In Conversation: Troye Sivan and Ariana Grande
Introduction by Justin Moran / Interview by Mickey Boardman
23 August 2018
2018 has been a massive year for Troye Sivan and Ariana Grande, both independently and together.
Following his 2015 debut Blue Neighbourhood, 23-year-old Sivan has been dropping singles — "The Good Side," "Animal," "My! My! My!" — in anticipation of his sophomore effort, Bloom, out August 31st. They've all shown significant maturity, building intimate stories around his own experiences with love, sex and loss.
Grande, who released her fourth album Sweetener this month, has exhibited a similar growth from previous albums, finding solace in world tragedy on "No Tears Left to Cry" and owning her sexual prowess on "God Is a Woman." Now age 25, she's proven herself to be a pop mainstay, and one that's capable of stirring meaningful conversations through music.
Both unstoppable solo artists in their own right, their Bloom collaboration, "Dance To This," naturally sparked fandemonium when it was announced earlier this summer. And given Grande's ability to drop huge summer anthems, from "Break Free" to "Be Alright," the expectation was for their duet to follow suit. Instead, "Dance To This" delivered a chill, seductive bop, bringing Grande's iconic vocals into Sivan's landscape of surreal, smooth synth-pop — a surprise that solidified them as risk-takers, as well as chart-toppers.
Their work together has proven to be hugely successful, not only through online buzz and critical praise, but through the numbers. "Dance To This" currently has 43 million Spotify streams, and its music video has been watched 49 million times on YouTube, as of press time. On their own, Sivan and Grande have locked in wildly engaged fanbases across the world, which become an unruly force when combined.
To stoke the flames of fandom, PAPER put Sivan and Grande in conversation to talk about creating Sweetener, standing up for the LGBTQ community, and that time they turned a small Japanese restaurant birthday party into a "fucking bat mitzvah."
PAPER: How do you view Sweetener in relation to 2016's Dangerous Woman, which felt like such a liberated, sexually powerful, feminist album?
Ariana Grande: Dangerous Woman is a part of who I am, and of course, there's a still a little bit of her in Sweetener, with "God Is a Woman," and with "Borderline" — definitely with those two records. But this record is way more feel-good, and I wanted to make people feel really good when they listen to this. The thing that my friends say when they listen to this album is, "This feels like the girl we hang out with." When they listen they're like, "This is our friend." You know what I mean?
Troye Sivan: Yeah, well, I want to just mention one specific song. The one... what's it's fucking called? It's the one with all of the vocal layers [sings].
AG: "Get Well Soon"?
TS: Okay, so that shook me to my core. You did that one with Pharrell [Williams], right? And I had never heard you sing like something that... that I think is the most personal thing I've ever heard you sing. It just felt so real and... I don't know, just like really really, really personal and down to earth.
TS: I feel like that song is going to mean so much to so many people. And so, what do you think that shift to writing something as personal as that means? Did you have more of a hand in the writing room or was it with Pharrell? How did you arrive to something as vulnerable as that? Because that's scary in a writing room to be that vulnerable.
AG: First of all, thank you and I love you so much with my whole heart. But overall, [Pharrell] kind of forced it out of me, because I was in a really bad place mentally. I've always had anxiety, I've had anxiety for years. But when I got home from tour it reached a very different, intense peak. It became physical and I was not going out at all, and I felt like I was outside my body. I'd have these spells every now and then where I felt like I was having déjà vu, but like 24/7 for three months at a time. It was really weird, and all that was on my mind. [Pharrell] was like, "You have to write about it. You need to make this into music and get this shit out, and I promise it will heal you." And it definitely helped. It still took me a few weeks to feel better, but looking back at it now from a healthier place, it's probably one of the most important songs I'll ever write.
TS: Damn. Well, you should be so proud of that song. I feel like it punched me in the gut. As far as some of the other tracks, you went back and you worked with the whole Max [Martin] crew, like Savan Kotecha and everyone. Why? What attracted you to them? I know they're like family, but what do you think makes them so good?
AG: They're very different to me and we've had a great history together. We've had a lot of really dope experiences together. And I knew that they would be down for the challenge of making songs for Sweetener. So when I finished up everything with Pharrell, and we had discovered this new delicious world that is Sweetener, I brought everything over to them and was like, "Yo, I would love to have you guys be a part of this, but it has to feel this fresh." And we challenged each other. I think my favorite part about working with them is that they're open to me being like, "Try this weird thing," or, "Why don't we modulate it," or, "Try this weird '90s chord progression that you probably haven't played since '98 Max Martin."
