When he’s on tour Ari Leff takes a box with him, and each night the box sits on his merch table. Fans throw in anonymous messages. The whole thing is called My Blue Thoughts and one such thought has already inspired a song — Superhero, which came out last month.
While all that’s been happening a song Lauv released 16 months ago — I Like Me Better — has taken on a life of its own and become the absolute definition of a sleeper hit: nearly a year and a half after its first release it’s now on the Radio 1 playlist, and Lauv’s currently pulling in over 14m monthly Spotify listeners.
Popjustice spoke with Lauv in July about some of this, then the recording of that interview was lost, and then a second interview was scheduled, then the original recording was triumphantly retrieved, but only after the second interview had taken place. A little peek behind the curtain, there, readers. Anyway here’s an interview made up of two interviews. See if you can spot the joins!
Have you noticed people’s blue thoughts differ from country to country? It seems likely that, say, UK teenagers will express different concerns to US high school kids.
Yeah that’s really true. I haven’t noticed a specific difference. It will be interesting to see how it changes now Superhero is out there. It’s generally about stuff that’s going on in their family, or someone they’re in love with… But it will be cool to see if people are writing about things that are specific to their upbringing and their cultures.
What sense of responsibility do you feel when you read these notes? When I was a teenager I did work experience at a teen magazine and one day I was sorting out letters that would be sent to the magazine’s agony aunt — more than she could have answered. It struck me that not everyone would get help, but everyone really needed it.
That’s a really good question. 1 I’ve been taking all the notes and putting them in photographs together. There is a kind of responsibility — people are sharing all sorts of that stuff with you: what is the best way to handle all that? I wanted it to be a place where people could share, and it’s not necessarily about how prominently or non-prominently that stuff is shared, it’s about being able to put that thought somewhere and not have your name attached to it.
And as Superhero has shown, the box is a good jumping off point for lyrics.
Some people have been tweeting me asking if I’m planning on doing a whole album out of it. I didn’t intend to make any music out of it, but when I found that note in the box it felt so natural to me that it would become a song. Because it’s an anonymous thing it might be hard to give credit to do a whole album, but I’m actually going to meet Martin, who wrote that superhero note, in Germany at one of the shows I’m doing.
How’s Martin getting on?
The last we spoke, it was a complicated situation — there were difficulties with it being a long distance thing. When I see him I’ll be curious to hear whatever he has to share. [Note: this meeting has now taken place!]
What would you do if you found a message saying: “I fear I may kill again”?
(Pause) Yeah. (Pause) Um… That’s a difficult one. Luckily I haven’t seen anything like that. I think I would have to talk to my team but, well, it’s anonymous…
I’d definitely watch ten episodes of that on Netflix. Let’s discuss the colour blue. It’s a good colour.
A lot of things in my life happen by chance. One of my best friends from growing up, I remember I talked to him about this idea of a blue rose, and he actually brought up Yves Klein 2 and I checked out some of his stuff and fell in love with that. The feeling of blue is always going to be part of my brand and how I see myself moving forward.
What was on your mind when you were, say, 15?
Oh man. Well I was straight edge at the time; I wasn’t drinking or smoking or doing anything. A lot of my friends started to smoke weed and so on, and I was really starting to dive into writing and producing, so I was just concentrating on that.
Did you avoid hanging out with friends because they were drinking and smoking?
I remember at the time one of my best friends — we’d do everything together — starting to smoke and I felt like I was alienated. I didn’t want to go to parties. I didn’t want to do that. I felt a little bit like I didn’t click with a lot of people, or fit in, at high school. I never really enjoyed small talk — if I’d feel a connection with someone I’d want to dive deeper. But at the time I was also struggling with finding ways to feel like I could fit in more. At that age I started to lift weights and work out. And I wasn’t even playing sports. It was a self conscious thing.
Do you still work out, and is it still for the same reason?
Now I have a different relationship with it. I love to work out but it’s more overall health stuff. I run and stretch but I lift minimally. I used to be obsessive, lifting heavier and heavier, and eating all this protein, and getting muscular. It was definitely for superficial insecurity reasons. Now my relationship with fitness is about feeling good.
Is the difference that now you’re doing it for yourself, but in your teens you were doing it for other people?
I’d definitely say that. Over time I’ve become way more comfortable with my natural state and being who I am, and focusing on what I love and makes me happy. Rather than focusing on what I think will get me gratification from other people. I realised it was an endless cycle of me trying to become a certain type of man, and feeling like I had to do all these things, but for a while I wasn’t really happy with myself. I look back on photos of myself and it doesn’t feel like me.
What do you enjoy doing that has nothing to do with your career?
I’ve been reading more than ever. And I’ve been trying to do more art museums.
The last time we met you talked about Patsy Rodenburg‘s book The Second Circle, which to cut a long story short is about how to be confident without being an arsehole. What can you recommend today?
I just read a book called The Way Of The Peaceful Warrior, which is interesting. It’s part-autobiography, part-fiction, and it’s about meditative practices. It’s not a self-help book, but I’m trying to get better in terms of mindfulness and stuff. You’re on a journey of trying to find happiness in small things, and grounding… And I’m reading this book You Are Here: Art After The Internet, and it’s about how the internet has affected everyday life and how it’s transformed art.
You had a sort-of-album out recently — a playlist of all your music so far. How’s your actual first album coming along?
I can’t say anything in particular but I do have music very very soon, and yes I’m working on a bigger project. In my head I’ve gone through multiple album concepts. It’s exciting but frenetic, and in the early stages. But it’s going to be awesome and I’m not going to put it out until it’s, fucking, the best shit ever.
Fucking the best shit ever!
As things get bigger, career-wise, do you still feel like you’re in control?
