On this mid-October Friday, San Diego State University’s campus looks like a certain kind of college-goer’s paradise: guys in flip-flops and their tanned female counterparts lounge in the sunbaked quad, chatting about weekend plans, while dudes practice mixed martial arts moves on the lawn. Nearby, inside one of a fleet of buses sitting by the university’s amphitheater, it’s like another planet — cool, dark and still. Lorde, who turns 18 on Nov. 7, sits in a booth, assembling a playlist on her MacBook. She’s wearing stiff Levi’s and a nondescript black T-shirt, her face makeup-free and very pale, a collection of threaded bracelets encircling one wrist.
“Sorry, I need just a minute,” she says, scrolling for the latest mixes from her current project. Every night for the last few months, after playing shows from London to Las Vegas (many sold out), Lorde has come home to the bus. Throughout the tour, she says cheerfully, “I’ve washed my hair before we started moving, taken my dinner with me into my bunk and worked for another four hours.”
She has spent that time curating the third Hunger Games soundtrack, Mockingjay – Part 1, her first project since her 2013 debut, Pure Heroine, which has sold 1.5 million copies in the United States (according to Nielsen SoundScan) and created the kind of hype that could paralyze even a confident young artist. Lionsgate, the Hollywood studio in charge of the movie franchise, which has grossed $1.6 billion worldwide, “basically handed over creative control, and it has been my entire life,” Lorde says with a smile.
It’s the latest coup — and a career-solidifying move — for an artist who went from unknown Kiwi kid to acclaimed pop powerhouse in the last two years. Questlove wrote that her signature hit, the Grammy-winning “Royals,” made passe decades of hip-hop signifiers; Dave Grohl tapped her to sing Nirvana‘s “All Apologies” at the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in April; and David Bowie told her that “listening to you is like listening to tomorrow.” Her close friend Taylor Swift tells Billboard that “she brings an intelligence, an edge and a wit that we haven’t seen in mainstream pop music in a very long time. We play each other new music we’re working on. We cheer each other on. I’m so lucky to have her in my life.”
Add to this almost bizarrely diverse list of admirers Kanye West, her “idol,” who remixed Lorde’s new song, “Yellow Flicker Beat,” for the compilation. (Her version, the soundtrack’s first single, sets defiant lyrics to a lush, pulsing beat, and is quickly climbing Billboard’s Alternative chart. The album comes out Nov. 17, four days ahead of the movie’s Nov. 21 release.) Of course, she did have to cold-call Kanye and ask him to do it, which was no simple thing for her. “I’m the worst person ever at talking to people I don’t know on the phone — I can’t even order pizza,” she says. “I would put off calling him. I’d say, it’s 12:57, I’ll do it at 1.” She wound up hanging out with West in the Malibu, Calif., studio where they assembled the track, although she won’t say more because “he’s private.” Grace Jones, Chemical Brothers, Miguel and Charli XCX also answered Lorde’s calls and contributed new songs to the soundtrack. It was important to her that the collection not feel like her own personal mixtape. “It would’ve been selfish for me to make ambient house music,” she says, laughing. “With a film like that, everyone likes it, not just people like me.”
Overseeing Mockingjay hasn’t merely allowed Lorde to flex her networking muscle. (And meet the movie’s cast of Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Woody Harrelson, among others, which she did in Berlin when she played a concert near one of the sets: “Woody was at the show, being dragged away because it was time to shoot.”) It has allowed her to build on her accomplishments removed from the pressure of delivering a second solo album as inventive and commercially potent as her first one.
Lorde’s looking to build long-term success as something of an outsider. Her heroes are weirdos who made it big, like Bowie (vintage photos of him pepper her Instagram) and Grace Jones (“she just epitomizes strength”). “I’m going to be going for a long time,” she says. And she’s not turning down conventional business in the meantime, including a collaboration with MAC on an inky-plum lipstick called Pure Heroine. Ron Perry — president of Lorde’s publishing company, Songs, and a guiding force in her career — says she is a “combination of a rebel and a CEO.”
The Hunger Gamesbooks and movies — and their themes, as she describes them, of “youth” and “strength” — appealed to Lorde even before she contributed a cover (of Tears for Fears‘ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) to the last soundtrack. Her role in the new one came about when Lionsgate president Eric Feig asked her to record a track for the end credits, and Perry instead suggested that she oversee the album. “At first they were like, ‘You can just do an EP,’ ” the singer recalls, wrinkling her nose. But eventually the studio agreed to a full album with a budget, according to a source, of about $200,000. (The source wouldn’t disclose the details, but Lorde presumably gets a cut of the sales.) “I’d really wanted to A&R a record,” she says. “And I basically got to do that.”
