ĀteaSeptember 9, 2021

‘I’m beginning a journey’: The inside story of Lorde’s surprise mini-album in te reo Māori


Exclusive: Ahead of Te Wiki o Te Reo, Lorde today releases Te Ao Mārama, five songs from Solar Power re-recorded in te reo Māori, the Indigenous language of Aotearoa New Zealand. Leonie Hayden meets the language champions that brought the project to life, and the pop star who became their student.

Illustrations by Miriama Grace-Smith (Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Toarangatira, Ngāti Porou).

‘No, this just doesn’t sing well in te reo Māori.”

Ella Yelich-O’Connor is working on a new project – re-recording five songs from Solar Power in te reo Māori – and one of her collaborators, translator Hana Mereraiha, is unsatisfied. The line giving them trouble is from ‘Oceanic Feeling’ and encapsulates Yelich-O’Connor’s progression from the moody teenager of Pure Heroine to the carefree, sun-worshipping Lorde of Solar Power.

“Now the black lipstick’s gathering dust in a drawer, I don’t need her any more.”

“Ko taku pani ngutu papango ki te hautō” is the literal translation, but the cadence doesn’t sound or feel right. Mereraiha needs to know what the lipstick represents. Yelich-O’Connor explains: “Well, I was young and insecure, and so my black lipstick was almost like my armour – it made me feel safe, but I don’t need it any more.”

There’s a saying in te reo Māori: Whitikina koe e te rā, ko tō atārangi ka mahue ki muri. May the sun shine upon you and cast your shadows behind you. “It’s like claiming your power,” Mereraiha explains. It’s perfect, and becomes one of Yelich-O’Connor’s favourite lines.

Read more:

Lorde’s Te Ao Mārama: Behind the songs

Five months later, Yelich-O’Connor, the 24-year-old pop star known as Lorde, is wrapped up in a white robe in her New York hotel. She’s framed by a window looking out onto the street below, animated by the subject of re-recording the songs on her new album into a language in which she is not fluent. Te Ao Mārama, the renamed mini-album, means “world of light”. It’s a play on Solar Power and “mai te pō ki te ao mārama”, the transition from night to the enlightened world that comprises part of the Māori creation narrative (similar to Adam and Eve’s apple, but from the point of view that knowledge is a good thing).

Te Ao Mārama album artwork, recoloured ‘Serene’ by Rei Hamon (1916-2008, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga a Māhaki)

Having navigated adolescence on her 2013 debut album Pure Heroine, which skyrocketed her to global stardom at the age of 16, and partying in 2017’s Melodrama, Solar Power finds Yelich-O’Connor musing on Aotearoa New Zealand and the wonders of the natural world. She says it was last year, while thinking about what it means to be an “ambassador” for her country, that she realised her ties to a beloved swimming spot held a much deeper meaning.

“I started writing about jumping off Bulli Point, which was something that my dad had done, his grandfather had done, and that I hope my children will do. That feeling of being in a body of water that you have a generational connection to,” she says.

“I was writing an album about the spiritual power of the natural world, specifically in the context of where we’re from, and I realised; oh, there’s a word for this – it’s kaitiakitanga.”

Kaitiakitanga is a concept broadly meaning guardianship. As in so many Indigenous cultures, it’s an integral role Māori play in protecting the natural world, of which we are an interconnected part. Animals, mountains, waterways, land, even stars, are ancestors and family. “Nō hea koe? Where are you from?” is the most common conversation starter, meaning not “where do you live?” but “what lands are you connected to?”

Yelich-O’Connor calls her best friend’s aunties, Marion and Sandra Wihongi, the “unsung heroes” of the project. They were the first people she approached with her idea. “I was like, you guys are the smartest people that I know. Should I even do this? What’s the way here?”

After consulting with friends, colleagues and elders, the sisters “put together a bit of a document for me, just sort of helping me understand what would be right”.

The question of what is right is a complex one. There is a cohort that believe te reo Māori should only be spoken by Māori. After concerted attempts by the state to eradicate the language over the past 150 years, it’s hard to blame them for being reluctant to share such a fragile gift.

Ask any young Māori person with ties to their ancestral histories (which sadly, many don’t have) and they’ll likely tell you a terrible story of parents or grandparents being caned, and worse, for speaking te reo Māori at school.

