India Yelich-O'Connor Says Being Lorde's Sister Helped Her Find Her Own Voice

Photo: Will Tee Yang.
If I woke up one morning and found out my sister had suddenly become one of the most famous pop stars on the planet, that wouldn't stop me from being annoyed that she hasn't given me back my sweatshirt. For India Yelich-O'Connor, the younger sister of Lorde (née Ella Yelich-O'Connor), that's pretty much the case. They're still, well, sisters. They grew up with each other, they bicker about who does the dishes, but they also are each other's biggest fans.
While Lorde is selling out concert venues, 19-year-old India (but you can call her Indy) has been quietly forging her own path on Instagram. For her, the app is more than just pretty pictures — it's a place for her to share her thoughts and writing with other teens her age in hopes that her poetry will inspire them in its own way. Now, she's ready to share that writing with the world.
On February 24, the writer's first book of poetry, Sticky Notes, hits shelves. It follows her journey from New Zealand to L.A. to New York (more on that later), and the metamorphosis she's gone through to figure out who she is separate from her award-winning sister. She's already well on her way with with almost 30,000 Instagram followers, and she herself gets recognized on the streets of New York City, the place she now calls home.
That's why she was more than game to meet at Refinery29's New York office, walking in looking exactly as glamorous as someone who had just come from the Grammys would. The night before she was rubbing shoulders with people like Logic and Shaggy, but she seemed just as excited to be following behind me as I took her up and down stairs, every which way, showing her the most Instagram-worthy parts of the office and introducing her to the team. She had as many questions for us as I did her, fascinated to find out TV writer Ariana Romero was in a sorority, prompting a group of us to teach her the infamous "sorority squat" photo pose.
O'Connor is obsessed with America — New York specifically. In her New Zealand accent she praises the city with the same kind of passion and sparkle and yearning as, well, I'll say it: a Lorde song. I'm hesitant to keep comparing her to the "Green Light" singer, but O'Connor isn't annoyed by the association. The only person putting pressure on her to measure up to her 21-year-old sister is herself. She wonders if she'll ever accomplish something similar, if she'll ever find that thing that defines her. In the meantime, she hopes her journey can feel relatable to other teens along the way.
Coming off her post-Grammy high, we spoke to Yelich-O'Connor about this identity crisis, and how her poetry created a space for her to become the person she wants to be.
Did you join Instagram as a personal thing or to use it as a place for your poetry?
"I mean, I was on Instagram when I was 14. I would kind of just post a lot of fashion photos. I think that because, initially, I moved overseas for acting. I've known I wanted to be a writer since I was 5, but I didn't really know that I would instead be a writer, so I think that Instagram is a good space for me to just kind of to express what I want to express."

taking the pressure off ➰

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And when you started posting poetry did it get a really good response from your followers?
"I just kind of posted it, and I thought, ‘Oh god, what's gonna happen?’ But I started getting a lot of DMs. People just really wanted to hear, not really what I had to say, they just kind of didn't really have that many young people who were going through a shitty breakup or had a crap friend that they could put into words."
Do you follow anyone else on Instagram who's also doing Instagram poetry?
"I follow Cleo Wade. I actually do follow Rupi Kaur; she's kinda good to have on my timeline. I follow a lot of interesting artists. There's this really cool one, she's only got about 100k [followers], her name's Gracie Abrams. She's really, really cool. She's a singer, and a lot of artists love her. She's just amazing. I follow this girl who's an artist called Karina Padilla. She's really cool; she's got about like 80k [followers] or something. She's really interesting, and she's got a lot of kind of sketchy nude stuff that's great."

I'm not really a somebody as of yet. I just wanted to have something that maybe young people could relate to.

Is Instagram a place where you go for inspiration for your poetry?
"I think in order to write you have to read, and that's something that not many of us know. I feel like people are so, they always want to talk about everything they've been through and accomplished, but it's like when you step and back think, ‘Oh, how do I explain the way that I feel? How can I relate to others?' Then you read about all the old confessionalist poetry, and then you mix that in with new books, and then you see everything happen around you, especially with the Time's Up movement, and you're like, ‘Oh my god, now I actually have the knowledge to portray the way that I have experienced things.’ But definitely Instagram. I love it."
Who are some poets that you like?
"Oh, so many. I've just read the whole of the bookstore. Probably Frank O'Hara, Jack Gilbert — not really Bukowski anymore, now that I'm kind of aware of what he's saying — Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson. I love Morgan Parker, she's got a great book called There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Aja Monet. Frank O'Hara is the love of my life."
Did you always want to do a book of poetry? When did that start to become something that you worked towards?
"When you're 18, no one gives a shit about a memoir that you write. I'm not really a somebody as of yet. I just wanted to have something that maybe young people could relate to. Milk and Honey was a good job, but I wanted to make it personal. I wanted my coming of age, trials and tribulations, teen story, I guess."
Does your book have poems that we've seen on Instagram, or is it a bit of new stuff?
"It's some of the poems you've seen on Instagram. I'm very careful with what I put out. I wanted to just put the whole book out. It's L.A. first, then New York. L.A. is kind of more of the sad heartbreak, and New York's more coming into my own."
You said you originally wanted to do acting. Did you move over here and go to school for that?
"So I was with an agency called CAA in LA. I met with them, and they then they said you should come over for pilot season for a year. I went to an acting school while I was there, it was a year long, and I was like, okay this really great but...this really wasn't my passion. I'm such a passion-driven person, and I would kind of find myself up at like three in the morning at coffee shops just writing, and I thought, ‘I should probably do something about this.’ Because in my family, my sister's a songwriter, my mum's a poet. So it's just in the family."
Is there something that comes with being Lorde's sister?
"I think definitely being Lorde's sister maybe made me want to find my own voice. Writing for me is the one thing that I just am free. I think that I was really blessed to have her become so well known because it kind of taught me so many life lessons."
When was the first time that you realized just how big things were for her?
"I want to say it was the Grammys when I was 16, but I honestly think it was Coachella. Because, yeah, you can say my sister's a superstar, but you actually have to be there. So after four years she hadn't performed, and then she did ‘Greenlight,’ and I don't know how many people were at Coachella, but it was just like a sea of green. People were screaming and crying, and it was just great. Because I love her music. I literally love it. I listen to it all the time, and it's the soundtrack to my life, which is quite...I literally love it, and I was like this is so fucking cool I can't believe it."
Is it ever annoying?
"I mean I am such an independent person that it doesn't really affect me, but I think what's kind of annoying sometimes is if I'm at a house party and, you know, I'm in Brooklyn or whatever and there's always some person who finds out and he'll just ask me something annoying. Or I'm in the cafeteria with my friends at NYU and some person comes up to me, and I'm just like, not today.
"But it's fine; no one cares that much. I mean, I have to think there's people who want to know, and they just are like ‘What's it like being Lorde's sister?’ And I think ‘Fair enough,’ and I just tell them. I don't really get offended by any of it, not really at all."

