There’s a singular, vivid childhood memory that beats inside Dhruv Sharma like a second heart. When the Singapore-raised singer-songwriter was five-years-old, he would dress up as a princess and waltz his way around his grandmother’s house, completely uninhibited, twirling in time to the vibrant Bollywood soundtracks that would play from the television. “It was a time in my life where I felt more free than ever – and now I’m trying to get back to that feeling of liberation,” says the artist – known simply by his first name – over Zoom from his flat in London.
When Dhruv began to produce music from his bedroom a decade later, this formative experience would become the focal point of inspiration for ‘Grateful’, the sweeping centrepiece of his bright and varied debut project, ‘Rapunzel’, released in January. “Remember being a kid and wild and free / Playing Rapunzel from the balcony / Thinking I didn’t care how you’d see me”, he sings over looped piano and the occasional shimmer of a hi-hat, these gentle sounds evoking both a gratitude for the past and a quietly surging sense of forward momentum.
The track became one of multiple unintended hits from ‘Rapunzel’, as the project has continued to light TikTok abuzz with possibility. ‘Double Take’, a slow-burning ballad about a meaningful queer teen relationship, was initially released in 2019 with little expectation from Dhruv of a reward beyond the thrill of engaging with fans; three years later, the song’s combination of nostalgia and soaring hooks has racked up over 300 million streams to date.
Dhruv has come to understand that he has long possessed a quiet level of confidence. Three years ago, prior to his viral success, he began a hiatus from studying data science at Yale University, Connecticut in order to focus on his songwriting, with no idea of the expanded visibility that lay ahead. That self-belief has recently extended to the music, too: drawing from the effervescent polish of early ‘80s pop, gleaming new single ‘Blur’ reflects a new era of experimentation for Dhruv, which he describes to NME as the “brighter, louder direction” he hopes to pursue in the future.
As he prepares to begin work on his forthcoming debut album, Dhruv discusses what it’s like to grow up without a musical education, his relationship with manifestation, and why, despite his huge online success, he chooses “not to follow the rules of social media.”
NME: How did growing up in Singapore shape the music you make today?
“I was pretty close to India, so I got to spend a lot of time with my extended family that lives there. I had exposure to Bollywood music from a really young age, which has the most unconventional but beautiful sense of melody, so I developed a strong appreciation for different sounds.
“But when it came to living in Singapore, it was difficult because I don’t come from a musical background, and I wasn’t based in a city where music was intensely in focus. I had to really push myself to listen to a bunch of different artists, and Top 40 radio was what got me interested in pop. As I didn’t grow up with an awareness and understanding of the arts, I had to forge my own path into music.”
Did the lack of opportunities to create music make you want to work harder to get noticed?
“I was waiting to leave in order to take the steps I needed to make music happen for me. I grew up in a supportive Indian family, but there wasn’t a level of encouragement [to pursue music] from the jump. For me, however, doing music wasn’t a choice – it was something I grew up dreaming of and always had an inkling I’d do. I loved music so much at a young age that it felt like it found me, so much so that I thought I wouldn’t need to seek another career. I always had faith it would happen.”
You talk about having “an inkling” that your music career was going to eventually take off. What role does manifestation play in your life?
“For sure, manifestation is a huge part of my life. Before it became a ‘buzzword’, I was doing it, and I’ve always believed that you can’t just manifest your way to the top, you also have to work towards it. When I first started in music, I had all of these melodies and these words, and I just thought to myself, ‘There is no way this music can’t be heard’. I was so proud of what I had produced that it almost felt like that music didn’t come from me!”
“I’ve always believed that you can’t just manifest your way to the top, you also have to work towards it”
As your career has progressed, what bigger dreams have you started to manifest for yourself?
“I really want to go back to Asia and perform live there. A lot of my goals relate to being able to play more often and for bigger audiences, especially where I grew up. I think when I was younger, there was this idea that, at least with the music industry, America is where things happen, which is why I wanted to move there. Spending time working on my music in New York made me realise that idea is partially true, but being able to play my music everywhere is what matters to me.”
You decided to pause your studies months before you began to experience viral success. Are you the type of person to always follow your gut instinct?
“100%. Even when ‘Double Take’ went viral, the only thing that I could really go by was my gut instinct. In life, if you really want something to happen for you, you have to treat it like it’s your mission, and you have to give it the care and attention that it deserves – and that’s how I always felt about music. At that moment in time, I was like, ‘OK, I could just go back and finish school right now, and I’m sure my family would be happy’, but I just knew that I loved music, so I had to put all my energy into it.”
How did your family react when you decided to leave university?
“It was quite difficult as everyone was very nervous about my decision. Growing up, [my family] saw me play piano and write songs in our living room, but later on, they had no concept of how popular my music was becoming – my parents, for example, only listen to Hindi music. They had no understanding of whether I was actually good at what I was doing and why I had chosen pop, so I needed them to see that [music] was all I wanted to do.”
What does it mean to you that ‘Double Take’ has been adopted as a queer anthem?
“It’s amazing. I think also queerness in the West is developed, and in general, everything is more liberal compared to where I grew up. There’s not necessarily the same [freedoms] in India and other places, so it was important for people there to hear this song. I feel really moved when people message me saying, ‘I really needed to hear these lyrics’, and it’s been beautiful to see how the song soundtracks others’ lives. At this point, the song has had such a life of its own that it’s become something bigger than I could have ever imagined.”
You’ve described the song as being about your experience of falling in love with a friend. Did you share this with the person that the song is about?
“Everything on ‘Rapunzel’ was based on my own personal experiences, so my ex knows which songs are about him. When I showed him the songs, they weren’t even doing that well [in terms of streams] – and now, obviously, the situation is very different. At the time, the lyrics were so intimate and funny to us, but now it’s obviously blown up to this bigger thing where people are genuinely curious about who the music is about. It’s crazy.”
What was behind the decision to adopt TikTok after ‘Double Take’ blew up? Were you initially hesitant to join the app?
“I’m intensely grateful for what TikTok has given me, but I am quite shy and I don’t love being super visible online. I think using social media is unnatural for me, but it’s so easy for some people, which makes me jealous. I prefer to not follow the rules of social media and I try to keep a bit of a distance from it, purely because I don’t want to be thinking too much about the size of an audience – I’d much rather people learn about me through my music.”
What have you learned about yourself on this journey?
“I think the biggest lesson has been that my gut does not lie to me. Also, I really, really loved music as a kid, so any time now where things may start getting a little much, I focus on mentally getting back to that place I was in when I wrote my first song: full of wonder, awe, and perhaps a little bit of naivety – and that’s where I always want to be.”
Dhruv’s new single ‘Blur’ is out now