Photography: Andrew Boyle
Styling: Sam Bates
HMUA: Laura Dyer
Producer: Justin Moran
Photo Assistant: Samantha Dong
Styling Assistant: Danielle Dorchester
Special Thanks to Milk Studios New York & Boyswear
Troye Sivan will be an unavoidable name in 2016. The 20-year-old Aussie has spent the past few years building up a 3 million-person YouTube following (his 2013 coming out video has 6 million views), which is a platform that’s allowed the young talent to realize his dreams of becoming a global pop star. This narrative is a post-Internet phenomenon we’ve all heard before (see Justin Bieber), though Sivan is well-armed with far more than just fleeting digital hype.
For one, he offers a much-needed gay perspective in an otherwise heteronormative pop landscape—something that’s naturally seeped into his songwriting, which largely centers on the plights of teen love and self-discovery. Sivan’s debut full-length album Blue Neighbourhood is the manifestation of these stories, wrapped in a web of emotional synth-pop that fuses the dreamy melancholia of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die with the self-aware smartness of Lorde’s minimalistic Pure Heroine.
On the album opener, “Wild,” we hear Sivan wrestling with innate human desire—that innocent feeling of subversion after experiencing pleasure and pain in love for the first time. We’re dragged through the singer’s romantic pitfalls on brutally honest cuts “Fools” and “Talk Me Down.” A gloomy reflection of his Australian roots takes center stage in “Suburbia,” while Sivan happily revels in the magic of being young and uninhibited on the anthemic single, “Youth.” This well-rounded collection reads like something he had to create in order to close one chapter and open another—a walls-down glimpse into his psyche before it becomes cluttered with fame.
We caught up with the rising prince of pop to discuss collaborating with “Catch” crooner Allie X, playing match-maker between Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff and Betty Who, and having a meltdown after hearing The Weeknd.
Let’s talk about your songwriting process. How do you approach this?
“I approach it really personally. I always want to write as real and honest as I can. I don’t approach it thinking, ‘This is is a song I’m going to release to the entire world.’ I approach it like I’m writing in a journal. I’m a little bit of a dork, so I like word games with rhyming and phrasing. That’s always fun for me, trying to come up with a new, fresh way of saying something to keep the listener interested—to keep it smart. It’s essentially a game. You’re like, ‘This is what I want to say and I have one line to say it and I need it to rhyme with X. How can I do this in a really cool way?’ I write songs with my friends, too, as like an afternoon pastime.”
You co-wrote several songs with Allie X on Blue Neighbourhood. How did that collaboration come about?
“I met Leland, who’s another artist, through a mutual friend. He used to date one of my friends and we ended up writing together. We were setting up a writing session and I was a big fan of Allie’s music. Leland had written with her before, so he was like, ‘What if I bring Allie to a session?’ I was a little nervous and starstruck, but she came and we ended up writing together. It was this little team—Leland, Allie, myself and Bram Inscore—and that was maybe a year and a half, two years ago. Now if you look at the album notes, that writing team wrote like half the album. I’m o obsessed with how fearless [Allie] is, how creative she is, how absolutely batshit crazy she is. She’s such a cool person, she’s hilarious and she has an absolutely killer voice.”
You worked with her on “Youth.”
“In the chorus, you can hear a female vocalist screaming, ‘My Youth.’ That’s Allie. Basically we went in and wanted to write a pop song. That was the first push and then we started writing about leaving it all, running away and not having any idea of where you’re going—not knowing where your life is going, not knowing if this relationship is going to last two days or 10 years. Just taking all those worries and leaving them behind because you can, you’re young and you have little responsibility. I have some responsibility, but I don’t have like a family to look after. I’m 20, traveling the world and don’t have a lot to worry about.”
You also collaborated with fellow Australian Betty Who on “Heaven.” Tell me about this track.
“I wrote that song with Alex Hope, who I write with all the time. We were working with Jack Antonoff [of Bleachers] and really wanted to impress him, so we started whipping out these poetic lyrics. It was growing easily and the melodies were just coming. The verses reminded me of something Coldplay would do. Jack started playing around and found a Grimes sample. It was Grimes’ voice and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh that’s such a good melody and it’s the right key, can we put it in the song?’ He was like, ‘Sure I’ll ask her later,’ so Grimes technically worked on the song. It was essentially Alex, Jack, me, Betty Who and Grimes who ended up writing heaven.”
