It’s one of those stories where the numbers are out of date by the time you type them, and risk embarrassment by the time they are printed, distributed and read. Still, one number stands inspection – No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts, the pinnacle of weekly pop song sales achievement in the English-speaking world. Ella Yelich-O’Connor, a 16-year old Takapuna Grammar School student, claimed that numeric high in the first week of October. She deserves every accolade she receives (and none of the petty backlash), but Royals was the result of a songwriting partnership with New Zealand’s newest and potentially biggest producer star, Joel Little. He talked Richard Thorne through the writing of Lorde’s breakthrough EP ‘The Love Club’ and its album follow-up ‘Pure Heroine’.
When it came time to name his small, but evidently perfectly formed recording studio in Auckland’s Morningside, Joel Little chose to call it Golden Age Studio – a name he laughingly admits is cheesy, but says he wanted to have a positive outlook.
“I wanted it to reflect the period of music I was going into making here! I used to make stuff in the room under my house before we set this place up, so Golden Age was because this was going to be a good time! And it has been a good time so far.”
Indeed – the best of time as anyone who has heard of Lorde will know. No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 – really there is no higher chart rung to climb to.
Actually, if chart success is your measure, then all of the last decade has been good for Joel. He enjoyed repeated NZ Top 40 success with Goodnight Nurse (in which he was songwriter, guitarist and lead singer), had a hand in the Kids Of 88 local smash hits My House and Just A Little Bit, and even more smashingly now with 2013’s flurry of local chart toppers he co-wrote and produced with Ella Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde.
When we talk, with Lorde’s star charging towards the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and her debut album soon to drop, his studio is being used more for media interviews than recording work. His main work focus has been getting organised for an overseas trip that will see him doing songwriting sessions with various people in London and L.A. – departing days after the Silver Scroll celebrations. It follows a similar trip to L.A. only about month before, which should tell you that Lorde’s is not the only career taking off right now. Joel Little is on track to become producer to the stars, of the future, at least.
“We met with basically every label, looking at what they have coming up, plus a couple of lawyers, because over there lawyers play quite a big role in setting up of the work you are going to do. Spent quite a bit of time talking with my publishers over there [Sony/ATV] about where I wanted to be. And a lot of driving around in shitty traffic, spending an hour trying to get to the next meeting.”
He almost succeeds in making it sound less than glamorous, and is reluctant to go into too much detail, though does say he’s got a big list of artists others have suggested he take a look at.
“A lot of it is like new signings that they’re developing, and that for me is one of my favourite sides of it, working with somebody and helping them develop who they want to be. Especially after all this stuff, I’ve found it really satisfying – as much as it would be working with a big artist when that comes up… It’s about finding an interesting project or voice, somebody that I feel I’d want to go home and listen to the music of.”
There are, as he says, numerous different co-writer/producer approaches, not all of which suit him.
“Some are just ‘100% about hits’ and they are straight up about it. I’m still definitely pop-oriented, but I like stuff that grabs you, that’s interesting in some way and isn’t completely clichéd. There are just lots of ways to work.”
And then there’s the question of where?
“I feel like I’ll be doing a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but will definitely come back and do more work in my own space, that I’m used to, initially.”
But it’s probably good for me to try and work in other places as well. I’ve done it a bit in Australia, most recently with Daniel Johns from Silverchair. He’s working on a new solo album which is going to be really cool. People will be surprised as to where he’s gone when they hear it. It’s definitely pop, but alternative pop, the stuff we’ve been doing is right where my tastes lie.
The two share the same publishers, who organised the hook-up. Johns has got a lot of songs so he will likely be just one of the producers involved on the album. He describes their songs as sounding closer to the R&B of D’Angelo.
“I spent a day with him, which you need to do to see if it could click, and we got on really well. I just went and stayed at his place a few weeks ago and we wrote two other songs there, which are way cooler than the first song. Generally the first you write with someone is not so good because you are both being super polite. These new ones are a lot better. I think we’ll do more, we’ve cracked a couple of good ones but we’re close to potentially getting an even better song or two.”
