Big Read – Troye Sivan: “I don’t want people to be a fan of me from one song. I want them to be a fan of my sensibility”

Once a hugely successful teen YouTuber, South Africa-born, Australia-raised Troye Sivan fought hard to be taken seriously as a pop star. The game-changing moment came this year with ’My My My’, an uproarious pop song about two gay lovers seducing each other. Its attendant full-length ‘Bloom’, he tells Douglas Greenwood, “feels like the album of [his] lifetime”

Every morning for the past few weeks, Troye Sivan has woken up in the Los Angeles heat, turned to his phone and asked Siri the same question: “How many days until August 31st?”

“She lets me know!” he laughs, calling me on the very same phone from his home on the west coast, barely two weeks before that fateful date arrives. When it does, ‘Bloom’, the sophomore record that’s dominated the last two years of Sivan’s life, finally drops – and there’s a sea of die-hard fans out there desperate to hear it.

The first time I saw Troye Sivan in the flesh was six months ago, as he was stomping through February snow in London, clutching on to a cup of miso soup and laughing with his friends. Back then, the pieces of the puzzle that would later become ‘Bloom’ seemed a little scattered when he discussed them; existing, but not in any great order yet. Troye told me, rather assertively as if to sedate the frenzied questions from his fans, that the record was “98% done”. So what’s taken him so long?

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“There was so much I wanted to do, so I slowed down and decided to milk it for all it was worth!” he jokes, listing off all of the things he wanted to make before signing off the final package: singles; teasers; videos. “Or maybe,” he thinks, “it just felt a little rushed in the beginning.”

troye sivan
“There’s an amazing wave of queer artists on the come up right now. We’re heading in a really great direction” – Troye Sivan. Photo credit: Jules Faure

He might be just 23 now, but Troye Sivan’s career began a long time ago. Born in South Africa, but having spent most of his childhood growing up in Perth, Australia, Sivan is the son of a real estate agent father and homemaker mother, and was already navigating his way to stardom at an early age.

Sivan spent much of his childhood finding solace on the internet, a respite from his isolating, if unremarkable, school experience. At the age of 17, he started to make YouTube videos, gaining a gargantuan online following before using that very same platform as the outlet for his biggest personal revelation. A year later, and three years after he confided in his parents, Troye Sivan told his one million subscribers that he was gay.

A few years after his YouTube career took off, his first foray into music – a lifelong passion of his, alongside acting – arrived. Sivan’s 2015 debut ‘Blue Neighbourhood’ was a critically acclaimed, if overlooked pop gem that proved the point anyone moving from one industry to another had to make back then: that he, a kid who’d found fame on the internet, was capable of making bona fide pop music that was greater than the name attached to it. The record did more than serve its basic purpose, but it seemed like Sivan’s queerness, perhaps out of apprehension, faded a little into its shimmering, synth-fuelled background. “My fear was that I had to make things a little more palatable – mild maybe,” he recalls. “But this time I didn’t want to do that at all. I wanted to write about what was really going on.”

And so that’s what he did at the start of 2018, when he dropped ‘My, My, My’, an immaculate pop anthem about two gay lovers slowly seducing each other. Sivan hadn’t anticipated its explosive reception, but it felt like his watershed moment: after years of being a ‘YouTuber-turned-popstar’, he’d finally shed the label that had been weaponised by his naysayers for so long. We weren’t watching a musician try to pander to the masses; this was a 23-year-old gay man flaunting his true artistic self in a heated moment of queer, care-free liberation.

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The song’s video – breathless, sexy and laced with flashing glances of scantily clad male models (including one who turned out to be a porn star on the side) –  left those who had dismissed him as nothing more than a vaguely interesting YouTube graduate aghast. Soon, the producers of Saturday Night Live came calling, asking Troye to be a musical guest on the prestigious late night show, and with an audience of 4.5 million people watching, he delivered the sensual and joyous performance he’d been yearning to stage  for a lifetime.

