Lauv: “I had an existential breakdown. I was like, ‘I want to step away from music’”

The star channelled MySpace's DIY spirit into second album 'All 4 Nothing'. "It's about using the confidence you have as a kid, and accepting you’ve got to grow up," he tells Hollie Geraghty

When the time came for Lauv to start writing his second album, the singer found himself looking inward. What he unearthed was a realisation that would determine the direction of his upcoming second album, ‘All 4 Nothing’. “I had such an existential breakdown,” he says. “At one point, I was like, ‘I want to step away from music’. And then, I came back around and realised, I don’t feel an innate sense of deserving to be happy.”

The weighty epiphany would serve as the turning point on the journey to more authentic output from LA-based pop star Lauv – real name Ari Leff – that could only flourish when he set out to confront the source of his restlessness. “Can I tell you a story / ‘Bout a boy who broke his own heart? / And he always blamed everybody else / But the truth is that he did it to himself,” he sings on album opener and recent single ‘26’, which he describes as the “prelude” of the record. “I feel like it sets up the problem of why this album exists,” Lauv, now 27, adds. “26 and I’m rich / How the hell did it come to this?” he asks on the single, questioning why, after arriving at the destination he always dreamed of, did he still feel empty?

After all, the hallmarks of traditional success were certainty there. His 2018 single ‘I Like me Better’ has amassed more than two billion streams, while ‘i’m so tired’ featuring Troye Sivan and ‘fuck, i’m lonely’ with Anne-Marie were UK Top 10 and Top 40 hits respectively.

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But something was still amiss. “For so much of my life I was just like, ‘All I want to do is make music that connects with a lot of people,” he says. “And then that happens – and I still feel the same. I don’t feel any better. And [I was] feeling like, ‘What the fuck do I do to feel OK?’” The problem seemed to stem from his obsessive desire to achieve external validation in the search for fulfilment, which caused him to neglect those close to him. “I spent a lot of time chasing goals and achievements as opposed to growing relationships with people in my life,” he says. “I let music take up so much space in my life to the point where everything else was kind of just stagnant.”

It’s a regret he’s been pondering since his 2020 debut album, ‘~how i’m feeling~’, a long-awaited release that followed a near-decade of releasing music online. The album featured three songs about feeling “lonely”. “Love my friends to death / But I never call and I never text” he sings on ‘Modern Loneliness’, while on ‘Drugs and the Internet’ he reflects on the people he pushed away: “I traded all my friends for drugs and the internet / Ah, shit / Am I winner yet?”).

But something else he found in this period of self-reflection was the reason to make a change. “I found that I’m an extremely loving person,” he says. “But I felt a lot of anxiety and shame around that.” That’s where the album’s title track ‘All 4 Nothing (I’m So In Love)’ celebrates the moment everything started to fall into place. “Falling in love with my girlfriend was this experience of full surrender and [feeling] like, ‘This feels really nice, and I don’t want to lose this’, but also in the back of my head I’m like, ‘But I could lose it at any moment’.” Or, as he described it on his TikTok, it’s a song about “falling in love when ur an anxious person and you finally let go and give in to it”.

‘All 4 Nothing’ is Lauv’s journey to embracing more of the good stuff life has to offer, and learning to savour the process along the way. The end result is an album that is not confined to any one direction, while still showcasing his knack for earworm vocals and rich melodic production. The freedom he granted himself in the creative process was starkly different to ‘~how i’m feeling~’, where each song fell within one of six personas. “This album was more like, ‘Let’s remove all the different versions of me; this is just me’.” He was so committed to enabling a natural creative flow that he experimented with freestyle rap. “A couple of times I killed it,” he admits, “but usually [I was] not very good”.

Instead, ‘All 4 Nothing’ is a window into Lauv existing on multiple timelines, exploring the good, the bad and the ugly. “I guess it was just me trying to make sense of everything that I was going through during a pandemic,” he says. “It’s literally just all the things that I was thinking about.” But two overarching themes did prevail: confidence and childhood. “I feel like it’s somewhere in between,” he says. “[It’s about] pulling from that innate confidence you have as a kid, and also accepting that you’ve got to grow up at the same time.” Upcoming single ‘Kids Are Born Stars’ represented a chance to “rewrite my history”, as  he boasts to an unrequited crush that he will one day be a “really big star”.

But there are equally sincere moments where he explores his reliance on drugs and alcohol to feel comfortable in his own skin. “It feels kind of shitty, writing some of those lyrics, honestly,” he says. “I’m kind of like, ‘When are you going to change certain things, instead of just writing about them?’”