AG: But you know, I think them being so open and willing to experiment with me is what made this so special and kind of like, me being in the middle with Pharrell and two of the best producers in the world, who are both so successful in their own right, and seeing them, having both of them involved in my project is the craziest thing in the world to me. I feel like a princess. I feel like a true pop princess.
TS: It's literally the coolest thing. I swear I'm not just saying this, but I feel like everything I've heard from the album feels really uniquely you. Like, there's some like kooky stuff on there and then there's like old stuff which is so good, and then the Pharrell stuff is so incredible.
AG: [Laughs] That's so funny, you know me...
TS: Like "The Light Is Coming" is the kookiest song.
AG: It's such a kooky song.
TS: And so are you! And I love that and I feel like I can feel that in the music. It's like, I love albums where I can hear the artist's perspective not only in the voice but... it's just so unique. Like those '90s chord progressions are so you in my head. Or like, "No Tears" to me, it's a pop song with such perspective and again, not just vocally, but production-wise. it just really, really works, so well done.
AG: Yay! thank you.
PAPER: Ariana, do you think this record is more personal than anything you've released before?
AG: It's definitely more personal. You know, I feel like Dangerous Woman was a grown-up My Everything, and this is a grown-up Yours Truly. And with all due respect to My Everything and Dangerous Woman, I feel like I played the game a lot on those two albums. I wanted to make dope records that would put me in a place where I could then make whatever the fuck I wanted. I kind of played the game a little bit. All my favorite songs from those two albums are not the singles, like they aren't at all. Like literally.
TS: [Laughs] I need to play that game.
AG: [Laughs] I love you so much, no you don't. You're perfect, you're killing it, you're crushing it. But, I feel like this is a more grown up Yours Truly. If that makes sense. Whereas like...
AG: I don't know if that makes any sense, am I insulting my own work? I don't think so, because I really like it all. But this just feels closer to home, you know what I mean? It feels like now the mask is off, let's talk.
TS: When people ask me about you, by the way I'm doing so much promo, and everyone just wants to know everything about you and —
AG: That's so cute.
TS: And of course I always tell them that you're incredible. But one thing that I always tell people is that you love your fans — like you're obsessed with your fans. And it feels like you guys have a really special relationship and especially with your LGBTQ fans. And then when we hang out, I notice that your crew and everything, your family, who you keep around you feels really queer to me in a really cool way.
AG: They are!
TS: And I wanted to ask about your relationship with the LGBTQ community, like where that comes from, cause you get it. I don't know, it just feels very genuine. Where did that come from? Is that because of Frankie [Grande] or have you always been like that? Is that from being in the theater?
AG: I don't know! Because I've always been attracted to and I guess, brought joy by very gay things. I always have, even before I knew my brother was gay, and I thought — this is probably the most ridiculous thing you'll ever hear — but there was a time in my life when I thought Frankie might be straight and during that time, my favorite movie was To Wong Foo, you know what I mean? I don't know where it comes from, but the movies my mom played in the house when I was a little girl, or the music we listened to, or the artists my mom idolized... I grew up in a very eccentric, interesting household, and I guess it was super gay even before we knew Frankie was gay.
AG: I mean when Frankie came out, everyone was like, "Okay, you wanna go to dinner?"
TS: What does it mean to you now, as far as your relationship with [the LGBTQ] community? All of my friends, who are almost all gay, are really obsessed with you. "Be Alright" was one of the gayest songs I've ever heard —
AG: Well thank you, it's an honor and it makes me so happy. There's nothing, I swear to god, honest to god, knock me out, I swear on my life, more rewarding than seeing sweet little gays in the audience moving along to my choreography, or a drag queen coming into my meet-and-greet with like a 40 pound ponytail and thigh-high boots. It's the most fulfilling, like it makes my heart scream. It's the best reward.
TS: I also want to touch on the thigh-high boots and the ponytail.
AG: You're really good at this!
TS: [Laughs] Right, how good am I? So I was with you right before you did your British Vogue shoot, which is my favorite photoshoot of yours ever. And you were pretty nervous, why? Now that your fashion and your personal style has changed, do you feel more confident to mess around with stuff this time? Where are you at with personal style and fashion?
AG: I'm down to mess around and try on things. I love fashion, but I hate it. Like I think it's really cool and really dope, but then as soon as someone's trying to put me in something weird I'm like, "Alright relax, calm down, this is extra." [Laughs] Like I have my things I love, I have my comfort zone. I think that fashion should be more of a self-expression thing as opposed to a trend thing. To me, when I feel really dope and I have an outfit on that makes me really happy that's so much better.