The Māori language has suffered terrible injustices. After the grand promises of a united nation made by the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 were cast aside in favour of a shameless British land grab, not to mention the attempted genocide of certain iwi during the New Zealand wars, successive governments turned to the great assimilation project: Māori would become quiet, English-speaking facsimiles of their white co-patriots, while accepting their status as second class citizens.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.

However, access to equity eludes tangata whenua by nearly every metric you care to name. Māori musicians are paid less on average than their non-Māori peers, even though contemporary songwriters who compose in te reo Māori, such as Maisey Rika, Maimoa, and Rob Ruha, enjoy huge streaming success and command large audiences. Similarly, kapa haka, traditional Māori song and dance, draws in crowds of thousands across the country. Yet on commercial radio, where local appetites are fed a steady diet of American music, the language is all but silent.

Yelich-O’Connor says aside from learning a few simple songs, her schooling on Auckland’s North Shore had left her ill prepared for the challenge of recording in te reo. Barring the naval base that sits sentry at its north east end, the “historical” seaside village of Devonport where she grew up has never been known for its diverse population (or showing respect for its first inhabitants) – even less so now that the median price for a family home there is more than $2 million.

“It wasn’t something that was a big part of my life, and it was something that I had sort of sadness and a little bit of guilt around,” she admits. And while she knew paying tribute to tangata whenua was an important step to take, she was nervous.

“It’s kind of scary to start any journey, but I guess that’s my thing; I am at the very beginning, and this project is a starting point. It felt really big when we were doing it. It was heavy. It was really emotional. I’d never had any writing or recording experience like it. It was really powerful.”

Many of the language’s staunchest proponents work hard to create an Aotearoa where everyone celebrates learning and speaking te reo Māori. As the reasoning goes: understand our language, understand us. Luckily for Yelich-O’Connor, a powerhouse team of language experts were waiting to make her nervous hopes a reality.

Constant disruption by Māori activists and community leaders has continued to challenge Aotearoa to be better. Leaders like Dame Hinewehi Mohi, the Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāi Tūhoe singer, music therapy advocate and language champion who, in 1999, was asked to sing the New Zealand national anthem at the Rugby World Cup quarter final in London. Mohi decided that she would seize the opportunity: she sang it in te reo Māori.

Looking back, Mohi (who was made a dame in June for services to Māori, music and television) says she wasn’t trying to be political – it just felt natural. The reception in the UK had been rapturous; after all, the All Blacks rugby team had been performing haka for decades. But when she returned home, a disgruntled public demanded to know what she thought she was doing.

“It was a difficult time. Talkback radio was the mouthpiece of the people and not social media.,” she says, her small frame enveloped by a large couch at her Auckland office. “It was a really loud voice of distaste, which if you dig deeper is encoded with ‘It’s not important to us… it doesn’t represent us’.”

Fast forward 22 years, and singing our anthem in both English and te reo Māori has been the norm since, thanks to the national conversation Mohi provoked.

Instead of feeling bitter about how she was treated, Mohi chose to use it as a yardstick to measure how far we’ve come. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of that day, Mohi curated and produced a compilation of songs by New Zealand’s most popular artists, recorded in te reo Māori. Waiata/Anthems, released on Universal Music New Zealand (the record label that signed Lorde at the age of 12), debuted at number one on New Zealand’s album chart.

“You see… the young ones are unfazed by it. It’s really only the old farts that are struggling to come to terms with it,” she says with a smile.

Today, Mohi works as the Māori development leader for Apra Amcos, New Zealand’s music rights agency. She works with labels, artists and agencies to broaden their bilingual capacity. “All our strategy planning for a bilingual music industry centres around this shared commitment to te reo Māori, and all that it encompasses: how it enriches us, and empowers us, and connects us to our cultural identity. It’s all about nationhood and sharing.”

Through her relationship with Universal Music she was a natural fit to help them bring Te Ao Mārama to life, calling on a team of trusted mātanga Māori to guide the way, including Sir Tīmoti Kāretu (one of the country’s foremost language experts), Hana Mereraiha and Hēmi Kelly. Mohi also sings on ‘Hua Pirau’ (Fallen Fruit), a song about the state of the climate left behind by older generations, translated by Kāretu.

