“It just doesn’t feel like me.”
Troye Sivan is standing in a sunny back-alley of the Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo, unhappy with the jacket that sits on his shoulders. It’s a gorgeous piece: a Fendi denim jacket striped blue and yellow, with John Booth-designed shearling appliqués over the yoke. It looks striking on the 23-year-old Sivan, the brightly coloured shearling a contrast to the shock of white hair on his head. Still, it doesn’t feel like him, so it comes off, and is replaced with a supple brown Saint Laurent leather jacket. Now, this? This feels like Troye Sivan.
The difference might seem arbitrary, but at the current point in time, identity is everything to Sivan. It’s mid-March, and he’s only a couple of months into what will eventually become an eight-month campaign leading up to the release of his sophomore record Bloom. The tone of the release was set early on: in January, Sivan launched the giddy lead single “My My My!”, along with its striking video, a sweat-drenched montage of the star dancing with semi-naked men in an industrial club. If Blue Neighbourhood, Sivan’s 2015 debut, was a politely queer, small town coming-of-age album in the vein of, say, Love Simon, then “My My My!” is Queer As Folk: risqué, cosmopolitan, and gay as hell. And so the wrong jacket, even if only slightly wrong, just isn’t good enough, because in 2018, Troye Sivan knows who he is and he knows who he wants to be, and he won’t settle for anything less.
A few years ago, that might have been less clear. Since early on in life, Sivan has been a lot of different people. Born in South Africa but transplanted to Australia when he was two, Sivan first achieved relative fame as a child actor in films like Wolverine and the little-seen South African trilogy Spud, before finding a dedicated audience on YouTube. Sivan first started using the platform to sing, but eventually took an interest in uploading vlogs to the site, and quickly gained a hungry and devoted fanbase. The transition to fledgling popstardom was easy; he already had a built-in audience of millions just waiting to stream his songs and buy his merch and attend his shows.
Early on, it was hard to forecast where Sivan’s career would end up; in the eyes of many, he was just a YouTuber-turned-musician, a tag that’s often met with eye-rolls. His initial records, like his debut EP TRXYE, were shaky, but something crystallised around the release of Blue Neighbourhood. The production was prettier and sounded more expensive, sure, but across the album’s fifteen tracks Sivan displayed genuine personality, a commodity that’s not exactly common for artists breaking out in the Spotify era. Blue Neighbourhood wasn’t a blockbuster success, but it did well, and gave Sivan perfect grounding for Bloom.
“Last time, I was sort of taking people by the hand consciously, and kind of walking them through a very accessible version of queer identity,” Sivan tells me after the shoot, perched atop a couch on a balcony adjoined to Universal Music Australia’s Sydney office. It’s still early days for Sivan’s press run—the album won’t officially be announced for another few months—and he’s excited about the possibilities the next few months hold. ”This time, I feel more confident that people can keep up, so I’m just going for it.”
In Sivan’s case, that means making pop that’s broadly accessible but referentially dense, music that speaks to everyone while looking the queer community directly in the eye. “Seventeen,” Bloom’s opener, exemplifies this, chronicling a relationship Sivan had with an older man who he met through Grindr while underage. Experiences like these are immensely common among young queer people—ask around and you’ll find the anecdotal evidence—but are still rarely discussed in the public sphere. Discourse around the relationship at the centre of Call Me By Your Name proved that much of the media doesn’t even know how to discuss these kinds of queer relationships despite how common they are.
“I wanted to write about [that experience] because it's real, and it was a thing in my life,” Sivan explains. “I definitely don't want to condone those experiences, [but] I spoke to friends and all of my queer friends said they had that experience, whether it was getting Grindr before they turned 18 or something else. I think it's just part of the queer experience today growing up. [“Seventeen” is] an honest and true account of an experience that I had, and so it's better to kind of talk about it and get a conversation going and make people realize that maybe they weren't alone in that experience.”
