Lorde, if it wasn’t already clear, has gained recognition through glorification. Ella Yelich-O’Connor was a 16-year-old obsessed with the aristocracy when her confidently cool first album, Pure Heroine, brought suburban New Zealand youth to the same level as popular music that they had never experienced before. In 2017, Melodrama depicted post-breakup indulgence with sparkling synthesizers, portraying one spectacular night on the edge of maturity as if it were a 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.
She wears chic jewelry and a sleeveless black top, but also has a strong fascination with animal bodily functions. This love drives her actions and she embraces her wild side, relinquishing control that may have suppressed it. She enjoys this newfound freedom because she has been in control of her life since a young age, which is a unique experience.
Later, we will discuss more about the dog, Pearl, who has passed away. These may not seem like the most glamorous beginnings for one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year. However, if Solar Power celebrates anything, it is the natural rhythms of life: the ebb and flow of tides, changing seasons, the evolution of emotions, and even the thoughts of a dog. Lorde wanted to capture the feeling of being at home in Auckland, where she lives in peaceful anonymity. There are hardly any paparazzi, and she only appears in the media once in a while, often just to purchase a rug. In 2018, she cleared out most of her posts on Instagram and Twitter and stopped using both platforms altogether. Her greatest joy is the anticipation of a long summer day, filled with possibilities like gardening, swimming, or fishing. She regrets being stuck on Zoom today, the summer solstice, when she would have been able to swim at dawn if she were at home.
The artist explains that the album was inspired by the idea of vulnerability and playfulness, represented by the image of her leaping over the camera and revealing a slight bikini wedgie. She initially reacted with excitement upon seeing the artwork, but also appreciated how it captured a sense of innocence and freedom, with a hint of wildness and spice.
The uncomplicated lifestyle reduced some of her seriousness. She says, “When I was making my debut album, I would have preferred death over using an acoustic guitar. To me, acoustic guitars were associated with bonfires and guys wearing silly hats, which felt very representative of the mid-2000s.” She laughs heartily. “But now, I find myself listening to a lot of guitar music from both 2004 and 1976!”
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This newly discovered convenience does not, however, suggest a stale campfire sing-along. She and co-producer Jack Antonoff “still meticulously examined every single detail! I am obsessed, my ears are unmatched. You cannot fool me.”
The main focus of the Solar Power album’s song and first release is the joyful and transformative experience of being at the beach. It pays homage to the carefree feelings portrayed in Primal Scream’s Loaded and George Michael’s Freedom 90, with their approval. While it may not reach the same level of wild exhilaration as Melodrama’s lead single Green Light, it offers more relatable moments of realization. Some reviewers have dismissed it as insignificant, but Lorde disagrees. She believes Solar Power has a meaningful depth to it, while also being playful and flirtatious.
Lorde’s 2017 album, Melodrama, received widespread critical acclaim. Despite her and Antonoff’s lack of experience, they managed to create the album over the course of two years. However, it did not reach the same commercial success as her previous album, Pure Heroine. Lorde, however, was unfazed by this and stated in 2018 that she is not concerned with the commercial performance of her work. Despite this, her influence in the music industry is still strong, with artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Conan Gray incorporating Lorde’s distinctive vocal harmonies into their own music. Lorde is flattered by this but admits she does not listen to much contemporary pop. She jokingly refers to herself as “patient zero” for a “harmony virus.”
I have listened to half of Solar Power and, unless there are more popular songs hidden elsewhere, it is a much more personal album compared to her previous one. The focus is on Lorde’s signature vocals and classic pop melodies that evoke the haunting beauty of the Carpenters. While Lorde still considers herself a pop artist, she is no longer concerned with whether her music will be played on the radio or fit into a traditional pop category. It will be interesting to see if this unique sound will catch people’s attention.
Lorde describes Solar Power as both joyful and optimistic, however, I am struck by the underlying sadness within the lyrics. The song touches on themes of celebrity, the climate crisis, wellness culture, and the passing of time, all of which contribute to a heavy sense of self-doubt. Lorde herself is surprised and curious about this interpretation, as she didn’t intend for the song to come off as sad. She points to the folk song “Stoned at the Nail Salon” as an example of this uncertainty and loneliness, but for her, these emotions are not permanent or negative. She sees them as a natural part of life and is comfortable with the periods of uncertainty and vulnerability that come with it.
In the song, the singer mentions how the beautiful girls will eventually lose their beauty, comparing them to fading roses. This realization was a new one for her and made her think about the fact that even the glamorous models on Instagram will also age. She is content with this thought and sees it as a reminder that we are all on the same journey and will eventually have to face aging. She reflects on how contemplating the passing of time brought her comfort and how she was finally old enough to consider it. As a child, she never thought about aging because she felt invincible.
She declares that the album is clearly a result of happiness, although it stems from the realizations of sorrow. This brings us back to Pearl. In 2018, feeling drained from touring and yearning for consistency, Lorde made the decision to adopt a dog. “And he would have golden fur, and that would transport me,” she explains. “And it did. He was the perfect guide on tour.” He would lie under the piano as she practiced writing on an instrument for the first time. “To feel this energy that wasn’t coming from me was truly impactful,” she reflects.
Taking care of him allowed her to gain a deeper understanding of her parents and to also think about her own future children. She reflects, “It made me think about things that are more important than my personal emotions on the dancefloor.” She adds with humility, “Even if I had the most terrible day at work, coming home to this being who is happy to see me is a reminder that I did something right today. It was a way for me to shift my focus away from constantly seeking validation through performance reviews. I may not feel as inclined to do that now, but perhaps at that time, I was more driven by it.”
