Lauv - the multifaceted, modern-day popstar - and all of his feelings
On ~how i’m feeling~, the chart-dominating force opens up about something often shunned from pop music: real-life feelings.
Header image by Blair Brown.
Once upon a time, pop music was all moulded into one shape. Suited label managers would encourage artists to be the most marketable, ‘conventionally shiny’ version of themselves they could: For women, this included having a certain ‘sex factor’, but not too much to alarm the far more conservative society; For men, this often meant secluding all forms of weakness (“nobody wants to support a man that’s emotional,” they said. “People want rock’n’roll!”). The latter in particular, born through ideologies of hypermasculinity and the lack of ‘weak emotions’ associated, was something that wouldn’t be shaken off for decades, even despite stars that would go against the grain: David Bowie, Prince, George Michael.
In 2020, comparatively, popstars are expected to open up. In a 180-degree spin, labels now encourage artists to strive for relatability rather than that conventional and unobtainable polish, with topics such as mental health - depression, suicide, anxiety, even just feelings at their most simplistic and obvious - entering the lyrical space more-so than ever before. It is, after all, something that sells well - Logic’s suicide hotline-dedicated 1-800-273-8255, for example, was one of 2017’s highest-selling songs - and what use is a popstar to a major label if they don’t sell?
For Lauv, the musical project of San Francisco-born Ari Staprans Leff, this desire to sell hasn’t necessarily been a pressing issue - despite being one of the world’s best-selling musicians of today, he’s devotedly independent - but mental health is something incredibly important to him, and a centric theme of his music today.
At the beginning of his career glow-up, press headlines grouped him in the same few categories - “pop’s heartbreak king” one of the most common, and frustratingly so for the 25-year-old - despite his prevalent efforts to be anything but. His work encompassed a few different aspects of his personality and everything that includes as a multi-faceted human being - especially on his long-winding 17-track ‘playlist’ I met you when I was 18., which was instrumental in thrusting Lauv into the public eye as a musician - but never enough to draw article headlines away from the love and heartbreak that dominated his story.
At one point, something snapped. An existential crisis encouraged him to branch out of the one image he felt he’d become trapped in, and so he set out on writing music that tackled everything he felt - the highs, the lows, the embarrassing and the stuff his family probably wouldn’t approve much of - with an increased emphasis on feelings, and the complexities within them. Eventually, it became condensed into a 21-song record ~how i’m feeling~, which doesn’t just welcome Lauv’s debut foray into the album format officially, but also welcomes Lauv to the spotlight as a fully-rounded, multi-dimensional musician and everything that may encompass.
At times, ~how i’m feeling~’s lyricism becomes so potent that you feel Lauv cracking out of his shell. Often charaded amongst glittery melodies and catchy light-heartedness, the record dives into the complexities of his life and the constant battle with feelings. Modern Loneliness tackles the strangeness of being lonely despite surrounded by people - “Love my friends to death, but I never call and I never text,” he sings - while Drugs & The Internet details his early experiences with depression, and overcoming it through medication. On Sad Forever, Lauv further explores his experiences with medicating for mental illness: “I wrote this song at the peak of my obsessive anxiety before I decided to get on anti-depressants,” he says. “If there’s one thing I learned, medication is not the enemy.”
At his shows, he preaches the destigmatisation of speaking up and expressing mental illness, with his ‘My Blue Thoughts’ initiative encouraging show-goers to speak their mind anonymously. There’s also his Blue Boy Foundation, which supports the destigmatisation of mental illnesses by funding programs that encourage young people - the majority of his fanbase - to speak up, after battling to do so himself. It’s clear that in a time where artists are encouraged to be ‘relatable’ for commercial gain, Lauv isn’t placing mental health in the forefront of his artistic space because of that. He’s doing it because it’s important, and while the age groups that populate much of his fanbase tackle higher rates of mental illness than ever before, he wants to be the person that encourages people to speak up.
Image by Elizabeth Miranda.
I wanted to start by talking about the journey to the record, because I was reading a lot of interviews with you from when the playlist came out a few years back, and every time you were asked about doing an album, you seemed a little bit hesitant. When did that start to change?
Around when I made Drugs & The Internet, I felt like I was starting to open up a more full picture of myself and I wanted to make an album that represents myself fully," which is really what ~how I'm feeling~ is, you know? It's like embracing everything that I feel like I am as an artist and as a person as opposed to the playlist, which was very much just one aspect of my life. I felt like it was finally time to make an album, you know?