Even though the song speaks to a fairly unique rite-of-passage, “Seventeen” still works without an innate understanding of its central conceit. Sivan is a master of code-switching, and it’s a facet of his craft that’s evident throughout Bloom. If you hear the title track, the record’s third single, on daytime radio, it’s easily coded as a song about exploration and new love. Hear it after seeing Sivan’s sly—and quickly deleted—tweet that read “#BopsBoutBottoming,” and it’s about sex. Experience it in the context of its Perfume Genius and Leigh Bowery-referencing music video, which features Sivan in baroque, femme outfits, and it’s about Sivan coming into his own as a queer figure in the public eye. This concept is nothing new—the best pop music exists on multiple levels—but the difference with these songs is that queerness is blatantly manifest within them; they speak to the queer listener, and ask others to search for meaning between the lines. It’s a simple, but radical, inversion of pop’s standard relationship with the LGBT community, where songs about heterosexual relationships––“Dancing On My Own”, for example––have to be re-read, or misread, before they can be claimed as anthems.
Sivan’s innate understanding of how pop operates in the world is learned directly from his predecessors. “The first songs that I remember in my life are pop songs,” Sivan explains. “”Like a Prayer” by Madonna, “Thriller” and “Black & White” by Michael Jackson—from a very early age pop had a real impact on me. I didn’t necessarily know it was the most popular music, I just knew it was music that made me feel something.”
As he grew older, Sivan discovered less mainstream artists like Robyn, and realised pop didn’t have to comprise what was in vogue; that it was a genre comprising millions of different styles and scenes, and that the only real line connecting all his favourite artists was the emotion present in all of it. Sivan exploits this knowledge all throughout Bloom: If emotion’s all that matters, the album seems to say, then why not have fun with style? Sivan’s influences for the record were broad—he lists everyone from Cocteau Twins (“I just love the sounds. There’s a lot of those metallic guitar sounds”) to This Mortal Coil, Frank Ocean and Lorde—and while you can’t always hear every one of them, you can always feel a sense of abstract playfulness at work. What if noted pop maximalist Ariana Grande was forced to work within the confines of the hyper-minimal “Dance To This”, or if a Smiths lyric was recontextualised in a mid-tempo synth ballad, as on “What A Heavenly Way To Die”? The results aren’t always perfect, but where’s the fun in perfection?
Bloom, Sivan says, is the album he would have made last time around if he could have. But it’s easy to see why he couldn’t; the album exudes confidence and self-possession and life experience, traits that Blue Neighbourhood only gestured towards. Much of that is only really attainable through living life, which Sivan has done a lot of in the past few years. “If I'm being honest and real about the last couple years of my life then it is a little of a couple of seedy nights out, and a lot of lust, and love,” he says. “And finding confidence in community, in who I am in the LGBT community, and in going out. I just wanted Bloom to reflect all that.”
While Sivan doesn’t view the record as a coming-of-age album, he sees it as an important moment in what he refers to as his “self-actualisation.”
“I've got this vision in my head of this person I want to be, and what I want to be creating, and I feel like I'm just the closest to it that I've ever been,” he explains. And while some of that ideal future does involve career milestones (“I guess my ultimate goal for Bloom would be a Grammy nomination”) most of it involves simple pleasures.
“I want to be confident,” he begins, before quickly railing off a list of aspirations big and small. ”I want to be helpful to society, I want to be making music. I want to be happy in my relationship with my family, friends, romantic relationships. I want to be able to travel. I want to be able to do what I love for the rest of my life, and I feel like I'm on a path that's taking me to all of those things.”
This sense of contentment with where his life is at the moment wasn’t exactly hard-won, but it did require adjustments—”Little things that make a huge difference to my mental health,” he says. Sivan lives in LA officially now, after travelling back and forth for a few years, and the stability is doing him good; he doesn’t have to live out of a suitcase anymore, and takes pleasure in the fact that he’s able to pick out outfits each day, rather than just wearing whatever was clean.
The adjustments extend to work, too: now, Sivan never travels without a friend or family with him, so that he’s not obsessing over work constantly. When we meet, he’s accompanied by boyfriend Jacob Bixenman, and he’s made sure that there will always be someone with him on tour who’s not a member of his crew.
But there will always be a part of Sivan that’s obsessive over work; it’s just in his nature. “I never feel like work takes up too much time because I’m so hungry,” he says. “I want it so bad. I want to be able to do this forever, and if I have to work really really, really hard for ten years before I settle down and have a family”—he shrugs, with faux-nonchalance—”I'm down.”
Joe Brennan is a photographer based in Sydney. Follow him on Instagram.
Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australia & New Zealand Editor. Follow him on Twitter.