In the song you sing, “All my time is wasted feeling like my heart’s mistaken, so if I’m losing a piece of me, maybe I don’t want heaven.” What’s the story behind this?
“It was me just writing about all the questions and concerns I ever had in my coming out process when I was 14. I felt it was missing something once the song was recorded and I knew it was a female vocalist. I couldn’t think of anyone better than Betty. I felt like a matchmaker because I really wanted her and Jack [Antonoff] to do something together. They went into the studio in New York, where Betty cut the vocal. They sent it back and it was just perfect. It’s awesome because I’m a huge fan of Betty and I saw her when she was playing one of her first shows at the Troubadour in LA. It was small and intimate and I was front row singing every lyric. After the show, I was like, ‘I’m a singer and I’m going to write with you one day.’ Now she’s on the album.”
Being signed to a major label like Universal, were you ever victim to a round table of businessmen dictating the album’s creative direction?
“I am really lucky with my team. They completely just left me to my own devices to go and make and write this album. There was push and pull off course, but that’s why I have them there. I have them there to help me make all of this come true for me. For example, with the production on ‘Youth,’ there was like a million different versions of that song until it got to the point where everyone thought it was right. Now it’s one of my favorite songs on the album, even though there was a lot of back and forth on that one. Ultimately, I definitely have a feeling that everyone has completely awesome intentions. I’m lucky because I know it’s not like that for everyone. I came into this whole thing with an audience, so I think there was a lot of trust there between the label and myself. I’ve been talking to my following for years before I got signed, so that set a good tone for the whole relationship.”
What was it like developing your sound on Blue Neighbourhood?
“It was stressful. When I was younger, I was so easily excited by music. I’m so easily swayed to be like, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard’ and it makes me want to make music like that. Especially when the album was pretty much done, I was in the car and heard The Weeknd on the radio. I had a meltdown and was like, ‘Oh my God, we have to scrap the album. I need to make music like this. The Weeknd is so sick, I need to do music like him.’ I gave it like two days and thought about everything, but I was like, ‘No, my album is one hundred percent me, it’s right.’
I made Blue Neighbourhood over the period of a year and a half. Had I made it in three weeks or even two months, like some people do, you would’ve heard more of what I was listening at that particular time. But since I made it over such a longer period of time, almost all my influences, big and small, came into play. Everyone from Robyn to Lily Allen, these are people who’ve inspired me at one point. All of those influences peek through in my music and found their way onto the album. It’s the most ‘me’ album I could’ve made.”
Journalists all seem to focus on two things: Your YouTube fame and sexuality. Do you feel pressured to abide by this narrative?
“Not really, to be honest. Those people probably picked up on those things because they’re two key parts of my life. I’ve never thought of myself as making that huge of a statement by using male pronouns in my songs. To me, they’re not necessarily ‘gay songs,’ they’re just songs I’ve been writing about my life. I understand why these things become big topics, but at the same time I do feel like there’s more to me than that. People act like that’s all there is.”
It’s crazy how the media still obsesses over the whole “gay artist” archetype.
“Right? But I think it’s important these conversations are had and these topics are talked about. If you think about it, five or 10 years ago, this wouldn’t have been a talking point because I wouldn’t have been able to do this in the first place. So I feel like I’d rather be in this situation than any other situation. I consider myself really lucky. I’d rather do it and have people talk about it, than not do it at all.”
Do you feel the need to represent the entire gay community?
“No, you’re asking for trouble if you want to do that. I can’t represent everyone and I never strive to. I just want to do my part and I understand it’s a huge battle that we’re all fighting that consists of a million stories. One of the most powerful and helpful things I can do is just really, really go for what I want. Because I am gay and if I succeed, I feel like that’s one of the coolest messages I can send to my followers. Don’t let any of this stuff stop you. Go for it, you can do it—you can make it happen.
I acknowledge how lucky I am and how privileged I am to have had the experiences I’ve had from a really smooth coming out experience to the fact that I’m a pop singer who gets to travel the world. I’m not trying to speak out for the community and myself, but just trying to give a voice to people who maybe wouldn’t’ have one otherwise.”