For the first time in years, Troye Sivan is bored. When the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to loom earlier in 2020, Sivan retreated from his Los Angeles home to spend time with his family in Melbourne – only to find himself subject to the city’s restrictive lockdown, stuck inside for longer than he could have imagined.
Not since Sivan was a teenager has he been so removed from the head rush of life as a global pop star. As he tells NME, “It’s crazy to be doing this again at 25… I slipped back into old habits so quickly. It’s funny – give me three months, six months, however long it’s been to do absolutely nothing, and I completely regressed back to 17-year-old Troye, lying in my bed, just watching dumb shit on YouTube.”
On a Zoom call from his bedroom in his brother’s granny flat, the same room where’s been making trippy Instagram videos, the only kind of content he can produce right now, Sivan could indeed pass for his teenage self. He bears little resemblance to the flame-haired, high-fashion model version of himself that appeared in the press photos for ‘Take Yourself Home’, his first single of 2020. But even in such a relaxed setting, there’s no mistaking his poise, or his soft but instantly recognisable voice.
It’s that voice – gentle, lithe, powerfully empathetic – that’s made Troye Sivan a fixture in pop music and culture in the last half-decade, and a template for modern internet fame. His early success as a teen YouTuber led to his debut album, 2015’s ‘Blue Neighbourhood’, where he delivered cinematic tales of love and longing in suburbia.
On 2018’s ‘Bloom’, his first album as an adult, Sivan declared that he was here to stay. Set to infectious dance-pop rhythms and textures, he sang more openly about queer sexuality and desire – and it took him to places beyond his imagination. Troye Sivan has reached the rare echelon of Western pop star who could sell out arenas in China, but is still just shy of being a household name.
Sivan was widely expected to release his third album this year, but instead returned from stints in LA and Sweden with the six-track, 19-minute ‘In A Dream’, a record he describes as “this very intense, potent little thing”. So why release an EP, and not an album?
“I was going through a weird, roller coaster-y, eventful time in my life,” he says. “It felt too early to be working on my album. I was still on tour for ‘Bloom’ for some of this, and as it was coming to an end, I was feeling all of this stuff. When you’re going through something like that, you feel 20 different ways in an hour.
“So I went into the studio very casually. I would write one song, and the next day I would come in feeling a completely different way and write a completely different-sounding song. I wasn’t writing to write. I was writing because I really needed it at the time. Before I knew it, I was like, ‘Whoa – I have this body of this work, this EP, whatever’. I didn’t know what it was. All I know is that this really sums up these last couple of weeks or months in my life.”
When Sivan first wrote ‘Take Yourself Home’, the EP’s opening track, he couldn’t have envisioned how it would anticipate the homeward journey he’d soon take. Over a muted acoustic guitar, he croons lyrics that sound like a rejection of the pop star life: “I’m tired of the city, scream if you’re with me / If I’m gonna die, let’s die somewhere pretty / Take yourself home.”
Like many of the songs on ‘In A Dream’, ‘Take Yourself Home’ opens in a place of deep melancholy, then takes us on a journey to a ferocious, euphoric dance-pop catharsis. As Sivan describes it, “It’s yearning for release. Then by the end of the song, there’s this outro: you’ve gone out to dance, cry and probably drink your loneliness away. It felt therapeutic, like everything I’d been trying to say.”
Earlier in the year, while other major artists like HAIM and Lady Gaga delayed their upcoming releases, Sivan brought his plans forward, premiering ‘Take Yourself Home’ – and announcing ‘In A Dream’ – months ahead of he and his label EMI Australia’s original schedule. They could wait it out indefinitely, or they could make the best of a fraught situation.
He had written treatments for five music videos, but due to Melbourne’s strict lockdown laws, was only able to film ‘Easy’ and ‘Rager teenager!’ So instead, Sivan allocated much of his original video budget to collaborations with freelance artists, while directing himself for the first time.
“I was planning on collaborating with directors that I know and love, and would normally have been so excited to work with. With everything going on, it stripped those possibilities away. So the conversation came up: ‘Troye, do you just want to direct ‘Easy’?’”
It’s thrilling to hear Sivan confess that making art still gives him butterflies: “Honestly, that was the most nervous I’ve been for anything in a good few years. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything that’s felt really new like that in a while.”
