You might know Troye Sivan as a huge YouTube star: the 20-year-old has nearly four million subscribers and his 2013 coming out video has now been viewed more than six million times. But more recently, the super-ambitious South African-born, Aussie-raised singer has been making waves as an exciting and important new pop talent, one whose success completely decimates the theory that teenage girls don't listen to music by gay—and therefore "unattainable"—pop idols. Following his first three EPs (the last one, TRXYE, went to number one on iTunes in 66 countries), Sivan's latest six-track collection, Wild, peaked at number five on the Billboard charts when it was released this September. His gigs are filled with kids, male and female, who know every word to his warmly melancholy electro-pop tunes (imagine a more pop-oriented Josef Salvat), and just last night he made his American TV debut on The Tonight Show.
Sivan may look cherubic, but to borrow a classic pop lyric from a certain Ms. Spears: He's Not. That. Innocent. His Lorde and Lana Del Rey-inspired debut album Blue Neighbourhood is tastefully-produced and memorably tuneful throughout, but it's candid lyrics can take you by surprise. "The Quiet" features a rage-fueled line you'd never hear on a One Direction album: "I'd rather be spitting blood than have this silence fuck me up." Elsewhere, "Bite" was inspired by Sivan’s first visit to a gar bar and "Lost Boy" finds him confronting his inability to commit to a relationship. "I'm just some dumb kid trying to kid myself that I got my shit together," he sings regretfully.
When we chat to Sivan, he’s on tour in Germany and making time for us between an album playback event and a soundcheck for his gig that night. But even though his schedule is clearly packed, he’s every bit as articulate, considered, and committed as you’d hope from someone who’s connecting with literally millions of young people all over the world.
Noisey: Why did you decide to call the album Blue Neighbourhood?
Troye Sivan: It's a lyric from the song "Wild." I needed a phrase to sum up the way I felt about my hometown, but also the place that I've created in my head where all the songs kind of take place. I knew it was a neighborhood in a suburb, but I wanted a phrase to describe being happy about that place—because it's home and it's comfortable—but also wanting to leave and see what else is out there. I have a bit of a complex relationship with home and blue for me is a color which feels equally happy and sad. It's my favorite colour but it's also a bit dull, you know? So the phrase "Blue Neighbourhood" seemed to sum up that place for me.
Why do you think your relationship with home is complex?
I mean, I think it's a relationship that a lot of people have with home. I feel absolutely in love with it and I've probably romanticized it in my head as, like, this perfect place. But at the same time, I feel that if I had to stay there for a more than a couple of weeks, I'd probably go a bit nuts. It's so comfortable and warm, but maybe warm to the point of suffocation, a little bit? It kind of puts everything into perspective for me work-wise: when I’m there, nothing I've been stressed about while I'm away really matters. But at the same time, I love what I'm doing so I kind of want to be stressed about it!
I find that no matter how old you get, when you go home you always kind of revert to behaving like a kid.
Definitely. I was just on tour in Australia and I got sick, so unfortunately I had to postpone two shows and I was really, really devastated about it. But I went back home to my family in Perth and I remember going to the grocery store with my dad to, like, buy a drink and feeling like I was on school holidays or something. Within 24 hours of arriving home, I literally could have been 11 years old again.
Besides home, what do you write songs about?
I write a lot about relationships too... like, boy stuff. I've written about friends before, but there's a lot of boy stuff on the album I guess.
Where do you draw the line—when does boy stuff become too personal?
That's the problem, I actually don't think I have that line when it comes to writing music. I really did treat making this album like writing in a diary or a journal, you know? I used to write in a journal when I was 15 and I remember being amazed at how honest I could be with a piece of paper. In life, I don't really know if one person is ever 100 percent honest with another person: you can tell your mum everything, but there are certain details that you definitely don't want your mum to know, so you're always gonna end up not necessarily being dishonest, but just not telling your mum the whole truth. But when you're writing on a piece of paper, no one's ever gonna judge you for it. It kind of follows suit for me with songwriting, which is weird because obviously I knew I wanted to release this music eventually and have a lot of people connect with it. But for me, it was almost kind of a selfish thing when I was writing it.
I was at one of your gigs recently and your fans seem to know every word to your songs. Do you find they try to analyze what the songs are about, or do they tend to apply them to situations in their own lives?
I think it's the latter more often. They seem to interpret the music to their own lives more than trying to decode it, which is nice for me because I was a little bit nervous about that. Because I do write so personally, I think it would be a bit of a bummer for me if people started really, really figuring out everything. And so when I see people making the songs about themselves, I’m almost a little bit relieved in a way.
Why do you think your fans have become so into you so quickly?
I don't know. I remember people saying to me at the beginning, "How do you expect people to believe you when you put out a song like "Happy Little Pill" while still making those fun, silly YouTube videos that you make?" And the reason I expected people to believe it is because they're both real sides of my personality. Sometimes people ask me now, "Are you giving up YouTube for singing? Are you a happy person or a sad person?" Because in my YouTube videos I seem happy, whereas in my songs maybe I seem sad. But I feel like the fans have never tried to figure that stuff out. They've always just gotten me, and I think that's because I’m doing everything that I ever wanted to do and being really real about it. They get that I'm a real person with multiple interests and multiple sides to my personality. And I think that if I was to become more one-dimensional, and just do the one thing, maybe people would actually connect with me a bit less.
At the gig I went to, there were a lot of teenage girls right at the front of the crowd, which was awesome to see considering you're an openly gay artist singing about "boy stuff." Did anyone in the industry ever tell you not to come out?
Not really. If anything it was something I told myself because I had heard about that and thought about it. I came out while I was right in the process of negotiating my record deal and I thought, well, OK, chances are I'm probably going to wake up after posting my coming out video [on YouTube] and have an email in my inbox saying, like, "We've decided to we’re going to pass on the project." You know, I was prepared for that. I'd decided that my happiness and the chance to live an open, free life was more important than anything else. But I woke up the next morning to a congratulations email from my record label and they sent me flowers and balloons that day too. And basically since then it's never been an issue. I've got a very forward-thinking and open team and obviously I've got a very forward-thinking and open fanbase.
It's interesting now that some female fans, One Direction fans for example, will 'ship their male idols with other guys. Does this happen to you?
Yeah, I've been shipped with, like, everyone under the sun. Mostly other YouTubers, but also singers like Sam Smith and Olly from Years & Years.
Is that really weird for you?
I mean, I've really become at peace with it. I think it was a little unsettling for a while because often it was with people I'm friends with, and that can make things a little awkward sometimes. You start to second guess everything you do with that person, especially if you're in public. But now I don't really mind it any more, it's all in good fun.
Do the fans tweet this sort of stuff at you—like, do they want you to see it?
It used to be like that, but I think I kind of gave off the vibe that it was making me a little bit uncomfortable. So now everyone's like, "Keep it out of Troye's tag on Tumblr!" Honestly, my fans are so sweet and protective. Even when I cancelled those two shows in Australia, 99 percent of people were like, "Go home, take it easy and have some chicken soup, we'll see the show another time." It's kind of cliché and cheesy to say it, but it just feels like I'm friends with them. From my perspective, it almost feels like they're watching one of their friends get to do all the cool stuff he always wanted to do, and that's why it feels special.
Nick Levine is a writer living in London and he's on Twitter.