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Lorde on the Rise

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A Savvy Young Pop Singer From New Zealand Attracts Curiosity and, Hopefully, Mobs of Fans




A wavy-haired 16-year-old from the suburbs of New Zealand has captured the attention of her home country (population: 4.5 million). Now the pop singer is working on conquering the rest of the world.

Discovered at a talent show when she was 12 years old, Ella Yelich-O'Conner has spent the last four years honing her skills on a development deal with Universal Records near her home on the outskirts of Auckland. In November, she posted her first EP, "The Love Club," free online. The music was marked by full-bodied vocals and knowing lyrics that belied the singer's age. Identified only as her stage name, Lorde, the artist kept her true identity a mystery for months. The only available representation of her was a drawing of a girl holding a snake.

In an age of instant gratification, this elusive approach to publicity is increasingly popular among labels and artists. It's a delicate courtship in which musicians must seduce success without seeming like they want it. But while playing hard to get can earn an artist respect, it doesn't guarantee record sales.

"I always say mystery makes history," said Charlie Walk, executive vice president of Republic Records, whose Lava imprint signed Lorde this spring. Mr. Walk has been working with a team of Lava employees on raising Lorde's profile. He oversees strategy, which includes marketing and promotion. "But," he said, "a funny thing happens when you don't promote: nothing."

In Lorde's case, things escalated quickly after the online debut of her EP last November. Her song "Royals" was quickly picked up by New Zealand blogs and rose to the top of the country's iTunes charts. Universal Music Group released the EP in the U.S. in March. In May, Lorde released a music video for the song that received more than 100,000 views within 24 hours (it is now above three million).

On June 14, she became the first New Zealand artist to simultaneously have four songs in the country's top 40. "Royals" is now getting airplay around the world and according to Billboard and Nielsen SoundScan, it is the first song by a solo female artist to hit the top 10 of the alternative-music chart in the U.S. since 1997, when Fiona Apple's "Criminal" reached No. 4. Lorde is currently working on a full-length album slated for release Sept. 30.

In early August, she will perform in New York and Los Angeles. Both shows, her first U.S. appearances, are her label's attempt to personally present Lorde to industry insiders, music journalists and bloggers. "It's a process, but we want her to play the right venues, do the right press, licensing her music in the right places, and so on," said Jason Flom, the president of Lava Records, which, like its parent label, Republic, is owned by Universal Music Group.

As the former CEO of Atlantic Records, Virgin Records and Capital Music Group, Mr. Flom is credited with discovering Tori Amos and Matchbox 20. After one listen to Lorde's EP "The Love Club," which had been recommended by a friend of a friend in Australia, he hunted down the artist on Facebook and flew to New Zealand to see her perform and meet her parents. Mr. Flom said he considered bringing her to Los Angeles, New York and London to record with various producers, but ultimately decided not to interrupt her creative process.

The team at Universal is being prudent with publicity. Mr. Walk, of Republic Records, said he is working on creating partnerships with radio stations, concert venues and music publications or blogs that will circulate her music without catapulting it into the mainstream. Instead of sending her music to KIIS, a famous top-40 Los Angeles radio station, they've turned to San Francisco's Live105 and Chicago's Q101, alternative stations that "start playing the good stuff way before everyone else," Mr. Walk said.

This tight-lipped marketing strategy has been recently championed by French electronic producers Daft Punk, who have hidden behind their robot helmets for two decades. On a smaller scale, British producer Burial gained notoriety for maintaining his anonymity for the first two years of his career.

Lorde uploaded her November EP without any accompanying biographical information. Two months later, she revealed her name and a photograph of herself. "I wanted people to listen to it first," she said on a phone call from her recording studio. "People started to get really aggressive about [the mystery], and almost angry. So I just released a shot of me and did a few interviews, because I didn't want it to feel like a scheme."

She said she took her cues from DJ culture. "They have this dissonant cool about them, they're not starving for attention," Lorde said. "Instant gratification can be boring. Mystery is refreshing, and rare in pop music."

Instead of cooing about boys or slinging sexual innuendos, her lyrics condemn conspicuous consumption and narcissistic self-promotion. And as the master of her own image (going by the name "Lorde" was her idea), she keeps things light and low-key. She recently tweeted: "My bank acc situation is way better, now I have twenty six dollars."

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Lorde has just been announced as Frank Ocean's replacement at Splendour tomorrow, get ready for her to blow up <3




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