Troye Sivan: “I Just Wanted To Write Normal Pop Songs And Use The Word ‘He’”
The Australian YouTube star graduates from blogging to bonafide popstar with Wild.
Troye Sivan has the doe-eyed appearance of someone much younger than his 20 years, but speaks with the kind of polished poise that only those who grew up under the expectant spotlight of fame seem to possess. He was 13 when he acted the role of young Wolverine in 2009’s X-Men: Origins, but his rise to online stardom came about thanks to a consistent series of smart videos that he uploaded to YouTube throughout his teen years. His account, which is the third most subscribed-to YouTube channel in his native Australia—ahead of Iggy Azalea’s VEVO, no less—is filled with confessional monologues, advice columns, silly tutorials, and, perhaps most famously, his entry into the “coming out” canon of videos, a now archetypal form in which users reveal on camera that they are gay or bisexual. Recorded when he was 18, the video finds Sivan discussing his sexual orientation with perfect proportions of drama, informality, hopefulness, intelligence, and even comedy. It has over five million views.
Navigating your teenage years when the world is watching is a tricky art—with Tavi Gevinson of Rookie Magazine, perhaps, as the gold standard—but Sivan is absolutely doing it gracefully, documenting his personal life and his developing interest in LGBTQ social issues with humor and wit for the whole world to see. Today, he’s releasing an excellent new EP of brooding pop songs called Wild. Though he has had aspirations to be a singer since before his online career took off—his first YouTube uploads, in fact, were cover versions of other people’s pop songs—he’s taken his time before fully diving into a recording career, signing to EMI Australia in June of 2013 and releasing a light but promising EP about a year later called TRXYE. It went all the way to #5 on the U.S. Billboard charts on the strength of very little promotion—no interviews, no tour—other than his own social media.
“Every song stems from a real experience.”—Troye Sivan
Wild, however, is the real creative breakthrough. The songs are not the light and frivolous party anthems that many young pop stars often launch their careers with, but deeper meditations on lust and loss. He writes with a wise and catchy poetic impact—I see swimming pools and living rooms and aeroplanes/ I see a little house on a hill and children’s names/ I see quiet nights poured over ice and Tanqueray/ But everything is shattered babe/ And it’s my mistake on “Fools”—that makes you wonder how someone this young could have fallen in and out of love so many times. His sound has some of the moody atmosphere—blank space, warped synths, delicate piano—that makes Lorde and Frank Ocean’s music so appealing. But what is most remarkable about Wild is just how confidently simple its pleasures are, completely devoid of any overwrought trendiness. Instead, the easy finger-snap beat and gathering swirl of the chorus on “Wild” is a reminder why pop was invented in the first place.
Sivan spoke to me via Skype from his home in Perth, Australia, where he still lives with his parents. Choosing not to make it a video call, he discussed the refreshing seriousness with which he approaches his life and songs.
You’ve already built such a massive online presence and have acted in big movies—why sing?
TROYE SIVAN: It’s the thing that I love the most. I would still be doing this if I had no YouTube or I didn’t act. It’s my favorite form of expression. When I started songwriting, it just kind of became an obsession. I’m addicted to working. For me to be up all night writing songs and waking up early and posting teasers—it’s addictive to me. It’s just my natural state to be creative, even on my off days. That’s how I started YouTube. I was bored and it resulted in me making a YouTube video. And in between YouTube videos, I was writing songs and making beats.
Is being labeled a “YouTuber” a stigma when it comes to being taken seriously?
Well, I mean, my first video on YouTube was a singing video. But yeah, there’s definitely a stigma for people who have come from online. It’s not my job to disprove that. I’m just trying my best and making the music I want to make. Once a couple dope people come from online, I think that stigma will start to change.
I care about my music, what people think of me. I just want people to hear my music with an open mind. If you don’t enjoy it, that’s cool. But don’t not listen because of that label. It’s going to take a few years before people take it seriously, but it’ll happen.
Is making up funny little one-liners on YouTube different than songwriting?
You both start with a blank page and an idea. One thing that’s cool about songwriting is that I really, really love collaborating with other writers. I met friends really early in on this writing process that I trusted, and we became like one mind. We’d hang out, drink beers, eat sushi, and write a song. But what I love the most is just keep trying stuff, pushing yourself. As soon as you’re happy with something, you start to think of the next thing already.
You’re quite confessional online. Are these songs pulled from real life too?
Well, I’m quite theatrical with songwriting. But every song stems from a real experience. An autobiographical experience—maybe there’s embellishments here and there.
“Part of the reason why I came out is to do whatever I wanted and be with whoever I wanted. That freedom is something that I’ve worked hard for.”—Troye Sivan
Do you want to share some of the stories that inspired the songs?
I think people get surprised when I say this, but I’m a pretty private person when it comes to family and relationships. But it’s in the music. All the really personal shit—stuff I wouldn’t talk to a therapist about.
What about “Wild”—who is that about?
