One hour prior to our lunch meeting, I tuned in to the Radio 1 Live Lounge to watch LA-based pop star Lauv make his comeback. He performed a stripped-down set of two songs on the eighth floor of BBC Broadcasting House: first, his own track “Love U Like That” which was released in August, followed by a moving cover of Miley Cyrus’s ballad “Used to Be Young” that tugged at the heartstrings. On air, Lauv shares that the more he sings the cover, the more he is reminded of the transitions and challenges in his life. During our lunch of a chicken burger and Coke Zero, Lauv eagerly elaborates on his earlier comments.
It has been two and a half years since his previous performance on Live Lounge. This took place in March 2020, shortly before the pandemic resulted in global lockdowns. He reflects, “Those were hectic times. I was just starting out and trying to navigate everything. Looking back, I was unsure of myself. So much has changed since then.” Now 29 years old, he has undergone a physical transformation: his hair, previously bleached and short, has returned to its natural brown curls; he has traded in his pastel sweater for a blazer and added piercings. In terms of his career, 2020 was a successful year for Lauv, with the continued popularity of “I’m So Tired…”, a single he released with Troye Sivan that charted globally. There was a lot of buzz around his second album. He reflects, “There were many positive things happening, but I was still figuring out my identity and purpose.”
What is different now? “The main thing for me is…” he pauses and takes a deep breath. “I don’t want to make it seem too formal, but I’ve come to the realization that I’m not completely straight, and I’ve been delving into that aspect of myself.” Almost immediately, he visibly relaxes his upper body. “I’m still unsure of how to identify myself. I’m not rushing to label myself. But I’ve realized that this has caused a lot of pain for me for a long time.”
During the summer, he had posted short segments on social media. He wrote on TikTok, alongside a picture of his face, “I identify as gay, but I also don’t identify as gay.” Another post read, “When you’re in a relationship with a girl, but you’re also attracted to men.” However, now he appears to be ready to share more. He says, “I’ve come to the realization that I can express myself more freely and embrace my true identity.” This realization is truly empowering.
Before we dive in, let’s take a look at how Lauv, whose real name is Ari Leff, got to where he is now. During his younger years, he resided in Oakland, California. His mother was involved in HIV and Aids vaccine research, which led the family to relocate to Atlanta and later to the outskirts of Philadelphia. “My love for music intensified during my high school years,” he recalls. “I was writing songs, honing my production skills, and even played in a few bands. One was a metal band and another was a hardcore band. Then I started a project called Somersault Sunday. Looking back, it may not have been the best choice for someone with a lisp.”
At the age of 18, he signed up for classes at NYU to pursue a degree in music technology. He also gained experience through internships at multiple studios, including Jungle City, where big names like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Kendrick Lamar have made recordings. Alongside his studies, he also explored DJing and worked hard to break into the music industry. He wrote songs and attempted to pitch them to other artists, even reaching out to people through cold emails in hopes of getting noticed. In 2015, he shared one of his songs, titled “The Other,” on SoundCloud under the name Lauv.
“I was unsure of what to label myself,” he explains about his decision, “so I chose something from my mother’s Latvian heritage.” Lauv translates to lion in Latvian, which also means Ari in Hebrew. During his time studying abroad in Prague, he independently released The Other. The song gained popularity through being featured on Spotify’s popular playlist, Today’s Top Hits. “After this, major record labels began to contact me,” he recalls, “but I chose not to sign with them overnight.” The offers were simply not appealing.
After completing his studies, he moved to Los Angeles. Initially, he focused on creating and producing music for other artists, including Charli XCX’s hit “Boys”. Lauv took a step back and struggled with low self-confidence since a young age, always doubting his abilities. He convinced himself that he didn’t deserve success as a solo artist. In 2017, Lauv gained recognition with his upbeat electro-pop track “I Like Me Better”. The following year, he released his first album, “I Met You When I Was 18”. Despite his success, he still battled self-doubt and the pressure of fame. When asked how he dealt with it, he admits to feeling overwhelmed and anxious all the time. The pressure of being in the public eye was paralyzing for him. He even spent an entire day perfecting a single social media post and would end up in tears.
Things started to spiral out of control. “I grew distant from my close friends and became isolated, consumed by Lauv. My lawyer had to regularly remind me that I was still Ari.” In hindsight, he believes that his music suffered as a result. Lauv’s second album, “How I’m Feeling” (2020), was a success, reaching No. 9 in the UK. However, in 2022, he released his third album, “All 4 Nothing,” which failed to make an impact both critically and commercially. “I think I lost the essence of Lauv,” he admits. “The first album had imagination and hope, and I believe there are elements of that in my second album. But, to be honest, my work became less authentic. By the time I released ‘All 4 Nothing,’ I was so caught up in my own problems and trying to be cool that I lost touch with my true self.”
The lockdowns and cancellation of live events due to Covid-19 worsened the feeling of isolation. He admits, “I completely lost sight of who I was. I was consuming more alcohol than I should have.” How severe did it become? “I don’t think most people would have recognized my drinking problem,” he admits. “Some did, at certain times. But for the most part, no one knew, which made it easier to continue. Looking back, I realize how many times I would turn to drinking to ease my anxiety, at any time of day. I wasn’t finishing entire bottles or anything like that. It was more about when and why I was drinking and using other substances – always to escape from myself.”
Recently, Leff has been feeling much better, according to him. He believes that a major factor in this improvement is his decision to become sober in July. He now finds joy in more innocent activities. Additionally, he has been grappling with his sexuality and although he is not yet certain about where he stands, he has found some relief since starting to explore this aspect of himself. In the past, he constantly dealt with doubts, worries, and thoughts that kept repeating in his mind, telling him that he is gay. This had a negative impact on his music, well-being, anxiety levels, and sense of identity – all interconnected.
“I have reached a milestone…” He smiles. “I shared a playful kiss with a male friend and it was a lot of fun. It made me curious to explore more. Since then, I no longer feel ashamed about it, even though I am unsure of where it may lead.”
Since then, his life has felt more carefree. He shared, “I am once again filled with creativity, emotion, and optimism. I no longer feel trapped or constantly stuck in my own thoughts.” He wrote and recorded the lead song, “Steal the Show,” for Disney’s 2023 movie Elemental. He plans to release a new album in early 2024 and for the first time in a while, he is genuinely eager to finish and share it. When asked if he feels different on stage and in the studio, he laughs and replies, “Definitely. I feel great, you know? Like I have my inspiration back. I have excitement and ideas that are still meaningful to me, but they’re not dark and gloomy. The new album, like my life, is all about exploration and embracing happiness as I continue to grow.”
Listen to Lauv’s Live Lounge show on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer.