"When I heard the album was about a party, I thought it would be very Hollywood," says Katie Gavin, lead singer of L.A. synth-pop trio MUNA about Lorde's forthcoming second LP, Melodrama. We're here to watch the New Zealand ingenue's Sunday night set during Coachella's second weekend, and anticipation is high. Last weekend she played four songs from Melodrama, a concept record Lorde (aka Ella Yelich-O'Connor) has said moves through a party on a night out. In Gavin's opinion, Lorde isn't taking that theme too literally.
"I think it's good she's realized that when you go out at night you chase things and ultimately get disappointed," says Gavin. "I feel like that's what the experience of fame can be like."
I go to watch Lorde with MUNA and another act, LPX (real name: Lizzy Plapinger, half of New York duo MS MR and co-founder of indie label Neon Gold). For breakthrough artists in the alternative-pop space right now, Lorde is a compelling figure. Arriving via the viral success of "Royals," to an outsider she looks to have retained a remarkable amount of her own autonomy and has been consistently commended for her authoritative artistic vision. She's made the pop market far more interesting and accessible, paving the way for other acts looking to self-manifest before being manipulated by the system. Both MUNA and LPX are similarly forthright female propositions, proudly in control of their own direction and business, challenging the pop status quo of old.
It's commendable how easy Lorde makes it all look on her pedestal in her Adidas shell shoes, hyping up the crowd and getting ready to put the Ella in Coachella (sorry). When she emerged with Pure Heroine in 2013, the accolades were so excessive they could have easily debilitated her. "Don't you think that it's boring how people talk" is a lyric that's taken on oddly prophetic meaning with the benefit of hindsight on "Tennis Court," played here tonight.
Lorde never pandered to the world's conversation. She took herself out and went away for two and a half years, received the highest praise from David Bowie and accepted his challenge to become "the future" of pop. Reappearing just last month with new singles "Green Light" and "Liability," she's picked up right where she left off. Coachella is her big return to live performances.
She bookends her set with "Green Light," which is superbly readied for festival audiences just like this, particularly given the infectious, carefree attitude that washes over you when watching Lorde do her own "ugly dancing" (her words) to the track. "Her voice is so fucking on," says Plapinger, blown away by her poise and control.
Beyond the perfection of Lorde's vocals throughout, it's the level of production that signifies a new era for her. The stage is set with a suspended glass box. Inside actors play out scenes of parties, while Lorde dances freely underneath, as if she's dancing in a club alone. When she eventually enters the box to perform "Sober," another new song, she stumbles around inside it like a drunk on a dance floor. Eventually she shoots out the bottom where her backup dancers catch her, like a reveler saved by the cushion of a next day's hungover debrief with friends.
"The box is genius. It's a perfect extension of the world she so seamlessly articulates and inhabits," Plapinger says. "Lorde is such an amazing mirror to her generation." Gavin is impressed by the use of space onstage, adding that it's so much more dynamic for the actors to forego tight choreography and live in a more natural and reactive moment, feeling it out differently each time.
Being a voice of a generation was something Lorde was almost prematurely tasked with. When she was writing Pure Heroine in New Zealand, she was an outsider looking in, taking the microcosm of her social life as a 16-year-old high schooler and beaming it onto a global audience, turning her own tiny world, language and nuances into universal, sing-along anthems. This time around she's already a massive superstar, but she's still hellbent on tapping into the micro and making it macro.
Tonight she seems completely unintimidated by the masses who have come here hungry for a knockout return. She says a friend recently told her that she talks to huge audiences the same way as she would if she was at a dinner party sitting opposite her closest homies. When she sings on "Buzzcut Season" that "we'll never go home again," it's not a notion that makes you fearful or sad for her. She comes across as a star who has her feet firmly on the ground, unafraid to indulge in her own kooky sense of humor.
During new song "Homemade Dynamite," she makes a goofy explosion sound at the end of a verse. Before "Liability" she says, "This is my moment when I get to be a herb." (Gavin looks up "herb" online. According to Urban Dictionary it means "geek" or "dork.") In a speech she gives before "Liability," she starts riffing on "The Heart of the Matter" by Don Henley, a song that her co-conspirator and producer Jack Antonoff turned her on to. "I don't know if you guys care about this," she giggles. It's endearing.
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Beyond the cuteness, however, are pure smarts. On "Liability," she renders herself her own best critic. "The truth is that I am a toy that people enjoy/'Til all the tricks don't work anymore/And then they are bored of me," she coos. "She's just an amazing lyricist," says Naomi McPherson, MUNA's guitarist and resident producer.
"This is just fucking great, isn't it?" says Lorde, bright-eyed and all smiles, immensely at ease. When she launches into "Sober," a track she debuted nine nights ago at Pappy and Harriet's in nearby Joshua Tree, she says, "It's kinda just about being a 20-year-old brat. It's hard being 20. I feel like I'm ruled by my emotions. I can feel like I'm the prettiest person ever and I'm the coolest and the best, and then I'm like, 'Oh no, I hate myself.'"
The record Melodrama, she says, is about "the spectrum of emotions that make up being a young person." As Lorde proves herself to be a shining example to those post-teens and peers who also dream of changing the world in their own way, Gavin looks on and smiles. "I trust that Lorde's somebody who knows how to self-soothe," she says. "She's learning how to be in a relationship with herself. That's something I look for in a creator.”