TS: I also wanted to ask about Nicki Minaj. Because I have never met her, and I want to know what she's like!
AG: She is my sister, and I have so much respect for that woman because she puts up with a lot of shit. And I think she is one of the greatest rappers of all time, male or female. It's kind of wild that people still try to discredit her and question what she's done and accomplished. Everything that she does is spectacular. You can't listen to a Nicki Minaj verse and be like, "Eh." You just can't. She has a gift and she is a spectacular artist. But I think as a human being, there is the most beautiful soul underneath this really badass exterior. And it's really an honor to know that girl, cause she's really tight and I love her.
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TS: She is so, so talented. I still know every single word to Pink Friday. I had a moment where I was really, really obsessed.
PAPER: Speaking of collaborations, what was it like collaborating on "Dance To This" off Troye's new album, Bloom?
AG: Wait, can I start?
TS: Yeah, go for it.
AG: Okay cool. I am obsessed with you. I think you are everything that pop music needs and I think your stage presence and your voice and your aesthetic and literally everything about your artistry is so divine, and I have been the biggest fan of you since forever. When you asked me to be on "Dance To This," before I'd even listened I was like, "I know it's already going to be tight." I was so excited and so honored. But artistry aside, you're literally my favorite little bean. You're the cutest. I wish we could hang out more, but you're always doing promo and you're never home for more than like three seconds. But I love you a lot, and that's all. Okay bye.
TS: I feel like we're literally doing wedding vows. That is so sweet, thank you so much.
AG: [Laughs] My bad.
TS: Obviously I feel like your voice speaks for itself, but musically it's a no-brainer that I think that you're literally a legend in the making and I feel like you have nothing to worried about, you're going to be remembered for the rest of time. So that's totally chill and cool and awesome. But the thing that gets me about — and I'm gonna stop speaking directly to you because I'm showering you with compliments and I'm sure it's making you uncomfortable — the thing that gets me about Ariana Grande is that I feel like you are so real. I've had a really hard time — real talk — making friends in America, because I feel like people do things differently than in Australia. And I've had a hard time adjusting, and to me, you are one of the only people that I have met, where I feel like I get this girl, and she gets me. As a friend, I totally, totally cherish that and am so thankful to know you and so thankful that you're on my song. And it's just wild, it's crazy.
AG: Wow! That's so sweet.
TS: [Laughs] So I feel like literally we just got married.
AG: We did!
PAPER: Since you're talking about the LGBTQ community, do you both feel like you're connected to a movement of young people who are pushing for social change?
AG: I think both of us are. The thing that I think is so dope about Troye is that you say something. I feel like we're both in a position where we don't have to say shit, if we don't want to really? We could just perform and entertain and that's it, and take a bow, and on to Portugal or wherever. But you know, it's really dope to see my friend not only killing it musically and on the stage, but also you make people feel so good and accepted, and you say something.
TS: With everything that's going on in the world, I just feel like it's more important than ever that — we can't make political change necessarily, or anything like that, all we can really do as artists is make people feel heard and understood. I think that we're both trying our very best to do that, and I know that you're doing an incredible job of doing that and I'm just trying my best and I think that's really, really important.
PAPER: Earlier, Ariana, you were saying how you previously played the game and Troye joked that he needs to do that too. What advice would you give Troye to achieve the level of success that you have?
AG: Oh god, I don't know! That's such a hard question, because I wouldn't do anything any differently. I'm obsessed with your work, and you're killing it. Like you're doing all the promo, you're going to be exhausted for the next two years, you're going to be doing the whole thing and traveling everywhere, you're not going to know what day it is, you're not going to know where you are, and you'll wake up in a strange country. Everything you're doing right now is exactly what you should be doing. You're making the best music you could possibly be making, you're kind to your fans. People don't realize how exhausting what Troye's doing right now is. It's what I did two years ago or three years ago when I put out My Everything and Yours Truly. Those first two album cycles might as well kill you. It's pretty much as close to dead as you'll ever be, and I think a lot of people don't realize how tough it is.
So I think the fact that every time I FaceTime Troye and he's not crying or having a mental breakdown speaks to how dope and resilient you are and how long you're going to stick around. Because when I was you, doing what you're doing right now, I didn't know where I was, what day it was, just onto the next city. Like, I don't know what I'm wearing today, I don't know what version of "Problem" I'm singing today, but my ass is here and I'm tired, I don't know when the last time I ate was. So I think you're killing it and I think you're doing everything perfectly. And I can't wait for you to be home for more than 10 minutes at a time. It's going to be really dope and we're going to have a lot of fun.
