Hard-won instant success
The rise to worldwide fame of the New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde has by any measure been phenomenal. Less than a year and a half ago she was unknown to the wider world. Then in November 2012 her first EP of five songs, The Love Club, was posted on the on-line music site SoundCloud and the climb into the pop-music stratosphere and global stardom began. Her career began to rocket when The Love Club was released digitally and then on CD in March and May last year and the hypnotically catchy single from it entered the New Zealand Top 40 at No 1.
Since then the prodigiously gifted artist has become ubiquitous. By the middle of the year she had cracked the all-important United States market reaching No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the ultimate arbiter of music-industry success, and staying there for nine weeks. A debut album, Pure Heroine, was released in September to critical acclaim and great commercial success. Her cover version of Everybody Wants to Rule the World featured on the second Hunger Games movie soundtrack. Royals was used by Samsung in a television advertisement for a new computer notebook, to much sour griping from those who thought Samsung missed the anti-materialist point of the lyrics of the song.
By the end of the year she had been nominated for four Grammy awards, the recording industry's equivalent of the Oscars and Emmys. And one would have to be a particularly reclusive hermit not to know that Lorde reached a new pinnacle this week by winning two of the most important awards, for song of the year and for best pop solo performance, at the annual Grammy show in Los Angeles.
It is a stunning achievement. It is not the first time a New Zealander has won at the Grammys. Opera star Kiri Te Kanawa won as long ago as 1983 for a recording of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, arranger Alan Broadbent has won twice, country singer Keith Urban has won four times and the singer Kimbra won as recently as last year. But there is something about Lorde's success that has won New Zealanders' hearts and made it resonate more strongly than might have been expected for a music award.
Part of it is the sheer scale of Lorde's talent. She is a singer of a poise and maturity that would be outstanding in a performer of any age but in a woman still only 17 is astonishing. Her lyrics too, while voicing many of the concerns of a typical 16 or 17-year-old, are extraordinarily accomplished. Lorde is the daughter of the prize-winning poet Sonja Yelich and she has spoken of her deep love of literature, particularly of American authors. It shows, not in the callow, derivative way that might be expected from a teenager but with a skill and articulacy far beyond her years. Another part of Lorde's appeal may also lie in the unaffected naturalness of her stage persona, which by all accounts reflects her real personality.
For all that Lorde appears to be a virtual overnight success it must not be forgotten that it has come on the back of years of hard work. Her love of singing and acting started as long ago as when she was five and her love of reading was well advanced by the time she was 12. Shortly afterwards she won a school talent show. A recording industry talent scout spotted her ability and she was first signed to a music label when she was 13. It took some time before she formed a productive partnership with her co-writer, and co-award winner, Joel Little, and the climb to success began in earnest.
The task now will be to turn her present success into something durable. That will not be easy. The music industry is notorious for its fickleness, demanding constant novelty. This has led some performers, particularly female ones, into some desperate reinventions. That looks unlikely to happen to Lorde. Her success has just begun but all the evidence suggests that there is a depth and integrity to her talent that, should she choose to use it, will give her the capacity to develop a long-lasting and sustainable career as a singer-songwriter.