The Story Behind Lorde’s New Album Cover, From the Artist Who Created It

The artist Sam McKinniss reveals what it was like to work with Lorde on her album Melodrama.

Courtesy of @lordemusic

On Thursday, at long, long last, Lorde released the first look at her upcoming album Melodrama, with a new video and single produced by Jack Antonoff. As it turned out, though, he wasn’t the only collaborator at least a decade her senior. The songwriter, who at 20 finally graduated from what has felt like eternal teendom, also tapped the Brooklyn-based artist Sam McKinniss, 31, to paint an intimate, blue-lit portrait of Lorde for the album cover, which is all about “nighttime attitudes.” Now that the secret’s out—though the album release date still remains unannounced—McKinniss recounts how the Prince-obsessed pair went from fangirl-ing over each other via email to camping out for their shoot in a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, here.

When did you first find out you were going to be working with Lorde? Well, actually, it was really sweet of her—she wrote me some fan mail. She got my email address from a mutual friend and just wrote a really nice, warm note about how much she likes my paintings. I was really kind of flattered, so we agreed to get together for a coffee to hang out and get to know each other a bit, and then started discussing the idea of doing this project together.

So after that, you kept on hanging out? Yeah, that was in early fall, and it was really fun getting to know each other. She’s extremely bright and smart and obviously a great songwriter. It was really interesting for me, as a painter and artist who works with a lot of popular imagery that’s been in the world already for some time, to get to hear about her songwriting process and musical perspective. And it was really fun for us to collaborate and just find out where we saw eye to eye on creativity and mood and color and those sorts of things. We ended up having a lot in common.

What did surprise you about her songwriting process? I was just impressed with her attention to detail and craft, and her patience. It’s very important for her to take her time and make sure everything is perfect and exactly the way she imagines it can be. There’s a maturity about her that I really vibed on, because she’s a bit younger than me, but I didn’t think about it after we started hanging out.

Did she come over for a studio visit? Yeah. So after we chatted for a while over email, she came and visited my studio in Williamsburg and she got to see the solo exhibition I’d been working for about half a year for Team Gallery, which was up in October and November, right before the work went up. The album cover is all about her—it’s all about her album and her vision—but she caught me at a really special time for my work, because I was in a really productive zone when I was making a big, visionary show, and then we got to work together when it was a really exciting time in my studio, and she was obviously in the recording studio at that time as well.

Were there any works of yours she took a particular liking to? There was a very large, larger than life full-figure portrait of Prince from the Purple Rain album art that I’d made a monumental painting, which was kind of the centerpiece of my show at Team. So we really got to relate to each other on that and the big impact Prince had on us, and how his death affected us as creative people, and also as fans. We really vibed on that. Then there was a painting of Lil’ Kim I made she liked quite a lot. So it was a good fit because I was filtering through a lot of popular music through my life, that had affected me both visually and sonically, and I was cycling through these images that remained in my consciousness and imagination in order to create the show. And then I got to have a direct hand in letting her add to that pantheon, which was really special.

What did she say she wanted when it came to her own album? Well, we chatted a lot and I listened to some demos of some early songs, which were really great and exciting and fresh. It’s just a single out so far, so I’m not going to give anything away, but there were some youthful, nighttime attitudes she was really chasing after and really trying to get into the songs. So what she asked me to do was to meet her there and create a kind of colorful teenage restlessness and excitement and energy and potential—to put that into color and put it in my hands. It has this kind of lushness and sensitivity to light and color and touch that I bring to my portraits, so it felt like a collaboration.

Did she pose for you? Yeah, I shot her in my friend’s apartment. We had a really nice couple of days together just getting the shot. [Laughs.] I work alone, because I don’t like having models or assistants around, so I had to get the perfect photograph in order for me to make the right painting. So we spent a day or two together, just getting the right moment. It was really fun getting to know her.

Were you a fan of hers before? Oh yeah. Oh yeah. But now I’m an even bigger fan. [Laughs.]

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