Lionsgate no doubt hopes that Lorde helps reverse the slide from the first soundtrack’s sales (which featured Swift’s hit with The Civil Wars, “Safe & Sound,” and nearly went gold) to the second’s (which moved only 200,000 copies). The last high-profile artist-produced soundtrack, Jay Z‘s The Great Gatsby: Music From Baz Luhrmann’s Film, sold 600,000 copies. And some of this year’s biggest hits have been soundtracks, from Frozen to Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 to The Fault in Our Stars.
In a way, Lorde is like Lawrence, leveraging the Hunger Games franchise for mainstream recognition. Both are precocious, outspoken and well-loved. And, during the last few months, they’ve become chummy enough for Lorde to joke on Twitter about Lawrence’s email address including the word “butt.”
“I knew this was right for me as an artist and I felt it would be cool for my career,” Lorde says of the soundtrack. “People that see me as having a couple of hits and performing on an awards show would see that, between records, I’d committed to a pretty serious body of work.”
That Lorde would care (or admit to caring) what anyone thinks of her might come as a surprise. She’s seen as an imperious rebel, the kind of girl who channeled childhood rejection into an adult identity. But that’s not exactly her story. “As weird as I am with communicating,” she says, “I actually did have a lot of friends in high school.” And while she writes about alienation and insecurity, it’s in the first-person plural, not singular. As in: “we live in cities you’ll never see onscreen” and “we’re so happy when we’re smiling out of fear.” “I live in a beach town, and there are these boats that sit on land, and we would break into them,” she recalls of her high school time. “We’d sit in them all night, doing Ouija boards and telling secrets. I remember that feeling so vividly, like, ‘We are here. It’s us against everything else.’ ”
When she’s not on the road, Lorde, born Ella Yelich-O’Connor, lives with her family in Devonport, New Zealand, a seaside suburb of Auckland. She’s the second of four siblings (two sisters and a brother). Her father, Vic O’Connor, is a civil engineer and her mother, Sonja Yelich, an award-winning poet. Yelich travels with her daughter, acting as a kind of consigliere. A tall and wiry blonde, she dresses like a glamorous occultist (in San Diego: black silk floor-length dress, visible bondage bra, large silver ax necklace) but has the cheerful, can-do manner of a cool soccer mom. “Style is something you just have,” Yelich tells Billboard matter-of-factly. “And Ella had it from the beginning.”
As a kid, Lorde was into theater, but by middle school she formed a duo to sing covers. In 2009, when she was 13, Lorde and the group’s guitarist, Louis McDonald, performed Duffy‘s “Warwick Avenue” at the Belmont Intermediate School talent show. McDonald’s father sent a videoclip to Scott Maclachlan, who was then doing A&R at Universal Music Group. He signed Lorde to a development deal and hooked her up with Joel Little, an established New Zealand rock musician. (McDonald now plays in a New Zealand band called Five Mile Town.) By November 2012, shortly after turning 16, Lorde had written “Royals” with Little and self-released it with her debut, The Love Club EP. In March 2013, UMG officially put out the EP, followed by Pure Heroinein September. “Before I even knew how to make music I would listen to everything,” from pop to electronic music to hip-hop, “and think, ‘Why isn’t there… this?’ ” Lorde says, opening her arms. “Making music was my attempt to put something in that space that I felt wasn’t there.”
Lorde has been described as wise beyond her years — exoticized as a prodigy, a savant, a genius — and also trivialized as a navel-gazing kid. In Billboard this summer, Iggy Azalea criticized her Rock Hall performance by saying, “Lorde is not Kurt Cobain‘s peer.” South Park recently portrayed her — affectionately — as a 45-year-old transgendered geologist (“take that haters i got a south park episode,” the singer wrote on Instagram after posting several clips). “I feel a kinship with her,” says singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, a fan who, after becoming known as Bright Eyes as a teenager, was also labeled a wunderkind. “You don’t think of yourself as any particular age. You’re just doing what you’re doing, and it’s only that people are constantly reminding you how old you are that you have to think about it.”
