Anatomy of a Moment: Lorde takes Splendour
(Lorde at Splendour photo: Tim Da-Rin)
This week at TheVine sees the introduction of a brand new column. Anatomy of a Moment operates as an oral history of watershed moments in music, an analysis of what made them so special presented in the words of those who took part.
Early on the morning of Sunday 28 July 2013, Ella Yelich-O’Connor sat in the departures lounge of Auckland International Airport, waiting to board a flight to the Gold Coast. The diminutive 16-year-old didn’t yet know it, but she was about to become the centre of one of the biggest music stories of the year.
Yelich-O’Connor is Lorde, whose music has in recent months hit like a smart bomb on the US, Australian and New Zealand charts. It was only the Friday night before that she’d been asked to perform at one of Australia’s biggest music festivals, Splendour in the Grass – a last minute replacement for headliner Frank Ocean after the American damaged his vocal cords. Now she sat at the airport with manager Scott Maclachlan, keyboardist Jimmy MacDonald, drummer Ben Barter and soundman Matt Tucker – a gang of five not quite knowing what they’d gotten themselves into.
Later that Sunday, Lorde would take the stage in front of a packed audience in Splendour’s Supertop tent. Her performance would end up making waves across the western music press – particularly in Australia and New Zealand. A month on, 'Royals' would reach the number one spot on the Billboard Alternative Songs Chart in the US, making her the first female solo artist to do so since Tracey Bonham's 'Mother Mother', in 1996.
Three weeks later the dust on that performance has settled somewhat, and TheVine wanted to know how it all came together: what the performance meant to Splendour in the Grass, and what it might yet mean to Yelich-O’Connor’s career. So we spoke to many of the people involved to find out. This is their story.
Friday 26 July - 2:00pm
Paul Piticco (promoter, Splendour in the Grass): Whenever you get a call as a promoter and the opening line is, “Have you spoken to so-and-so yet?” and you haven’t, you know it’s bad. It had been a very memorable morning, when we were dealing with a whole bunch of external issues – trying to process people onto the site for the first time, buses and all kinds of stuff. That was all just starting to simmer down. And then this happened.
Sarah Smith (journalist, FasterLouder): It started coming in via email – this industry rumour that Frank Ocean had cancelled out of the festival. We’d reviewed the Thursday night Melbourne show where he’d had throat issues and only played a shortened set, so it wouldn’t have been totally surprising.
Genevieve Rosen (journalist, TheVine): Mid to late Friday afternoon, that’s when news really broke about Ocean. I was one of the first to find out backstage because reception around the site was pretty poor. After a while, when I ran into people I stopped telling them that Frank Ocean had pulled out, because they were so disappointed.
Jake Stone (singer-songwriter, Bluejuice): We heard through the festival on Friday afternoon that [Ocean] wasn’t going to be playing. Everyone was a bit upset. When one of the headline acts for the festival cancels, it sort of sucks.
Natalie Hortz (punter, three-day ticket holder): At first I thought it was a joke, but the news spread pretty quickly. I was bummed but thought, “I’ll be fine.” It solved a clash for me. But one of my best friends, in particular, was devastated.
Sarah Smith: I was walking along the Global Village section and there was some guy yelling and singing Frank Ocean songs, and he had a crowd of people around him who all seemed pretty upset about it (laughs).
Paul Piticco: There was a third who were really sad for Frank and his health. There was a third who were like, “Jesus, Splendour! What a letdown!” (laughs) And then there was a third who were like, “Now I don’t need to have to stand next to my girlfriend crying for an hour and a bit.” We moved on. You’ve gotta move on. There are 25,000 people there having a good time and you’ve got to continue to make that happen. We were really bummed about it, but Splendour is bigger than one artist.
Paul Piticco: We thought about what we could offer. Something that we could pull together quickly that would placate people. It was Richard Moffat, one of our bookers, who suggested Lorde – she was on the up, she was extremely cool, and she had a US alternative number one single on the way. There was some hesitation that she hadn’t played such a big festival before, but her music was fantastic and in terms of handing a big crowd in a live arena in this country, she was no more or less tested than Frank Ocean, really. Daniel Sant, her agent in Australia, is the guy we ended up doing the final deal with.