The results are striking. In the video, Troye broods alone among cold, austere architecture, watching a glamorous, Ziggy Stardust-esque version of himself sing and strut around – until he bursts into flames, overcome with emotion.
‘Easy’ is shockingly intimate even by Sivan’s standards, with a chorus that drops us into the fire of a lovers’ reunion: “What the hell did we do? / Tell me we’ll make it through / ’Cause he made it easy / Please don’t leave me…” It’s so raw that it’s almost uncomfortable to listen to, if not for the song’s warm synths: ’80s-styled yet utterly timeless.
Have confessional lyrics ever come back around to affect his real-life relationships?
“For the most part, no,” Sivan responds, choosing his words carefully. “If I know that something is personal between me and someone, and I’ve written a song about it, I send them the song and talk to them about it and everything. And I think that helps. But before releasing a song like that, it’s the most awful feeling in the world. Truly! It’s one thing to share my feelings about a situation, and my side of a story. But when you really care about someone… it just feels like a fucked thing to do.”
“I’ve enjoyed getting in touch with that kind of boredom again. I always get really creative when I’m bored”
Nor is he tempted to hold back. “But then the other voice on my shoulder says, ‘Remember when ‘Back To Black’ by Amy Winehouse came out, and it was so specific?’ You’d think that specificity would alienate the audience, when in fact it does the exact opposite. It makes the most meaningful music that lasts the longest. And thankfully, I’ve got supportive people who are like, ‘This is weird, and it kind of sucks, but I also fully get it – so go for it, I’m proud of you’.”
With that kind of support, Sivan’s made a gut punch of an EP. “There’s a lot of different sonic moods on this EP, and I truly think the only throughline is that they’re all extremely personal, and precise in their emotion,” he says. It’s true: on ‘In A Dream’, his perspective is sharper, more cutting than before, with a hint of gentle self-deprecation – even when he’s singing in metaphor.
‘STUD’, a fantastical gay love song that morphs from piano ballad to house anthem, is guaranteed to be an instant fan favourite. Troye gives it a hell of an elevator pitch: “It starts off super introspective, in my head, and then takes you to this club scene, where you meet this hunky guy who’s there to save you from all of your body image issues.”
The song’s lovedrunk opening chorus would have brought a tear to the late George Michael’s eyes: “Hey, tough / What’s it like to be so big and strong and so buff? / Everything I’m not but could I still be a hunk to you? / A stud to you?” Later in the song, he asks, sounding almost forlorn, “How much of me would you take? / How much of me would you change? / On second thought, don’t say a thing.”
Troye Sivan’s not the kind of pop star who preaches 24/7 flawlessness. To hear him sing about the ways in which he’s not perfectly confident, and how he finds salvation in submissiveness, like on ‘STUD’ and the title track of ‘Bloom’ – now that sounds like liberation.
“I completely regressed back to 17-year-old Troye, lying in my bed, watching dumb shit on YouTube”
On the slow-burning ballad ‘Rager teenager!’, Sivan looks in the mirror and sings to his younger self, what he’s called his “pilot light”. He’s alternately frustrated (“I just wanna go wild / I just wanna fuck shit up and just ride!”) and sentimental (“Hey, my little rager teenager / I’ve missed you around.”)
It might be his most moving song and video to date – and the latter takes place entirely in a bathtub. As he sings, he averts his eyes, getting lost in the song’s drifting emotions. When he finally looks straight at the camera, it’s hard not to get chills.
When we ask Sivan how he directed the video, he’s typically humble. “I just love bathing, and I do it almost every day,” he laughs. “It felt honest and chill to have this trippy, dreamy bath where you’re thinking, and you’re playing, and you’re upset – all of these things in one space. It felt really nostalgic.”
