Music

Finding Songs And Indigestion At The NYC Diner Where Lorde Wrote ‘Melodrama’

In a New York Times article chronicling the emotional and physical journey of Lorde’s sophomore album, Melodrama, the interviewer and Lorde herself chat from the confines of a mid-town Greek diner. A diner, that Lorde explains, acted as a late-night writing retreat as she worked on lyrics for that very album.

It’s a kitschy thing that interviewers do — they’re always picking vegan roller coaster parks or bong glass-blowing classes to take their talent to. They try to think of places that are, if not hugely relevant to the artist, wild icebreakers. Mainly because A) celebrities are terrifying and B) writers have a small amount of time to dig up retweet-worthy sound bites. Usually I’m annoyed by the nature of this type of interview. I mean, do you really need to take Jennifer Lawrence to moonlight as a pudding factory worker to get her to say something interesting? Does Taylor Swift really need to watch a cat midwife deliver a litter of Instagram-friendly kittens in order to talk about her process? Apparently, all Lorde needed to open up, was a visit to her old stomping grounds, the Flame diner.

Something about this charmed me. Despite her wee age, Lorde is an international superstar. And if it was anyone else, I might scoff at the irony. It might seem contrived for a millionaire to spend hours in a greasy diner, in arguably one of the least thrilling parts of the city. But Lorde is low-key. She’s the kid who literally became a societal royal by singing about never being one. She’s humble. So the idea of her hunched over a ketchup-sticky formica table-top, under the unflattering neon glow of a 24/7 diner sign is free from irony for me. It sounds just about right. So right, I felt myself longing for the feeling she spoke of achieving there.

As a freelance writer, I spend all of my days ordering coffees and small plates while eating at a glacial speed so that I can continue to steal WiFi until I make my deadlines. And while I never have to worry about fans or being recognized, there’s something novel about going somewhere that doesn’t care about you, whoever you are; the kind of place where you can plug into your work or devour your eggs like no one’s watching — because they’re not. I was so tempted to experience it, that I did the unthinkable: I got on the subway, leaving the yuppy bubble that is my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and went to mid-town in search of the Flame diner. If Lorde could find genius between 8th and 9th avenue, perhaps I could too. With my Macbook Air tucked under my arm, I walked into Flame diner determined to leave with a hit song.

“Really?” Was my first thought upon entering. Despite Lorde’s casual nature, I simply could not picture her there, breathing the unmoving stale air against a backdrop of brown walls, brown tiles and brown booths. Even the light was brown. I was expecting more of a dive vibe, something very la vie bohem. But no, the Flame diner is an over-crowded dull space with nothing but a few fake plants and mini cereal boxes as decor. It’s not the kind of place that might be romanticized in an indie movie as a late night meet-cute hot spot. The Flame diner is simply a mediocre space in mid-town.

Nevertheless, I was willing to give it a chance, so I approached the hostess, hoping that she’d immediately recognize that I was here to make the best hit record inspired by this diner since, well, Lorde.

“Is it OK if I use my computer here?” I asked.

“No, you can’t use our computer.”

“No, no, I have my own, may I use it?” I clarified.

“You better order foods.”

“I will. What’s the WiFi?”

She flicked her wrist at me and shooed me away to a lonely table for two in the corner. I took that as a no. Immediately, a server was tapping a pen against a warped notepad, well aware of the fact that I hadn’t even seen the menu. I flipped it open, frantically scrolling for the largest dish that might take the longest to eat, to maximize my work time. I settled on a club sandwich — an odd choice made under pressure, especially considering the fact that I don’t eat meat. About five minutes later, four recumbent meat towers, punctuated with wet Wonderbread lay on a bed of lettuce, beneath a blanket of fries, on a plate next to me. An older gentleman pushing his tennis ball-capped walker passed my table and commented on the size of my sandwich. My cheeks blazed ketchup bottle red.

As Lorde pointed out in the Times interview, it was hard to focus on being creative when Top 40s static-infused radio was crunching in the speakers above. I put on my headphones and shuffled through Lorde’s hits, waiting for inspiration. Maybe it was all in my head, but I felt like everyone was staring at my sandwich and waiting for me to eat it, curious about how I’d do it — logistically. I began to sweat in the stagnant air, I could hear the sound of tacky eyeballs blinking around me. The peer pressure forced my attention to the plate.