Scott Maclachlan (manager, Lorde): I was just chilling with my wife at home in Auckland. At about 10:30pm she headed off to bed, and I was checking on UK emails – that’s when Dan’s call came through.
We were actually offered Splendour a couple of months previously and had decided not to do it. We were concentrating on America and New Zealand. But then things obviously escalated very quickly in the following weeks. So I made a quick internal calculation – it’s a big crowd, a great festival, great line-up very well organised, and the timing was now a lot better. Suddenly, it was the right thing to do. So I started the ring around.
Ella Yelich-O’Connor (Lorde): It was 11:30pm on the Friday. I got a text from Scott saying that Frank Ocean had pulled out and they’d asked me to join the festival. But I was at a party and I didn’t know what Splendour in the Grass was (laughs). So I read the text and then just left it – I dunno, I wasn’t thinking straight or something!
Scott Maclachlan: I was texting around to Ella and the band and her father. They were all at parties. So I ended up calling. I asked her, “Do you fancy doing it?”
Ella Yelich-O’Connor: I said, “OK.” It was a very snap decision on my part. And all my friends were like, “Get off the phone! Get back to the party!” (laughs)
Jimmy MacDonald (keyboardist/producer, Lorde): Me and Ben (Barter, Lorde drummer) were at a house party in Auckland. We were pretty much half-cut (laughs). Scott sent us a text asking if we were free on Sunday. We thought, “We’re not doing anything else this weekend!” I used to live in Sydney so knew about Splendour from those days. I knew how big it was. But we didn’t go home. We actually stayed at the party, I think.
Scott Maclachlan: I told Ella, “The band’s available.” Matt Tucker, our sound guy, was available. Our Australian tour manager was available. “But I need to speak to your dad,” I said. “I’ll get hold of him but you talk to him also and see what he thinks.”
Ella Yelich-O’Connor: My dad had to give permission. He called me: “They’ve offered you this spot at this festival? Is it something you’d want to do?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’d be into it.” I didn’t really have anything else to do that weekend. I knew nothing about Splendour so I was quite relaxed about it. I think I got home at something like 2am.
Scott Maclachlan: In the space of about two hours we’d kinda nailed it.
Paul Piticco: From the time of the initial idea to the time we were on the phone concluding something, it was pretty much three or four hours. We had a list of other artists, but Lorde was at the top of the list. We were back on track.
Saturday 27 July - 8:00am
Ella Yelich-O’Connor: We had a rehearsal the next morning and it went well. We felt like the set was really tight. But Ben was the most hung-over he’s ever been in his life.
Jimmy MacDonald: (laughs) I’ve never seen Ben like that, eh. It was easily the worst I’ve ever seen him at any point. But the rehearsal was really good. We were already rehearsing quite a bit for our trip to the States. We had the set list sorted out. I always like to pre-plan it. I hate leaving it until the last minute.
Paul Piticco: I think we published the new playing times on Saturday afternoon. Basically, the playing order stayed the same. We moved everyone up and Lorde slotted in just before The Rubens in the Supertop. We had to obviously talk to Of Monsters and Men and make sure they were OK with closing the show. Everybody was very cool, very calm, very helpful.
Sarah Smith: I thought it was genius. It was a really, really great replacement. If there was one artist who could come in who had a really big amount of buzz around her, she was it. And the fact that she was close by in New Zealand, it couldn’t have worked better.
Jimmy MacDonald: Ben and I had just bought a bunch of new gear, and I was real on edge about using it for the first time. So for the rest of the day I was fiddling and noodling with stuff, and reading manuals and stuff like that. Almost the first time I’ve ever done that (laughs).
Scott Maclachlan: For me, it was just the logistics. The flights and that sort of thing. And I always have to finesse it with my family and my kids: “Daddy’s going away again.” The last minute ones are always tricky, particularly when it’s on the weekend. But other than that it was just a relaxing day. The calm before the storm.
Natalie Hortz: It was funny: at the festival on Saturday night we saw Drapht and he got the crowd chanting, “Fuck Frank Ocean!” (laughs) That was pretty awesome.
Ella Yelich-O’Connor: I spent the day at a mate’s house and mucked around. I got home at 10pm and my mum was super annoyed with me: “You’re going to Splendour in the Grass tomorrow!”