We ask if he’s ever felt that some of his most tender songs, like ‘Rager teenager!’ and ‘Seventeen’, are perhaps directed not at lovers, but at himself. He seems genuinely surprised. “That’s super interesting. I hadn’t thought about that, no. I have a lot of conversations with myself in my head. So to put them down on paper feels nice. I definitely enjoy writing those songs, and anytime I can push myself…”
‘In A Dream’, the title track that closes out the EP, was inspired by a dream so intense that Sivan woke up crying. He sings about putting an ex out of mind, or perhaps fighting away your intrusive negative thoughts: “But I won’t let you in again / I’m gonna lock the doors and hide my shit / ’Cause my spirit’s wearin’ thin and there’s only so much I can give.” But the track, built by his main producer Oscar Görres, is an uptempo, major-key new wave bop that might be the brightest song he’s ever written.
It wasn’t a conscious stylistic choice, it just felt right. “It wasn’t about trying to make a cohesive pop album or EP. It was, ‘How can we tell these stories in the most accurate and emotive way?’” Even the EP’s lone outlier, the country-tinged ‘could cry just thinkin about you’, is a 52-second sketch that feels like a complete composition, but leaves you wanting more.
Back in Melbourne, it’s been quiet. The burst of songwriting that sparked the EP has worn off… at least for now. “I definitely feel inspired, and I feel antsy to write,” Sivan admits. “But that’s the one creative expression I’ve had a hard time with over the last couple of months. It hasn’t come to me super naturally, because such a big part of my process is collaborating with other people. I don’t play an instrument, so though I might write lyrics and melody by myself, I need someone on chords, whether it’s on piano or guitar.”
And that’s also why Sivan says he feels “really jealous” of other musicians who have studios at home. “I spoke to Tove Lo a couple of weeks ago, and she lives with producers,” he says. “They’ve got a studio in the house, and it’s like a music factory – essentially just one long writing camp. For them, I’m sure it’s a dream come true… Or I can imagine Finneas and Billie are probably writing the best fucking music they’ve ever made.
“Whereas for me, I’m trying to stay creative, but pretty much in all other ways except for songwriting. At some point I should bite the bullet and try a Zoom session or something, but for now, I haven’t managed.”
“I’ll listen to a song thousands of times, then once it’s out, I stop listening to it. I no longer mind, and it belongs to everyone else”
Yet as candid as he’s being, Sivan doesn’t sound particularly regretful about being in lockdown. Instead, he’s looking on the bright side: “I’ve enjoyed getting in touch with that kind of boredom again. I always get really creative when I’m bored, so I’ve had a good time woodworking, and doing shit that I would never ever do normally.”
The EP’s songs have already taken on another life for his now-housebound self. “When I listen to it now, it also speaks to me in lockdown, where I’m like, ‘I just wanna go wild, I just wanna fuck shit up. I want to be out, and I want to be doing all these crazy things’. It’s funny, the way it’s aged. It means something really different to me now.”
Sivan has described ‘In A Dream’ as “a story that’s still unfolding”, and indeed, everything surrounding the EP – especially its weird house-arrest press cycle – has become as much a part of its narrative as the music is. Perhaps we’d never have known how much we needed these songs if we weren’t also confined to our houses, waiting for some semblance of normalcy to resume.
The future’s as uncertain for Troye Sivan as it is anyone else, but at least he has ‘In A Dream’ to anchor him. He’s been living through these six songs for months, and now it’s our turn. “When it’s a demo, I’ll probably listen to the song thousands of times, then once it’s out, it’s completely done. That’s when I stop listening to it. I no longer mind, and it belongs to everyone else.”
“You’d think that specificity would alienate the audience, when in fact it does the opposite. It makes the most meaningful music”
Now that he’s well and truly an established name, has he noticed a younger generation of upcoming pop acts who’ve been influenced by him? Sivan says, modest as always, “I hope that’s happening. That’d be awesome. I’m just stoked about where music is at in general. Especially now with platforms like TikTok, where a song can be plucked out of absolute obscurity, and taken by the people ’cause they like it. I’m really inspired by that. I think we’re going to see a crop of new artists, like BENEE from New Zealand, where they’re like bang, all of a sudden. And it’s clear why, because the music is connecting with people.”
Now that he’s back in his bedroom, alone with nothing but time, does he feel like the person he wanted to become when he first started performing? “Ultimately, my dream did come true, which is crazy. And all I want for the future is to be able to keep doing it. Keep creating, and have people want to listen, or watch.”
Troye Sivan’s ‘In A Dream’ is out now