She laughs when she remembers preparing Yelich-O’Connor for her audience with the inimitable Kāretu. “Some people are hugely intimidated by Tīmoti, because he takes no prisoners, but I had warned Ella before going to meet him that he can be really full-on, and to not freak out; it’s just his way of sussing them out.

“I had said to Tīmoti, ‘Look, she’s an incredible songwriter, and this will be an amazing platform for te reo Maori – the scope for it is massive’. Anyone who appreciates and has a commitment like that to te reo Maori, Tīmoti loves from the get-go.”

She calls Yelich-O’Connor an “old soul” and a “sweet heart”.

“It really warms my heart to know that young ones like Ella are going to absolutely make a commitment to this. Actions speak louder than words, but her words, through her actions, and vice versa, are going to really resonate, and I just love that. I love it to bits.”

As for misgivings, Mohi is adamant the good outweighs anything to be fearful of. Noting things like the 2020 TikTok haka challenge, where scores of Americans (including the Kardashian children) mangled the haka ‘Ka Mate’, composed by Ngāti Toa Rangatira chief Te Rauparaha, she says it’s understandable to have mixed feelings.

“I think the most important thing is to do these kinds of projects with integrity. As we break down all those fears that people might have, then we’ll get an amazing perspective of ourselves and how we fit into the world, and you won’t see any more placards saying ‘stop ramming Māori down our throats’. Eventually.”

The 1970s saw a wave of direct action triggered by sacred Māori land – that had been stolen by the Crown – being put up for sale to wealthy, private landowners. Thousands marched the length of the North Island to cry “not one acre more” on the steps of parliament. The Waitangi Tribunal was formed to bear witness to numerous breaches of the Treaty and the terrible intergenerational trauma they had caused, to help the government redress historical injustices (an imperfect process at odds with the Māori worldview in so many ways).

In 1980 it was the turn of the Māori language movement to be heard. Te reo Māori had survived, but only just. With no recognition in law, let alone everyday public life, advocates took to the streets to demand that the Māori language be given equal status with English. A claim with the Waitangi Tribunal followed, that argued “taonga” were protected under the Treaty of Waitangi and that te reo Māori was without doubt one of our most valued treasures.

In 1987 it became an “official” language of New Zealand and the Māori Language Commission was established. Its first commissioner, Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, has witnessed it all.

Now 84 years old, Kāretu is a tōtara in the te reo Māori movement; equally respected, loved and feared. The fear is well founded – he has a sharp tongue, but an even sharper mind. The Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe scholar has dedicated his life to language revitalisation as a school teacher, professor, kapa haka tutor, composer and author.

He can also speak French and German, which he taught at high schools in the 1960s, but when asked which languages he speaks, he replies: “I only speak te reo Māori.”

For 15 years, Kāretu taught at the exclusive Te Panekiretanga academy, the country’s highest seat of learning for te reo Māori. Under Kāretu and his co-founders Pou Temara and Te Wharehuia Milroy (whose passing marked the disestablishment of the school in 2019), anything less than 90% on a paper was failed.

Through Mohi, his longtime friend and collaborator, Kāretu has lent his considerable expertise to the translating of songs for her projects with Universal Music – nine on the Waiata/Anthems compilation, and ‘Hua Pirau’ on Te Ao Mārama. He calls it an “interesting field”.

“The command of English of contemporary composers is really quite interesting; it makes you wonder if they’re native speakers of English at all,” he deadpans. It’s typically brutal analysis, but one not reserved just for English speakers. “The same is true of some haka on the Te Matatini stage,” he says, referring to the prestigious biennial national kapa haka competition. “You sometimes think, well, what are they trying to say?”

Translation in music is an art form that deals in intent, rather than facsimile, he says: “Once you’ve done a translation you need to talk to the composer to make sure you’ve conveyed what he or she wants. Sometimes I’ve said, well, if that’s what you intended, then why the hell didn’t you say that? But that’s how artists are. They’re creative and I suppose that’s what makes them interesting to us. They’re not ordinary people.”