After less than two years of being together, Pearl passed away due to ongoing health problems. Lorde sent an email to her fans informing them that this loss would delay her new album, as the grief was overwhelming and long-lasting. She has yet to revisit the park where they used to take walks. While she doesn’t want to downplay the significance of Pearl’s life, the intensity of her sorrow seemed to represent a larger loss. “You’re right, it was something much bigger,” she reflects. “It encompassed everything. But I’m not sure how much of this I want to discuss with a journalist.” She kindly chuckles and attempts to capture its essence. “Grief is a powerful force of transformation. I had never fully experienced it before, and it forces you to question everything. It uproots 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.
In February 2019, she finally achieved her lifelong dream of visiting Antarctica. She describes the experience as being surrounded by a powerful and primal force. It was both terrifying and beautiful, and she felt like an outsider in the natural world. She refers to it as a spiritual journey and notes the contrast of going from a warm beach in New Zealand to the cold and harsh environment of Antarctica, which served as inspiration for her upcoming record.
She explains that the album is her way of grieving and celebrating the natural world. Fans have interpreted the video for Solar Power, where Lorde frolics on a simple beach inhabited by bored followers, as a political statement. Some believe that her yellow outfit represents the sun deceiving oblivious youth into ignoring climate warnings, or heartless politicians ignoring the crisis while everyone else suffers. Lorde hints that the beach will make more appearances and reveal its secrets in future videos, but clarifies that the album is not solely focused on climate change. As she puts it, “I am not a climate activist, I am a pop star. I contribute to the emissions of a large machine. There is still much I do not understand.”
A highly scrutinized scene in the Solar Power music video shows the artist quickly passing by some garbage, with her stating that she is acknowledging the excessive idealism that is often directed towards her home country. She explains that like any other place, they also have both physical and figurative litter on their beaches. When asked about Jacinda Ardern, a leader who receives worldwide admiration but can be a disappointment for young New Zealanders who view her as too cautious, the artist chooses not to comment. She simply acknowledges that there are many issues that need to be addressed in her country.
She aimed to dispel any notion that she held all the solutions. The first track of the album, The Path, takes place at the 2016 Met Gala, where Lorde takes a fork for her mother, watches “supermodels dancing around a pharaoh’s tomb”, and then confesses: “If you’re searching for a savior, I am not that person.” She acknowledges it may seem like an unusual starting point, “but I am aware of how people perceive me – we are conditioned to see celebrities as divine beings now – and I simply wanted to break down that perception.”
The song “Fallen Fruit” reflects on the disappointment of inheriting a spoiled world, while also serving as a flower-power lament. However, this is the only protest song. The artist remembers Mark Rylance’s advice to create love stories about the climate, as the opposite approach has been proven to be ineffective. She believes that these songs are ultimately love stories, but acknowledges that love can be a complex emotion.
The flower-children who are missing in the Solar Power video and the unhappy girls in the album’s lyrics who use weed, manicures, and crystals to cope with emptiness are reminiscent of a quote in Lorde’s Instagram bio. The quote is from Joan Didion’s 1967 essay, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which discusses dropouts and psychedelics in Haight-Ashbury. At first glance, the quote “a return to innocence – the mysteries of the blood – an itch for the transcendental” may seem like a statement of Lorde’s artistic intentions. However, when considered in its original context, the quote is actually from a psychiatrist’s evaluation of how romantic movements that arise during times of crisis often lead to authoritarianism.
Could it be possible that there are even darker times ahead for the younger generation who have turned to unconventional means due to the lack of traditional support systems? While hesitant to give away too many details, she playfully hints at this possibility. She has extensively researched the drop-out and communal living movements, and sees similarities between the ideological struggles of the past and those of today. She believes that it will all make sense in the future, but for now, it’s an exciting and fruitful topic to explore.
During the pandemic, Lorde resided in New Zealand, a country that was minimally affected by the spread of Covid. She admits to feeling disconnected from the larger cultural impact of the pandemic. However, she has never felt more content and believes that disconnecting from the online world has allowed her to tap into her potential and discover new abilities. This is an incredibly thrilling experience for her.
She made the decision to leave social media and convert her phone into a basic device – she demonstrates the greyscale screen, believed to reduce constant checking – after coming across Annie Dillard’s saying: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” She repeats this statement with conviction. “I couldn’t continue living like this, it couldn’t be all there is.” While social media was enjoyable for a while, she believes it began to affect her brain patterns and limit her ability to think independently. She felt like she was losing her free will. She chuckles, still amazed. “I was so addicted. Being able to step away from it has given me a sense of control, creativity, and confidence.”
I inquire via email if she has concerns about losing connection, particularly when creating pieces that touch on generational challenges. She responds, “I believe that falling out of touch has actually been beneficial for me emotionally and creatively during my 20s.” She acknowledges that this ability to disconnect is a privilege in terms of social and economic status. She believes that others rely on her ability to view the world objectively in order to write about it, and she cannot maintain an online presence while also fulfilling this role. She states that her work can be authentic and intimate because of these limitations.
After reading Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing, which promotes resisting productivity, she became motivated to disconnect from the internet. She wishes for her upcoming album Solar Power to have the same effect on her fans, helping them refocus their attention. For her, the simple act of walking her dog for 45 minutes twice a day at the park had a profound impact.
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