But Lorde does feel a strong attachment to youth. “I don’t only listen to music by teenagers, but how you feel and respond to things at this age is really special. We’re just cooler,” she says — then puts her head in her hands. “Oh, no! That’s going to be the pull quote: ‘Teenagers are just cooler!’ ” The more she talks about aging, the younger she seems. “The getting-older anxiety is a constant that I’ve learned not to pay attention to because there’s nothing you can do,” she says. “I signed my deal when I was 13. I’ve grown up learning how to deal with people in business and market myself. You’re very aware of your age and the power and worth that comes with that.”
Before she even encountered fame, Lorde felt a little jaded. “When I came into this business I was like, ‘I’m not going to make any friends. Let’s face it.’ ” But she has been pleasantly surprised. “For the most part, people are really great.” She has made an effort to connect with other musicians, including Diplo and Ellie Goulding, whom she “friend-stalked.” And then there’s Taylor. “I tell her everything,” Swift says. The two have been photographed strolling in Malibu, shopping in Los Angeles and gallivanting around New York. “I’m drawn to people [not] for what you see of them [in the media], because that’s a really small part of who they are,” is all Lorde will say of her friendship with Swift. “There’s so much more to people who are in the public eye than what you see.”
Once upon a time — about a year ago — Lorde questioned Swift’s embodiment of a “flawless” ideal in an interview with a New Zealand magazine. (“It was a complete nonissue for me,” Swift now says.) She has also, in various interviews during the last year-and-a-half, singled out Selena Gomez for what she perceived as an anti-feminist message and lamented that kids look up to Justin Bieber. “The thing I regretted is that people knew me for that,” Lorde says of her outspokenness. “Now, if someone does something really stupid, of course I’m going to talk about it. It’s important to me that I’m not just another famous person pretending nothing is wrong. But I’m aware of the fact that everyone is working really hard, and who am I to shit on that?”
Meanwhile, plenty of anonymous online vitriol has been spewed in Lorde’s direction — that she’s lying about her age, or that her mother, the poet, writes her lyrics. Racist slurs also have been leveled against her 24-year-old photographer boyfriend, James Lowe, who is of Asian descent. Lorde won’t discuss the details of their relationship, but acknowledges that he remains in New Zealand.
“[At first] you think, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize people are that mean,'” she says. “But it’s because people don’t really think of you as a person. You’re this entity, this brand.” She pauses. “I had a bit of a realization last year. I was taking things people would say about me quite hard.” She decided that “if something isn’t making me happy or making me better, then it shouldn’t be something that I’m thinking about. After that, everything was OK.” Fame for her is a little like high school. “I never got bullied,” Lorde says, but someone once did throw a rotten pear at her across the quad during lunch. “It hit me so hard in the stomach that it exploded everywhere,” she remembers with a cackle. “Look, you don’t have to do anything in high school to get a rotten pear thrown at you. It’s just what happens, and if you’re annoyed about it, you are silly.”
Having left the bus, we walk across the empty amphitheater Lorde will play that night. The place will soon be packed with California girls dressed like brooding hippies. Asked how she feels about the United States, Lorde replies, “Um, I think I would find it difficult to live here,” she says. “I mean, it’s beautiful! There’s a simplicity here that’s really nice.” She laughs. “I’m trying to think of something to say that won’t get me, what’s it called, deported?”
Lorde will have left the country by late October, though not at the request of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She’s anticipating vacationing in one of the big cities she never gets to see on tour. But first, she’s headed home. She misses her family’s two dogs and cat, and wants to add a bearded dragon — an oddly cute variety of lizard — to the brood. In some ways her home life remains the same. After years of sharing a bedroom with one sister, she recently got her own. In other ways, it’s very different. “This man has been stalking me, photographing me and refusing me privacy,” she tweeted earlier this year, with a photo of a New Zealand paparazzo. “I am scared of him.”
Lorde seems like a goofy teen as often as she does a wise — and sometimes hounded — rock star. Earlier, back on the bus, both sides come together when she plays a track from Mockingjay. “This is just a cover I did,” she says, suddenly shy. Her voice is almost unrecognizably high and fragile as she sings “Ladder Song,” a world-weary 2011 ballad by Bright Eyes. Lorde seems almost unsettled. “I went into the studio with all intention of singing it low and it just… I’ve never sung like that.” Then she straightens up in her seat, entering executive-producer mode. “I don’t know if it will make the album. I hope so.” It does, of course.