.”
To catch up, Morning Edition‘s A Martinez asked Lorde what the past four (relatively quiet) years have entailed, and how she arrived at this very breezy new crossroads.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To listen to the broadcast version, use the player above.
A Martinez, Morning Edition: You’ve said that Solar Power is a “celebration of the natural world.” How can we hear that?
Lorde: I think there’s a looseness and an organic quality that maybe hasn’t made it into my previous albums. I was born in ’96 – I feel like that mid-2000s kind of roots-y, acoustic music really struck an evil chord in me. Something about [the perception that it] was innately more authentic than electronic music, for example. I really railed against that for a long time.
Having that acoustic feel that you mentioned, is that what sold you on guitars? Because when I first started playing Solar Power, that kind of struck me. Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is different, especially for her.’ It’s something that you really haven’t used that much of in the past.
Lorde: In the past, I could never write a song on acoustic guitar ever, ever. Because I had this weirdness about the sort of built-in connotations of something like an acoustic guitar. I was worried it would send the writing in a direction. And this time, I leaned hard into those.
When I played it, I was going about my day. I was doing my chores at home. And all of a sudden, I had to stop and rewind and play it again to make sure that what I heard is what I heard.
Lorde: And I love that!
I think I take so long between albums – they take me a really long time to make, and each time there’s this slight surprise, that I could be in a different place sonically or emotionally. I get it, for people that haven’t heard anything for me since 2017. But for me, it’s been four years of living a life. So I like that shock, and I remember feeling that shock with artists that I really loved. You know, I would press play on a record and almost feel sick with fear or dread that I wouldn’t like it or understand the aesthetic would not be what I would want. And of course, those are the records that you kind of grow to love – and that challenge you and move with you. I think it’s a good thing.
A friend of mine said, “Ask Lorde what color she sees when she performs ‘Solar Power.’ ” For those who may not know, you have synesthesia – a neurological condition where you see sounds as color. So what hues were you seeing for “Solar Power?”
Lorde: Well, it’s not so much a color as… you know when you look at the sun through closed eyelids? You see that kind of warm, fleshy tone? That’s the color. But it’s such an embarrassing thing to talk about. I feel like it could skew pretentious, no?
I don’t think so… I’m fascinated by it. I’m just wondering how much does that shape all the parts of the entire album? From, say, the music to the album cover?
Lorde: Completely, yes. I really use it as a tool when I’m making an album. For me, my albums are very conceptual, for want of a better word. I know when I’m writing the right type of part. It’s doing the thing I need it to do when I start seeing the color that I need to be seeing. It really does help me. It leads me in the right direction. And it’s very much something that I apply to production. Drums get very sunshiny, very yellow, very gold, in a way that I needed them to get for this album. There’s always a moment when the color or the picture doesn’t quite match up – that can be a panic. And then it all comes up gold.
And you’ll scrap things, right? If they don’t sync up, you’ll just stop and start over.
Lorde: Yeah, well – I’m funny because I never really have more than two or three half-finished demos for an album. I don’t really work on anything that doesn’t end up making it. I really think hard about the spots I have to fill and the things that they’re saying. So yeah, I’ll scrap things, but I won’t work on something for very long if it’s not right, which is I guess an economical way of doing it.
If I were to line up the lead singles to all three of your albums – “Royals,” “Green Light” and “Solar Power,” it felt to me like this is a huge leap in tone. It sounded like creatively that maybe you were in a fun, sunny, playful kind of place. And in the video, literally, you are in a fun, sunny, playful place, a beach in New Zealand. How close to the target am I on that?
Lorde: Well, you’re in it somewhat. I mean, it is hard for me to have context about my own work. I can never hear it the way other people hear it. So it’s a little tricky. But I think I had a very happy, confident, grounded few years.
But I’ve since been told that the record, taken as a whole, has a lot more depth to it; it’s sadder than maybe people thought. And I think there’s always shades to what I do, but that effervescence of that first song and the lightness – I really liked how physical it was, even in terms of the subject matter. I almost don’t even say that much, you know, but it’s about how I say it and the sort of tricks in the wordplay and the little allusions and allegories that come in. It was a fun one to lead with – and I think the right one.
I wanted to ask about another song on the album, “Secrets from a Girl.” Are you talking to your 15-year-old self in the song?
