How Lorde Eclipsed Expectations and Made Nature Her Muse on ‘Solar Power’

Photographs by Lauren Dukoff for Variety

For the 2021 Power of Women issue, Variety spoke with several women in the entertainment industry who are using their voices to benefit worthy causes. For more, click here.

After grappling with teen angst and the shifting sands of early adulthood on her first two albums, Lorde turns to the light on “Solar Power,” released to much anticipatory fanfare on Aug. 20. Inspired by the natural world, it’s a wispy, sun-dappled daydream — and a radical departure from the shadowy, blurry-eyed world the 24-year-old New Zealander usually inhabits. Something else is different: While 52% of U.S. album sales for 2017’s “Melodrama” were physical, according to Alpha Data, Lorde resisted a CD release of “Solar Power,” demonstrating her commitment to slowing the speed of climate change.

Lazy loaded image
Lauren Dukoff for Variety

“The fight to keep carbon dioxide below a certain level in our atmosphere, to keep our planet livable, is going to be the fight that defines my life,” says Lorde (whose real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor) of her decision, and affiliation with the charity 350 Aotearoa. The New Zealand-based organization, an arm of international movement 350, has a simple yet herculean objective: to bring carbon dioxide levels back to 350 parts per million — a level judged safe by climate scientists — in the atmosphere. By eschewing a traditional rollout, Lorde hopes to contribute to that goal by making “people think differently about the act of buying something [and] the act of disposing of something.”

“I try to question the systems that are in place in my job,” the hitmaker elaborates, before explaining how touring “Melodrama” opened her eyes to the environmental impact of being a globally successful artist. “I would see mountains of wasted food or plastic cups after the show,” Lorde remembers. Following the tour, she discovered “a newfound appreciation” for nature, finding salvation in the lush landscape of her antipodean homeland. “The purity of being outside was really magical to me,” Lorde says. “It felt like all the answers were out there, like I could be healed by the natural world.”

When it came to writing her third album, Lorde envisioned a utopia called the Island. “Our society is asking more and more of people in a way that is driving them to the brink,” she says. “I wanted to create a zone where that wasn’t the case.” While many interpreted it as a response to COVID-19, the songs were recorded pre-pandemic. “Nothing about the record was a conscious choice,” she says. “I was in a state of mind that required a different sonic palette.” Lorde found herself listening to the “feather-light voices and acoustic guitars of the early ‘00s,” and followed her muse.

The resulting collection of bright, airy pop songs was jarring for some. “Oh, this sound is so light,” Lorde says, parroting critics. “Yes, it’s light intentionally.” In some ways, “Solar Power” challenges the way we, as listeners, have come to conflate misery with credibility. “I actually think optimism is super cool,” she shrugs. “I begrudge no one what they want from me, but as someone who’s done both, lightness is way harder to achieve than darkness.” And darkness has been her calling card since exploding onto the music scene in 2013 with “Royals.”

Released when Lorde was just 16, the moody anthem spent nine weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and would go on to receive the rare diamond certification by the RIAA for selling 10 million units. A pair of Grammys followed — for song of the year and best pop solo performance — and when Taylor Swift ushered the newcomer into her squad, simultaneously marking the beginning of Lorde’s association with super-producer Jack Antonoff, it was clear that she had ascended to the uppermost echelon of the pop world.

Sonic reinvention is fraught with risk, but Lorde has always been true to herself. “If I’m having a joyful, transcendent time, I’m going to write about that,” she says. “I don’t know if I’d be doing my job very well if people knew exactly what I was going to do. I take it as a massive compliment that people are super surprised.” But the “Green Light” singer knows her new approach could be misconstrued. “I’m aware of the connotations of the basic white woman,” she laughs. “That’s a tool that I’m using to communicate how I’m feeling about a multitude of things.”