What would you both do career-wise if you weren't performers or musicians?
TS: I often thought that I would love to be a graphic designer, or I would want to be maybe a drugs and alcohol counselor.
AG: That's so dope. I'm obsessed with you.
TS: What about you?
AG: My remaining two [dream Broadway roles] are Elfie in Wicked and Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. But I think I would either be on Broadway or I'd be writing songs for other people or producing, doing vocal producing or vocal arranging. I love harmonies. But if it had to be nothing in music or entertainment whatsoever, I'd probably be running my mom's company.
TS: Slay, yes. I want to ask about the move to New York! What's that been like?
AG: It's been really, really, really, really fun and I'm really happy. I think the people who are closest to me are blown away because everyday they see pictures of me walking around with my friends and using the front door and walking around New York City and smiling and I seem okay, and that's really different. I've only been in hotels and venues for the past, I guess three or four years, or at my house. So, yeah that's been crazy. It's either house, studio, like there was one sushi restaurant I would go to in LA, and then I've been touring and in hotels for the past four years. So going out and not having any anxiety — well, less anxiety — but living closer to all my friends and being in love and having a new dope place and being close to my family... I love New York. I thought I hated New York, but I actually love it.
TS: Obviously, I'm personally bummed because I live in LA, and that means we don't get to see each other as often but I come to New York like once a month so I'll see you.
AG: Yeah, but you're never home! So it doesn't matter. We can have this conversation when you're not on tour for like 70 years.
TS: [Laughs] Fair enough.
PAPER: Ariana, you're now engaged, which is a huge life-change. Do you feel very different? How will this be reflected in your work?
AG: I'm the happiest I've ever been. I guess the only way it would reflect in my work is like, when I write songs about [Pete]. I have an interlude in my album called "Pete Davidson" because I didn't know what else to call it. I played it for Tyler, the Creator and he was like, "I guess that title makes sense because if I wrote a song about how much I loved waffles and syrup I'd call it 'Waffles and Syrup.'" But I don't think it's gonna affect my work. He's really supportive and just a positive thing all around in my life.
PAPER: Both of you are such sensations on the Internet. Do you follow all that madness?
AS: Not really, because I don't want to see things that my fans didn't make cause I get nervous. Sometimes I'll scare myself when I see myself somewhere I'm not expecting to see myself. But some of them are really funny.
TS: Actually in general, you're super caught up with Internet culture though. You're so fucking funny online, I love it.
PAPER: Do you think that how you are on the Internet is the same as how you are in real life?
AG: It's hard because I have to walk this line between being 100% myself and authentic with my fans, and being real, upfront and truthful with them. Because they, to me, are my friends, like I have grown up with them, I know their faces and names, I know stories about them, I know conversations we've had. And that's a really real thing to me. I take our relationship super seriously and I cherish them. But also, I'm reminded all the time that everything I say will make waves, and people will make it into ridiculous stories and it's kind of bullshit because I really want to be able to have that friendship with them. There are people who try to twist it, and then my fans get upset at that and it's just this chain of things. I have to be careful, but I would say that what you see is what you get, I'm pretty honest, I'm pretty authentic. I try to keep it real, because who the fuck cares?
PAPER: Troye, is this giving you any ideas? Will this be a double wedding?
TS: Oh god no, not for another like 10 years. For the longest time I thought marriage wasn't something for me, because I'm gay. And so it's taking a second to readjust my mindset where it's something that could happen one day.
PAPER: Ariana, might Troye be a flowergirl or a bridesmaid?
AG: Oh, I mean absolutely. Troye, you can choose your role. I would love for you to be a bridesmaid, though.
TS: Can I just say, Ariana's birthday party was this very mellow, chill dinner that got so fucking crazy and lit that I think this wedding is going to be the craziest thing in the entire world, it's going to be so much fun.
AG: [Laughs] At that restaurant and there were like four people...
TS: Oh my god, I'm going to get down with your mum.
AG: We literally turned this tiny Japanese restaurant that's the size of a closet into a fucking bar mitzvah. Funniest shit in the world.
PAPER: Ariana, do you think you'll be able to party at your wedding? Will you be worried that everything's going right, or will you be able to have the best time of your life?
AG: Oh, I have no idea. All I know is that I'm happy with Pete, that's all I really care about.
Photography: Alfredo Flores