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While he is vocal about his battle with depression and anxiety, having founded the Blue Boy Foundation to raise awareness around mental health, he still struggles to confront his OCD through lyrics. “It’s hard for me to channel it. I feel like any time I try to write about it, the songs never turn out good,” he says. Obsessive patterns manifest for him in the form of “super repetitive, negative, destructive thoughts that basically fully tear me down internally”, or “thoughts that contradict my reality”.

It’s the process of actually releasing music that can feel torturous, too. “I just kind of try to detach as much as possible – create what I create but then step away,” he says. The pressure to craft the perfect release strategy, including the right amount of teasers and singles, can trigger a spiral: “I can’t strategize or plan, because if I’m like, ‘Later today I want to do this’, by the time later today happens, I will have thought of it like seven million times.” 

This kind of thinking unsurprisingly doesn’t mesh well with social media habits. “It’s really all of this TikTok and teasing music thing that’s destroying my mind,” he says. But where more artists – from Halsey to FKA Twigs – are rebelling against the sometimes formulaic and insincere nature of TikTok marketing, for Lauv, the decision-making involved is what’s most excruciating. Listing every variable, he asks himself: “How much to tease? What’s the right part? Should I cut it off? Should I be in the video?”

But after coming out the other side of an intense period of self reflection, how is Lauv doing now? “I’m doing a little better,” he says. “For a while, I tried to get off all my medication. Then I got back on medication. I realised there’s no problem with that. I think I was like, ‘I want to prove to myself that I can do life without it’.”

Speaking to Lauv in person, you detect flashes of the overthinking he’s trying to explain. “I hope I’m making sense,” he says midway through the hour-long interview. “Sometimes I make no sense.” When we’re discussing his first viral hit, ‘The Other’, concentration wanes momentarily. “God, this is so funny,” he says before folding in on nervous laughter. “I don’t know why… sorry. I just totally lost track.”

He later offers a possible explanation for the wobble when discussing why meditation serves an important purpose in his life: “I constantly judge myself so much. So I try to not do that. I speak and then I go, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? Shut the fuck up’.” But there’s also a carefree, goofy side to Lauv, who, at the end of our interview, points at trees on the wallpaper of the hotel lounge we’re sitting in, and says, for no apparent reason: “This is cheese.”

He’s aware that his mind works in contradictions. “Why do I feel sometimes like a really socially anxious and awkward person, but sometimes really confident?” he asks. But while he’s conscious of being in his head too much, he also speaks endearingly about his joy in human connection, another realisation that has allowed him to freewheel musically. “I feel such immense love in general for people. I just feel like we’re all so connected,” he says.

“I hope for all the Number Ones. I’ve never been able to say I would want something like that”

Wary that such a sentiment might come across “corny”, the singer does offer good reason to believe he’s genuine. Not only does Lauv begin and end this interview with a hug, regularly asking for my take on matters discussed throughout our conversation, but the following day he also arranges a meet-up in London where he spends time with fans and performs old and new material.

In some ways, the “messy, long, experimental process” of ‘All 4 Nothing’ accurately captures the whimsy of Lauv’s personality. His quirky humour makes more sense when he details the early days of his career that flourished in the edgy MySpace era. When the singer was around 14 years old, he would create music with his friends and upload it to the networking site. “I would have this friend bot where it would add thousands of people. I felt like it was an actual hustle,” he says. “Artists would comment or message people and be like, ‘Hey, my song’s on iTunes for 99 cents, if you want to check it out’. And people back to then would actually just be like OK!’ and buy it, so I actually had like, thousands of downloads back then.”

The artwork for Lauv’s single ’26’. Credit: Vince Aung

The platform – which holds such a special place in Lauv’s heart that he has the logo tattooed behind his ear, which occasionally peeks out when he talks enthusiastically – helped foster the DIY spirit that has enabled him to remain an independent artist throughout his career. “I think that the whole industry is shifting more towards that kind of stuff being possible,” he says. “There’s tons of successes from doing traditional label deals, but [there’s] friends of mine who have not gotten the opportunity, or things have gotten totally out of their control.” He adds: “Having that full control and ownership of it is awesome.”

It was this freedom that enabled the final product of Lauv’s debut album to total 21 songs with six guest features, including ‘Who’ with BTS and ‘Canada’ featuring Alessia Cara. But ‘All 4 Nothing’ is a more modest offering, whittled down to 13 songs without a single feature.

“I hope for all the Number Ones,” Lauv replies with a smile when we ask about his hopes for the new album. “I feel like I’ve never been able to say that I would want something like that,” he adds, seemingly coming to this realisation as the words leave his mouth. Does this signal a big growth moment? “Hell yeah!” he says. “And if it’s not this one, it’ll be the next one.”

– ‘All 4 Nothing’ is due for released on August 5 via Virgin Music. ‘Kids Are Born Stars’ will be released later this month

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