In 1968, an unconvinced Connecticut high-schooler wrote and illustrated How to Be a Nonconformist. It was an irreverent, charismatic deconstruction of the cult of marginality. Elissa Jane Karg was 16 years old when she meticulously made her satire and pen-and-ink drawings.
On Sunday, the New Zealand singer-songwriter Ella Yelich-O'Connor arrived at the Danforth Music Hall, full of auburn hair, chilled-gothic ambience and outrageous composure. She works professionally as Lorde, and she’s a bit of a sensation. Like Karg, at age 16, she’s an articulate and amused observer.
Lorde is concerned with the state of being young and the transitions to come. Neil Young wrote that you “can’t be 20 on sugar mountain.” Lorde has seen the barkers and the coloured balloons, but unlike the child-serving Katy Perrys and Avril Lavignes of the pop world, she is mindful of the increasing birthday-cake candles, and not ashamed to admit some fear.
Her assertive, immaculate 60-minute set began with Bravado, a darkened trip of modern R&B and sober electro-pop from her debut EP The Love Club. It’s a personal pep talk, with lines about overcoming shyness and putting up confident fronts. Soon it will become more natural: “But I can take it from here; I’ll find my own bravado.”
Later, on the low-sparking, ghostly lament of Ribs, Lorde referenced the Broken Social Scene – “Lover’s Spit on repeat” – and sounded like a shadowy Stars. “And I’ve never felt more alone; it feels so scary, getting old.”
Lorde’s voice is smoky, rich, and level – vocal acrobatics are not for her. In fact, no acrobatics are for her. In a fairly prim black dress, the picture-perfect artist stayed mostly at centre stage, backed by a keyboardist who often provided moody bass lines and a percussionist who embellished heavy electronic drumbeats with clanks and tinnier snaps. Background vocals were ghostly, layered tapes of Lorde’s own harmonizing.
At times, she would move her shoulders and arms in a quick, jolted manner to the sharpest beats. No one in the sold-out audience ever flinched. Girls shrieked on occasion, while one man made strange cheering woofs. “Is that a Canadian thing,” the singer asked of him, sincerely. “Is it a hockey thing?” No, it is a rube thing.
On Bravado, Lorde sang that she was “raised up to be admired, to be noticed.” The story goes that she began writing songs at age 12. Talent-show success happened eventually, and, after being signed by Universal, she began working with songwriter-producer Joel Little. Released this spring, The Love Club EP featured the hit single Royals, which is also part of her just-out debut album Pure Heroine.
The shimmering, catchy Royals offers another side to Lorde’s lyrical mindset. It’s about reconciling her small-town situation with the audacious lifestyles of the bling-music elite, with their time-piece diamonds, jet planes and islands, and tigers on gold leashes. “We don’t care, we’re not caught up in your love affair,” she sang, probably referring to power couple Jay Z and Beyoncé.
Royals, currently the one of the world’s most popular songs, could have been offered in a more outgoing manner. But the barely lit Lorde and her two sidemen stuck to the script, keeping things close to the ground.
Much like Lana Del Rey, whose mystique (like Lorde’s) was carefully cultivated, Lorde’s music is cool-headed, moody and often reveals a taste for hip-hop. A four-to-the-floor dance beat was occasionally employed, as was the case on a cover of Kanye West’s Hold My Liquor, but it’s not a formula.
I think Karg would have been a fan: One of her sardonic 22 steps on how not to kowtow involves hipsters “singing sombre songs that no one understands … including themselves.” Lorde’s songs are sombre, but they are clear and reasoned. She doesn’t strive to be cool or uncool – she’s her own herd, not unconforming like the rest of the crowd. And, at the moment, she rules.