Lorde Doesn't Have A Bentley, But The Charts Will Do

Sep 30, 2013
Originally published on September 30, 2013 9:09 pm

While young women dominate the dance and pop charts, it's been nearly 20 years since we've seen them top the alternative-rock charts. This year, a 16-year-old girl from New Zealand got the job done with a tune that's just about the opposite of anything you'd hear from her peers. Ella Yelich O'Connor — better known as Lorde — is the voice behind the snarky, chart-topping track "Royals," which is the lead single from her debut album, Pure Heroine.

The teenage musician says the disconnect between her life in Auckland, New Zealand, and the messages behind the top songs of the music charts she's dominating inspired her to write the hit.

"I was just sort of reeling off some of the things which are commonly mentioned in hip-hop and the Top 40. I did get a little ridiculous on it, but the sentiment's there," O'Connor says. "I've always loved hip-hop, but as a fan of hip-hop, I've always had to kind of suspend disbelief because, obviously, I don't have a Bentley. There's a distance between that and the life I have with my friends going to parties and getting public transport and doing the things that every other teenager does."

O'Connor's interest in reading and discussing literature is a characteristic she says was instilled in her by her mother, Sonja Yelich, a prize-winning poet. It was this influence that ultimately led to the selection of her moniker.

"I was looking through a bunch of aristocratic titles, and I liked the word 'lord' — I liked the masculinity of it," she says. "I just put an 'e' on the end to make it feminine, because I thought that juxtaposition was kind of cool."

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Heavy-hitting singers like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry may dominate the airwaves. But an unlikely competitor has emerged from New Zealand, of all places.


ELLA 'LORDE' YELICH-O'CONNOR: (Singing) I remember when your head caught flame. It kissed your scalp and caressed your brain.

CORNISH: Ella Yelich-O'Connor goes by the moniker Lorde. And just 16 years old, she's gone from churning out tunes in her bedroom in Auckland to a splashy U.S. debut. Her new album is called "Pure Heroine," and we asked her about the breakthrough song that got everyone's attention: "Royals."


LORDE: But every song's like gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom, bloodstains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel room. We don't care. We're driving Cadillacs in our dreams. But everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash. We don't care. We aren't caught up in your love affair.

CORNISH: Ella, welcome to the program.

LORDE: Hi. Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So talk about the imagery in that first verse, because there's a lot going on there.

LORDE: (Laughing) Basically, I was just sort of reeling off some of the things which commonly mentioned in hip-hop and the Top 40. I did get a little ridiculous on it but, you know, the sentiment's there.

CORNISH: And how did you come up with the idea for the song? Is this your music, hip-hop and these other kind of genres where you see this imagery?

LORDE: Well, yeah. I mean, I've always loved hip-hop. But as a fan of hip-hop, I always had to kind of suspend disbelief because obviously, like, I don't have a Bentley, you know, so...


LORDE: Like there's a distance between that and the life I have with my friends, going to parties and, you know, getting public transport and doing the things that every other teenager does really.

CORNISH: So lyrics like we count our dollars on the train to the party, right? It's not like whipping the dollars out on the dance floor.


LORDE: Yeah. I make a lot of jokes about making it rain. I have yet to make it rain.


LORDE: But I'm looking forward to that moment.

CORNISH: For people who don't know, making it rain is when you like spray the dollars, usually in a strip club, I think.

LORDE: But then do you go and pick them all up afterward? Is that embarrassing?

CORNISH: That's a very good question.


LORDE: I would like, you know, it sort of ruins the bombast of the gesture.


LORDE: (Singing) And we'll never be royals. It don't run in our blood. That kind of luxe just ain't for us. We crave a different kind of buzz. Let me be your ruler. You can call me queen bee. And baby, I'll rule. I'll rule. I'll rule. Let me live that fantasy.

CORNISH: Now, your mom is a prize-winning poet, Sonya Yelich. And what did you learn about songwriting from her?

LORDE: Yeah, we didn't really talk too much about songwriting, but I think the way my mum indirectly influenced me with that stuff is she always made sure that we were reading in my house and that there were books around. And we would discuss whatever it was that I was reading. So I think my kind of interest in how you can combine words to make something magic, I think that sort of came from her.


CORNISH: In the end, is your life nudging closer to "Royals"? I mean, do you find that...

LORDE: The irony is not lost on me, believe me. I don't know. I mean, like, I travel with my mum and, you know, I've got no alcohol in my rider and they clean out my mini bar before I even get to my hotel and...


LORDE: I may be closer to that life but I, you know, I'm conscious of the fact that I have a job to do and I'm working. And it's important to be professional about it as opposed to like, I don't know, Cristal in the van over here or whatever.

CORNISH: Well, Ella Yelich-O'Connor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LORDE: Thank you for speaking to me.


CORNISH: Ella Yelich-O'Connor, aka Lorde. Her debut album "Pure Heroine" is out now. You can see Lorde performing "Royals" at nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.