I figured out that if I removed two pieces of inner bread, one slab of the curious waxy cheese and about half of the roast beef, I could not only fit it into my mouth, but could almost enjoy it — almost. I swallowed each bite with a shot of acidic guilt. I don’t usually eat meat. But something about being in this diner made me feel stripped of identity. For a moment, under the glare of an impatient waiter, I became anyone. Everyone. I was not Kaitlyn who doesn’t eat meat, and who prefers wheat bread to white, and mayo on the side, and arugula to iceberg. I became just a person making a choice — a choice I’d have to swallow.

The Flame diner is definitely not one of those diners that’s decorated to look outdated on purpose, while secretly serving Grub Street-reviewable food. No, the Flame diner serves the kind of food that encourages you to scout out bathroom locations incase you need to make a run for them. I took a few bites of the sandwich to please the onlookers, wiped the grease from the mayo on my pants, and scanned the room for inspiration.

Little girls eating cake after school. Couples eating scrambled eggs after sex. Business men browning their teeth on burnt coffee. Bus boys texting their lovers on non-iPhones. A hostess with lip liner and no lipstick. A pair of elders pushing their forks around in an agitated silence. The diner was just like anywhere else. A microcosm of everywhere and nowhere. Absent-mindedly, I took a bite of a pickle, looking at it only after swallowing to realize it was cement gray and tasted fizzier than seltzer. I took a break to poll some friends on whether or not I was going to suffer serious digestive ramifications for it. No one responded and I pushed it out of sight as I casually waited for my bowels to ruin my big creative plans.

Once I accepted the diner as just a table-top and ambiance so filled with nothingness it’s like white noise, I could tap into something a little less obvious. I tapped back into that shell of myself I became while ordering. I looked out the window and read into the facial expressions of passerby’s. I began to assign stories to the lines in their faces, the direction of their gazes, the intention of their paces. And then I found myself in an unavoidable pattern of rhyme. I closed my eyes and saw a splattering of words, a collage of people, and a swarm of colors. With an faintly beat in my headphones, I started to put the pieces together. Here’s my humble attempt at writing a song for Lorde, with the help of her good luck diner and the karaoke version of her last album on repeat:

We wake up to the smell of red,
Strands of last night, tangled in the bed.
I don’t do this, it isn’t me.
I shake you and the covers off and
I’m free, I’m free, I’m free.

Oh those full moons,
They bring out the animals.
Oh those big waves,
They swallow the cynicals.

Honey, I’ve been dreaming of a quieter place than yours.
(Your love is too loud, your style is all mood.)
And honey, when I wake, I’m choking on blue.

You like the taste of that lit up night.
You pull my hips like it’s your right.
I don’t want this, it isn’t free.
I shake you and the lovers off and
I’m me, I’m me, I’m me.

Oh those new moons,
They hide the sensible.
Oh those riptides,
They swill the skeptical.

Honey, I’ve been dreaming of a quieter place than yours.
(Your love is too loud, your style is all mood.)
And honey, when I wake, I’m choking on blue.

You’re choking me, but I’m choking on you.
Choking on you.
You bring out the animal, animal
And I set her free.

Honey, I’ve been dreaming of a quieter place than yours.
And honey when I wake, I’m out the door.

I closed my laptop to take a breather after falling into that pop tunes k-hole, and there was the gray pickle, dog-eared with teeth marks, staring back at me. It’s not clear to me how much time went by since I started working on the song, making something abundantly clear to me: I know why Lorde worked on her album there.

While the diner might not serve the kind of food that goes quietly through the gut, it’s a limitless vacuum. A place so unspecific, it could be anywhere. It could be any year. That 24/7 attitude makes the diner a space time continuum. Once I pushed my plate out of the way and let the muddy coffee get to work on my bloodstream, this venue served as the most unexpected zen forum.

I meditated. I checked out. Perhaps it was a mix of the everyman around me and the fizzing pickle juice inside me, but the diner put me in touch with a subconscious I wasn’t aware of. It’s clear to me by my meager attempt at writing Lorde-like lyrics — that I read back to myself as something completely foreign — this is a fine place to create. Next to me another young couple sat down, presumably to have food before sex, and to the waiter’s tapping pen, the customer said “This is the thing about diners, there are just so many options.” The profundity of his words now resonating as deeply with me as a pop synth bass. By the shifting sound of Melodrama, I’d say Lorde would agree.

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