“I was so stoked, but it came a little sooner than I had anticipated,” he tells me. The hype was amazing, but it jolted him into action: this was no longer an album only his fans would be paying attention to. “I wanted to come back to [the record] for a little while, since the songs on it mean so much to me. I’m sure I’ve said this before, and when I come out with another record in three years I’ll probably say it again, but this feels like the album of my lifetime. It feels like the one I wanted to make last time around, but didn’t know how to.”

When it came to recording ‘Bloom’, Troye lay his favourite artists down in what he called a “sonic moodboard”, a journal-like playlist he refused to share with anybody until the time was right. It contained a self-confessed miasma of sad Swedish electro, vintage British goth pop and classic American rock. “It was all over the place,” he laughs, looking back. “I grew up with my dad listening to Phil Collins and Toto and a lot of big ‘80s acts while I, on my own, went and discovered artists like Robyn. Then fairly recently, I discovered This Mortal Coil.”  His list of influences seems to go on forever; Carly Rae Jepsen and The Velvet Underground are uttered in the same sentence – which seems ridiculous, until you hear the finished product.

It took a pep talk with Ariel Rechtshaid, the indie rock heavyweight behind Haim and Vampire Weekend’s hits, for him to finally loosen up and share his idea. “He was the first person who told me that it all made sense,” Sivan confesses, “and I was surprised by what happened when we took all of these inspirations, all of these loves in my life that I’ve had for so long, and melted them together. We came out with something that sounded like me.” In the end, Rechtshaid made his mark on two tracks: the album’s single, sullen firecracker of a break-up track ‘The Good Side’, and Sivan’s personal favourite, ‘Animal’.

Pop albums are often built in the aftermath of heartbreak, marred by sorrow or fuelled by an anger, but ‘Bloom’ feels like a different entity altogether. “As a musician, I’ve always gravitated towards what’s somber and melancholy,” Sivan says, alluding to the sullen pop of the contemporary Scandi scene , as well as the likes of Lorde. “But I’m content and in a really good place. I had no idea where to start with writing this album from [that standpoint]! I was daunted by it.” There was a silver lining to it, though – not least that it was testimony to the strength of his long-term relationship with photographer and model, Jacob Bixenman, whose shot Troye for a photobook released alongside the album. “It felt like a well timed thing,” he admits. “To get to explore what a happier version of myself sounded like – even if I still managed to wriggle a couple of sad ones in there!”

Nowadays, the word ‘banger’ is used to describe a pop song that lands like an atomic bomb; catchy and obliterating everything in its path. But nobody seems to make anthems anymore. The latter feels more potent in comparison, the legacy-leaving antidote to easily forgotten melodies formed around manipulative productions that fade, over time, from our memories. ‘Bloom’, in that sense, is an old-fashioned exercise in everlasting pop. It rejects the busy, hip-hop-led tropes of today in favour of something a little more wistful, sparse and fuelled by an unfettered sense of longing. In that way, it feels like the kind of record a lot of popstars want to make, but never really know how to.

Tracks like ‘Seventeen’, about Troye’s first encounter with an older man on Grindr, are built around his cooed opening lyrics (“I’ve got these beliefs that I think you wanna break / Got something here to lose that I think you wanna take from me”), gentle synths and guitar chords, like a coy, queer sequel to Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’. Meanwhile, the simple, pared back piano ballad ‘Postcard’ is about embracing the minor flaws of someone you love. There’s nothing remotely showy about what Sivan is doing here; it’s just unambiguous, immaculately-written pop that speaks to him.

But let’s not call it ‘queer pop’. That term, coined out of love, now seem like it risks ghettoising the work of LGBTQ+ musicians to a solely queer audience, and I haven’t heard of many who fully embrace it. I wondered what Troye, widely considered its contemporary leader, thought of it. “A long time ago, somebody sent me and [Years & Years frontman] Olly Alexander a photo of both of our CDs next to each other in a ‘gay section’ of a music store somewhere – we both had to laugh at it,” he remembers. “It’s kind of weird, because our music sounds completely different, but I guess that’s proof that there’s this amazing wave of queer artists on the come up right now. I’m so thankful for that, that we’re heading in a really great direction. But I guess the world is eventually going to grow out of it and realise how different music [made by queer people] is.” Instead, Sivan’s mission is universal. His songs are written about boys like him, for boys like him, but they’re hookish enough to lure in any pop listener.

