Lorde Is Already "This Weird Elder Stateswoman of Pop"
The singer-songwriter tells us, "In choosing to be totally unplugged and out of the loop, [I know] I'm not going to be the one who is at the centre of culture"
Published Aug 17, 2021Lorde would rather be outside, basking in the sun. Instead, she is speaking to Exclaim! on a video call from a New York hotel room, where she is doing press for her upcoming third album, Solar Power.
"I felt very centred [and] grounded in nature," she says of her latest work. "That feeling was a very calm one, and also one of joy. It felt almost like sun-worship that was happening. It's kind of an emotional album."
It's a new perspective for the singer, born Ella Yelich-O'Connor in New Zealand. At 16, she became one of the biggest pop stars in the world with 2013's Pure Heroine and its chart-topping single "Royals," which captured moody adolescence and gave teens a new lens through which to experience youth. At 20, she distilled love and heartbreak with 2017's Melodrama, its booming drums and powerful synths feeling like a never-ending night at a house party.
On Solar Power, she shifts her attention to the outdoors. The album celebrates the singer's devotion to nature — the sun, the ocean, seasons changing — and how these elements make her feel. Lorde wanted to capture the peacefulness she felt during the summers in Auckland, New Zealand. For now, she's dreaming of the perfect summer day while being cooped up inside.
Lorde announced Solar Power during the solar eclipse this past June. In an email to fans, she wrote that the concept of the album "is a celebration of the natural world, an attempt at immortalizing the deep, transcendent feelings I have when I'm outdoors. In times of heartache, grief, deep love, or confusion, I look to the natural world for answers. I've learnt to breathe out, and tune in." She also debuted the cheeky album cover, which features Lorde in motion, joyfully hopping over the photographer. The photo was taken on a beach somewhere in New Zealand — the specific location of which the singer intends to keep to herself.
Solar Power's infectious title track is as light and airy as a summer breeze, with lyrics that describe her affinity for warm weather. The music video sets the scene, as Lorde dances around on the beach wearing a bright yellow ensemble — she literally resembles a ray of sunshine. It's a new state of mind compared to past singles, but it's a welcome invitation, as Lorde encourages listeners to get on board with her newfound ethos.
Lorde achieved enormous commercial success in her teens. When the singer released Pure Heroine, she was a force to be reckoned with. She wasn't sugarcoating the hard-to-describe feelings of being young, and she spent most of the album's runtime capturing teenage angst mixed with the fears of getting older — quickly solidifying her as an important voice of her generation. Melodrama expanded her sound and focused on the singer's complicated feelings of being alone, but still resonated with the same audiences. On the very last line of the album, Lorde asked, "What the fuck are perfect places anyway?" Four years later, it seems like the singer has answered her own question and found her perfect place in music.
Now, at age 24, Lorde is mostly just trying to please herself. "I'm always trying to make [an album] that is better than the last one in terms of songwriting, construction and production, but not in any sort of commercial way — that's not really something that occurs to me," she says. "I make something that I want to make and listen to, whatever that is at that time. I try to better myself, [but] it's just me getting to play."
Much of Solar Power feels experimental. She worked with co-writer and producer Jack Antonoff to create what she calls the album's "nutty" sound. "[Solar Power] sounds crazy," she enthuses. "There's heaps of crazy vocals and live drums. There's guitars on this album — like, 16-year-old me was not letting a guitar anywhere near anything," she says. Multiple tracks also feature cicada sounds.
Lorde sees this sonic shift as growth. "What you like changes, and there's one 808 [drum machine] on this entire album, which is crazy," she says. "I worshipped 808s for so long, and still do, but what you need to communicate the ideas changes. Everything's a risk, but it all feels right for what we made."
The album's opener, "The Path," is a perfect example. Between the plucked guitars, wispy flute and muffled drums, longtime listeners wouldn't recognize this as a Lorde track until her vocals kick in. We're transported to the 2016 Met Gala, where Lorde observes "supermodels dancing around a pharaoh's tomb" and steals a fork for her mom. Then the chorus hits: "If you're looking for a saviour, well, that's not me." She seems to be dismantling the idea of celebrities being god-like figures, instead letting the powerful force of nature guide her.
In February 2019, Lorde took a trip to Antarctica to learn more about climate change, sparked by a realization she had from walking her dog, Pearl. "I would have to spend an hour [or] two hours outside every day walking my dog. I started to really notice nature and seasons changing and get so much from the experience of being outside, and that sort of trickled down through my whole life," she remembers. "I'd always wanted to go to Antarctica. My interest in it was compounded by my interest in the natural world picking up."
The trip had a profound impact on Lorde, which helped her focus on what Solar Power would become. She explains, "I was like, 'Oh, this is what you have to make. It's going to be something about how you feel when you're outside.' It's also going to be about a planet and that feeling of wanting to protect it and being sort of powerless and the sort of big feelings that go alongside experiencing the natural world." The trip "was like going on a spiritual retreat. It was so serious. It was a heavy, deep experience going there. It really reset me. I was like, 'Alright, this is what you're doing. Don't fuck this up," she says with a laugh.
