Is Lorde just another product of the celebrity culture we live in?

Perhaps any confident girl signed at puberty will write like a star. But there’s no hyperactive, Auto-Tune-heavy maximalism here; hers is a minimalist pop palette, in which drumbeats and finger clicks are surrounded by space.

Pure Heroine (Universal)
Lorde

The billboards glower on high streets in black and white, their closest visual neighbour in music being the artwork for Joy Division’s final album, Closer. A young woman poses like a religious icon, dead eyes to the heavens, Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan of Arc for the 21st century. The title would be a lame drug gag in the hands of a punk artist but for a pop singer it works, somehow.

Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as Lorde, is the biggest new star of the year, with a number one single already on both sides of the Atlantic. This song, “Royals”, also soundtracked the arrival of New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, on to his victory platform on 5 November. The weird tableau is on YouTube: a silver-haired Democrat walking through a sea of red flags, while a woman sings in a deep, bluesy voice, “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh/I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies/And I’m not proud of my address/In a torn-up town, no postcode envy.”

In “Royals” and across her record, Lorde, whose pseudonym reflects her love-hate fascination with the titled, sings about young people’s experiences, especially their contradictory reactions to fame. She could be singing about the rich-poor divide in Manhattan, although she was writing about the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, where she grew up. She turned 17 earlier this month.

Politicians plumping for youthful aural support is nothing new. Gordon Brown said he “loved” the Arctic Monkeys (his slice of Lester Bangs criticism: “They are very loud”). But with Lorde comes a self-awareness that shimmers in every part of her presentation.

Her comfortable background plays a part. The daughter of a prize-winning poet and a civil engineer, she was a voracious reader as a child – she has said that she loved Raymond Carver’s economy of style at the age of 12. Signed by Universal when she was 13 after a friend’s father sent a video of her singing a Duffy song at school, she insisted on writing her own material, not recording an album of soul covers.

Lorde’s precociousness extends to her relationship with the media. On 3 November, she retweeted a post from the 17-year-old magazine editor Tavi Gevinson: “‘She giggles, lacing her Chuck Taylors. She may be famous, but she’s still just a kid’ – end of every profile of a well-known young person.” She appears to be analysing everything, acutely aware of the way in which young people are caricatured.

Clever female teens in pop are nothing new. Kate Bush was in her heights of wuthering at 18; Carole King was the same age when she wrote the one-night-stand pop shocker “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”. Perhaps Lorde stands out today because girls in pop exist in such a visual media culture. Rihanna dry-humps a golden throne in a thong in her latest video. Miley Cyrus stares straight at the camera before swinging naked on a wrecking ball.

In the video for “Royals”, Lorde just sings – and she stares. Likewise with the video for “Tennis Court”, the song that opens Pure Heroine. Though its first line smacks of Kevin-the-Teenager-grade ennui (“Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?”), it launches us firmly into the World of Lorde the Pop Star (“How can I fuck with the fun again when I’m known?”).

Perhaps any confident girl signed at puberty will write like a star; perhaps Lorde is another product of the celebrity culture we live in. People who crave fame are able to achieve shades of it quickly these days. Yet her lyrics satirise the pop-star world refreshingly (“I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air,” she sings in “Team”). There’s no hyperactive, Auto-Tune-heavy maximalism here; hers is a minimalist pop palette, in which drumbeats and finger clicks are surrounded by space. The song “400 Lux” starts with a repeated, single, slow drone; “Ribs” takes a whole minute to layer a hazy line of vocals. Lorde’s producer is no hotshot but New Zealand’s Joel Little, who had minor success with pop-punk bands back home. Here are two people from outside the system and they’re certainly refreshing.

Pop’s great heritage of youthful melancholy is also here. Lorde’s voice is a mass of contradictions, its many sweet moments undercut with sourness. In “Buzzcut Season”, with its lovely minor-key chiming bells, there’s a line that she never follows up: “And I’ll never go home again.”

Today’s 17-year-olds know their power and the pivots on which they are placed. They are the children of parents born not into rock’n’roll but into pop, folk, punk, indie and beyond, contemporary music’s rich and varied thick soup. They know how to access and shape the world, adapting their influences, not just absorbing them through a needle. In Lorde’s case – so far, at least – she knows how to make them work, too.

As the chorus of “Still Sane” rings out, that billboard looms large in my mind again. “I’m little,” the lyric deadpans, “but I’m coming for the crown.”

Teenage riot: Lorde's minimalist style is a refreshing contrast to hyperactive mainstream pop. Image: Charles Howell

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser