PAPER People

Troye Sivan's Queer Love Songs Are For Everyone

Story by Justin Moran / Photography by Carin Backoff

So often the only queer narrative made mainstream is one defined by struggle, not only because there's truth in the resistance LGBTQ people face, but also because the straight gaze has been trained to expect pain. What's neglected from this notion is the universality of queer love stories — euphoric love stories, nostalgic love stories, scared love stories, sexy love stories, and, of course, sad love stories — and Troye Sivan tells them best. On the 23-year-old's second album Bloom, out today, he focuses on queer joy and the nuances of romance (he's in love). For his LGBTQ fans, this provides an authentic mirror to their own lives, but for the rest of the world, Bloom speaks brilliantly to the human experience, just as great pop music should.

The spectrum of sounds and stories is vast on Bloom, but decidedly more mature than Sivan's 2016 debut Blue Neighbourhood. Album opener "Seventeen" speaks to the sexual yearning of teenagers, who fantasize about — and sometimes act upon — the desire to have sex with someone more experienced. On tracks like "My My My!" and "Animal," the pop star gushes about a lover, nearly exploding on the former ("I die every night with you"), and smoothly easing into submission on the latter ("No angels can beckon me back.") Sivan bravely addresses bottoming on "Bloom," underpinning the unspoken anxiety and trust associated with sex, while "Dance To This" brings Ariana Grande into the fold to create an easy, slick bop about lustful nights at home ("You know we've already seen all of the parties.")

Where there's sex, there's loss, and Bloom tackles the difficult subject-matter without succumbing to clichés. Subverting the typical breakup narrative, "The Good Side" — doused in whimsical, glittering production — sees Sivan apologizing for being okay after love lost ("Some day I hope that you'll understand.") It's not dramatic, it's sympathetic, grappling with reality in a refreshing, level-headed way. On "Plum," one of the album's biggest triumphs, Sivan draws a parallel between sour fruits and love that cannot be saved, no matter how sweet. He's managed to corner the space in pop that Robyn's monopolized, bridging bright, elated production with devastatingly honest lyrics. ("Maybe our time has come/ Maybe we're overgrown/ Even the sweetest plum/ Has only got so long.") Thrashing and weeping are not mutually exclusive, at least if Sivan has anything to do with it.

For PAPER's Fall Fashion issue, which features cover star Emily Ratajkowski, we caught up with Sivan to talk about the close-knit crew of collaborators behind Bloom, his obsession with guest vocalist Gordi, and the importance of LGBTQ representation in music.

Sweater: Ovadia & Sons

In your PAPER interview with Ariana Grande, she said she "played the game" to create My Everything and Dangerous Woman. You responded, "I need to play that game," which is interesting because there is definitely a gay pop singer archetype that could launch you to superstardom. In what ways do you think you've rejected what the industry wants you to be on Bloom?

For me, it wasn't a conscious decision where my music and motivation comes from. I've always been extraordinarily hands-on in the creative process. It's the single thing that has been a constant in my life; it's the love of my life making [music], and that doesn't always cater itself to a perfect pop machine. Sometimes I don't feel like writing a neat, perfect pop song that sounds like it's on the radio right now. It comes from different places all the time and sometimes the motivation of me wanting to make something that sounds 2018 is exciting as a writer, but oftentimes it doesn't. If I had success in something that I wasn't 100% proud of, it would bum me out more than having this humongous, commercial, international success. It's more important for me to do what feels right and do what feels exciting than to sell x amount of records.

You've also picked an incredible team — Allie X, Leland etc. — and it's a group you've always worked closely with. But if you wanted to, you could easily get access to the trendiest producers and trusted hitmakers. Do you consider yourself a loyal person, and why are these collaborators important?

I do consider myself loyal, even though that's not a conscious decision. What I have found is that these are the people I can be most open with and express myself with. In those rooms I am not scared to try anything because anything goes. There is no such thing as a stupid suggestion and everyone is completely encouraged to bring their absolute best to that environment. The nice thing about it now is that it's only getting better and better all the time. We get more and more comfortable with each other and know the in's and out's about personal lives which leads to more honest lyrics. Instead of spending time trying to think of cool and catchy lyrics, we're writing about real stuff. So I think that is the main criteria for me when I'm looking for someone to work with, I have to connect with them on a personal level. I think I got really lucky and found that and it feels like a marriage, where you're constantly trying to get to know someone more. I know it sounds cheesy, but you fall more and more in love with each other's creative process every day. You just become more and more open, and there are more layers and details to it.

Would you be intimidated to go into a room with complete strangers and write music with them?