Despite the fragility with which some treat the language, Kāretu has no reservations about te reo Māori finding its way to a large global audience through Te Ao Mārama. “Any platform where the language is, is good for the language. It gives it a reputation and an audience it wouldn’t have ordinarily… as long as they pronounce it correctly. Ella’s pronunciation was really quite good. As long as composers listen to you, then you’re fine.”

Kāretu says he recognises the trauma and shame that is experienced by Māori who can’t speak their language, and how the use of it by non-Māori may affect them. He’s seen it first-hand, describing a “salient difference” in working with Māori artists that can’t speak the language, and enthusiastic Pākehā learners, like Yelich-O’Connor.

“I have been really quite concerned about [those Māori artists] whose desire comes from a different angle. That reaches you much more strongly. That’s not to say Ella’s desire is shallow, but hers doesn’t come from the same hurt.”

True to his fierce reputation, however, he says he’s not prepared to dance around anyone’s feelings. “Tough it out!” he says with a chuckle. “No, you feel the difference and you work with the difference. But we don’t have to stay at a point of ignorance for the rest of our lives. We can do something about it if we want to, and I admire all those that do.”

Befitting of his status, Yelich-O’Connor travelled to his hometown of Waimārama in Hawke’s Bay earlier in the year to spend time with him.

He describes her as a “very likeable lady”.

In return, Yelich-O’Connor describes him as “funny and witty and kind of brutal”. She admits she was unsure of the reception she’d receive: “He looms so large over the language movement, and he’s such an icon. I wasn’t sure what he would be like. But it was important to meet him, and for him to meet me and sort of sniff me out, because he does that; he sniffs you out. He’s like, ‘So, what are you doing this for?’”

The pair bonded over his “favourite city in the world” and her home-away-from-home, New York: “He’s so well-travelled – knows New York intimately, has seen every Broadway show. He’s a man of so many cultures.”

Many of Kāretu’s New York trips have been while taking Te Panekiretanga classes to visit with Indigenous groups in North America and Hawai’i, where he spent a sabbatical year at the university there. He’s all too aware of the acute language loss suffered by all Indigenous cultures.

“We would go over to exchange ideas, and to see, in our case, where we’re at in terms of the language. The rule was always no English spoken unless you have to speak to someone who doesn’t understand, and the Native Americans were always really interested to hear that. We would encourage them, and they would encourage us. To keep on fighting.”

He’s hoping that this release could inspire musicians in other countries to showcase their own Indigenous languages. “It might give an idea to a singer in the United States or Canada to try and use one of the local languages in their singing, and work with those Indigenous peoples. It’s a positive all round.”

For all the struggle he’s seen, Kāretu remains hopeful that the revitalisation efforts of his peers and those who’ve come after are paying off. “This generation, of 20- to 40-year-olds, are much more fluent than their grandparents. The parents of this generation do not speak Māori as a consequence of what their parents went through, but were forward thinking enough to put their children into schools where it was taught. I doff my hat to that generation of parents,” he says.

“But the young ones coming up, they want to get it right. They very much have my support and my admiration.”

The role of the translator is not straightforward. Te reo Māori uses a lot of metaphorical imagery from the natural world to convey meaning. Add to that different dialects across the country, with their own landmarks and stories and specific references, and you’ll find no two translators who interpret things identically. This is especially true when, as Kāretu puts it, you’re interpreting ideas instead of words.

Solar Power isn’t just Yelich-O’Connor’s reflection on the natural world; it’s the New Zealand sun reflecting off the international pop star, Lorde. It was the translators’ job to take those themes and transpose them into a Māori understanding of te taiao – to do it any other way wouldn’t make sense to a te reo Māori speaker.

Of the three translators on Te Ao Mārama, it was Hana Mereraiha who worked most closely with Yelich-O’Connor, translating three of the five songs – ‘Ara Tika’ (The Path), ‘Mata Kohore’ (Stoned At the Nail Salon) and ‘Hine-i-te-Awatea’ (Oceanic Feeling) – and working with the singer prior to recording and in the studio to coach her pronunciation. Her cousin, te reo Māori teacher and a former student of Kāretu’s, Hēmi Kelly, translated the last song, ‘Te Ao Mārama’ (Solar Power).