And he does seem to know a thing or two about good songs. Getting Royals to the top of the main U.S. chart as well as the Billboard Alternative, Rock and Digital Songs charts should tell you that. As noted earlier, his chart-topping songwriter ways began with his own band Goodnight Nurse, were honed with the Kids Of 88 and have reached an apex with Lorde. A trifecta of exponential rewards.
Joel wasn’t the first co-writer/producer that Ella Yelich O’Connor’s management team had put her together with in search of a way to bring out her evident musical potential. He says there were no expectations when they first started working together, other than to try and find a sound the budding young artist was comfortable with, and worked.
“I remember early on she was like, ‘I just want to write with people to figure out if I even want to do music,’ he smiles wryly. “Once we started writing good stuff she started improving rapidly – and getting excited about it. It became pretty clear that she was a natural and it was meant to be. It happened a lot more quickly than anybody expected, even up to the point of having an EP to give away.”
That first meeting was back in December 2011, when Ella had just turned 15. As Joel says however, she isn’t your average teenager.
“We just got along really well, even outside of music, just chatting about stuff. It took us a couple of sessions before we even wrote a song really. We’d start ideas, but again it’s that thing of building a relationship so you feel comfortable to put your ideas forward. Especially with someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience writing. I knew she had amazing lyrics and an amazing voice, I instantly had respect for her in that regard – I’d never written lyrics that good.”
Joel was accustomed to writing musical melodies before lyrics, so building a song around Ella’s lyrics was a quite different challenge.
“I had to re-adjust my approach to make the music suit what she was saying, to capture through the music and melody the essence of what the lyric was. That definitely took a while to click, but then when we did it became something special pretty quickly.”
One week they tried out a different style each day to see what might feel best; cinematic, electronic, vocal-only etc. That last resulted in Million Dollar Bills which is on the EP, and proved a key step.
“After that we felt that we were on the right track. There was hip hop influence in there but it’s not trying to be a hip hop song and it’s still got the pop and alternative sides – and it’s all about her voice as well.”
A term of school passed before Ella returned on her next holidays with the lyrics for Royals, Bravado and Biting Down. It was with Royals he says, that they first felt they’d found her sound.
“I was instantly drawn to the Royals lyrics and then we… made that song! And didn’t think too much of it. I remember going home and maybe even tweeted that we’d made three of the best songs I’ve done in ages with Ella this week (she wasn’t called Lorde at the time), but it was always just the beginning of a project that was going to be a free giveaway. Nothing was really expected to come out of it apart from it being an introduction to a new artist.
“On paper you wouldn’t think that the guy from Goodnight Nurse and this 15 year old girl are going to write a big song, it seems pretty unlikely. I think with her, our strengths and weaknesses combined so that the sum was greater than the parts.
‘The Love Club’ EP eventually required just three weeks of work, with the eponymous single itself arriving right at the end, started on a Friday and finished off on the Monday.
“Most of the songs came together in a couple of days. But we were doing proper studio 12-hour days, which is a lot for somebody that’s not used to that, but she took to it.
The EP that was to make Kiwi music history wasn’t the only subsequently high profile project he undertook in 2012. The V Motion project may have been a television ad for an energy drink but it was successfully PRed into a media event of some significance. (NZM even covered it with Godfrey de Grut’s musical analysis in our Aug/Sept 2012 issue.) A marriage of light, sound and motion, the sound part was handled by Joel and won him a bronze Lion at Cannes for Music Composition.
“The V thing was cool. The guys who did the technical side of things were geniuses. My main role was to come up with a piece of music that could be translated and performed in that realm, and obviously dub step, being electronic and all based around technology it made sense – but also it was the big novelty type of music at that time,” he laughs.
He says he worked on it for a few months on and off, only finishing it a week before Ella came in with those lyrics.
“I remember being super drained when she came in cos we’d been in this intense thing. We came up with the beginning of the Royals chorus and the beat that first day, then sat there with the beat looping and couldn’t think of anything more for the rest of the day. I went home feeling really frustrated about not being able to figure it out, but then the next day we knocked it out.”
Of the park.