I probably would be a little bit. My first instinct would be to message my managers and be like, "Can I bring Leland?" If they said no it would be a weird day for me, but I would be down to try it. I go in [the studio] with new people all the time and see if they want to try new things and make new sounds. I am really lucky now that the people I am going in with are the people that I am a fan of. I am at a place where I am lucky enough that I get to pick and choose who I want to work with. Prior to this album, I had never worked with Ariel [Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend)] before but he's my dream producer. I had never been in with any of the MXM guys, who does Max Martin, so I really wanted to go in with them. But if I were to go in with strangers where maybe I wasn't a huge fan or didn't feel right from the get-go, the chance of writing a great song is much slimmer. I try to keep my success rate up by working with people that I have either a past relationship with or just have a good feeling about.

I'm interested in "Seventeen," both because of the subject matter and because you open the album with it. Why did you decide to make that the first statement of Bloom?

A couple of reasons: First, sonically it felt like an epic opening for this new sound. I played a lot with vocal production and vocal doublings on this album, and these really warm rich sounds. I wanted to write my version of "Forever Young" [by Jay-Z] or something like that, sonically, and "Seventeen" was the closest piece I got, where the melody felt really classic and it felt like a great way to open the album musically. As far as the narrative goes, for the album as a whole, that's one of the only songs that isn't based in the present. I was looking back and thinking about the experiences I had a long time ago, and the rest of the album felt so current and present with the stories I am living right now. I wanted to get it out the way and set the picture of where I was and then fast forward a few years to the update.

The narrative of "Seventeen" might be shocking to some people, but I actually think it's a universal story for queer people, who didn't have access to sexual experiences with peers their same age. Did you think about that when you wrote this?

That was the motivation for putting this on the album. We had started writing the song and all knew very well what it was about. We wrote multiple versions, some that felt darker than others and some that felt maybe too celebratory of that experience — it was a really tough balance. I came close to not pursuing it any further because I didn't want to condone this kind of experience and behavior, but at the same time, me personally, I felt like it was really informative in shaping who I am. I didn't know if people wanted to hear about this or know about this, I wasn't sure if I wanted to talk about this. I spoke about it to a couple of people and all my friends who are queer said they have had that kind of experience or a similar one. At that point, even though it would be easier to pretend like this wasn't happening and not sing or write about it, I felt that I had to. Now that I've put it on the album, it will be therapeutic for people who are having this experience.

Related | Meet Leland

I love that there are so many nuances in the way you choose lyrics. While many queer sex songs are shocking or superficial, "Bloom" addresses the vulnerability and fear of bottoming, which is refreshing. Was it important for you to approach it that way?

I just wanted to be as real as possible about it and for me, that's a really tender and sweet experience. I wanted to explore it in that perspective, and ultimately I was writing a love song from my experience. I wanted it to be sweet and candor and have all that stuff with fear and curiosity — everything packed in there.

Clothing: Dior Homme

When you wrote "Bloom," did you feel there was a void in songs about queer sex?

Honestly, when I was writing that song, the thought process was like, That sounds so fun, I've never sung about that. Can we even do that? Is that allowed? It was me and Leland, and like any gaggle of gays, we were giggling and having a really good time making it. There wasn't too much thought about if the world needs this or anything like that, it was just us having a good time and a laugh.

The "Bloom" video is a shift in visuals for you. It's the most high-femme, high-fashion, queer version I've ever seen of you. Did it take time for you to gain the confidence to present yourself this way?

Yeah, completely. That day was about creating a fantasy. I wanted the video to feel fantastical. I was working with Bardia Zeinali, who has been a friend for a while and I just have such faith in him and trust in him. We had this incredible moodboard of all these references with everyone from David Bowie to Grace Jones and Madonna. I was so inspired by it, but it was also that moment where I was like, "Can I do this? I know that this feels right for me, but am I allowed to do this?" And then I was like, "Fuck it let's do it." From the get-go, I knew the most important thing was going to be assembling the right crew — the best makeup artist, the best hairstylist, the best stylist. We really just had a day of dress-up, and it was something I wanted to do my entire life but never really had the guts to do. For me, it was just about living that fantasy and creating that fantasy.

Which brings me to "Plum," which is my favorite song on Bloom. You've really hit the Robyn sweet spot, where it sounds completely euphoric but the lyrics are quite sad. What's the story behind that track?

That song was one of the other ones where I was looking back into the past. It was about that moment where you wake up next to someone before they have woken up and you just take a second and look at them and you are like, "I don't know if this is actually going to work out," and doubts first start to creep in your head. It's this really sad moment because nothing has gone wrong, there is no huge blowout or fight. In the song, we acknowledge how beautiful and lovely that relationship has been but it was me mulling over, to myself, the fact that even something that was once really beautiful doesn't make it the right thing for you at that particular time. Those to me, are the saddest breakups because it just ended up not being the right thing.