Sometimes, yes. But honestly, a tonne of times, no. If I’m being totally honest. Like a lot of things in my life… Well, I haven’t been diagnosed with OCD but I definitely have quite a need to control… Some days I just unravel into total self-destruction and can’t get things done because I’m feeling totally out of control and I’m desiring control. It’s definitely a constant struggle. I’m really lucky to be where I’m at, so relatively speaking I’m extremely grateful, but definitely as more and more things happen… I just try to stay focused on things I know I can control, and things I feel most connected to — like making more music and staying focused on the future. But it’s definitely a struggle. There are definitely things I’ve had to let go of. Things I thought mattered so much. Like, I used to mix and master 3 my own stuff, it sounds so stupid now but it’s about the ego and letting go. It’s similar I suppose to the CEO of a company who had an original vision, but to have the most impact you have to delegate a tonne of things. And put trust in them. I’m lucky — one of my best friends helps me with creative direction and we always come up with ideas together, then he can execute things while I’m continuing to focus on what I’m best at.
I Like Me Better is on the radio a lot in the UK at the moment. It originally came out over a year ago! Do you feel a sense of “thanks for the attention and I’m glad you like the song, but I’m ready to move on now”?
Um, there’s definitely a part of me that feels that, but whenever I have feelings like that I check myself because I’m so lucky that people are paying attention at all. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined. The sequence of how it’s happened is so crazy to me: I put it out last May, and when things happened with it I kept thinking: “This is the threshold of the song.” “No, this is the threshold’. Like, it was on the radio in Germany but it wasn’t happening in the US, then it was Top 10 at radio in the US, and now it’s on the radio in the UK. I think we had our biggest sales week ever in the US last week, which is great.
You’ve described it as a happy song, but it strikes me as sad as well. If you were in a relationship with someone and they said “I like me better when I’m with you”, what would you think of them?
What do you mean?
Well. It implies a certain level of dependency. It suggests they maybe don’t like themselves very much…
Well… Well. Okay. That’s interesting. That could get really deep. So yes, for me, on the surface it’s a happy song. And there’s a bit of that dark truth that comes in. I wrote it about being in love for the first time. From the perspective of being in college, and I was very unsure about a lot of the things about myself, and I was exploring everything from the types of clothes I was wearing to the types of people I was hanging out with, and how I was spending my time… And being in that place of falling in love with somebody, and it distracts you from that unsureness — it’s like: “Wow, I love being around you, I need to be around you, this is incredible.” Whether it’s first love or not I think it’s something people can connect to. I think there are shades of it where it could be total dependency, or it could just be: “You make me forget the things about myself that I fucking don’t like.” Because everyone has things about themselves that they don’t like, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. It’s… An honest weakness.
Let’s pull together a few threads here. So we talked before about that book The Second Circle, and we’ve talked about your My Blue Thoughts box, and we’ve talked about how some people need to be in relationships to feel better about themsleves, and we’ve talked about why you worked out as a teenager. So pulling all that together the question is: do you think you can manufacture self esteem?
Wow. I don’t know what other people feel but I know that for me there are days when I’m not feeling extremely confident, and it’s fake-it-til-you-make-it a little bit, for sure. I think there are a lot of factors: there are patterns of things you tell yourself over and over and over, that may or may not be true. Some days you’ll feel bad about yourself but all it really takes is one moment to break you out of a bad pattern. At least for me. I can be having a horrible day and be hating things about myself and feeling like I’m the worst artist, I’m the worst everything, and then one small interaction or breakthrough will happen and it becomes like a landslide of “okay, I’m good again”.
But this is complicated isn’t it, because on one hand you don’t want to be the sort of person for whom one small thing can bring you down. You don’t want to be dwelling on the one person saying “this new song is shit” when a thousand people have told you it’s incredible. So you don’t want to be affected by one small thing. But on the other hand, you do want to be the sort of person who can focus on one small thing, if it’s positive. You want to be emotionally volatile in one way but not the other, even though they’re sort of the same thing.
For sure. I guess it’s just about trying to retrain your mind so that you find positivity in every situation, whether that positivity is small or large. Sometimes when I think about self esteem issues I feel like there’s so much narcissism happening today with social media. It’s super-individualised, which is cool, but I think everything comes with a consequence and there’s a level of sadness, self-loathing and negativity that comes just from the fact that people are so focused on themselves. So focused on figuring out ‘who really am I deep down’, beyond what we were designed to really do. In the past humans were designed to be together in a society and survive in it and help each other, and sometimes I think there’s an additional struggle that’s been put on us just by having this luxury of being able to focus so much on ‘me’.
Who’s setting the bar for you in music at the moment? Who’s the one to beat?
I feel like pop music’s in an interesting place. The ones I’m looking up to are the ones who are the most effortlessly honest: I’m obsessed with Phoebe Bridgers album, I think she’s absolutely incredible. I always feel like Kanye sets the bar in terms of innovation. I think the Charlie Puth album is fucking incredible, he’s an incredibly talented dude.
How about outside music?
My mom is a really big role model for me — she works in vaccine research. She works at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she’s the senior director of HIV/AIDS vaccine research. She’s a big role model for me. It’s easy to get lost in other bullshit. I’m trying to focus on doing positive things for the world.
Other bullshit is quite good sometimes though! For instance your interest in large fluffy coats. We’re heading into coat weather. You seem quite autumnal as an artist. Autumn is a good season for coats. Is large coats your thing?
I do love a big fucking coat. Super cosy stuff. And sometimes it won’t even make sense — I’ll come off stage and I’ll be so sweaty. But there’s such a comfort in a big coat. It’s the best. The absolute best.
Lauv plays Koko, London on September 18, but it’s sold out so good luck with that. More tour dates here