In this extract from the October 2013 issue of Metro, Ella Yelich-O’Connor demonstrates her obsessive control over her own image, and tells writer Duncan Greive why she’s proud to call herself a feminist.
Photographed by Olivia Hemus.
One August afternoon, I sat in on a meeting between Ella’s manager, Scott Maclachlan, his assistant Amy Goldsmith and Ella. They’re running through the stream of offers, opportunities and decisions which comprise the day-to-day reality of a pop star in waiting. Ella can’t stand to let someone else make too many decisions for her. So most days, wherever she might be, a quickfire meeting will take place.
I watched this at photo shoots, on breaks from interviews and before shows. Today they’re in Maclachlan’s cramped office, with clocks showing the time in New York, London, Sydney and Auckland.
This afternoon’s lengthy agenda starts with her schedule for the remainder of the year. November off: “Yes! I can go back into the studio.” Christmas off too: “Nothing’s going to get in the way of that,” says her mother, Sonja, later. The rest of the year will be wall-to-wall promotion and touring.
The pace of the meeting is brutal. In 15 minutes they cover an impending UK release, Ella’s ideas for the next music video, payment options for a remix and a standing invitation to a writing camp for the next Major Lazer album with Pharrell Williams and Diplo.
Just last year she emailed Maclachlan: “You asked me a while ago who my dream producer would be, and I think these days I’m leaning toward Diplo.” Now things have changed to the point where she can say breezily of the camp, “I thought it’d be cool to swing by for a day.”
It’s not without tetchy moments. Maclachlan mentions a “cover reboot” for the deluxe edition of the album. “That’s very ‘record company’,” says Ella acidly. “I don’t know if we have grounds to completely rehash everything.”
On they plough. Merchandise. “Yes! I’m excited about that. Sweatshirts and short-sleeved T-shirts. Black and grey marl. That’s it.” For advertising, Maclachlan calls in Alister Cain, Universal New Zealand’s head of marketing, and plays an early cut of the television commercial on his computer. Ella wants to keep the date rendered in Roman numerals. It looks crazy. She won’t be moved. After an hour, they’re done.
Afterwards, Cain says that in decades in the industry he’s never come across an artist so engaged with the minutiae of their presentation. He points up at a giant poster of Lana Del Rey. “With her, we could do whatever we liked,” he says.
Ella is frequently compared to Del Rey, although it infuriates her. Both are white women making pop music soaked in the rhythm and attitude of hip hop. But Del Rey has a much more conventional narrative — she had an image makeover prior to her breakout Born to Die album, and co-writes her songs with some of the biggest producers and writers in the industry.
She also sings of men’s centrality to her life: “I will love you till the end of time/ I will wait a million years”. A lyric Ella quotes with disgust. She’s a feminist.
“Absolutely. Wholeheartedly,” she says. “I think women who say, ‘No, I’m not a feminist — I love men,’ I think that is just… You don’t know what it means. You think it means that, ‘I don’t shave under my arms, I burn my bras. Fuck men!’ How could you be so uneducated, and so unwilling to learn about something which is so important to you?”
She’s also conscious of the influence she has on other young women. “Taylor Swift is so flawless, and so unattainable, and I don’t think it’s breeding anything good in young girls. ‘I’m never going to be like Taylor Swift, why can’t I be as pretty as Lorde?’ That’s fucking bullshit,” she says, straining forward for emphasis.
She’s a strange person to spend time with. At times she can just disappear. During a studio session to play back the album one last time before mastering, she closed her eyes, lay down and let the sound wash over her for long periods of time. More often, she’s looking you dead in the eye, waiting intently for a reaction to what she’s saying or scrutinising your every word. If you garble a sentiment or display muddled thinking, she’ll pounce.
You soon forget she’s 16. “I never really treated her like a kid,” says [Ella's co-writer] Joel Little. Metro contributor David Slack is a family friend, and believes her prolific reading — she had read more than 1000 books by 12 — helped to prepare her for this moment. “There’s a steadiness in the way she looks at the world,” he says.
Youth is a source of strength. With adulthood comes doubt, second-guessing, but when you’re young, sometimes you believe you can do anything. Especially when your debut single is a worldwide smash.
This is an edited extract from Storm Singer, by Duncan Greive. Find it in the October 2013 issue of Metro, on sale in New Zealand now. Overseas readers can purchase a copy of the magazine here.