Yelich-O’Connor says she was careful to give Mereraiha the backstory of every song. “I’d taken each song line by line, and had really gone into it deeply. So, Hana had a good understanding of where I was at, and was able to then take the translations to a more metaphorical place, or just invoke a figure that felt pertinent to her.”

Mereraiha admits she was surprised to find many of the lyrics so relatable. “­When I was going through, i ruku au ki te wānanga i āna kupu, studying her words, I found myself in her kupu. Who would have thought that connection would be made, and that I would see some of my own narratives? Apart from the line about being a teen millionaire,” she laughs. “But she just talks about very real things and speaks to the human experience, I think.”

Kelly adds that the existing metre of a song brings its own limitations. “Therein lies the challenge; keeping within the boundaries of their composition so that you’re not going way off-track. You need to be very picky with the words you choose, because you have to have the same syllable count as the original.”

Cadence, or manawataki, and meaning need to be perfectly balanced, agrees Mereraiha – who also speaks Spanish – and the words themselves need to sound good to the ear. “There were heaps of examples where the manawataki of the word was just so ugly. One was ‘niupepa’, the transliteration of newspaper. ‘Niupepa.’ I was like, hell no,” she says.

“It’s a matter of tweaking things all the time, trial and error. I’m annoying my cousin all the time, ‘Cuz, how does this sound to you, kei te tika rānei tēnei?’” They both laugh.

The cousins are unfazed by Yelich-O’Connor’s fame, although they both find it funny that some of their guide vocals have been left in the finished recordings. Kelly simply describes being asked to work on the project as “buzzy”. Because of the need for secrecy, the pair nicknamed Lorde “Henry” after Māori scholar Dr Ella Henry. “She’s just our Henry. He tangata noa. Ehara i te atua, ehara i te kaiwhakaora [she’s a regular person, not a deity or a saviour],” says Mereraiha, paraphrasing a line from ‘Te Ara’. But like Mohi, she has nothing but praise for Yelich-O’Connor’s work ethic. “She really knuckled down and did the mahi for these waiata, and you’ll see the fruits of that hard labour, because it’s pretty incredible.”

Kelly agrees. “She was wanting to really do it properly, and she put in the time and effort to make that happen.”

It’s a fertile space, language experts collaborating with musicians, but one with plenty of room to grow. They cite Mohi, Pānia Papa and Te Haumihiata Mason as paving the way. “We’re just carrying on a tradition. You’ve also got the likes of Apirana Ngata and Tuini Ngāwai, who composed songs to English tunes in World War II,” says Kelly, but emphasises the need for recognition of the work they do and the layers of complexity that go into it.

“The translator is essentially lost at the end of the day, once the song is translated. The artist gets credit for that song, but we know that it’s not just as simple as a translation; it’s a rendition, and there’s a lot of thought and skill that goes into producing that.

“We thought, maybe if Apra or one of these award bodies picked that up and acknowledged that, that might honour the process – honour the artist collaboration with the translator, and also encourage more people to do it.

“Or better yet, a Grammy,” he laughs.

While it is broadly accepted that tangata whenua have suffered too much, and that our current forms of redress will never be adequate, many New Zealanders are still in the dark, as Yelich-O’Connor was, about Māori language, culture, history and perspectives. For non-Māori, it’s all too easy to pick and choose which aspects to celebrate, such as the All Blacks facing their opponents with haka, and which to ignore, like the history of injustices that have led to over-incarceration and poor health outcomes.

For Māori who grew up without their language and culture, it’s a much more complex beast.

One of the first people Yelich-O’Connor approached about her idea was fellow singer and songwriter Bic Runga. “She’s someone who I love, and respect and think is so wise,” she enthuses. “She was like, don’t be an idiot – do it. Just try and do it in a way that is respectful, which I know you will, and it will be all good.”

Runga remembers it like this: “I just said that the preservation of the Māori language is an urgent intergenerational fight and I promised to have her back if she came under any criticism for it. She clearly had the right intentions but knew that there could be detractors.” Runga wrote Yelich-O’Connor a long email “about all the things that I thought mattered”.

“It covered everything from the creation myths, Māori migration, the school curriculum, the Māori perspective of music connecting us to the spirit world, the Treaty of Waitangi… It was quite the rant.”