This reactionary experience comes through on the track "Fallen Fruit," a gentle protest song about the environment. "The dreams we had were far too big," she sings while pondering how young people can save our mistreated ecosystems. She details an image of bright-eyed protestors wearing "psychedelic garlands," walking together to defeat the enemy, seemingly dancing under a forest of trees waiting to be cut down. It sounds like a love letter to climate change activists. (Furthering Lorde's point, she's forgoing a CD release of Solar Power in favour of "an eco-conscious Music Box" with a download code, handwritten note and access to digital material packaged in a biodegradable container.)
When listening to Solar Power, Lorde hopes her listeners feel the passion. "If they don't have a consistent relationship with going outside and paying attention to what's happening out there, then I hope it inspires them to have that be more of a thing in their lives, because it's been really helpful [and] special to me," she says.
On the soft ballad "Stoned at the Nail Salon," Lorde sings about the fear of life slowing down.
"I was building a beautiful life for myself, but I wasn't sure if that life was going to satisfy the same thirsty, fearless person who could tear apart a festival stage or be in seven countries in seven days," she wrote in an email to fans. By the song's end, she realizes that both narratives can be true, embracing the unknown in her life — "whatever that means."
During downtime in 2018, she got Pearl, whom she mentions on the track. Pearl died due to health issues in 2019, which delayed Lorde's work on her third album. While Pearl's passing affected the progress of Solar Power, the details of Lorde's grief might be reserved for her next album. "I sort of am still figuring out how to talk about it, but it's a big loss. It was a shaping force on this record, for sure," she says. After all, it was Pearl's need for the outdoors that inspired Lorde to find comfort in exploring nature.
While Lorde grew up, her listeners, whom she refers to as her kids, were right there with her. "We were 16 at the same time, then we were 21 at the same time, and now we'll be 25 at the same time, and to be able to help them understand these phases in their lives in the way that I've made these albums to try and understand them is such an honour to me, to be able to do that," she says. "I saw a tweet once that said, 'I need Lorde to put another album out, so I know how to feel about this period of my life.' I was like, 'Oh, that's such a big honour,' and so cool that that's how people view what I do."
Many tracks on Solar Power feel like a peek into the intimate conversations of Lorde's mind. "Secrets from a Girl (Who's Seen It All)" is an honest moment in which Lorde talks to listeners who feel lost, reassuring them that they'll be okay while reflecting on her own experiences. The song also features vocals from fellow pop singer Robyn, who — in tandem with Lorde — sounds like an all-knowing Mother Nature. The prismatic track "Mood Ring" feels straight off of a Natalie Imbruglia record and is as hypnotic as its title would suggest, as Lorde details her desire to embrace wellness culture and live in the moment.
In order to stay present, Lorde archived most of her Instagram posts more than three years ago — at press time, only three photos remain. On Twitter, her profile contains only a quote from author Annie Dillard: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." It's clear Lorde no longer spends her days on social media, swapping her screen-time for scenic views of the ocean — and she's better for it. But don't be mistaken, she's still on the internet.
"I'm a crazy addict," she admits. "I love to go on the internet like we all do. It has truly rewired my brain and endorphins are huge that I get from it. But I decided that I needed to retrain my attention a little bit to have good ideas, because I could feel my ideas becoming more short-term and more reactionary. I've got to be able to tell these kids how to feel, and if I can't concentrate for more than five minutes, that's not going to happen. It was really about trying to give my ideas room in my head."
She says her newsletter has helped to sustain a connection with fans: "I get hundreds of these amazing emails, really long correspondences from people's lives. I feel like between that and going on tour [helps.] When you're on tour, you get to talk to people who are interested in what you do."
Lorde is no longer the brooding teen who feels misunderstood. It's an element that will always be a part of Lorde's music, but the singer has grown up. She has retreated from the topics that once got her on top, but Lorde is still sharing her wisdom through a new, grounded lens. "I just feel like [making music] for me and for my kids who are so passionate. It's cool to have your little corner, you know?"
Lorde doesn't seem fearful of becoming out of touch. While she's undoubtedly still a pop star, she's also passing the torch on to the next generation of teens. In the wake of her reign, she has inspired the next generation of pop singers, like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo. She's content with the space she takes up in the mainstream industry.
"In choosing to be totally unplugged and out of the loop, [I know] I'm not going to be the one who is at the centre of culture," she reflects. "That was a real trade that I made, from being 16, and being this force that people were really interested in. People are still interested in me, but it's a different quality of interest and a different type of person. I'm becoming this weird elder stateswoman of pop that never really goes in or out of style but is just there — and I'm down with that."