Lorde’s application of new-age and wellness tropes is similarly multifaceted. “Almost every symbol that you see or hear mentioned in the ‘Solar Power’ universe is equal parts deeply sincere and deeply comic,” she says. The sage and crystal references in “Mood Ring” are “straight-up satire,” while the fennel bong from her “Solar Power” video has a double meaning. It was mostly to make her brother laugh, but she notes that garlands of the herb were worn by victorious gladiators in ancient Rome as “a symbol of achievement.” That duality intrigues her. “Sometimes the mystery of not knowing [if something is satirical or not] is fun,” she says.

The depth of thought that moors “Solar Power” is particularly apparent on “Fallen Fruit,” a dreamily-strummed ditty about climate change and the dying world that millennials stand to inherit. It’s a musical fuck-you to boomers – complete with a Mamas & the Papas-inspired soundtrack, which was completely intentional. “It was my way of saying, ‘Let me put this in language that you understand,’” Lorde laughs. She is equally ruthless when skewering herself. On “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” the superstar sings about growing out of the music you loved at 16, a lyric that made many bristle. “A lot of people got into my music as a teenager,” Lorde explains. “If you’re ready to move on, it’s all good.”

Despite her pop star status, domesticity is a major theme of “Solar Power,” and not just due to COVID. “There’s a real beauty to it,” Lorde says. “Joni Mitchell encapsulated that so well. She was a towering genius, she was a homemaker, and those things coexisted.” Exploring the minutiae of everyday life, the small and the intimate, had an unexpected consequence. “It’s opened up a whole different side of me as a writer and a thinker,” Lorde says. It’s a topic that used to be off limits. “I’ve lived through times where it was not cool to be empowered by the home,” she says. “I’m definitely seeing, with my girlfriends and the women around me, a shift in that.”

When asked if women’s creative decisions are more closely scrutinized than men’s, Lorde pauses, her already intense stare piercing. “I’m trying to think of how to phrase this,” she considers. “There are specific archetypes that people want you to oscillate between. I’m sure there’s a double standard. I almost don’t think of myself as a female artist sometimes, just because I’m less an object of desire.” She believes this has granted her a certain level of creative freedom.

“I don’t feel bound to the systems of our industry the way a lot of women do, which is a really privileged spot to be in,” Lorde continues. “People have listened to me when I’ve said, ‘This is not something I would ever do.’” Looking at the industry with an outsider’s perspective keeps her grounded. “It’s a game and if you know the rules, you also know how to break them,” she says. “If you think that the industry is real life, you’re going to run into problems. It’s fantasy and archetype.” A part of playing the game is maneuvering into a position of power.

“I feel so empowered being involved in all the different areas of my job that traditionally would be left to someone else, whether it’s something like lighting my show, directing videos, graphic design,” Lorde says. Another key skill for navigating the industry is the ability to stand up for yourself. “Being bold is vital because people are only going to listen to you if you speak up,” she says. It didn’t always come naturally to Lorde. “It’s hard for me – I’m shy, I’m a shy girl. But, you always regret not being bold, and you very rarely regret toughening up and doing it.”

Education is another way of uplifting young women into the music industry, according to Lorde. “So much could come of teaching women how to produce and how to use technical equipment,” she says. “Women need to be valued for not just the emotional nuance they bring to songwriting, but also technical skills.” In addition to being a self-proclaimed “fountain of emotion,” Lorde prides herself on being “a really good producer.” Most significantly, the singer-songwriter credits other female artists with emboldening her. “Whether it’s someone like Britney [Spears], who we’ve all seen go through this terrible thing, or Fiona Apple, there’s always someone who came before you taking it on the chin.”

Styling: Karla Welch/The Wall Group; Makeup: Amber Dreadon/Cloutier Remix; Hair: Cameron Rains/Forward Artists; Cover: Top and Skirt: Valentino Haute Couture; Earrings: Jennifer Fisher; Look 2 (black and white): Top and Pants: Off-White; Earrings: Bondeye Jewelry