At 17, Lorde, real name Ella Yelich-O’Connor, has a US number one single and a multi-platinum debut album to her name. As a consequence the New Zealand teenager now enjoys, if that’s the right word, the sort of profile whereby the Daily Mail Online greets her arrival in the UK with paparazzi shots of her walking through Heathrow while comments below the line say things like: “Applaud her for not covering her acne up. She truly is inspirational.”
That variety of acclaim is liable to knock anyone off course, especially a teenager. But the young woman spotlit alone on stage at Shepherd’s Bush Empire was remarkably composed. She stood backed by a dark drape, wearing a black suit and white shirt, long dark hair tumbling around her shoulders. A measured beat rang out. It was “Glory and Gore”, from her album Pure Heroine, a portrait of high school kids getting up to the usual – drinking, fighting, staying up all night. “In chaos there is calculation,” Lorde sang. “Dropping glasses to hear them break.” Miley Cyrus this wasn’t.
Lorde’s literary pedigree is partly inherited: her mother is a published poet. She was signed to a record label after being talent-scouted singing at school, but refused to record the retro-soul album that the label wanted. Instead she teamed up with producer Joel Little to make Pure Heroine, whose lead single “Royals” was a sleeper hit, ultimately knocking Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” off the top spot of the US charts last year.
Her show at the Empire was impressively conceived. At the second song, “Biting Down”, the drape disappeared to reveal a keyboardist and drummer in white suits below several huge empty picture frames. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. The gothic set-up reflected the dreamy, trip-hop ambience of the songs. Yet Lorde’s bursts of convulsive dancing, all flailing hair and limbs, had a more tempestuous air. Similarly her reverb-treated singing was ornate and stately, reminiscent of Lana Del Rey, but there was an underlying emotiveness too, as with the intensity that quietly built up in her rendition of “Swingin’ Party”.
That song, she explained beforehand, was about the “rites of passage” of throwing a party when your parents are away. It was a gauche remark – but there was nothing gauche about the poise with which she delivered her big number, “Royals”, nor the way she hushed the drummer when his kit malfunctioned during “A World Alone”, the finale, all the while not missing a beat herself. It’s hard to imagine what could knock Lorde off course.