Sweater: Valentino

How did you end up with "Plum" as the metaphor?

I just love words. I often will bring a book of poetry to a session or I will be reading road signs or names of businesses while I'm on my way to a session — anything that I can get to find a word that is going to push me to say something I have never thought of before. I had the word plum for a long time, just because I thought it was a pretty word, and one of my favorite songs is "Peach Plum Pear" by Joanna Newsom. So we worked the words peach, plum and pear into the lyrics of the song just as a personal joke with myself. It was a very visual word and got me inspired and is what we ended up going with.

In addition to your Ariana Grande duet, you sing with a woman named Gordi on "Postcard." How did you two link up?

A few years ago, I was on a flight to Australia and the airline had Qantas radio where you plug your headphones in and they play an old station if you weren't watching anything. I put the headphones on and drifted off to sleep. Halfway through the flight, I woke up and was like, "Whose voice is that? I need to know." I wrote down any lyrics I could catch so I could Google it when I landed and found Gordi, who is an incredible artist from Sydney. Her voice has this tone and quality that I have never heard before, I am just a huge fan. So then I saw her live in LA and she was supposed to open up for me in Australia, but I got laryngitis and she got laryngitis and it didn't end up happening. I've had this love affair with her and her music for a long time now.

Before I had even started writing the album, during my off time, I heard she was in LA and that she was down to do a writing session if I was. So I jumped at it and we started writing this song that I really loved about those early crossroads you reach during the early stages in a relationship, where you figure out what is mildly annoying about that person — where it's like, Is this a deal breaker for me? Am I going to walk away because of this? This song is about realizing that it's not and working through something and coming out stronger on the other end.

It was a really beautiful song, but I just said to her, "This is so early and this is the first song I have written in six months or a year or whatever. I have no idea where to take this production-wise, but are you cool with recording the piano and vocals right now and we can approach it later when I am more developed in the sense of wanting to know what I want the album to sound like?" So we did and it was one take with my vocals and some of her vocals on top of that. Bram [Inscore], the producer, made this metallic sounding bass that I have been obsessed with, and I was just like, "Cool let's go home," and sat with the song and fell in love with it. I tried to re-approach it later, but realized the demo was exactly what I wanted it to be, so that's what's on the album. It's this one-take, piano ballad that I really like.

Clothing: Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello

There's a huge conversation within the queer community about representation in music. If you look at the biggest queer male artists, all of them are white, which is really a mirror to society. Why do you think that's the case, and what steps towards change are you seeing in the industry?

I think it's easy to get distracted by progress, and I think we've made a lot of really good progress in music during the last couple of years. I've definitely noticed a change, even since I got signed, which is now probably like four or five years ago — I've noticed a difference in the number of queer artists coming up, and queer artists from all different walks of life. I then think it's easy for them to be like, "We're 100% on the right track and everything is awesome," but then you have these reminders where you realize actually how far we are from where we should be. All it does for me is fire me up and keep me wanting to keep pushing forward to try and change that. I am really excited by so much of the queer music coming out right now. I look at Kevin Abstract and Kehlani and other artists who are completely different from each other, but the only unifying thing is we're all queer and that's really cool to me. That's an accurate representation of what the community looks like — it's a diverse group of people who couldn't be more different but are brought together by not identifying ourselves as straight. We're heading in the right direction, but we don't want to become complacent because of that.

Clothing & Gloves: Raf Simons

Are there any rising queer musicians you have your eye on?

Yes, Ryan Beatty. He just released an album and I've been following him. I remember way back in the day, he was making kind of just straight down the middle pop music and I've kept up with him over the years and hung out with him and the BROCKHAMPTON guys a couple of weeks ago. I've always been inspired by his voice and was so excited to hear his solo stuff and I'm obsessed with it. The videos are great, he's got such great perspective and such an awesome voice. I'm really into it.

You have such an engaged fan base, especially online. How does it feel to be a celebrity in 2018?

In a weird way for me, it's completely comfortable because it doesn't feel that different from what I have been doing for the past 10 years. I started up with videos, 11 years ago now, and have just existed online as long as I can remember. I am used to that direct line of communication and that relationship. I feel it is in my control, and that is so helpful because if I don't want to play the pop game or whatever I can sleep at night knowing that I have this group of people who are so inspiring to me and they care. They want to deep dive and read lyrics, really watch the music videos and really want to come to a show. As an artist, having that core fan base, I don't know what I would do without them, they are my saving grace to everything.

Stream Bloom by Troye Sivan, below.

Photography: Carin Backoff
Styling: Simon Robins
Painting: Kris Knight
Grooming: Dustin Baker
Nails: Marisa Carmichael
Stylist Assistant: Nas Bauta
Tailoring: Oscar Utierre
Photograph of Painting: David Meanix

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