By being vocal about his sexuality on so many platforms (heck, ‘Bloom’ is a pop song dedicated to bottoming), he’s become something of a queer icon to today’s youth. He’s earned it by now, having helped a generation of gay Gen Zers make sense of their sexuality during his YouTube days, but it’s a title he politely rejects. In the past, he’s noted how his race, comfortable upbringing and fairly straightforward coming out mean he’s got it easier than so many others like him. Sivan might be a gay artist in a sea of straight faces, but he’s still aware of the semantics of privilege. “I get to meet people everyday – and I think this is part of the reason why I’m still aware of just how good I have it – who tell me their stories, and I feel a resilience and strength that I’ve never had, or ever even had to have,” he tells me passionately of his own ‘queer icons’. We forget, I say, that role models need role models too. “I have friends who are older than me who are still having issues with family and their sexuality. There are people out there who are dealing with real shit in their lives. Their perseverance, and still knowing how to be great people on the other side of that? That’s really inspiring to me.”

troye sivan
Photo Credit: Jules Faure

Sivan has learned that moments of minor pain are insignificant in the long run, and at 23, he’s finding that emotive transition from adolescence to adulthood fascinating to write about. It’s something he dwells on in ‘Plum’, ‘My, My, My’s scintillating and synthy sister, that sees Troye twist his words into ripe, stone fruit metaphors before confessing that “even the sweetest plum has only got so long”.

“I feel like I’m in this really magical time where I’m still experiencing so many things for the first time,” he says, giddily. “On one hand I still feel 18, but on the other I’m worrying about my mortgage! I remember writing songs on my first album feeling like the weight of the world was on my shoulders, and then I look back and realise it sounds like a childhood diary entry. Even now, I find I’m still toeing that line between being a kid and adulthood.”

Maybe it’s that suspended, savoured moment of youthful innocence, looking precariously into the future, that makes ‘Bloom’ feel so special. Unlike many of its contemporary peers, it feels like the kind of record a 23-year-old queer man, obsessed with his genre, wanted to make, without the interference of someone steering him towards the behemoth pop agenda. “I don’t feel a pressure or desire to do anything for anybody other than myself,” Troye admits as our conversation draws to a close. “It sounds egotistical, but I make music, first and foremost, because I enjoy it. It’s the process that keeps me going, and as long as I’m doing that, I’ll feel fulfilled.”

“Hopefully it will connect with somebody, somewhere, but I think it’s important to step back and not let any of those [outside opinions] get into your head.” He stops for a second, and thinks about the people who’ve been waiting patiently for the past three years to hear his sophomore effort. “I don’t want people to become a fan of me from one song, or one album. I want them to become a fan of my sensibility. My taste. My desire to create something interesting.”

It brings me back to the first question I asked Troye: what makes a pop star brilliant today? “A popstar should never undermine their audience,” he told me. “They always need to remember than their fans are smarter than they might think, so [it’s important] to be real and stand for something.” His other ones are a little more niche and playful, pretty much Troye through and through: “I love a flamboyant popstar,” he says, his effusive grin audible down the phone. “I want the lot: the music videos, the looks, the songs. And have good social media presence. If you’re funny on top of it, then that’s amazing!”

Barely moments after we say our goodbyes, Troye jumps on Twitter, quote-tweeting a photo of him and his boyfriend Jacob in a car that a fan has captioned ‘why are they in a cage?’. ‘Keeping us here until the album is released’, Troye responds. The nuances of social media humour are near impossible for most celebrities to grasp, but here – like a true child of the internet age – Troye seems to master it in a way that proves why his 8.6 million Twitter followers are sticking by him, counting down the days to Bloom’s release alongside Siri. Perhaps without even realising it, Troye Sivan had told me a list of traits that he possessed perfectly too; the ones of a necessary and wonderful 21st century pop star.

Troye Sivan’s album ‘Bloom’ is out August 31

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