Thank you for a dreamy night! love you, always proud of you lilac lady @lordemusic

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I always just think about what if it was my sister.
"The only person that compared was me. In my book, I didn't want to address it too much, but there's three poems, there's one called 'An Unintended Spring,' and it just talks about...basically, I had so much anxiety about 'Will I ever be this great?' because I just didn't know what I wanted to do. There are a few poems that really do talk about it, and it's a very vocal point in the book but it's only a few times."
Even though she's famous, she's still your sister.
"Oh my god for sure. We'll be at the dinner table, and I'll be like ‘You're doing the dishes.’ She'll be like, ‘No I'm not doing that.’ I mean it's just a special job, really. I don't think of it as like...I think she's different. The person on the stage is different than my sister."
Who were you most excited to see at the Grammys?
"Cardi B. She's the best."
Did you get to meet her or anyone else?
"No, I didn't. I met a few people at the afterparty, but we were sitting kind of further up. My little brother sat front row with Ella because I did the VMAs, so I just was like, you can do it. But we met, like, Logic and Shaggy and people at the Universal after party. Not that many people."
Are you not really starstruck anymore?
"No. I'd be starstruck by like Cyndi Lauper, Jennifer Aniston, probably Emma Stone, I just really like her. I just love Cardi B. I would die, if I met Cardi B, SZA, Rihanna. Like, die."
Who have you met before that was crazy for you?
"You know what? I had really nice conversation at the VMAs with Billy Ray Cyrus, and he was talking to me because my roommate is good friends with his daughter. And he was like, 'You gotta pursue this poetry thing!' We had a conversation for an hour, I was like what? He was like, ‘Look, you really have to pursue this poetry thing. You know I feel like there is not enough poetry out there, I can see your words on Broadway.’ And I was like, ‘Woah.’ Then I showed him some poetry, and I was like, 'Thanks, Billy Ray Cyrus.'"
Do you and Lorde ever work together on any writing?
"No. I mean maybe that's a thing in a future time, because I would love to just do songwriting at some stage."
Have you ever tried it for yourself?
"I have, and it's kind of working. I mean something in the works for this year probably for sure. I've got to try to grab everything while I'm young I guess."
And so do you think you'll always do poetry?
"I don't really classify myself as poet at all. Writing in all aspects is really interesting to me, I'm just trying to figure out what."
What are your plans for the year ahead? What are you going to work on that you maybe couldn't do before?
"I want to work on writing. I'm kind of not really sure how it's gonna turn out, but you know I've got my book and maybe a little book tour. I'm not really sure. I think I'm gonna write some music."
What are your favorite areas in New York? What's your perfect New York day?
"For sure the East Village. Honestly like walking, because I'm working on my laptop 24/7 so I go to The Bean, I go to La Lanterna di Vittorio right near Washington Square Park. Washington Square Park all the time, it's the perfect place. Central Park's a little far up. I actually love the Upper East Side; just kind of walking through it.
"I think there's a magic in the East Village that only some people can hear. MacDougal sSreet is my favorite place in the whole of New York. There is a place called Caffe Reggio, and I go there at like two in the morning and I think in New York you just want to be alive, even at night, so I think the East Village is really great for me."
Have you ever had people recognize you out and about?
"Oh yeah, for sure."
Is it weird when that happens?
"Not really. It happens all the time in New Zealand. People ask for photos. New York, I've had it a few times and I'm like, okay. What really was incredible was I was at The Bean right by Strand Bookstore, and I was sitting on my laptop just looking, like hair up and some random ass track pants, and I couldn't give a shit. I was four coffees down, and this girl came up to me and she was quite jittery. She was standing by my laptop, and I was like ‘Oh do you need the bathroom key?’ You know, ‘Are you okay?’ And she was like ‘Oh I just, I just wanted to tell you I'm really excited for your book. And I was like ‘Oh! Oh my god, what's your name?’ It was just really incredible."
That's so exciting!
"I kind of made the life that I wanted, I guess. Because I wasn't super happy, and I was like ‘What can I do instead of just being down on myself? I thought, ‘Nah you have to be proud.’ After all the TED talks I watched with the message of not giving up, I was like, ‘Look, get up. Book a ticket to New York just figure it out.’
"Do you ever think to yourself, you know, how people talk about in big movies or in songs or in poetry, the kind of youth? Do you ever feel like that is happening to you right now? Because that is what I feel like."
You can order Sticky Notes, out February 24, here.
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