I know you were still writing the album when the singles were beginning to drop. Was there a definitive point where you were like "okay, this is going to be an album."
I just started with that goal honestly, from the beginning. I was like, "You know what, I really want to make an album now." I just got to the point where I was committed to it.
As you were talking about before, it sounds like you really wanted to create an album that encapsulated you as a person, and all of the little facets that go into that. Was that something you felt like you had to do in a debut album?
For sure, I don't know. I didn't really want to work on an album until I felt like I understood more of myself and I could give the world like a full picture.
What was the process of doing that?
Oh, man. I had a bit of an existential crisis and I felt like I was trapped in one image for a while - this hopeless romantic image. There's so much more going on inside of me that I feel like I'm afraid to share with the world, and I got to the point where I just cracked and I was like, "I have to just fully embrace all of it." That was really what sparked all of it.
It's interesting because when reading these features with you from the very start, all the headlines give you the same few titles: heartbreak king, sad-pop prince, things like that.
I know, right?! I always appreciate the press and all that, but I also hated that. I don't want to claim to be this thing that's only like 'bare'... I don't consider myself that, you know? But it was the image that kind of showed up. It's all good though, I'm just moving forward.
Do you feel like your album is rectifying this, and showing people that your more than just that one layer these tags are suggesting?
Exactly, which is also why I created the six different characters for the album, with the cover with six different colours and they're all like different parts of who I am.
How did that come about? Because it's common for artists to show themselves on an album through songwriting, but there's often not a visual element to it like this.
I think once I started to listen to all the music and realise it was all over the place emotionally, I started with the idea that I want to embrace the message that people aren't one thing and that social media often limits us to one identity and/or one brand. It was just some brainstorming with people in my creative team - my creative directors and stuff - and having a long conversation spitting ideas around and that's where the idea for the characters and the boy band came about.
It's interesting that you mentioned social media there because social media is definitely boxing artists in, but I also feel like once upon a time, before the internet, pop had very little personality - everything was controlled to be this one image.
I feel like social media may box people in, but it also does the opposite.
Lauv & Sofia Reyes. Image by Elizabeth Miranda.
This segues into another aspect of the internet you can find on your album, and that's collaboration. Pop used to be all one shape and size, but as you've proved on this record by incorporating people like BTS and Sofia Reyes and even Troye, it's so much more open now. Do you feel like working with these artists kind-of ties into the aspect of embracing identity you're talking about on this record?
That's actually really interesting because I never really thought of it that way, but it definitely works. The collabs all happened super naturally, either it started as a friendship or mutual respect and asking people to be on songs and making songs together. In saying that though, you're right. I feel like I gravitate towards artists that are loudly expressing who they are and celebrating themselves, and not being afraid to do that everyday. I respect that.
Is there anything you're particularly attracted to, in that sense?
I just think it's a thing that really inspires me, because I grew up insecure about myself, my identity, who I should be and so on and so forth. I get really attracted to that self-assuredness. I really love working with Troye [Sivan], like he's somebody that just in spending time with him and making the song with him, you know he's just such a light, good dude - so grounded. I really admire that.
On the topic of Troye, I actually wanted to talk to you about songwriting a little bit, because you've grown as a songwriter behind-the-scenes in addition to in the public eye, working with people like Charli XCX. How do you think it's changing to be a songwriter behind-the-scenes?
That's an interesting one. Unfortunately, I think there's a lot of issues in the songwriting community in terms of like songwriting not making a lot of money in this day, and for songs that are played on the radio and blow up, there's a lot of issues in royalties. I think that's being brought to attention and stuff like Spotify are making profiles for songwriters, which is great. I think there's more work to be done and as somebody who was a songwriter/producer before I was doing the LAUV project, that is really important.
To a degree, it's also getting better though. You're seeing more and more songwriters like Leland [who worked with Lauv and Troye on their collaboration, i'm so tired...] writing a lot for other people, but also having their own artist project and really expressing themselves fully. I think that's really cool; I think a lot more songwriters are getting the courage to be artists as well, which is where I came from, and I was really nervous to do it.
When you came into this project, did you feel like you had the confidence to be a musician because of your time working behind-the-scenes with other artists?
The funny thing is Lauv started as like... I thought it was gonna be a side project just for fun. I just needed an outlet as I was trying to write pop songs for other artists, and I wasn't really feeling... fulfilled, I think. I put out my first song called The Other in 2015, and then from there, it was just a slow confidence build and learning how to really own the whole thing as an artist, you know?