Royals has got plenty of life left yet, but when we talk it has bettered platinum in the US with well over two million sales and is selling more than 200,000 copies a week there. Platinum also in Canada, triple-platinum in Australia, double-platinum here in NZ. Does it make sense now I enquire?
“It wasn’t something we thought would be a big smash! You know? he happily admits. “I knew the song had a point of difference and that there was something special about it. But I didn’t realise that it would, I don’t know, I didn’t imagine it would resonate on such a large scale. I can see why, because it is the anti-song of the majority of songs that you hear. It’s not angry, it’s not saying that people singing about that is bad, it’s just saying that, ‘This is my life and that’s the way it is’. I think people have responded to that lyric and her delivery of it, being so genuine.”
That genuine-ness is no accident. As with the other songs on ‘The Love Club’ the main vocal track you hear is what was first recorded.
“When we come up with parts she’ll go in and record it, and I think that helps with capturing the initial feeling, so it feels fresh and feels genuine. Often you can’t recapture that initial burst of inspiration that you have. And I think people were maybe just ready to hear something that was completely different to what they were hearing on radio at the time, in a production sense as well.”
Proof of that comes with the flurry of Lorde-alikes that have appeared since. Canada’s We Are Wilde and Claire from Germany being examples – the suffixed ‘e’ a further tell-tale.
Even before Ella had released ‘The Love Club’ as a free download in November 2012 the pair started work on a follow up EP.
“We had a break over the summer and in January/February we did Tennis Court and a couple of others and by then it got to a point that the call was made to do an album, so we blocked out three and a bit months in here. Started halfway through April and finished that up in July, she was in here every day.”
Tennis Court proved a point, sprinting to the top of NZ’s singles chart mid June and going platinum in Australia the following week. As Joel observes, when you’ve had such huge success with one song it can be a hard act to follow and there is pressure.
“No one’s expecting that to happen again, so having that come out and immediately go #1 was almost like a weight off the shoulders, but also a sign that something pretty special was going on with the whole project.
Tennis Court has another claim as one of the first Lorde tracks where the music came before the lyrics, a turning point for the pair. Joel describes the moment when she sang him the chorus as the moment when he realised she had turned into “… a proper, seriously amazing songwriter.
“She had grown so much as a writer that we didn’t have to do things in any particular way, and it had been such a challenge for me ’cos I had had to do it the other way. We had both got a lot better in the course of working on the EP and then the album, so now there’s nothing holding us back. It’s good to have that.”
‘Pure Heroine’, the album follow up to Lorde’s crazily successful debut EP has been released since we talked, local reviews have praising it as 4-star plus, and most international reviewers rating it similarly high. For his part Joel says it’s more cohesive than the EP in terms of production.
“Her music is fairly minimal so everything you put in there has to fit. There’s a bunch of unfinished songs and few b-sides [left over], but I think the 10 songs on there are definitely the ones that should be. I think they all fit together really well, whereas the EP feels more like an artist in progress, this feels pretty solid for the point that she’s at.”
Joel provided one vocal track to the EP, but on the album all the vocals are Lorde’s, just pitched down for the lower voice parts. The beats were created from his own drum sample library but he played all the instruments, which is to say guitar and synths.
“Electric guitar is used in one song, that was just three chords for two bars then I looped them. That’s kind of what makes the songs, the simplicity and everything just staying out of the way what of what she’s saying.
“There’s a lot of layered vocals in there and when we were doing the EP it was a novelty to stack the vocals, like in The Love Club it was an old 1950s Disney (Princess-film) kind of feel, all ethereal. Of course it takes ages to record it all, structure it and then chop it up, and so as we got into the album we were both reluctant to do that stuff!
Bearing in mind that Royals had yet to reach its U.S. chart zenith, I ask if he has ever felt more confident about his musical future?
“It’s exciting. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a producer, over the last year especially so I’m feeling good about lots of ideas and what is going to happen over the next little while.
“It’s such a ridiculous position to be in where you have been doing it for this long and suddenly one song means that you are considered to be up a level from where you were before. We wrote that song in June or July last year and I’ve done other stuff since, but that is the song that right at this moment is what means I have all these other opportunities. It’s weird the way it all plays out but I am just embracing it.”