Well, it’s a couple of experiences meshed into one. I’ll just say that it’s about that first intoxicating night when you don’t really know the person that well, you’re trying to keep yourself composed, and they’re wearing you down. But you don’t have a problem with it—that feeling of electricity.
Everyone on the internet is always hounding you to find out who you are dating.
Well, yes, these songs are 100% about boys (laughs).
Has it been hard for you to date since you’re so public?
Before I was out, I wouldn’t have dated because I was so paranoid I would be outed. I was super cautious. But now I just do what I want. I have an internal screening person: Is this person likely to start spreading rumors online? Probably not, then cool. I can’t live in fear of that kind of stuff. Part of the reason why I came out is to do whatever I wanted and be with whoever I wanted. That freedom is something that I’ve worked hard for. And I’m enjoying it now.
You documented on YouTube what a positive coming out experience you had, but the music video for “Wild” centers on a young boy who has a really difficult abusive experience with his father. Why?
I had the most ideal coming out experience someone can have. My family was supportive, my friends. It’s been a non-issue for me. But the same thing that’s been a blessing in my life can lead someone to suicide. Everytime I hear about an LGBTQ kid committing suicide, it’s just so much frustration. I just think about lost potential because a parent wasn’t accepting or a friend wasn’t, and it ended an LGBTQ kid’s life.
I really want the parents of my audience to see these videos actually. And realize that their reaction influences their kid’s entire experience. Showing them two sides of the coin: this is how it could go or this is how it could go. It’s up to you.
Is the young romance between the two boys in the music video inspired from something in real life?
I definitely had what I recognize now when I was younger was puppy love crushes. I just thought they were my best friends, like, Wow, this guy was really cool. More, though, gay relationships are so often sexualized in the media, and I think it was really important for me to show an innocent, cute relationship. You see a little boy and girl walking down the street and people say, Oh, how cute, are you going to get married? And everyone thinks it's so cute. But you never it see it with two boys.
“There’s a couple of openly gay artists who are singing songs about boys. A 14-year-old Troye would’ve definitely appreciated this.”—Troye Sivan
Yeah, and it’s amazing to have just a nice pop record that’s written from a boy to a boy—just regular pop songs that happen to be from the point of view of a boy to a boy. I wish I had this when I was young.
I just wanted to write normal pop songs and when the time comes to use a pronoun, I’ll use the word “he”. One of the most powerful things I think that any LGBTQ person can do is just live. Once I came out, I was like, Yep, cool, I’m gay, and I’m going to continue on my path as if I never said anything. It improved my quality of life, made me happier, but it didn’t stop me from doing a single thing I would’ve done otherwise. You look at people like Sam Smith and Olly from Years and Years and there’s a couple of openly gay artists who are singing songs about boys. A 14-year-old Troye would’ve definitely appreciated this. Like, I can still be gay and be a pop star.
Has Frank Ocean been an influence?
I hear it on “Fools” especially. 1000% percent. Channel Orange is one of my favorite albums. And I’m a little in love with him, too, so it’s all mixed together.
Do you feel connected to woke online kids like Amandla Stenberg?
Definitely. I try to be as socially aware as I can. I’m trying to educate myself. Seeing people use their position of privilege and fame to spread a message for someone who needs it more than they do is inspiring. I want to do more of it. Trans people still have a high suicide rate. The homelessness rates in the LGBTQ community are astronomical. There’s loads of work to be done.
“I’ll never give the internet thing up—I grew up on the internet. It’s such a part of me as a person.”—Troye Sivan
When did you and your family realize you were not like other kids and how did your parents nurture it?
I’ve always been a performer. They always knew I was a little artsy. I never played sport at school. I didn’t like school all that much. They were just completely supportive. My mom was a model when she was younger and left school at 16 to go to London. They had an open mind. If you want to make this happen, let’s figure out how. I was home schooled at nine. I’ve been hustling since I was really young because I’ve always wanted to do this.
Would you ever pull a Tavi and move to New York and be just a regular cool kid in a big city and step away from the internet a little bit?
I like my life in Perth. I’m still in my bedroom in my parents house. I get to travel for six weeks and then I get to come home for two weeks and chill out with my family and do the Jewish holidays and nothing has changed. I don’t think I could handle the big cities for too long.
And no. I’ll never give the internet thing up—I grew up on the internet. I don’t remember not having it. It’s such a part of me as a person.
You just turned twenty, which means you’re not a teen anymore. Do you ever find it difficult to grow up online?
There’s growing pains, sometimes. Keeping people invested and interested is hard. Online stars have to keep up. I’m sure there’s a large portion of my audience who would love if I did the same videos I was doing a year ago. But I’m trying to keep things exciting. I just want to put out things I’m proud of.
I have never wanted to patronize my audience. I interact with them everyday on every social media platform. They’re smart, they’re switched on, they’re hilarious. I get shit for not uploading to YouTube all that often anymore much as I used to. But I find it physically difficult to upload a video that I think is not that great. It’s always just been a goal to make good shit. I’m ambitious and there’s a lot that I want to do. I’m taking this really seriously.