I think the whole thing has really been this big lesson for me. I'm putting myself out there and it's helped me grow a lot, helped me gain confidence, helped me understand who I am and who I want to be. I could've just stuck to my fear and say "I'm not gonna do it and I'm not going to put myself out there," but I'm really happy that I do.
You said you started this whole thing as an outlet, and reflecting back on it from where you're at now - putting out your debut album, for example - do you feel like you've achieved that and found this outlet through Lauv?
Definitely, I've really enjoyed taking control and also being an independent artist not signed to major label makes me feel proud of what me and my team has built, and I feel like I have a lot of... I don't know a lot more confidence in what I'm doing and the vision and how I want everything to be.
There's a lot shown on this album that you haven't shown before - your identity and who you actually are being a big one. Was there any sense of catharticism in doing that? Because I know a lot of people actually find that in your work, too.
For sure, I feel like whenever I have shit going on in my life, I never expect to write a certain song - I never go in with what I want to write about usually - but it ends up being therapeutic in the same way as when you go to a therapist, talk to your friends, or just spill your guts out when you don't know what you're going to say but you just say it all. That's where my favourite music to make comes from, I love that. It comes from that place where I'm like "I don't know what's going to happen, I have no idea..." and then it just spills out. It's practising discovering and coming to terms with what I'm feeling, and learning how to express it and face it.
Has there been any points where it's come to you being like "shit, I don't know if I want this kind of stuff out there in the public eye."?
Yes, and no. There are certain lyrics on the album that if you really dig deep, you'll find some stuff that I'm not necessarily proud of, but they were important to me to acknowledge. I just feel like as an artist, my purpose in life is to share my experiences. I think other people have experienced similar things and I know that when people have shared with me, how it helps me heal and helps me go through it, and I want to do that for other people. There are certain lyrics, and there's a song on the album called Tell My Mama that I'm not super proud of - just stuff about drugs and so on and so forth - but I still want to talk about it.
In a way, it's about breaking down that stigmatism and just talking about it.
For sure. I don't want to put on the facade that I'm anywhere near the perfect person or anything like that. I just feel uncomfortable if I'm not expressing whatever... just be real.
Lauv & BTS. Image by Noah Duran.
Is there any empowerment in being able to write about things like that, see people find themselves in it, and then work on themselves after being impacted by your work?
Yeah, but I think it also gives me a sense of responsibility. I was struggling for a long time being pretty sad and depressed, and now that I'm in a much better place, I feel like I have the responsibility to use my platform for healing and light and trying to spread more of a positive message. That's what I'm going after in my life right now, and I'm trying to share that - I've become really spiritually connected through meditation and non-religious prayer... I'm not really a religious person, but I very much feel like there's something unexplainable out there, and there's definitely energy and we're all connected in a way.
I think the more I do this and the bigger my platform gets, I see it as an opportunity to just try to do something good, to start a good chain reaction, to open people up to be more vulnerable and any of that. Of course there's pressure and stuff, but I also just want to be myself - I can't be an artist just to serve an idea; I have to just express myself - and there are parts of myself that I'm not proud of. I still have to put that out there, because it's what I do, you know?
We keep talking about reflecting on who you were and expressing that, so I wanted to end this by reflecting on a question you were asked three years ago, and how you answered that. As things become bigger - you've got your album coming out, you're touring lots, you're more in the public spotlight - do you feel like you have more control over things?
Interesting. Control? I don't know... I think I have more understanding of what I want, so I have control in that sense. Yet, at the same time, I think so many things that have changed in me and since things have gotten a lot bigger, I realised that my priorities have changed. I always had this dream of being the biggest artist and blah, blah, blah and I would just chase this thing and sacrifice everything for it. I just realised it didn't make me happy and in fact, that made me depressed.
I don't want to be a person who's like, "Oh, woe is me - I'm successful in and that's hard." Obviously I'm super blessed, but I think as humans, the most important thing is real connections like real friendships, real family relationships - things that are actually fulfilling. I think I got caught up - and I still do get caught up - in this whole career and not really pay attention to those things. That's something that's become a lot more important to me, especially this year, that I'm working on. I don't know, I think that's become - in a sense of control - where my priority is. That's where my control is coming from now.
What's the point of being the most successful anything if you're not happy? There's just no point - you're just awake.
Lauv's debut album, ~how i'm feeling~ is out now independently. Catch him touring Australia this September, with special guest Jeremy Zucker.
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