Lorde: Yeah, I had this night out. A friend had a party and it’s definitely one of those nights where I saw the road fork off. I could have really done the whole thing, it would have gotten to 4:00 in the morning. And instead, I had two drinks and I went home. I was lying in bed and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, you’re kind of growing up. You took the mature fork here in a way that your 20-year old self or your 18-year old self never would have.’ And it made me think about present-me going back and trying to talk to young-me and impart some of the “wisdom” I have picked up along the way.
Then what would you say to the older version of you? Say, 30?
Lorde: Oh, that’s a great question. I’ve sort of been in a zone at the moment. I had a friend who I’ve known since high school put his head on my shoulder and say, ‘Ella, you’re young, you’re not old. You need to go out. You need to behave a little younger than you’re behaving. Or 15 years from now, you’ll be like, Oh, God, I should have been doing that when I was twenty four!’ So I really took that to heart and have been trying to stay up past 10:00 p.m., maybe go out to dance, perhaps … Maybe baby-me can put my hand on 30-year-old me’s shoulder and say, ‘You’re young! You’re thirty, get it together!’
You’re at that great age though, because me? I’m telling the older version of myself to make sure you write a will. That’s where I’m at in my life.
Lorde: I’m a pop star, so I have a will!
Isn’t that wild? I’ve had a will for years, my friend. I’m a pop star; they tell you to write a will. Isn’t that crazy? No wonder I’m so concerned with mortality and self-reflection, you know?
One of the things that fascinates me about you is that three years ago, you went peace-out on social media. You got off Twitter and Instagram. What’s the world like to be free of that cyberspace chain around your brain?
Lorde: Well, I don’t think that I’m free of it. I still consume a lot of internet culture. What I’m divorced from is the idea of a “feed” … I have a lot more room in my brain without the feed quality, but I still search people up. I go on websites. So I’m plugged in. I read newspapers.
For me, it was realizing that I was an addict. I was in bad, and I needed to put some blocks up for myself and be, like, ‘OK, you’ve shown you have no self-control with this thing. It’s time to take it away from you.’ I think once you start thinking about it like that, it’s really helpful. I’ll always be an addict. Someone hands me the phone and I’m just down the rabbit hole. But trying to notice it a bit more has been really good for me.
There is an exception to your social media exodus. I thought it was kind of cool to find out that you like onion rings so much that you actually rate them on Instagram. So what makes for a Lorde-tested, Lorde-approved onion ring?
Lorde: Oh, God! Well, I gotta say, there’s not many onion rings that I’m kicking out of bed, you know? I’ve got room for them all, the delicious food! It’s kind of hard to mess up, you know? But I will say it’s a thickness. A thick cut of the ring. It’s better with a bit of chew. You want a tiny bit of resistance. Temperature, crispness. They’ve got to be fairly fresh out of the fryer. But honestly, there’s good things to say about all of them.
What is next? A bit of a break?
Lorde: Well, I will sort of be doing this for a little bit, going around and talking about the album. I suppose we have a tour booked for next year, which I’m very excited for. Fingers crossed it’ll go off without a hitch. I want to try and spend time in the studio. I’ve been having a bunch of ideas at the moment. It’s sort of funny – you put a record out, you’ve done all this work, and then the journey begins for everyone else and it sort of stops for you. So maybe I’ll be sitting around twiddling my thumbs, but I’m sure someone will find a way to occupy my time.
Does it feel like when you put an album out that it’s no longer yours? And I ask that only because Kanye West has been working on his album, Donda, for what seems like a long time – I talked to someone who thinks that maybe for Kanye he doesn’t want to let go of it yet.
Lorde: Yeah, there definitely is a bit of that. You’re never really going to listen to it again outside of a work context. So what I have gotten from it, which has been huge and very precious, sort of comes to an end. But what kicks in is seeing the picture completed by people’s understanding of it. Part of why I love making pop music: I think that you only have half the picture before the song or the body of work is released – I think that other half gets completed by people’s perception. That’s what makes it pop … But yeah, it’s sort of melancholy almost. You know, for me I’m saying farewell or saying thank you to such a big chapter of life, I feel like I went through a lot and figured out a lot. And yet it’s sort of funny to be tying it up with a bow now. But it’s cool. I’m psyched to know what people think of it.