The singer has been on her own journey of discovery with te reo Māori. She was in an artist’s residency in her hometown of Christchurch not long after the 2019 mosque attacks when an email arrived from Mohi, asking her to re-record ‘Sway’ for Waiata/Anthems.

It was her first time performing in te reo Māori.

Runga, who has Chinese and Ngāti Kahungunu whakapapa, has been a beloved music icon since her debut album Drive stormed the New Zealand charts in 1997. It was breakout single ‘Sway’, featured in the 1999 teen comedy American Pie, that gave the musician her own first steps towards global success.

Famously shy, Runga was a reluctant pop star. After leaving New Zealand in the early 2000s to base herself in Paris, in 2004 she made a comment to an Irish newspaper that she had experienced a lot of racism growing up Māori and Chinese in Christchurch, saying New Zealand “can be a racist place too”. The backlash at home was swift and she was painted by the media as disloyal. It was an experience she says she’s “still getting over” but working with Mohi, and finding her way back to te ao Māori, has set her on a new path. She is currently curating a Te Reo Māori Songhub, an artist workshop that pairs up-and-coming and experienced musicians.

“I’m really passionate about making a difference within the only domain I have any experience in, which is music,” she says. She feels strongly that Māori language music could be embraced in the same way that Latin American music occupies its own unique space internationally, and more recently Korean music in the American mainstream. “The world is diverse, and local and international hits aren’t even necessarily in English any more. The labels know this. So while we are living in this perfect window of time to make a difference, I think we need to push.”

Along with Ngāi Tahu artist Marlon Williams, Runga sings on Te Ao Mārama. She says she was struck by the complexity of the harmonies. “Vocal harmony singing isn’t my strong point so I did have a moment that resembled an anxiety dream where I was in the booth, trying to emulate Ella’s complex vocal harmonies and sing in Māori. But getting out of your comfort zone is the only place where amazing stuff can happen.”

Yelich-O’Connor’s gratitude to her collaborators seems boundless. She smiles broadly and calls their advice “wise”, their balance of the literal and non-literal “perfect” and the experience “profound”.

She points to all the different ways they ensured she could make the project as tika, correct, as possible. “Hinewehi, Hana and Hēmi made these beautiful little phone recordings to practice before I got to the studio, and I spent just weeks listening and listening, and trying to really get the intricacies,” she says.

“Hinewehi helped me to understand so many things. She explained figures like Hine Raumati to me. We talked about things like wiri; how that is like the shimmering of the air on a hot day. All these really beautiful things that I hadn’t really had much understanding of. Hana and I had these super-long, deep conversations that really inspired me. Hēmi challenged me to keep learning. He really looked me in the eye and said ‘You owe it to us to continue this journey’.

“Just to meet Sir Tīmoti, who is such a guiding force in all three of their lives, was really special and cool.”

In turn they all acknowledge how hard Yelich-O’Connor worked to get it right. But she doesn’t expect everyone to feel the same way, and accepts that accusations of white saviourism are likely.

“I’m white – however you want to interpret me wanting to engage with our Indigenous culture, that’s fair enough. I totally accept that, because it is really complicated. This isn’t something where I have both feet on the ground – I am a little bit out of my depth, and I’m the first to admit that, and I’m opening myself up to any response to this.”

But in the end, the right choice was clear, she says. “What would have been worse is to just have been too scared to do it… That to me is sadder and scarier than being attributed any kind of white saviour complex.”

As for what it will mean to people outside of New Zealand, Yelich-O’Connor is curious to find out. Many of her fans will be hearing te reo Māori for the first time. “To connect that with this place that they know to be really special – maybe that will help them to gain a deeper understanding of what that actually means, but I don’t know. I’m going to try and make it feel as special as I can, because it’s the thing that I’m most excited about at the moment.”

Despite Lorde’s huge global audience, despite the history of struggle and revitalisation the language has endured, the songs on Te Ao Mārama simply feel right for right now in Aotearoa. Whether it’s those, or songs by Bic Runga, Maimoa or Maisey Rika, Māori kids get to be part of a pop cultural zeitgeist that makes no apologies for te reo Māori. To dance, hang out with their friends, fall in love and break up to – or hate if it’s not their thing.

It’s a world of light their grandparents never got to walk in.

Keep going!